*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13-year journey of exploring Korean and Japanese music
After Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded, Yang Hyun-Suk founded YG Entertainment, forging his way into the industry with an emphasis on hip hop. You gotta imagine. At this time, circa 1997, the top group in South Korea was H.O.T of SM Entertainment. Everything SM Entertainment touched was golden and they made millions.
SM Entertainment also started the trend of the SM Family. This is where the top acts from the same label pretty much gets together to collaborate on albums. Take this classic. Here you have “Jingle Bells” where you see in order, H.O.T., the girl group, SES, followed by top acts, Shinhwa and Fly to the Sky.
Let’s put it this way. In the U.S., at one point we had the Backstreet Boys, Nsync, and Britney Spears all under Jive Records. Imagine if instead of an obvious competition, they collaborated on albums and banded together to compete against other labels. But in South Korea, SM Entertainment was the juggernaut who took on all comers.
So here, you have YG with his new freshly minted YG Entertainment. South Korea wasn’t exactly big on hip hop at the time. I’m talking about real East Coast, West Coast hip hop. Not Fresh Prince, hip hop. The kind of hip hop H.O.T. and Seo Taiji touted was a friendly, energetic rap. YG brought that street, hood, gangster element to the game with acts like Jinusean and 1TYM.
And from what I read…YG got a lot of flack for that, for “acting black.” They didn’t break into mainstream success immediately during their first inaugural years for a couple of reason. The first was the popular saying, that YG values talent over looks. This was a jab at other labels promoting pretty boys and girls with garden-variety talent. The second was the content of their songs.
Remember how I stated in my chapter about H.O.T, how Korea’s relatively strict about songs broadcasted on the music stations. If a board deems a song unfit or unworthy, they couldn’t broadcast it. Rules like:
“Songs that “stimulates sex desire or [are] sexually explicit to youth”, “urges violence or crime to youth”, or “glamorizes violence such as rape, and drugs.”
And as you can imagine, if the U.S. had such rules, we probably would’ve never heard of names like Biggie, Tupac, Metallica, Slipknot, Eminem etc.
But eventually…just like how hip hop won over the rebellious youth in the states who don’t exactly relate to the preppy pop acts of the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears, YG won over the youth of South Korea. Make sense. I mean…I’m sure you don’t think most boys and girls look like the artists in that Jingle Bells music video.
Also, just like SM Entertainment, YG had a system where they’d bring in talented youths and train them for a number of years before debuting. One of YG’s first solo acts was a nineteen-year-old dancer with one of the smoothest voices you’ve ever heard. In 2003, he debuted with “Come Back to Me” and “Baby I like you like That.”
If you’ve read my memoir thus far, you’d know that I was already aware of Se7en before the summer of 2006. The first time I saw Se7en was his music video of “Hikari.” I sent it to a girl I had a crush on back in 2005. Mind you, because the song was in Japanese, I thought Se7en was Japanese. But nope, this dude comes straight out of Seoul.
One of the first songs I downloaded in a batch of kpop songs back in December of 2005 was a remix of Se7en’s song, “Passion” ft. Jinusean. At the time, I don’t think I was ready for Se7en’s sound, to fully comprehend and appreciate his talents. Se7en was called the Korean Justin Timberlake and aptly so. But the main reason why I started listening to foreign music in 2005 to begin with, was because I was tired the American sound.
However, after a summer of jamming to Seo Taiji, H.O.T, and DBSK, I think I was ready for Se7en’s sound. And since he was promoted by YG, I had a vested interest to see what else he was capable of. It was just in time. Because in the spring of 2006, Se7en released one of the most impressive albums where nearly every song was golden.
The ladies absolutely loved Se7en. And why wouldn’t they? Se7en was that cool kid who wasn’t afraid to smile or sing on the spot, or be goofy and dance even though he’s surrounded by scary sunbaes (senior artists) who are all mean-mugging looking like they’re about to rob you of your lunch money. While 1TYM and Jinusean were known for their edgy hood vibe, Se7en brought a happy-go-lucky side to the YG Family.
The dude was a master performer, an artist who could really command the entire stage.
More importantly, he came up at a time where solo artists gave him some stiff competition. While Se7en was the Justin Timberlake of South Korea, Rain or (Bi) was the Usher.
Representing JYP Entertainment, Rain was Se7en’s main rival. And even though they collaborated in live musical performances, if you took a poll, I’m pretty such Rain would come out on top as the most dominant musical act from 2002-2004. Here’s the two performing together with Lee Hyori in a tribute to Seo Taiji.
