IV – The Legend of H.O.T (First-Generation Kpop)
It was January of 2006…
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.
Because if you’ve read my memoir from the beginning…from the introduction, getting into j-rock, and finally up to this point. And if you’ve watched “Iyah” in its entirety, you know. H.O.T. marks off all the check boxes. Boyband Vocals, which really means a variety of vocals on one track. Metal guitar riffs. A melodic hook. Choreography. And power, the contagious emotion that moves from the music to you.
H.O.T put out five albums. They began with pop and catching 90s hits like “Candy” and “We Are the Future”. But by their 3rd and 4th albums, they were blending hard rock with classical melodies from Mozart and Beethoven. It’s the stuff of legend. So let’s get into it.
H.O.T. were truly DBSK’s predecessors in that they debuted under the same label of SM Entertainment in 1996. They’d go on to dominate the charts with five albums until their disbanding in 2001. Consisting of five members, most of them born around 1978, you have:
Moon Hee Jun was the leader and a personal favorite of mine, considering the music he’d later produce as a solo act. Moon Hee Jun was the complete package. Everyone strives to do everything well, but this guy actually did. He sang, rapped, choreographed, composed and wrote lyrics for a number of H.O.T’s greatest hits.
As a member of HOT, Jang Woo Hyuk was straight up gangster. In “Warrior’s Descendent” from their first album, you can see him setting the tone off the jump.
They called Jang Woo Hyuk, “Hammer Boy” for his skilled pop-and-lock dances. And more than just rapping and choreographing a number of dances, Jang Woo Hyuk has this uncanny ability to shout his lyrics like a mother-effing rock star. Once, when I was giving a friend a ride and let him listen to HOT’s “Get it Up,” when we got to Jang Woo Hyuk’s part at 2:14…my friend immediately shouted, “Oh snap! Lil Jon!”
Kangta was the group’s main vocalist and I heard, a personal favorite of the label’s CEO, Lee Soo-Man. Take note of the whole “favorites” complex when it comes to nepotism within music agencies. It’s going to be a reoccurring theme throughout these memoirs.
Jae-Won was the group’s maknae and a proficient rapper, able to write and spit fluid lyrics in rapid succession.
Tony was discovered and recruited from California. I’d put Tony An on the same level as Moon Hee Jun in his ability to rap, sing, and compose his own songs.
Together, Moon Hee Jun, Jang Woo Hyuk, Kangta, Lee Jae-Won, and Tony An made up the legendary H.O.T.
Starting in 1996 with unforgettable hits like “Candy” and “The Warriors Descendents,” they did two things that separated them from American Boy Bands and established a standard for Korean groups.
First off, none of the Backstreet Boys or Nsync could rap. HOT and future Korean Boybands had members who could sometimes rap better than solo rappers. Nsync might be known for their synchronized dances, but H.O.T. and groups that followed made it an absolute must. Every performance felt like a showdown from “You Got Served”.
Also, every member had to contribute in some capacity. In Nsync, it was mainly Justin Timberlake and JC Chavez singing the lead vocals with Chris providing solo parts on one or two tracks while Joey Fatone and Lance Bass…you wouldn’t have noticed if they had chosen to skip a day. You couldn’t get away with that in S. Korea. In fact, fans go up in arms if a member isn’t receiving enough lines.
In learning about H.O.T. and hearing their songs album by album, I truly felt honored. I even bought their fourth album because it was the only one I could find online. Their music was just what I needed at that time in my life.
Working as a pizza delivery driver had taken its toll. I was a glutton. And I ate pizza almost every night, ballooning up to an unhealthy 378lbs. The weight gain led to a loss of confidence. I had to buy bigger clothes. I was struggling in school and felt my teachers hated me and I hated them. I thought nobody liked me and I didn’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to be around me either, looking like the behemoth I was.
No one told me that my problem was my weight. But I can tell you that I was living proof that you can indeed judge a book by its cover. What’s on the inside, shows on the outside. I wouldn’t find out till later that I should probably do something about that lifestyle. But at the moment, I just muscled through and tried to get through my classes the best I could.
Songs from H.O.T helped. Music was my one true escape from this world. I listened to it at work. And when I came home, I’d listen to it before going to bed, blasting it through my headphones, pretending to be in a boyband while performing their songs, working up a sweat on my bed sheets as I moved in short juts of the choreography I memorized from watching their videos.
Honestly, I can go all day talking about H.O.T. The last album they put out before disbanding in 2001 contained the songs “Outside Castle,” written by Moon Hee Jun for which they won the highest award in the land…as well as a song that resonated with me…called “Natural Born Killer” which was written and composed by Tony An.
“Natural Born Killer” is probably my second favorite song after “Iyah.” I’m telling you, if you can’t feel the angst by 00:55 seconds in, I don’t know how to convey just how much I needed that song in my life.
When I researched how and why H.O.T disbanded, I was kind of disappointed with SM Entertainment. The few sources I found said the same thing about how Kangta and Moon Hee Jun were being paid more than the others, justifying it with logic that they did more than the others. I remember seeing videos of H.O.T’s last concert at the sold out Olympic stadium and there was a moment where Hee Jun started dancing where Tony An was and Tony up and moved further away.
Between this and the sources, I got the impression that with Moon Hee Jun being the leader, he had the upper hand in choosing which songs they would promote. Thus…there was strife between him and Tony because Tony also wrote songs. If Moon Hee Jun and Tony wrote songs, yet they mostly perform Moon Hee Jun’s songs, then Moon Hee Jun will get more money from royalties since he owns the writing rights to those songs. This is all speculation on my part, of course.
When the group broke up, Moon Hee Jun and Kangta stayed with SM Entertainment while Tony An, Jang Woo Hyuk and Lee Jae Won formed their own group called JTL.
Their first and only main hit was a song that sampled from the theme of “Enter the Dragon.” The song…also called “Enter the Dragon”.
By April of 2006, I had listened to all five of H.O.T’s main studio albums…I dabbled with their brother group called Shinhwa that debuted in 1998. But they just weren’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, Shinhwa was good. But if you were just blown away by what you considered the greatest, anything else of the same genre just seems like cheap imitations. It would take another year before I really get into names like Shinhwa, NRG, and Sechskies.
But until then…I needed something new to tide me over. Super Junior had just released a song called “U” that was blowin up on the charts, but I thought it was mediocre. SS501 was too girly and bubble gum for my taste. And DBSK was busy promoting their music in Japan.
I had already heard Jang Woo Hyuk and Tony An’s solo hits. So I looked up Moon Hee Jun’s…and yep. Just what I needed. The first solo song I heard from Moon Hee Jun was “Persia Black Hole.” It really was like Moon Hee Jun was a one-man H.O.T. Makes sense since most of my favorites were composed by him.
As a solo act, Moon Hee Jun continued the fusion of Rage Against the Machine-type rock and his own brand of pop. I loved it. Apparently S. Korea didn’t. I saw headlines about how people were calling him a poser. He retaliated in attacking mass media in his song “Media” which got banned from the stations.
Moon Hee Jun is no poser. His music was too consistently good. Only one person could have produced and performed his songs and that’s him. SM Entertainment recognized this. It’s why they made him a judge in recruiting trainees for groups of their next generation.
From my understanding, Moon Hee Jun had a hand in talent through audition shows. Such as Xiah of DBSK and Typhoon of “The Trax”.
And if it wasn’t for Moon Hee Jun, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Seo Taiji. Remember him? In the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned how others were comparing his popularity to Michael Jackson. And when I really delved into him…let’s just say Seo Taiji deserves his own Hollywood biopic, similar to NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”