*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.