*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13 years of exploring Korean and Japanese music
The first song I heard of Seo Taiji was toward the end of 2005. It was a live performance of “Hefty End” followed by “Roboto.” At first listen…I honestly wasn’t that impressed. Mind you, I had already heard the music of Miyavi and Gackt. It sounded like a version of them so I wasn’t interested.
However, by the summer of 2006, after jamming out to the hits of H.O.T. and indulging on Moon Hee Jun’s version of nu-metal…I was ready for Seo Taiji.
Seo Taiji really deserves his own Hollywood biopic, similar to N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton.” He was one of the main forces that modernized pop music in Korean culture. Before him, they had some pop acts where the singer came out on stage in Christmas sweaters, looking all prim and proper. But Seo Taiji was the first to get out there and show Korea that they could produce high-energy music and perform it just as well, if not better than the Americans.
The South Korea of today is completely different from the way it was in the 1980s. From my understanding, it wasn’t until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul that brought a lot of money in and helped really develop it from a second or third world nation into a first-world country. Four years later, here comes this trio of skinny lads, two main dancers who could sing and rap…led by a scrawny kid in glasses who could rap, sing, dance and play the hell out of a guitar. He went by the name of Seo Taiji.
In 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys dropped this dope hit:
Seo Taiji and Boy’s “Nan Arroyo” exploded on the music scene and changed the dynamics of Korean pop culture. And the thing is, I had heard this song before. When I was learning about Se7en, I found a clip of him, Rain, and Hyori performing a tribute to it. Of course, at the time, I had no idea how influential Seo Taiji was or why that song was so significant.
Everything changed in the country after this. Seo Taiji became a household name and from what I read, his appeal was widespread, reaching fans of all demographics, male, female, teens, kids and adults. Thus, people called him the Michael Jackson of S. Korea. Fans swarmed venues and any place where the group made an appearance.
I even remember reading about a U.S. soldier who was stationed in S. Korea in 1994. He described how famous Seo Taiji was and how even he fell in love with Seo Taiji’s music. He said the first song he heard was “Certain Victory,” which cemented his fandom. That’s what did it for me as well. In truth, their first hit of “Nan Arroyo” didn’t really do anything for me. Too retro, influenced by the new jack swing. But the attitude and sound of “Certain Victory” was really got me to listen to his music.
The first time I had heard of H.O.T. was when I began looking for websites about Korean groups and other bands like DBSK. Almost every website I came across put two names up on the highest echelon in the Korean music industry.
One was a man named Seo Taiji. The website touted that his popularity in Korea was on par to Michael Jackson’s phenomenon in U.S. when “Thriller” hit the scene. The other name was H.O.T., which stood for “High-Five of Teenagers.” Now, if you think the name was lame, the picture I saw of them in anime hair and metallic costumes gave the same impression. My initial thought was that H.O.T was just as manufactured as Super Junior appeared to be. So, I passed on both of them.
*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13 years of exploring Korean and Japanese music.
As I continued to get deeper and deeper into Korean music and their culture. One of the first things I learned was how strict they were about broadcasting songs they deemed unsuited for public consumption. If a song was too materialistic, or promoted an unhealthy lifestyle, it wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast on the major stations.
Deep down, I think I respected that, considering how much I blame the entertainment industry for how immoral and backwards my own generation had become here in the states. However, as I’d eventually grow as an artist, I confess, I do think there is some corruption when it comes to such practice. Meaning, if you wanted, you could very well sway the deciding members on what should be deemed suitable or unsuitable. But I suppose that’s for another essay.
I also loved how in South Korea, they have dance shows and variety programs where the top celebrities come together and just straight up dance it out or to promote their current singles. At the time, some of the most popular shows were “X-Man,” “Love Letter,” and “Golden Star Bell”. Some of the regulars were famous names like Lee Minwoo, Jang Woo Hyuk, Tony An, and of course Yunho and Micky representing DBSK. Here, you’ll see Yunho dancing with Jang Woo Hyuk in the middle.
Now then…allow me take a moment to introduce you to two names here. Jang Woo Hyuk and Tony An. It took me a while to pronounce Jang Woo Hyuk properly. I believe it’s supposed to sound like, John Woo Yuh. Forgive me if I botched that.
It was just by chance that I had downloaded some of their music the month before I saw them on these variety shows. And dude…their music was amazing. It added a bit of variety to my k-pop tastes. DBSK and Super Junior handled the boy-band sound. Se7en gave me a solo Justin Timberlake vibe with his hits like “Passion” and “Crazy”.
