The Roots of K-pop—When it was actually pretty darn good.
by Baz Gar.Funk'el:
I already vented my frustrations regarding K-pop in The Land of K-pop / A Metal Wasteland, my second article for Flapper Press. With that out of the way, it feels like a good moment to talk about the one person who single-handedly planted the seeds of K-pop. Despite my disparaging comments towards K-pop in my previous article, I have nothing but respect towards this individual. No, I’m not referring to Lee Suman, founder of SM Entertainment, who transformed his company into the first K-pop conglomerate. He may have discovered the business opportunity in K-pop before it was even called that, put together a handful of somewhat talented boys and girls, trained the hell out of them, and created a business-viable entertainment package, but he didn’t initiate the movement.
No, here I’m talking about Seo Taiji, who showed how huge a business K-pop could become, not by pursuing the business side of it, but by being a talented musical artist.
My personal view of Seo Taiji didn’t start off favorably. It was back in 1992 when Seo Taiji and Boys (서태지와 아이들), the dance trio, hit the scene and hit it off big! Although I pursue Rock, Metal, and the heavier side of music as an artist, one of the main radio stations I would tune in to back then was the Dance Trax countdown. Being a dance music buff, I thought Seo Taiji’s first release, 난 알아요 (Nan Arayo: “I know”), sounded . . . well . . . mediocre at best. Rap in itself was something new to Korea, so while it was a novelty on its own, its delivery was quite elementary. The group’s look was unconventional (for the scene) but cheesy. Their dance moves were definitely something new (once again, for the scene) but cheesy. And the lyrics were downright cringe worthy. On top of all that, what was up with his name? (Taiji was also the name of the bassist of pioneering Japanese Power Metal band X-Japan). But that’s nitpicking. I wanted to nitpick him because I just didn’t see what the big deal was. And initially, it seemed I wasn’t the only one.
Seo Taiji had started by creating his own demo of techno-driven dance music that was becoming quite prevalent in the global dance world but not so much in Korean pop. He started shopping around for record companies, but “Who would listen to music like that?” was their response. That was until Seo Taiji and Boys were finally picked up by relative newcomers Bando Records. Once the group’s music, their cheesy-yet-provocative looks, and cheesy-yet-powerful dance moves started airing on television, the kids ate it up.
I was just beginning to learn about Seo Taiji’s initial endeavors and starting to develop a form of respect for him when his second album came out in 1993. I was completely blown away by how fresh and unique it was. The music was now infused with a lot more organic instruments in a creative fashion compared to the sample-heavy first album. The first single, 하여가 (Hayeoga), titled after an ancient Korean poem, was a guitar-driven dance track that incorporated a unique style of rapping. The rhythmic effect of the rap would not have been brought to life had the lyrics not been in Korean. Seo Taiji’s music was no longer a half-arsed attempt at duplicating what was already big in the Western world, and it began to make sense for a Korean artist to deliver this kind of music.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The real shocker came when they busted out the 태평소 (Taepyeongso)—a traditional Korean wind instrument—over the bridge. I remember meeting a Korean War veteran from the United States who became enthused with Korean traditional music and eventually moved to Korea, becoming a performer of various Korean instruments. I had the chance to ask him several years before whether he believed a fusion between traditional Korean music and Western music was possible. He cited the quarter note in Korean music as an example of how the basic Korean traditional scales are so different from Western music that he did not see a possibility of the two styles coming together. (Actually, I later noticed that the pentatonic blues scale is quite similar to the Korean traditional scale.) I also remember reading an interview with Shin Haechul, much respected among Korean musical artists for his philosophy and musical creativity. He pointed out that he was about to give up on combining Korean traditional music with his own line of Pop, Rock, and Metal, but that it was Seo Taiji with “Hayeoga” who proved to him that it was indeed possible. (He would later incorporate some of his own mix of Korean traditional music on several tracks from his Rock/Metal band N.EX.T’s third album: “The World”.)
If Seo Taiji’s first album was a channel into the mainstream, his second seemed to form a proper outlet for his creativity. He further embraced this creative freedom with his third album in 1994, going back to his Rock and Metal roots despite their continued exclusion from mainstream music in Korea. (Seo Taiji had a stint as bassist of Korean Metal legends Sinawe before he went off on his own to form Seo Taiji and Boys). Among the tracks was 교실 이데아 (Gyoshil Idea; “Classroom Idea” (pronounced Ee-day-ah like in Plato’s philosophy), which was a slag at the convoluted yet myopic Korean education system. This track was a Rap/Metal collaboration with Thrash Metal band CRASH, who I mentioned in my previous article. (Rumor has it that Seo Taiji heard their music and mentioned that he wished to have such vocals on one of his songs, not realizing that CRASH was a Korean band.) The most comparable song I can think of would be Anthrax’s metal cover of the Hip Hop track “Bring the Noise,” originally by Public Enemy. It is notable that “Bring the Noise” was a metal cover of a rap track while “Gyoshil Idea” was an original rap/metal song, and that it would have been written before Anthrax’s rendition of “Bring the Noise” was released.
