The Meaning Behind “Dragon Ash” – My exploration of Jpop and Kpop
By Rock Kitaro
Date: March 31, 2013
“Be Stronger, Fly Higher, Don’t Be Afraid”
Those are the opening lyrics to Dragon Ash’s “Underage Song,” a song dedicated to the youth, inspiring them to strive no matter what.
I’m currently in the midst of writing the second episode of one of my short stories. The “Dragon Ash” series I’ve created is named after my favorite band. Not my favorite Japanese band. Not my favorite rock band. But favorite band, period. And out of respect and overwhelming gratitude, I felt it was high-time I explained myself. If by reading the end of this memoir, members of Dragon Ash thinks I should change the title of my story, I will.
Let me take you back to the end of 2004. In the midst of my senior year of high school something was happening to me. I think the last English CD I bought was Slipknot’s “Vol. 3 Subliminal Verses.” After that, I confess that I couldn’t help but to simply download my music. But the music I took an interest in downloading wasn’t American made songs. My dormant rebellious nature kicked it up a notch and I think I just got fed up with English lyrics. I think after 18 years of life, I got tired of hearing the same lyrics over and over again. I felt that I had heard every possible way that an artist could overextend “why” or say “I love you”. Not to mention, the kind of music that was clouding the airwaves during this time was just…just terrible. And so…I moved away from American music for a brief period of time.
Using filesharing sites like limewire, I began with downloading instrumentals. Music from anime, video games like Need for Speed and background music from movies like Daredevil and Vin Diesel’s XXX. My friends back then understandably thought it was puzzling, as did I for a time. But then I found a similarity between those instrumentals and metal, another genre I discovered a liking for at the time.
With some metal songs from artists like System of a Down and Slipknot, until I looked up the lyrics, other than the main chorus I had no idea what they were saying. And on a subconscious level, I think I preferred it that way. I couldn’t articulate “why” back then, but I think I was tired of lyrics dictating to me what to think, how I should feel and how I should go about situations. When I listen to music, I want to simply feel good. And 2004’s mainstream music kind of made me feel shitty because I wasn’t and still don’t, feel like I’m part of the mainstream.
Giving you this background information was crucial to help you understand how I was able to transition into what happens next because something spectacular happened.
Whilst downloading anime music, I downloaded the ending theme song to an anime which just so happened to have lyrics. Japanese lyrics. It was my first song sang in a foreign language (other than Rammstein). The only words I could understand was the title of the song, “Ready Steady Go” by popular j-rock band “L’arc en Ciel”. That was in April of 2005. My interest was hooked. I imagine that it’s kind of like Europeans showing up on Japan’s shores for the first time in the 1500s, never knowing or realizing that there was another world, another civilization out there. I was intrigued and impressed. I wondered if they were the best and what else did Japan have to offer.
Riding the wave from L’arc En Ciel, I was drawn to other artists who were popular in Japan at the time. Artists such as Miyavi, Amiyumi, Gackt, Malice Mizer and Dir En Grey were some of my early favorites. To me, the new sound and language was just something different. I had a hard time explaining this to some of my old friends who were born and raised in the same place. But for myself, a military brat who had moved around to so many schools before getting stuck in Georgia, I knew the world was much bigger than the city, the state and even the country that I lived in. I felt blessed to have made such an outstanding discovery.
I will say, however, that my exploration was a bit odd at first. Because not only did I listen to the music, but I looked at their music videos and live performances. Bit by bit, I was teaching myself about the culture of japan. I admit that I was taken aback by how girly or androgynous a lot of the male celebrities appeared to be. To this day, I’ve gotten at least ten straight males to admit that lead singer from L’arc en Ciel was hot, before I revealed that the lead singer was a guy. That’s just their culture. And not the whole country’s culture, but just a demographic. Just like how not all black people like rap and hip hop. Same difference.