But Jang Woo Hyuk and Tony An were something different altogether.
Jang Woo Hyuk was an amazing dancer. He was featured in numerous compilation videos as one of Korea’s premier pop-and-lockers. And as a solo artist, he’s a Bonafide rapper whose voice, I really can’t compare to anyone else. I listened to his song, “Flip Reverse” so many times that I think it was the first Korean song in which I memorized all of the lyrics.
I rapped it for my older brother when he came to visit. I think he was impressed. Not to mention, it was really remarkable how much hip hop had an influence on other countries around the world. It’s like everyone took a piece of it and modified the art to fit their own styles. But still…their own style. I think there’s a difference between being influenced by a culture and straight up swagger jacking. Some Korean artists are guilty of this. But I don’t believe Jang Woo Hyuk’s one of them.
And when it came to Tony An…the first song I heard of his was “Yutzpracachia’s Love”. Odd sounding title, I know. But like I said. It gave my palate some much needed variety. Tony’s song had a more mature R&B vibe to it that wasn’t overpowering or aggressive. Some nights after working the closing shift as a delivery driver, Tony An’s songs were just what I needed to unwind and relax.
But more than that…Tony An could rap and compose his own songs. Like Jang Woo Hyuk, Tony’s voice was unique. Not what you’d expect to hear from a soloist. It’s hard to explain. One of my top five favorite Korean songs of all time, was performed by Tony An. In fact, I found that a lot of my favorite “timeless” songs have managed to blend classical music from Mozart, Brahm or Beethoven in with a modern sound.
Tony An – “Love is Beautiful When You Can’t Have it”
Now, the funny thing about Jang Woo Hyuk and Tony An is they have a lot more in common than their unique abilities as solo artists. Remember when I said that the mark of a legendary group is one in which all the members could excel on their own if they went solo? Well…turns out Jang Woo Hyuk and Tony An were once part of the same group. And that group was called H.O.T. Yep, the same H.O.T, I passed on early in this chapter.
More than that…But just like in the states where we have end of the year musical award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, they have the same of their own brand in Korea. In this next video, you’ll see groups like CSJH, Super Junior and DBSK holding it down in which they sing a medley of songs. One of which, caught my attention the first time I heard it. For the life of me, I’ve been trying to find out the original artist who sings the song @2:16. It’s being performed by DBSK…But this performance, it’s a tribute to the original artist. The original artist was none other than H.O.T.
The ORIGINAL “IYAH!”
Straight up, that’s Jang Woo Hyuk rapping at 00:54 seconds in and Tony An at 1:08.
Now, ladies and gentlemen…I cannot begin to tell you how profound the effect H.O.T had on me. I was 19-years-old. DBSK was the group that got me hooked in to k-pop. But H.O.T. will always be the greatest.
Now there was once a certain senator who was known to frequent clubs and popular spots in Uptown Toronto. His name was Jared J. Chrysler, a despicable bully who had a penchant for strong-arming his proposals through city hall.
Sen. Chrysler was not a good man. Not a good man at all.
As it was, I knew Sen. Chrysler before I saw him. He was as corrupt as they come and thought himself untouchable. His dossier came replete with sexual assaults, everything from rape, torture, and murder. He was once caught on camera literally stripping the clothes off of a reporter in an elevator while he was high on coke.
Two years ago, his name dominated headlines after he declared in Parliament that women had no place in politics. He never apologized. Never chalked it up to a gaffe or a slip of the tongue. Instead, Chrysler had the gumption to stand by his words. And in spite of widespread protests, solidarity from the academia damn-near screaming for his resignation, this unsavory fellow managed to stay in office.
On top of all that, Chrysler had dealings with the Bratva. He aided in human trafficking and had the nerve to call for stricter immigration laws when one of his mistresses threatened to go public. Of course, this mistress hasn’t been seen for some time. Rumor has it she was pregnant with his child and as a result, her body was stuffed in a barrel down in the basement. Everyone knew he dabbled in narcotics and every so often, he’d had to get rid of his limos because no matter what they did they couldn’t get the stench of marijuana out of the seats.
That his execution didn’t come sooner, I think, emboldened his god-like complex. At the same time, it made him an easier target for those who weren’t bound by silly things like laws or ethics.
I think that’s why they chose me. “The first kill is always the hardest,” they say. But honestly, there was no fear. No trepidation. I wasn’t reluctant nor did I hesitate or have any second thoughts. I didn’t feel anything…other than the smooth friction of my knife sliding across his neck. I killed the man. But the ladies killed his legacy.