At this point I felt that Seo Taiji had established his own creative space regardless of what was going on in the musical world around us. He also expanded his lyrical content to social issues like education and the reunification of the two Koreas. By this time, he had earned the unofficial title of Korea’s “President of Culture.”
The fourth album threw yet another curve ball at the fans. The first track is a grungy ballad, but try to envision Left Eye of TLC rapping over Smashing Pumpkins instrumentation. The second is reminiscent of the Beastie Boys but with falsetto screams backed up by harmonics and distortion-laden guitars. I found it interesting that this song sampled the scratch used in Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain.” Then the third track and first single, “Come Back Home,” comes on. It is straightforward Hip Hop that incorporates the rapping styles of B Real and, in parts, Sen Dog of Cypress Hill. At this time, the internet was starting to bloom, though still in its infancy. A few weeks after the album’s release, someone posted online noting similarities between “Come Back Home” and Cypress Hill. Seo Taiji began facing an onslaught from a handful of critics screaming plagiarism. It was apparent this was the first time these people had listened to Cypress Hill, or even Hip Hop for that matter. If you already knew this type of music, you would know that these accusations were ludicrous (otherwise, Pavarotti and Domingo should be suing each other as well). What had also become apparent was that Seo Taiji had already matured way beyond the league of so-called experts in Korea.
After this album, Seo Taiji broke up the dance trio. One of the other two members, Yang Hyunseok, went on to build a K-pop empire of his own. He took his nickname, “Yang Goon,” and dubbed his company YG Entertainment, which has now become much larger than SM Entertainment on a global scale. Seo Taiji returned sporadically as a solo artist, supporting his equally sporadic release of albums, each once again completely different from its predecessors. For some shows, he rearranged his previous dance and Hip Hop tracks into rock/metal in order to fit his current rock band’s structure.
One show even involved an orchestra. Through his own Seo Taiji Company, he also held several festivals in Korea that sometimes featured his own band sharing the stage with the likes of Fear Factory, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson, among others.
That would have been the end of my history regarding Seo Taiji, but recently I experienced an additional surge of respect for him as an artist. A TV show featuring established singers was airing an episode in which they were assigned to sing Seo Taiji songs. I was excited to see the show, as Seo Taiji isn’t really known for his vocal prowess. I expected a huge improvement on what was already well-written music. But while the vocal delivery of these other singers was far more stellar, I was surprised that no one could fully replicate the spirit of the original music.
It can be said that most “manufactured” K-pop that followed was a successful duplication of Seo Taiji’s first business model as a dance group, which, in that particular format, was nonexistent beforehand. While each of Seo Taiji’s albums was a collection of eclectic musical diversity impressive enough to rival that of (dare I say) Queen, most K-pop had failed to venture beyond simply dance music dispersed with a pinch of Hip Hop. It seems obvious to me that this formula was a conscious decision by the producers to emulate what was big in the Western pop music scene. This decision in itself reveals how an art scene can lose its artistic adventurousness when overrun by a handful of business-oriented conglomerates. With that being the case, we see some K-pop artists make a big deal out of writing some of their own songs when that’s actually the way it should be. Even with those who (barely) qualify as artists, the biggest difference I find between them and Seo Taiji is that many contemporary K-pop performers come across as “replaceable.” In my book, irreplaceability is the true sign of an artist, and that is what I see in Seo Taiji. At least we see some hope in the likes of BTS, who were put together by what could be considered a start-up company in the K-pop world. Most importantly for this group, they were given much more creative freedom, ranging from their music, to the lyrical content, to communication with their fans and supporters. We can all see how well that is paying off. It also says a lot that Seo Taiji had hand-picked BTS to join him onstage for a live rendition of Gyoshil Idea for his 25th anniversary show this year (BTS had also released a cover version of Seo Taiji’s “Come Back Home”).
For myself, this introduction has been an attempt to balance myself from the (naturally) negative nature of my previous article on K-pop. For K-pop fans, I hope this presents you with the chance to delve into the roots of K-pop. And for non-fans, I hope you can take back with you that there was a moment when K-pop was actually pretty darn good.