*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.
So let’s talk about Rain for a moment.
Like Se7en, I heard of Rain right when I first got into kpop. The first video I saw of him would give you the undeniable impression that Rain drove the ladies crazy.
The first video I saw of him would give you the undeniable impression that Rain is indeed the mutha-effing king of K-Pop. And arguably, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Between that video and others I saw of him pretty much burning the stage in every live performance…its unmistakable the appeal Rain would have on his audience.
We already mentioned SM Entertainment and my beloved YG Family. But there’s another agency that always tends to give these two a lot of trouble. Founded by a popular singer songwriter from the 1990s named, Park Jin-Young…aka JYP.
Together, SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP make up the big three entertainment labels in South Korea. While 1TYM and Jinusean helped put YG on the map. It was JYP’s protégé Rain who made JYP a force to be reckoned with. Rain literally came onto the scene and just took the wind out of everyone’s sails with the debut of his song, “Bad Guy.”
Hahaha! Alright, so I’m about to say something. This shouldn’t be a slight on Rain or JYP, but personal preference. I think Rain is an amazing performer. I’d put him as one of the top five dancers I’ve ever seen and like Se7en, the dude can command the stage like no one else’s business. There’s a reason why he dominated the early 2000s. Se7en, Rain, Clon, Psy at the time…they were powerhouse solo acts.
However, I really did not like the sound of Rain’s voice. That’s not to say he can’t sing. The boy can belt, don’t get me wrong. But one thing I’ll come to notice from JYP is that their male singers tend to have this whispery, husky sound in their voices. Apparently, it makes the ladies go crazy. But it has no effect on me. JYP’s main gift would become self-evidence in his ability to put together girl groups, which I’ll eventually get into.
Nevertheless, I think it’s awesome that there was a healthy competition between Se7en and Rain. It’s what makes an individual great. The greater the challenge, the better the individual becomes after facing it. Also, I heard a rumor that Rain and Seven competed behind-closed doors as trainees. That’s just the coolest. All of this added to my respect and love for the Korean industry at the time.
All that being said…it was during this time, towards the fall 2006 that I became a fan of YG Entertainment. Because it was also during this time, while I was researching Rain and Seven that I stumbled upon a group of YG trainees that Se7en himself was coaching.
By the middle of 2006, Se7en was promoting his album 24/7. I was watching some his dancing videos like this one…
And you know how Youtube does. When they suggest other videos in the sidebar. I went ahead and clicked on this one…
In the above video you have YG trainees G-Dragon and YongBae. You can see them in the below YG Family picture. YongBae is the kid on the far right under the rapper Sean. And G-Dragon is the kid in the Yankee hat on the left side. This was my first glance at the Big Bang.