After my initiation of a foreign language, via j-pop, the next venture was also by mere accident. Meaning, I wasn’t looking for it. I just stumbled across it.
Back then, there was this convenient up-and-coming website called youtube where people were posting videos of music videos and…believe it or not, themselves. This was in November of 2005, and at that time, aside from entering a film school, starting a new job, and rocking out to j-rock, I was also quite an avid dancer despite my bulky frame. Popping-n-locking and the wave technique were some of my favorite styles. So of course, the first thing I searched for on youtube was pop-n-lock dancing. And lo-and-behold! I stumbled upon a video of a Korean named Yunho, dancing on this variety show. Turns out this Yunho was part of a Korean boy band called DBSK.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Boybands? What is this 1999 again?
But let me stop you right there. American boybands and Korean boybands are different on so many levels. SO MANY LEVELS!
Take Nsync for instance. They had two main singers while the others were mostly for harmonization and added choreographical flavor. But your average Korean boyband has designated roles where one member excels in at least one field. Like, they’ll have a main singer who has one of the most distinguishable voices on the planet. HE may not be the best dancer, but that’s alright. Because Korean boybands usually have one or two rappers who can dance so well that it more than makes up for the main singer’s plight.
And kpop wasn’t just about boybands, but other genres. In 2005, other than the boybands, kpop was just like American music, except sung in the Korean language. I remember sending a music video from smooth R&B vocalists, Se7en, to one of the first girls I pursued when I first came down to Tampa. While they had genres like hip hop, R&B, ballads, lounge, rock and their own traditional sound called trot, pop music was what dominated the scene.
Also, there was something else that hooked me into Korean music. It was a blend that I fantasized about…phrasing…since I was a kid. A mixture of the smooth vocals, flownominal rapping…and wait for it…METAL!!!
A boyband who performs with metal? No such thing. And even the Backstreet Boys had songs that were hardcore…
Stop. Please, just stop. I’m talking metal. Not dark toned melodies with a heavy bass. Not synthesized dance music with an aggressive tone. I’m talking head-banging electric guitar rifts and rappers who can match screams with the likes of Corey Taylor and Marylin Manson. (wide-eyed) I’m not kidding. Allow me to explain.
After I checked out Yunho’s mad popping skills, I gave his boy band DBSK a shot. And sure enough, I was blown away. As I said, Korean pop music back in 2005 was basically American mainstream music but in a different language, which was what I wanted in the first place. But DBSK made the sad mistake that so many other bands make where their first releases were their best, and they failed to surpass themselves. Don’t get me wrong, everyone else loved them no matter what they released, such is the essence of a true fan…I guess. But I still wasn’t sold on the idea just yet. At the time, the one song that I was truly impressed by was “Triangle”, which fused metal, classical and an R&B sound.
But like I said…Wasn’t sold on the band just yet. Then, by chance, I stumbled upon a video of DBSK performing at an Awards show. Just like the MTV Video awards here in America, they have their own variations in S. Korea. And while DBSK performed their own song, they paid homage to another legendary Korean band. This other Korean…I refuse to call them a boyband…but simply a Korean group. Because this Korean group that debuted in 1996 not only choreographed their own dances, but they also wrote and composed their own music. To put it plainly, they were artists. The song DBSK performed at this award show was a song called “Iyah” by a disbanded group who went by the name of H.O.T.
H.O.T cemented in my mind what music was. It wasn’t until I heard the eclectic array of songs H.O.T produced that I could put into words and articulate why it was that I could listen to foreign language and not feel frustrated and confused, as many of my old American friends expressed when I first let them listen to it. This is what I concluded back when I was 19 years old.
“Just as how we can speak words in our native English tongues for others to understand us, to interpret us…I think music has the same quality. When I was a kid, the best parts of the songs were usually the hooks because there was no English lyrics during this part of the song, but just the music. The hooks were usually more fast paced and aggressive. And I think that as a kid, I reveled in the idea that I could interpret for myself what the music was saying. Kinda like playing with toys. There isn’t any script to follow. You use your imagination to come up with your own script.
