By Jordan Yeager
Mass-marketed, carefully controlled K-pop, with its slick dance moves and studio scripted tunes, has been taking over the music world for decades. But an edgier sound with influences gathered from tracks that U.S. soldiers were listening to was also emerging: Korean hip-hop. Clubs like Seoul’s Moon Night Dance & Night Club in the Itaewon neighbourhood located near the American military base in Yongsan were home to these burgeoning beats and often catered to American tastes. It’s no wonder, then, that Korean music as a whole came to have such audibly American influences. Korean hip-hop is no exception.
Rather than being rap- and lyric-focused, early Korean hip-hop of the mid to late 80s was centred around dance music. It had catchy, energetic beats that inspired dancers to face off in competitions that attracted attendance from people across the city. Lee Soo-man of SM Entertainment, who would go on to represent some of the country’s most prolific acts, discovered some of his first stars at Moon Night – the first was Hyun Jin-young, whose premiere album as Hyun Jin-young and Wawa was released in 1990. Ever since, Korean hip-hop has evolved to stand alongside American hip-hop as a fully-fledged, storied genre in its own right. At the forefront of Korean hip-hop is Epik High.
Epik High consists of Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz. According to frontman Tablo, they’re “a trio made up of three wildly different personalities that makes music to accompany your lonely nights. Mithra is the Drax of the group, Tukutz is Rocket, and I’m Star-Lord. All of us together are Groot.”
The Guardians of the Galaxy-based description of their characters offers a glimpse into their senses of humour, which have been collectively honed in the 16 years they’ve spent collaborating. They’ve also refined their sound, which is alternative and soulful, examining topics like community, identity, and personal growth. Some of their lyrics are written in Korean, and others in English; being bilingual allows them to encapsulate a wider range of feelings within their words. Together, they’ve watched the Korean music industry become the international monolith it is today, all the while playing a pivotal role in helping to shape it.
“It’s become so big and so diverse that the moniker ‘K-pop’ feels inadequate to encapsulate it,” says Tablo. “All you have do is hear it and you’ll see what I mean. Epik High albums are a good place to start because we have the most eclectic collaborations. We honestly don’t care what people categorize us as. It’s a great entrance into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Korean music today; we don’t fit snugly into any realm anyway.”
As true entrepreneurs as well as artists, Epik High knows that to survive as long as they have, it’s imperative that they adapt with the times. Right now, that means leaving the safety of a label behind and pushing forward independently. The last three of their 11 studio albums were released through one of Korea’s “big three” labels, YG Entertainment. Their latest venture, sleepless in ____, was produced and released independently, and in their words is “very Epik High.”
“I believe that a life, like a book, should have chapters,” says Tablo. “It was time to turn the page and once again thrust ourselves into uncertainty. That’s when the best art manifests itself. Some musicians make club music, and Epik High makes the music you listen to on that strangely serene Uber ride home after the club. This is that kind of album.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that Korean hip-hop as it exists today truly came to be. The group Drunken Tiger, which originally consisted of Tiger JK and DJ Shine, went against the norms of K-pop – like rigorously practiced choreography and lyrics written by studio execs – stirring up controversy and securing themselves a place atop the public radar. In 2005, DJ Shine left the group; Tiger JK continued making music under the Drunken Tiger moniker until 2018.
Of the three members of Epik High, Tablo is probably the most excited to embark on this North American tour. He spent a significant portion of his youth in Vancouver and credits the city with shaping him into the artist he is today.
“I lived in Vancouver since I was eight years old, and my last year there, I went to St. George’s for eighth grade,” he says. “It was a very strict school, at least at the time, with uniforms and a million old-fashioned rules. My friends and I were considered troublemakers. I constantly rebelled. What I’m trying to say is that I think the artist part of me was birthed there. It was the grain for me to go against. Vancouver will always be a part of me because it was the last place where I was just a kid and where I began to grow up. I can’t wait to meet the Vancouver fans.”
Tiger JK also started the Movement Crew in 2000, a hip-hop collective that provided a community for aspiring artists. Epik High found a home with the Movement Crew, whose members were often influenced by message-centric ‘90s hip-hop from the U.S. Rather than focusing on making their music danceable, members of the Movement Crew starting thinking instead about rhyme schemes, lyrical structure, and, above all, the meaning they wanted their lyrics to convey. They were taking inspiration from the American art they were surrounded by while adapting it into something all their own – more than anything, Korean hip-hop was a response to the environment they found themselves in. Since the Movement Crew’s inception, hip-hop artists in Korea have set their own precedents, no longer referring to American hip-hop for inspiration and influence. While there are parallels, a comparison between the two genres is not really necessary.
“When done right, hip-hop, or any art at all for that matter, is unique to each individual doing it,” Tablo says. “I don’t think geographical grouping means anything in the world we live in now. Our fans everywhere happen to be intelligent, kind people with great taste and an awesome sense of humour. Impeccably dressed. Super energy. With that said, Korea has many, many wonderful individuals worth paying attention to.”
No matter where in the world you go, boy bands prevail. Tablo, for one, embraces the title. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for calling us a boy band,” he says.
Epik High perform at the Vogue Theatre May 2 and 3.epik high, korean hip-hop, sleepless in ____