That’s the way we worked. A death shrouded in mystery would only inflate his infamy. We couldn’t have that. So his hotel room was staged to look like a break in. His business partner, just as corrupt as he, was our patsy. There were recordings of the partner hiring a hitman years ago. The coward called it off but we still had the tapes. Damning evidence, really.
You have to understand, I was never a full-fledged member of the Society. I wanted to be, more than anything. These ladies, these women. They’re extraordinary. Every single one of them has this overpowering presence by which you can’t help but wonder if they came fresh from leading entire legions on the battlefield. Perhaps by becoming one of them, I thought I could soak in but an ounce of their charisma, their strength.
I’m sorry. I suppose even now, I find it difficult to denigrate them. They trained me. They believed in me. But their price was too heavy. It was a price I couldn’t pay.
In New York City some years ago, I was but a budding flower, having just graduated from Elysium with a 4.0 grade average and an avid interest in finance. Having grown up in the halls of Papa’s corporate offices, I was exposed to the high stakes of million dollar hedge fund investments. Despite all that, I was groomed to be a classical composer. That’s the path my parents chose for me.
My mother and our nannies came from Surrey, hence the accent I inherited. I began playing the piano when I was about five or six, and to date, I’ve mastered all of Chopin’s compositions. However, Erik Satie was my idol. It’s all about the timing in his works and the one thing I appreciated the most was the risk he took by trying something new and, dare I say, awkward. “Gymnopedie” is my favorite. I must have rehearsed it a thousand times. Even in complete silence, I hear it in my head.
To much is given, much is expected. That is, unless you have six big brothers and three older sisters, all more outgoing and impressive than yourself. It goes without saying, my own candle paled in comparison.
They dominated everything. Dinner conversations. Galas. Parties and pageants. At some point, I suppose I just got lost somewhere in the back and I didn’t mind. I had no talent for oratory and the moment all eyes were on me, I’d freeze up with the most terrifying heart palpitations.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my family. My brothers were so cool. Strong and handsome. And my sisters…Well, I suppose it’s a bit ironic now that I think about it. Clarice, Emily, and Victoria. My heart weeps even as I say this, but every time I was in the same room with them, I was afraid. They picked on me for being so short and small. I had bad asthma and they’d mock me relentlessly for the wheezing, the “overdramatic” desperation I’d exhibit to find my inhaler.
Papa made them take me everywhere and I could tell how much they resented it. It’s a horrid feeling, to have so much in common with expensive luggage that’s been passed down through generations. It’s because of Papa that they included me but I understood why. He didn’t want me to feel alone. Papa was always looking out for me. He was perhaps the one ray of light that kept me warm in an otherwise cold and abysmal childhood.
It was because of Papa that I had the strength to smile. When I was little, I used to stare at him like he was a Greek painting. The hope that most people have towards Christ is how I felt about him. Papa came to every one of my recitals. When everyone clapped and congratulated me, words couldn’t quite express how elated my father was. He’d cry. Such emotion. I felt the love. I didn’t have to wonder with him. I simply knew how much he loved me by how open he was about showing his affections. It was to his arms that I’d run. It was within his coat that I found salvation.
Felix Domina Vandelay II. That was his name, a titan on Wall Street with investments around the world. We were decedents of King Wilhelm Vandelay of Godland who surrendered the throne to the Swedish Empire. Our family was paid handsomely for throne and has since, dominated the shipping industry back before the English stole New York from the Dutch.
My father revered history and I took after him. My siblings didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but I did. Money was something everyone had, more or less, but our heritage, our pedigree, to come from royal blood was something my father regarded with pride. He installed our family crest in the corporate emblem. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he took me to see it. Just me. No one else wanted to come.
And that’s how it went. The Vandelay name became synonymous with both opulence and, surprisingly enough, generosity. A lot of what I know about capitalism and economy came from what my father taught me. He’d let me sit in on the big important meetings, trusting with good measure that I’d behave and simply observe. And I did. It was interesting, actually. I enjoyed listening to them talk, more than I did watching cartoons or coloring in books. The tension, the frayed nerves, the adrenaline of risking so much on a public stock or new business, as CEO, Papa was the mediator to temper all tempers.
One time, Papa introduced me to the president of an airline company. It was just a joke, but Papa said I was his only daughter. I know this sounds bad but I fantasized about being his only child. I imagined a world without brothers or sisters or even my mother. Just Papa and me. I would have been so happy. It would have been the perfect world. But as it was, my brothers and sisters existed. In particular, Clarice, the eldest sister, born six years before myself.