Get it? Like…to me, when someone is playing the violin…the notes that I hear from this violin speaks to me. I know I’m not alone in this regard. I think all musicians can feel it. It’s catchy. The music catches you and moves you. In the same sense, I think that the human vocal chords are instruments. So other than requiems, I think it’s beautiful that I can’t understand the language. The flow by which they deliver it, the enunciation of their words, the way their words rhyme, all of this plays a part in painting a picture in my mind. To me, the headphones or speakers are amplifiers to help me ascend to another world that I’ve created.”
I know some people would hear me say this and look at me like I’m stupid, saying, “dude they could be talking about doing crack and you’re just bobbing your head to it.” Then I’d grin at them and tell them that I’ve read Slipknot’s lyrics and still listen to them of my own volition.
And that was another beautiful thing about S.Korea…well it was beautiful at the time, because I was young and naïve. But the S. Korean government took an active part in controlling what was played on the airwaves. Meaning if you’re songs were all about sex, drugs and money, they would limit when it could be played. But H.O.T’s songs all had positive message. “We Are the Future” released in 1997 talked about the problems with public schools and the mistreatment of its students. That song won numerous awards and was played out in the clubs all over the country. Amazing.
So, after H.O.T, my mind was open and receptive to all genres of Korean music. All except for that bubble-gum pop and the boybands are more than obviously manufactured by producers who are just trying to cash in on a trend instead of creating their own sound. To me, that was important. When I listen to music, I listen to music that stands out and is distinguished from other sounds. If one band sounds too much like an established artist, I avoid it unless they’re doing what their predecessors did better than the predecessor. This philosophy is what led me to YG Entertainment and eventually Dragon Ash.
In late 2006, I think I had just about played out all of the old school songs of H.O.T, NRG, Sechskies and even the more popular songs from DBSK and Super Junior. I still listen to them, but in spurts. Like I’ll have an H.O.T fix once every other three months, during which I’ll listen to them over and over again. But eventually, I started looking for something new. And since H.O.T had disbanded in 2001, there was no hope of ever listening to a new release. Enter YG Entertainment.
There was something about YG Entertainment that I could relate to. A level of independence that connected me to them. By the end of 2006, I had caught on to the fact that the music scene was heavily dominated by pop idol music and artists who seemed to be more so popular because of their looks, rather than their talent. I hate that. Furthermore, I can’t stand it when people who are in a position to make a change, simply don’t because of fear of failure. I get that it’s a business. I get that this is just the way the world works…But someone, somewhere along the lines has to have the courage to stand up and do something about it.
From what I saw, YG Entertainment was kind the black sheep in the entertainment industry of S. Korea. Their music was mainly focused on hip-hop and R&B, a more urban underground sound. Other entertainment agencies like SM and DSP had an American influence to them too, but like I said, their formula was developed in the mid 90s to the point where I don’t think anyone could dispute that the sound was their own. Other than mainstream artists like Se7en and Wheesung, at the time it seemed as if YG’s other artists weren’t so easily accepted by the public, but more of an underground scene.
Thus, my favorite Korean group Big Bang was formed. It was so cool, and I can honestly call myself a VIP (VIPs are what fans of Big Bang are called in Korea). I watched Big Bang back when they were just trainees and saw them slighted and looked down upon because they weren’t your stereotypical flower boy band with girlish features. They were looked down on because people thought they were ugly and that they were just copying the American boyband B2K. Even when I let my own little brother listen to them, his racist ass was like, “Dude, can you imagine the person massaging my feet suddenly rapping, that’s some funny shit.”
It all pissed me off because it was something that hit close to home with me. Maybe it’s human nature to be upset when someone surprises you because they’re doing something that you didn’t think they could do. Like a fat guy pulling a hot girl. Or a feared street tough getting the high score on the SATs. Lol, Or a nobleman showing kindness to a peasant. I dunno. All I know was that Big Bang strives.
