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TOKiMONSTA Imagines a New World For Women in Electronic Music

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 13, 2021

When the pandemic forced the entertainment industry to grind to a screeching halt, no one felt it harder than the musicians who relied on concerts and performances to bring their music to life — and to connect with their fans. But necessity breeds innovation, and artists had to improvise and adapt. Hip-hop superproducers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz created the now-ubiquitous Verzuz battle series, while others turned to live-streamed shows online. 

Los Angeles-based producer and DJ TOKiMONSTA was forced to confront the new pandemic reality from the get-go in March 2020, and continued to find new ways to reach her audience over the last year and a half. Her sixth studio album Oasis Nocturno was released just as the world went into an emergency lockdown with no idea of when they would come out.

As someone whose music is meant to be enjoyed in a public setting, TOKiMONSTA had no choice but to push forward. “My music is not club music necessarily, but it’s music I like playing in the club,” she chuckles while reflecting on the early days of the pandemic with Forbes. She had already released several singles and the record was practically packaged and ready for release, so the LP landed with the hope of going on a postponed tour later in 2020. When tours planned for 2020 started getting cancelled, TOKiMONSTA had to find whatever positives in a sea of negatives that she could.

“The great thing is it was still received and people still listened, but I didn’t get to share it personally with my audience. And that’s something that’s really important to me as a musician: not just you sitting at home listening to it, but me being able to show you how I want you to listen to it by coming to one of my shows,” she laments. “It kind of sucked, but I took it for what it was. I don’t sit and mope about anything.”

TOKiMONSTA’s dedication to her craft started in childhood. She first fell in love with music while taking piano lessons at the behest of her parents. As a young teenager, shefell in love with West Coast hip-hop. She cites J Dilla, DJ Shadow, and Timbaland as some of her influences as a producer, and admires Missy Elliott and Björk for the artistic paths they’ve blazed with their careers. After that, she discovered electronic music and the rave culture attached to it, and decided she wanted to try it for herself.

“It kind of came full circle where I decided, ‘Hey, I really love music; I should try taking a stab at making it.’ And it was very bad and it was very hard,” she recalls, laughing. “But after that, I just kept on teaching myself and kept on making more music. It was just something I loved to do. It was more than a hobby; it was a passion.”

So when her passion was taken away from her at the outset of the pandemic, TOKiMONSTA had to improvise. One of the ways she was able to reach her fans was through a weekly Twitch show where she interviewed other musicians and figures in the industry.

“I was able to connect with my audience in a more personal way. And I think up until that point, I never really revealed myself or my personality to that extent,” she admits. Once venues started opening up for performances, she retired the Twitch show to draw attention back to her artistry. “It ended up being something really good that I did. So I don’t regret it, but it wasn’t by choice initially,” she laughs. “I really do want to focus on me as a musician and career and not as a host.”

She acknowledged that she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t a fan of giving fans a closer look into her home life. “It made everyone uncomfortable and people pivoted in such amazing and cool ways; you got to see a very intimate part of all your favorite musicians and them deejaying from their home,” she reflects. “It made everyone uncomfortable, but we found ways to still connect to each other.”

Now, with live music events and festivals back on the docket for the rest of 2021, TOKiMONSTA is more than ready to get back on the road — starting with Splash House festival in Palm Springs in August and continuing to hop around North America this fall on her Say Yes tour. “Just being there with the audience will mean so much, because I’ve done a lot of stream sets over the pandemic and I got used to them and performing in front of a camera, but it’s not the same as being in front of people — even one person,” she says. “It is the best reason to go back on tour: to feel the energy in the room. A physical place is so different than connecting digitally.”

“It just more makes my performance more authentic,” she continues. “I feel like the response [from the audience] and the way that I perform is so much more real when there’s real people in front of me.”

On top of her duties as a producer and performer, TOKiMONSTA also juggles her time as the head of her independent record label, Young Art Records. Launched in 2014, Young Art was designed with its artists’ best interests in mind — because an artist themself founded it.

“My goal in creating the label is to create a platform for artists that I believe in to become successful, amazing musicians,” she says. She acknowledges that the music industry can often be competitive, and many artists have a harder time getting their music to reach listeners’ ears. “These are artists that I found that I want to mentor and I want to raise up, and at the end of the day, I just want them to shine,” she says proudly. “I just want to create the jump-off point for them. And from here they can sign to bigger labels and have bigger deals and do more amazing, creative things. And hopefully at some point with this label, we can expand and also be that for our artists too — not the jump-off point, but we can be that label that can provide these amazing big ideas to the artists and the listeners.”

“I’m not here to chain anyone to it too,” she adds. “My whole thing is that I want artists to be happy and that’s why they stay on the label and want to release more.”

She’s quick to note, however, that she doesn’t want to take artists’ credit — or their hard-earned money. “This is not a money-making venture for me; I’m not doing it to put artists’ money in my pockets,” she says plainly. “An artist-run label exists to watch out for the artists… So when I talk to my artists, I’m like, ‘Let’s talk about it from artist to artist. I’m setting this up because I want you to feel provided for and listened to and heard. And that’s important for me.’”

Talk of a post-pandemic world often involves lessons learned over the last year and changes that will be implemented going forward. For herself, TOKiMONSTA aims to grow the Young Art label and do more work scoring for video games and films, as she’s done in the past with Awkwafina’s Comedy Central show Nora From Queens. On an industry-wide level, TOKiMONSTA hopes to see the electronic music space address an issue that was prevalent long before the pandemic: inclusivity of women in traditional DJ spaces. She regrets that there are many talented female DJs and producers working today but rarely have the opportunity to get their music to reach a wide audience — a disparity she discussed in the 2020 documentary Underplayed.

“Even though they’re talented and amazing, they’re not going to be heard unless the rest of the industry comes around,” she says plainly. “[It requires] the press highlighting female artists, or festivals to book more amazing female artists, or managers to go and search for up-and-coming amazing female artists.” She also acknowledges her own role in helping put other rising female artists on the industry’s radar.

“The next crazy superstar producer/DJ is out there. But if you don’t look towards her and look in their direction, no one will find her.”

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