Clarice was in a lot of ways the ring leader of the many cliques that tormented me from boarding school to boarding school. She could blame it on her youth, sure. But I never understood it. I heard stories about bullies being jealous of their targets or wanting something their victims had. But Clarice was taller, popular, drop-dead gorgeous and intelligent enough to know when to acquiesce. She never physically abused me. Just stole or broke everything that belonged exclusively to me. She called my recitals boring and sometimes, I could hear her laughing from the balconies as I played.
When the Society approached me, it was during a very dark chapter in my life. And yes, I blamed Clarice for it. My music teacher of eight years had just lost his wife to leukemia. I was his favorite pupil. I wanted to be there for him, to commiserate with him, to let him know that he wasn’t alone. But my family had a tradition of taking the yacht across the Mediterranean every Easter. I begged my mother to let me stay behind and support him but Clarice…She put it in my mother’s head that my teacher fancied me beyond what was appropriate.
We had just ported in Barcelona when I learned that my teacher committed suicide by plummeting from his twenty-fifth floor apartment. I was fifteen-years-old.
I was racked with grief. Even my father couldn’t console me. And he tried desperately. I wasn’t eating. I refused to attend school. And one afternoon, I returned home to find my bedroom nearly stacked to ceiling with rows of my favorite flowers, the white hydrangeas. It was classic of my father to go to such lengths. It was out of respect for him that I begrudgingly return to school.
By then, there was something different about me. Everyone could see it and finally, they all left me alone. I no longer smiled. I lost the ability to laugh or giggle. I stopped coming to Papa’s offices, and every time I entered a room where I knew Clarice was present, I’d keep my gaze to the floor.
I really hated that bitch. When I cried alone, it wasn’t because I was sad. It was the growing pain of holding back the rage in my heart. Every time I’d hear her laugh, or cheer, or so much as clear her wretched throat, I’d be so stricken by this incredible urge to stab her with the sharpest thing I could find. It was really bad and I knew something was wrong with me. But who could I tell? Who would possibly understand?
Three weeks after my maestro’s passing, I found myself sitting alone in an herbal teashop down in the Village. It rained that evening with a constant patter that calmed the disquieting notions. I’d hone in an out of the constellation of raindrops on the window. Red and yellow lights blurred in straight lines that zipped up and down the wet street.
Two older men approached and offered to buy me a drink. They appeared college students, and I knew they meant well, but I dismissed both.
Then, she sat down. A velvety black coat that still held beads from the rain. Long dark hair. Dazzling blue eyes with the elegance of a former ballerina, or a debutant like myself. Without saying anything, she just smiled and I was spellbound. She extended a napkin to wipe my tears. I still remember my mascara bleeding into the soft white cloth.
“May I help you?” I asked.
She sighed and looked around once more before settling on me.
“Your guilt is unwarranted. You are trapped, my dear. Like a bird, a caged canary. I am here to set you free.”
It was unreal. Everything I needed to hear came from those few words. She followed up with nothing else, but abruptly scooted her chair out and grazed past my shoulder and made her way to the exit. I exhaled, not realizing I had been holding my breath.
“Are you coming?”
I turned around. She was waiting for me, her and three others, all wearing the same dark velvety coat but with different styles of shoes and earrings. There was a motorcade of two black luxury SUVs parked on the curb behind them.
I didn’t get up at once. It was absurd and I think she saw it in my gaze.
“I can only unlock the cage. It’s up to you to spread your wings and fly.” She said.
“Who are you?” I asked in a shaky whisper.
“I’m Breanne. That’s Scarlett. She’s Mandee. And we call this one the Andalusian.”
Breanne, Scarlett, Mandee, and the Andalusian. These were the first Swords of St. Catherine I had the pleasure to meet. And if all of Swords were as impressive as they, with all due respect, there isn’t a force on earth powerful enough to match wits.
Officially, I ran away from New York City that night. Sadly, no one noticed. Not even Papa.
By early November of 2005…the novelty of Japanese rock music was wearing off. I still enjoyed it. But the waves that once washed over me…it’s like I had gotten used to the temperature and now found the waters lukewarm.
*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13 years of exploring Korean and Japanese music.
In South Korea, you can tell the singers and groups pride themselves on their ability to dance. The following was one of the first videos I downloaded in which, the most popular singers of the day got together for a Christmas special to dance it out. You’ll find Se7en at 1:17 in. Followed by Rain…and then Minwoo of Shinhwa, then the guy who I’d come to call the best.