Big Bang debuted in August 2006 under harsh skepticism. They managed to persevere and stay afloat in a world dominated by pop idols and until a year later when they released a new sound with the mini-album “Always”. Their breakthrough hit “Lies” completely changed the Korean music industry on so many levels. They left behind the early 2000 hip-hop sound for a more electronica base. They did this even before American artists made it a staple in their music. And probably the most important and foundation shattering quality about this mini-album was that the songs were written by G-Dragon. The leader of Big Bang.
Following up “Lies” with hits like “My Last Farewell” and “Heaven”, skeptics could no longer afford to ignore their presence. Sure, entertainment companies still tried to push that girly flower boy concept for a while, but they were made foolish when five guys dressed like they just came from the mall stepped up on that stage and brought the crowds to their feet with unparalleled swagger that was made to look easy. As if performing was a hobby, not practiced but simply a natural born gift.
That was back in 2007. To this day, Big Bang continues to dominate the Korean music industry with other hits like Haru Haru, Blue, Fantastic Baby and venturing into the Japanese market with “Gara Gara Go” winning rookie of the year in Japan in 2009. These dudes are so badass that while keeping it together as a group, three members have gone on to release solo albums and reach number one. What band do you know other than possibly the Beatles and New Edition can say this about their members?
How does Dragon Ash fit into all of this, you ask? I’ll tell you.
With my ears introduced to that electronica sound, I experimented with another Korean band who, unbeknownst to me, also had an electronica sound, yet not as popular as the boybands. Clazziquai consisted of a male and female vocalist along with another member who just handles the composition. Around that time, Clazziquai had a single called “Lover Boy”.
That single reminded me of a flavor that I was exposed to back in 2005 when I was watching the “Samurai Champloo” anime. If you’ve never seen it and you’re a fan of anime, I’d strongly recommend it, definitely one of my top five. But what was as good as the story itself was its soundtrack. The music was produced by masterful hip-hop and R&B instrumentalists like the likes of Forces of Nature, Tsutchie, Fat Jon, and my favorite, the late Nujabes (Jun Seba).
So craving that flavor, I started looking for of their music from the Samurai Champloo soundtrack. And whilst searching from them on Youtube, I saw in the sidebar, a musician who kind of resembled Samurai Champloo’s main character, Mugen. So I clicked on it. That musician is a man named Kenji Furuya. The lead singer of Dragon Ash.
“Fantasista” was the first song I heard from them. It was so awesome. The song had absolutely no flaws. Everything that happens in the song happens at the right time and goes on for the right length. And lead singer Kenji, didn’t sound like most Japanese singers. It seemed like other than Larc en Ciel, Uverworld and Galneryus, most Japanese singers have this nasally kind of voice that’s very popular and common. But Kenji has a natural raggae tone, that I think he came to realize later in his career.
It’s an invigorating song that motivated my imagination. Motivated my imagination…Allow me to explain how important that was for me.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that listening to music helps me escape to a different world. But I will say that for the longest time…I simply abhorred this world. I simply thought that my being alive was a waste of time and effort in a world where you have to “play the game to win”. Being that all the games have already been won and it seemed that there was just no real estate for another empire. My parents groomed me with an old-school mentality for a world that no longer existed. Chivalry and the stuff of gentlemen had long sense diminished with my generation. It wouldn’t be until I entered my mid-twenties where I began to feel an acceptance for being a good man. Because when I was in my teens, that stuff simply wasn’t welcomed.
In 2008, I was at a fork in the road. At that time I weighed 378 pounds, I was failing in film school, and felt alienated from most of my peers. So I decided that I needed to make some changes. No one told me to make those changes. No one influenced me. I could’ve just chose to accept myself for the way that I used to be. But I chose to make a change on my own. At the age of 21, I decided that I needed to lose weight. I decided that out of the wide range of different occupations I could pursue in the film industry, I would excel in screenwriting. And like a butterfly who had entered a cocoon and emerged with the wings of a butterfly, I decided to change my name to Rock Kitaro. Shedding the past behind and leaving it.
