As the first lady of Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder Records, electronic hip-hop artist TOKiMONSTA has been considered just one of the guys in the male-dominated genre since her competitive beat-battle days at the Project Blowed Beat Cipher in L.A. Growing up in the city's suburbs, she bought her first hip-hop record (Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise) at the age of 11, and soon began cultivating her own personal taste in hip-hop by attending shows and making beats, all while still practicing classical piano. Since her 2008 debut EP, Bedtime Lullabies, she's been turning conventional instrumental hip-hop sounds inside-out with her distinctive mix of percussion, vocals, and vinyl, all of which is accented by hints of her piano work. Now with a full-length album and multiple EPs under her belt, she will soon be embarking on the Full Flex Express, a trans-Canadian train tour with artists like Skrillex, Diplo, and Grimes, and releasing another full-length album. She recently spoke with All Shook Down about her favorite artists, Brainfeeder Records, and what she loves doing in S.F. She plays Friday at 1015 Folsom with Zion I, Star Eyes, Nanosaur, Goldenchyld, Prince Aries and White Mike.
Growing up in the suburbs of L.A., how did you get acquainted and familiar with the hip-hop genre?
As a young kid, it was mostly from the radio and older siblings of my friends. From there, I just took it upon myself to be a nerd and really learn and search out everything about hip-hop.
As an Asian-American female, what was the biggest obstacle you had to face when starting your career?
The biggest obstacle was and is to overcome people's disbelief that it could be done -- you know, be a girl, Asian, and a fairly good producer. Generally speaking, the belief I go by is that it shouldn't matter if I am a female or Asian because it should just be about the music. Of course, reality doesn't work that way, and people are always focusing on the extra things. Asides from the business, booking, agent, label, etc., side of hip-hop and electronica, there aren't many Asian Americans or females for that matter. I am a minority of minorities in this field, but times are better and the people around me are very supportive. The general public is a bit more judgmental, but I'm just going to keep doing what I do. A wise man once said, "Haters gonna hate."
The stereotype often brought up in Asian American cultures is that "artists" cannot be successful in life, and becoming one is not considered a career. Have your parents always supported your career?
Nope, never, nada. Honestly, I never thought I'd be doing music as a career. Things kind of worked out that way for me. My mom has a little bit more faith in me, but she remains doubtful of the long term sustainability of music. Of course, it was all with good reason. Even after big press coverage and festivals, she didn't think I was much more than a bar DJ until her Korean friends told her that their children were big fans of my music.
A lot of comments on your social media outlets center on your looks, rather than your talent. Do you just smile and take it all in stride, or would you rather they focus more on the music?
Of course, I'd rather people focus on my music. Not to be self-deprecating, but when people make these "cute" comments, I just chop it up to people idealizing their perfect girl -- they really don't know me. Maybe because I'm Asian, people think I'm some cutesy anime princess that eats cake and has special powers. For all people know, I could eat cats and have a bad toe hair problem.
You've released many EPs in the past, but now are working another full-length album. What different approach do you have to that? Is it difficult to think about the story of seven or eight tracks as opposed to two or three?
A full-length record has to tell a story. I really like my albums to flow, so it can be listened to all the way though. A variety of sounds is also important, because I don't want people to listen to an album where every song sounds exactly the same.
Your latest release, the Creature Dreams EP, seems to gear more towards traditional hip-hop than the previous EP, Cosmic Intoxication. What prompted this shift?
I don't necessarily believe it's more hip-hop, though it has more richer analogue sounds, which could make it come off that way. In between those two EPs, I had a full-length album come out called Midnight Menu, which bridged those two EPs.
Which instrumental hip-hop artists have had the biggest impact on your career?
DJ Krush, J Dilla, RZA, Dre, and DJ Shadow.
How did you become the "First Lady of Brainfeed Records"? How do you make your presence known when you get together with the boys?
I was asked to be a part of the label and I happened to be the first female. I'm a fairly friendly person, but I'm not an attention whore -- none of the guys are, either. I guess I provide the guys with the "sister" aspect.
Your latest remix is of '90s R&B artist Jodeci. What do you think of all the '90s R&B rising back up again with artists like The Weeknd, Brenmar, etc?
I love it. That's my generation of R&B. It was an era where R&B was musical and edgy.
You're about to embark on the Full Flex Express tour with Skrillex, Diplo, Grimes, and more through Canada. Tell us a little about what you're feeling with that.
I know people are really confused or bewildered that I'm a part of this tour, but honestly, everything about this lineup makes sense. All the people involved are from different areas of electronic music. We all respect each other's music and we are compadres. I think it's going to be a pretty fun and wild time.
Of those on the tour, which artists would you like to collaborate with the most and why?
I'd say Grimes, because I think [we] are along a more similar wavelength. I actually worked on a song with Skrillex once, but I don't think it'll ever come out.
Where will we find you hanging out in SF?
Eating somewhere. That's all I do in S.F. Find places to eat.