TOKiMONSTA Talks ‘Lune Rouge Remixed,’ Faith & Overcoming Brain Surgery [Interview]
TOKiMONSTA’s new album, Lune Rouge Remixed, comes after having successful brain surgery for a rare condition called Moyamoya.
It’s baffling to think that there was once a point in time that TOKiMONSTA thought she was never going to make music ever again. After being diagnosed with an extremely rare brain condition called Moyamoya, Toki, whose real name is Jennifer Lee, was left with two options: sit with it and possibly die, or take action and undergo brain surgery.
She chose the latter. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Toki decided to keep the life-threatening dilemma hidden from the public eye, only allowing close family and treasured loved ones to suffer with her. While the news of a successful procedure up at Stanford University in Northern California brought major relief to those surrounding her, there was another obstacle to follow: recovery.
Toki wasn’t worried about the fact that she couldn’t walk or talk, she was more stuck on the fact that she couldn’t hear music. Even worse, she couldn’t make music. Three months later, she was back performing live shows at SXSW and Coachella — as if her entire life and career wasn’t on the line.
As a jack-of-all-trades, Lee picked up right where she left off: delivering the hardest, grimiest blend of psychedelic hip-hop and dance in true TOKi fashion. Fast forward to releasing her third studio album Lune Rouge, Jennifer took it one step further by announcing a full-length remix album.
On Tuesday, April 3, TOKiMONSTA held a private album listening for her new project, Lune Rouge Remixed, in the form of a dinner at one of her favorite restaurants in Silverlake. TOKiMONSTA is known for using her platform to provide a voice to both known and unknown artists with that in mind it’s no surprise that proceeds from the night will benefit the Silver Lake Conservatory of music, being true to her nature of giving back to the community.The evening was filled with Kettle Back’s fine cuisine as guests enjoyed the playback of the unreleased project.
Okayplayer: Our theme this month is Faith & Religion. How have these two concepts impacted your life before your brain surgery and helped to sustain you through your recovery?
TOKiMONSTA: For me, the idea of faith is the idea of religion itself. And for me, this idea of knowing that there will be peace in the afterlife essentially is what helps me get through this. Because when you have to face the harsh reality that you may not come out on the other end — which is sobering and very unfortunate — you have to comes to terms with, ‘If I don’t make it out, will I be okay with that?’ And I think most of us live without any… we don’t want to live thinking about the moment we’re gonna die. We don’t do that. But for me, that was a big part. So having faith that no matter what was meant to happen was my plan, was the biggest component. Knowing that faith and religion comforted the people around me — you know, my mom is highly religious. She’s really Christian, and so is my sister. And knowing that whatever your belief system is, there is something that will give you peace at the end of this journey.
OKP: How has it played a part in being a professional and traveling musician?
TM: I don’t know. I guess that’s a bit vaguer to kind of incorporate all that. I guess it’s different because it’s not about how it takes me places, but it’s more about how I observe things. Traveling around and visiting other countries, the greatest way to absorb other cultures is to really look at the religious monuments and the way that people exist in their daily lives. And a lot of that is impacted based by faith, religion, and these belief systems. I get to see what it’s like to go to Bali and everyone is Hindu, where as the rest of Indonesia, people are mostly Muslim. Or there’s like these crazy Greek Orthodox churches — all that stuff and to be able to absorb, even beyond — through these people’s faith and religion — you get to absorb their culture.
OKP: Your newest project, Lune Rouge Remixed, is certainly something that the people are waiting for. Can you talk about the inspiration and concept behind the album?
TM: With this remix album, it is almost less about me and more about everyone else. I made this music and I was fortunate enough to have these super talented people come in and put their spin on my art, essentially. And I can kind of see from how people post — what these songs mean to them and how they can go reimagine things. ‘Cause you know, I’m a big remixer. I remix tons of things and a lot of remixing is how you can flip the original. What can you do to make this really dope song dope in a different kind of way? It’s really cool just to see how it’s reinterpreted, and to also repackage these songs so that people can be like, ‘Okay, I’ve listened to this version of the song from the album 100 times. Now I can hear it with new ears because now it’s being presented a completely different way.’ It’s just cool. I appreciate and love the art of remixing.