A popular style of dance at the time was an innovative form of pop-and-locking as well as the wave. Se7en was an awesome freestyle dancer. I learned that his main competition was another solo artist named Bi or Rain, who everyone was calling the Korean Usher. But the man who I definitely considered the best by a landslide when it comes to dancing…is U-Know.
It was the middle of December of 2005 when I saw this exact video:
lol, now aside from the “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” you may have noticed a dancer doing some amazing things. The waves are so simple yet complex at the same time. In order to do them well, you have to have good body control. Something, I felt I was capable of. His name is U-Know, or Yunho…And mind you…even though I was watching it in December of 2005, that video was from 2004. Surely there had to be more.
I’d come to find out Yunho was the leader of a Korean Boyband called DBSK and dude…Discovering DBSK was an early Christmas present to myself. When I say K-pop got me through college. I mean it.
That December, I was hoping to go home and spend Christmas with family. But from delivering pizzas, I caught a flat tire and couldn’t afford to come home. For two weeks, I was alone for the first time for the first time in my life. I’ve felt loneliness in the sense of being surrounded but not connecting with anyone. But the legit physical loneliness, I wasn’t quite used to at the time. Growing up, I always had brothers or some company present. Being alone for Christmas my first year away from home was abysmal. The only glimmer of happiness that got me through the holidays was DBSK. Like uncovering a buried treasure map, sparking a sense of adventure to see where it leads.
To understand how culturally significant DBSK was, I have to tell you a little bit about their history. All of which, I learned gradually throughout 2006. To put it in perspective, its sort of like how Jive Records was the label for the Backstreet Boys. Then came Nsync and Britney Spears. They were all under the same label at one point and dominated the American pop scene I’d say from 1998-2002ish.
In South Korea, the most prominent music agency is called SM Entertainment. In the thirteen years I’ve been listening to Kpop, SM may have had some close competition with other labels in which there was the big three, such JYP, YG, and it used to be DSP Media (home to Sechskies and SS501). But SM Entertainment has always remained at the top.
Very similar to how the Backstreet Boys were put together, with a benefactor picking out five talented youths and molding them to be superstars, South Korea’s entertainment agencies work the same way…except ten times tougher, with more rules, discipline, and longer years of training. That’s how they start out, as trainees to the agency and it takes years before they debut. Sometimes, they don’t.
DBSK also known as TVXQ or Dong Bang Shin Ki, consisted of Jaejoong, Micky Yoochun, Xiah Junsu, Max Changmin, and Yunho. All of them were hand-picked and groomed by SM Entertainment to sing, dance, take the lead and dominate. Just like their predecessors, which I’ll get into later.
But whatever, right? Bunch of talk, right? So what if ya boy Yunho can dance. I thought this was about music? How good is DBSK?
The first music video I saw of DBSK as a group was “Rising Sun.” And dude…I’m telling this group was the complete package.
II. The J-Rock Phase: Miyavi, Gackt & more L’Arc En Ciel
J-Rock stands for Japanese Rock.
By Spring Break of 2005, during my senior year of high school, I learned that I was accepted into a film school in Tampa, Florida. Knowing my future was secure was a relief. There wasn’t a lot of angst or trepidation in my heart at the time. Just full of hope and an eagerness to leave the nest. Every day since, I woke up, fully aware that it was another day to say goodbye to Georgia and the friends I had come to depend on.
*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13 year journey of exploring Korean and Japanese music.
Having already been introduced to L’Arc en Ciel’s “Ready Steady Go” video…I was curious. What else they got? I learned that their genre was called “j-rock” so I searched for that on Limewire.
Apparently in 2004, early 2005, the biggest names in J-Rock were indeed L’Arc-en-Ciel…as well as a Japanese rock vocalist named Gackt. And man…hahahaha! Not gonna lie, I’m about to reveal some embarrassing stuff in talking about these guys.
So, mind you, from 5th grade to 12th, I was raised in Augusta, Georgia…which is considered a more country, gritty version of Atlanta. Meaning, everything you’ve heard regarding the stereotypes of blacks and whites had some truth to them in this city. That’s not to slight Augusta…because the thing is, the people know how they are and they don’t see it as a bad thing. Yes, there’s racism and a somewhat semblance of unspoken segregation, but people seemed cool with that. Most teens tended to stick to their own…
Had I been born and spent my whole life in Augusta, I probably would’ve fallen into a stereotype as well. But my parents were military. I moved around and attended multiple elementary schools ranging from south Florida to a place deep in the heart of Texas called Fort Hood. When you’ve moved around as much as I have, you know the world is much bigger. That America is made up of so many cultures.
