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