OKP: Can you talk about any other obstacles you had to overcome to get the project out?
TM: The first album, the biggest thing was really just be able to make music after my brain surgery. With the remix album, it’s different because there’s no intention behind it. You’re like assembling all these different people who may not know each other to create songs. For me, this remix album represents a lot of how I view music, which is I like a lot of different types of music. I got a lot of different types of producers to re-interpret my tracks, which is cool because you can have some space here, fucked up glitchy kind of shit. And then you have things that are more soulful and… I hate to use the term, but like “future beats.” Then there’s some traditional house stuff, and there’s full-on techno. And it shows that even at the end of the day. these are all different styles of music — that the source material for all of this stuff came from me. That just shows how even if the music is different, it’s kind of related in a way or it can be related in a way.
OKP: You remade “Re-Freak” on this project. The originator, Dam-Funk, is one of the funkiest musicians on the planet. Can you talk about how it was to work with him and what lessons you learned from him that you now apply to your own creations?
TM: One of the greatest things about Dam-Funk, other than his music, is just who he is as a person. He lived his life as an example of what a ‘G’ is. He is the coolest cat I know. The main story I always reference whenever I talk about Dam-Funk is, years ago, I played a show with him in London. And basically me and him were standing on an escalator — I think we’re on our way up, right. And then next to that escalator is the escalator going downward. And as the escalator was going downward, this random person just pointed at him and said, “Man, you’re cool.” And right as we’re passing each other, the first thing that he said back was, “Nah man, you’re cool.” He just kept on… just standing on the escalator. It’s like hilarious though, and awesome at the same time. He doesn’t have any ego. He’s a strong dude with his own values and his own creativity, but he doesn’t impose that on to other people — especially within the realm of lots of urban music where there’s a lot of machismo attitude. He’s a solid ass person. And his music is always authentic. He doesn’t do anything else but Dam-Funk. So the remix that he did for me is classic. Classic Dam-Funk.
OKP: Getting a bit deeper into your brain surgery, it was such a serious and harrowing experience. What concerns did you have going on leading into such an operation? And how did music help to assuage or calm any fears you might of had?
TM: Music was… I think even outside of the surgery, music was always therapy. It’s what we can turn to when we’re feeling sad, when we’re feeling happy, when we are celebrating or we’re about to enter a crazy brain surgery. It’s this thing you can turn to that doesn’t judge. When you listen to music, it’s not talking to you. It’s not giving you advice. It’s helping to remove you from that moment and take you somewhere else. I think when I was facing the surgery, I was so overwhelmed by what I was about to go through — but unconsciously.
While I was going through this, I only had… I mean, I found out a month before I actually had the surgery. I found out and immediately scheduled the surgery and had it. I didn’t have a lot of time to process anything. I was full-on in problem-solver mode. ‘What do I need to do? Who are the doctors I need to speak with? What do I have to do prepare for after the surgeries?’ And I didn’t realize underneath the surface and underneath what I was dealing with on the outside, I had all this built-up anxiety forming. I remember just taking an Uber somewhere and I felt fine. I wasn’t stressed out, just sitting in the Uber going home from maybe a party or something and I just broke into a full-blown panic attack, out of nowhere. I had no idea what I was feeling because there was no trigger at that point. I guess my body just freaked out and was like, ‘You don’t realize it, but you’re stressed the fuck out.’ In moments like that, the only thing to help take me away from that is music and also creating music.
OKP: You’re actually from Los Angeles, born and raised — not very many people can say that. How has the city influenced you, your style and your sound?
TM: I always say the same thing in regards to this: if I didn’t live in the city, I don’t know if I would be making music. It was so many things that came together for me in L.A. that brought me to where I am today. The whole sequence of events, like if I didn’t live in the city, who knows what I would have been doing. It’s in a way that I can’t even narrow it down. It’s the people I’ve met, the things that’s happened to me, the influences. These people who have inspired me growing up in the scene, or just being around and going to shows, all these things had to happen in L.A. And if I was anywhere else, even if I went to similar experiences in other cities it’s just… it wouldn’t have culminated to where I am right now.
OKP: What do you think of all the changes that are happening around the city and across California like gentrification?