And when you’re attending school on a military base, you’re afforded the luxury of just being yourself and making friends, because all the other kids are just like you. They’ve all moved around through their parent’s military transfer. So they understand and are more likely to accept you the way you are. But once you leave the base and start going to school with the civilian folk…yeah. You’ll find how different you are. And I think on a subconscious level, the natives don’t take too kindly to some new kid coming in and messing up the status quo.
My point in mentioning this, is that for years of being more or less stuck in Augusta, Georgia…I wasn’t exposed to a lot of diversity when it comes to the cultures. So when I discovered Gackt and L’Arc-en-Ciel…it was somewhat of a shock that had me questioning my own sexuality.
Remember, this was early 2005, a very conservative Christian time in the country. Lady Gaga wouldn’t blow up till late 2008-ish. And you see, in Japan they embrace this thing called “Visual Key”. Plainly put, it’s straight up androgyny, a style where men make themselves appear like women. They wear feminine makeup, eye-lashes and longer hair where it becomes difficult to discern whether they are male or female.
L’Arc-en-Ciel’s lead singer was notorious for this. Even without the make up, Hide looks like a girl. And just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy, I’d eventually ask my first roommates in Tampa to rate his appearance in “Blurry Eyes” on a one-to-ten scale. And my roommate without hesitation said… “I’d hit that.” As you can imagine, I laughed for some time. Not just at the humor in it, but the realization that it wasn’t just me. I’m not gay and I don’t think I should feel bad if I’m fooled by a person’s appearance.
I. Korean Music – The Beauty of Understanding Nothing
Why do you listen to Korean music if you don’t understand it?
The short answer: Because it’s better than understanding English lyrics and intensely disliking the message.
By 2004, I was fed up with mainstream American music. I was 17-years-old living in Augusta, Georgia with a military moved-around background. Even back then, before Google was big, I began to theorize how the entertainment industry used mediums like music, film, and television to promote a message, to promote a lifestyle.
Celebrities and what their producers put out…they’re the ones who determined what’s cool, what’s acceptable and taboo. I remember walking through the halls of high school every year, and every year it was something new that everyone was doing, everyone was conforming to. They said stupid stuff like, “I hear that” all the freaking time. Slang like “Shawty” and “trifling”…
As an adult, I have more of a “whatever” attitude. But back then, the lack of diversity was abysmal. The stereotypes were real and I never fit in with any trope or clique unless I pretended. I resented that.
Because the thing is…if you saw me in real life, you’d have never guessed that my favorite group growing up was the Backstreet Boys. By the time I was 15, I was over six feet tall, 250lbs, black, talked like a white boy but I’m not gay. I used to dream about being in a boyband. I could sing really well and danced like a son-of-a-gun. So much so that I literally dislocated my knee while popping and locking.
Also, it should be noted that my parents didn’t exactly expose me and my brothers to a wide variety of culture. I wouldn’t discover Queen until I was 23. I barely knew about groups like the Rolling Stone, the Who or Jimi Hendrix. Hell, I didn’t even know that much about the most celebrated black artists aside from the ones who were fortunate enough to have TV mini-series based on their careers.
I only listened to whatever was played on the bus or on my parent’s car radio, which was mainly pop and soft rock (90s hits). I never thought to myself, “I wonder what else is out there?” It was always just by chance that I came across something new.
By 2004, following the end of the boyband era and dealing with a whole host of internal teenage rage issues, I started listening to metal. I discovered bands like Slipknot and System of a Down and played them out for most of the year. I remember my driving my brothers in the car with me while blasting Slipknot’s “Surfacing” and they’d back down in their seats to avoid being seen. Haha! Those were good times.
However…I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve learned that I couldn’t just jam out to adrenaline pumping groove metal all the time. To me, metal was perfect for my mood and street racing. But I don’t get amped up, looking like I’m ready to rip into someone’s neck. Something about metal just calms me down. I didn’t notice until a friend pointed it out, joking that I was some kind of sociopath.
The best way to explain it…they’re screaming so I don’t have to. Think about it. If you’re super pissed off with no one to talk to or understand… simply being around someone who’s 10x angrier, it brings you down a notch. Well, it brought me down a notch. It’s like, “What do I got to be angry about? This guy’s fuckin’ furious!”
But that said, I’m not an angry person. I have my moments, sure. But it’s not like I roll out of bed full of rage. Blue skies. A cool breeze. The freedom from prying eyes and obligations…and I’m happy. In times like this, I’d like to hear music that’s just as uplifting. Which, brings me back to my original problem.