While listening to my beloved Big Bang was entertaining, it was the music of Dragon Ash that motivated me. The cool thing about discovering new bands that have been around for a while is that you have access to a large discography instead of only having three or five good songs and waiting for their new releases. Dragon Ash had a whole arsenal of songs all as awesome as “Fantasista”. And even though they’re in Japanese where I can’t understand what they’re saying, they incorporate some English lyrics. And even though it’s just a line or two of simple English. It’s enough to set the tone of the whole song.
Songs like “Grateful Days” and of course “Underage Song” is all about encouragement. It’s all about thinking positive and simply striving no matter what. To a young artists who had just come to some pretty daunting decisions that would take a lot of time, dedication and perseverance…the songs from Dragon Ash were a blessing that I gratefully accepted.
Listening to the music of Dragon Ash, I hit the gym five nights a week. Their music helped me focus through the pain of hour long sessions on the treadmill. It motivated me to keep coming back for more, knowing damn well that the pain would hurt just like it did the night before. I didn’t have the Biggest Losers trainers on my ass about getting to the gym or finishing all of my reps and completing a full hour on the treadmill. Simply listening to music with additional motives helped me to get through it.
Listening to the music of Dragon Ash, I wrote an 80 plus page movie treatment for my screenwriting class that attributed to me being the only student to Ace the class. Almost everyone else in the class was barely able to write twenty pages. And I did it all within the eleven week quarter, while working a pizza delivery job on the nights and weekends, while working out five nights a week, and attending three other four-hour long classes.
Listening to the positive messages in such an awesome hip-hop rock infused beat changed my mindset. It calmed me down when I was frustrated, thus building my patience for people and accepting of what came my way instead of abhorring everything that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go.
Even after I graduated from film school and landed a job at a law firm while still pursuing a career as a writer/screenwriter, I fell down so many times. In matters of heartbreaking romance, angst stemming from an unaccepting family and failures to meet the expectations bestowed upon me. Everytime…I bullshit you not! Everytime I fall, scraping myself, bruising my ego and slapping myself for having such a fragile heart…
…I pray to God, asking for the strength to carry on. And through the music of Dragon Ash, I pick myself up to one knee and look up with a grin. I laugh as I brush the dirt off and shake off the pain. I tell myself.
“It’s not over yet. There’s still life in the ole boy yet. Don’t worry. You’ve only fallen, now get your ass up. Fuck what just happened! Keep moving! Be stronger. Fly Higher. Don’t be afraid.”
Everytime I say those words, I feel unconquerable. I give glory to God, of course, but while most people use the Bible as a tool, I see it for what it is. A history book. I use music as a tool. Music…a creation of God… I digress.
The 80-page treatment I wrote in college when I first started listening to Dragon Ash, was an adventure about a Japanese American named Tien Kaze. Tien is living in a world where he doesn’t feel accepted, in a family where his interest in his samurai heritage and his gifts as a martial artist is suppressed by his parent’s religion. So he runs away to Japan to learn the martial arts that his ancestors were taught. Unbeknownst to him, one of his ancestors was an assassin of the Meiji Era who stole a scroll that leads to one of Japan’s national treasures. A private corporation hellbent on finding this treasure traces the lineage down to Tien’s parents and kills them in search of it. An adult guilt-stricken Tien struggles with the conscience his peace-loving parents passed on to him, while battling a strong desire to take down that entire corporation one body at a time. I gave this story the title of “Dragon Ash”.
With that, I leave you with one of Dragon Ash’s most recent releases. Another song that inspires me. Helps me to see beyond what’s in front of me, but the promise of what’s to come.