The pop music of 2004-2005 had some horrible messages, in my opinion. I never care about materialistic superficial things like cash, clothes, cars, poppin’ bottles or dropping it like it’s hot. I’m not a club-banger. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. And oddly enough…I didn’t care that much about sex. I liked women, but the idea of being with one just to get laid…this desire wasn’t strong in me at the time.
I know that’s weird. Pretty much, I’m lame in the eyes of young people who want to do things that’s “in.” Even back then, I liked to read, write, and just go…anywhere in my car. My pleasure came from production. Being tasked, trusted with a job, realizing that everyone depended on my output and simply making it happen. I liked to help my friends, comfort them. Make them laugh.
Plainly put…there wasn’t any popular music, hip hop, or R&B that I could relate to. It’s kind of like the argument some marginalized groups in the U.S. have about TV shows. For a man like me, there was/is no representation.
Not sure how I adapted this attitude, but ever since I was a kid I always had this innate, rebellious drive where…If I feel like you have no place in this world, pick your chin up and build your own place in this world. It was the same when I’d eventually go to college. They said, “you have to play the game to win it.” But every game I want to win has been dominated with high scores locked in place and guarded by ridiculous high walls. Do I really want to spend my life trying to climb over all that? Or would I rather venture into uncharted territory and build my own kingdom from scratch? So off, I went…
By January of 2005… I was 18-years-old and just dumped by the first girlfriend I ever had. So yeah, the holidays saw me pretty much playing out “Wait and Bleed” and some of Linkin Park’s greatest hits. I was so thirsty for something different that I even took to listening to the soundtrack of video games like “Need for Speed Underground” and “Smackdown vs Raw”.
Then one day, I was messing around with this anime on-demand network and I saw two music videos that were available for viewing. One was L’Arc En Ciel’s “Ready Steady Go,” and the other was O-Zone’s “Blue”. They were Japanese music videos. The first foreign music video I ever saw was “Ready Steady Go.”
The K-Pop Chronicles – A 13 Year Love Affair By Rock Kitaro
When I was in college, everyone told me that my love for Korean pop music was just a phase and that it would pass. Thirteen years is a long time to simply call it a phase.
Ever since 2005 I’ve been listening to popular music from the countries of Japan and South Korea. This was back before everyone else heard of “Gangnam Style.” Back before BTS took the Billboards. Back before Twitter and Instagram determined one’s prestige.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve watched the rise of Big Bang since they were still trainees. I rocked out to Dir En Gray. Witnessed the fall of DBSK when they were near untouchable. I went back and explored the history of legendary groups like Seo Taiji, H.O.T, NRG, Turbo, and stumbled upon gems like Clazziquai, Epik High, Drunken Tiger, and Dragon Ash.
But…as you can imagine…we’re talking about a span of thirteen years. The music has changed. I’ve grown up.
Since this journey of mine has come to an end, I thought I’d take a moment and tell you my story. In the upcoming memoirs, you will see me as an impressionable college freshmen who lived out his twenties dishing on some of the best kpop and jrock ever produced. It’s been an honor, really. You’re going to see what real diversity looks like. Hint: it’s not about race, it’s about taste. Back when the charts weren’t saturated with artists who look the same, all producing the same thing.
That being said…fair warning. You might read some things that strike a nerve if you’re a hardcore fan of certain groups. Mind you, this is just one man’s opinion, the perspective of one who’s been watching the scene since 2005. So if you just discovered kpop in 2016 and get mad talking about how so and so is the greatest when you haven’t even heard of H.O.T or Seo Taiji…yeah, you’re in for a bad time. This is my journey. My discovery of musical groups and the evolutionary effects they had on my life. Sit back and let me show you what I saw…starting in the middle of 2004.
Here’s a taste with a music video I edited in 2013, compiling some of the most impressive kpop dances I’ve ever seen.
Dance Appearances in Order – Song “Jiggy Get Down” by the Untouchables
1. :10 – Yunho of DBSK
2. :37 – Xiah of DBSK
3. :52 – Hyunseung, formerly of BEAST
4. 1:02 – Kikwang (AJ) of BEAST
5. 1:12 – Rain (Bi)
6. 1:31 – 2pm
7. 1:50 – 2NE1
8. 2:10 – Untouchables
9. 2:30 – Taeyang
10. 2:50 – DBSK
11. 3:09 – Big Bang
12. 4:08 – Block B
13. 4:17 – BEAST
14. 4:27 – Big Bang