Tonight we’re exploring the roots of modern day Korean pop music, from folk to trot, from rock to rap, you’ll discover K-pop is about much more than just music. We’re taking a look at the political and historical forces that influenced early K-pop!
Yang Hee Eun – “아침 이슬 / Morning Dew”
Yang Hee Eun performed this song in 1970; it was written by the highly educated folk singer Kim Minki, who often incorporated politics into his lyrics, writing about things such as North/South Korea relations, or the Americanization of South Korea. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, you can hear the passion behind the song. This wasn’t just another pop song, but a protest song used by countless Korean youth, including my parents. At the time, there was a huge left-wing movement; while the government labeled these protesters as communists, they were just fighting against the oppression of the military dictatorship that had ruled Korea for decades.
Cho Yong Pil – “돌아와요 부산항에 / Come Back To Pusan Port”
In Korea, Cho Yong Pil is known as the “Pop King”, kind of like a Korean Michael Jackson, but not really that much like Michael Jackson. Cho Yong Pil is a very prolific artist who is still a very popular Korean pop singer; he’s just released his 19th studio album Hello which is still holding strong on the K-pop charts right now. This is a trot song from his first album in 1980; trot is a genre of Korean music that is now typically associated with the older generation, but was actually originally influenced by Western-style foxtrot music via Japanese colonialism earlier in the 20th century. Trot started off as music for the privileged class, but then became a nostalgic genre, often singing about the Korean countryside. This song is about Pusan, the southern port city in Korea.
Seo Taiji and Boys – “난 알아요 / I Know”
Seo Taiji and Boys are considered to be the very first group in “K-Pop” as we know it now. They debuted in 1992 with “I Know” and were the first to recreate a completely new concept with the release of each album. This is where we have the modern day tradition of K-pop artists changing their “concept” with each comeback. The group became controversial, and even had songs banned by the government for singing about the Korean college entrance exams, which are notoriously brutal and unfortunately drive many young students to suicide each year. Seo Taiji is still a popular experimental musician today, and bandmate Yang Hyun Seok is now the current CEO of YG Entertainment.
H.O.T – “Candy”
H.O.T stands for Highfive of Teenager, and despite their goofy pants and hair, they made all the girls go crazy. “Candy” was their first big single. Former member Moon Hee Jun is still working as a solo artist with his own brand of rock-inspired pop.
S.E.S – “Dreams Come True”
Continuing on with the theme of acronyms, S.E.S stands for Sea, Eugene, Shoo – the names of its members. “Dreams Come True” was S.E.S’s biggest hit, and sticks out for me personally, because when my cousins moved to America from Korea, we would sing and dance along to this song, which was extremely popular at the time. Girl groups dressing as fairies was a popular style at the time.
Shinhwa – “T.O.P (Twinkling of Paradise)”
You can hear the “Swan Lake” theme in this song, which is a good example of a common theme in K-pop, that is, sampling classical music underneath vocals or rapping. Shinhwa is actually the longest running group in K-pop with all its original members, and just recently released their 11th studio album The Classic.
Drunken Tiger – “난 널 원해 / I Want You”
Drunken Tiger emerged in 1999 with Tiger JK at its core, and a close-knit group of circulating members and collaborators. Although Tiger JK grew up in America, Drunken Tiger is the definitive Korean hip-hop artist, paving the way for countless artists in K-pop. They’re known for their heartfelt lyrics and top level rapping skills, which were enough to let the entire nation of Korea forgive Tiger JK for a drug scandal. Drunken Tiger released its 8th studio album in 2009, and Tiger JK is currently working with project group MFBTY with his wife Yoon Mirae, and Bizzy. Tiger JK is also busy with his own agency, Jungle Entertainment, which represents Drunken Tiger, MFBTY, as well as newer artists like M.I.B.
Uhm Jung Hwa – “Festival”
Uhm Jung Hwa is one of those timeless female pop stars like Kylie Minogue or Madonna (maybe Madonna isn’t the best example). She’s been singing and acting since the late 1980s and even collaborated with Big Bang’s G-Dragon and T.O.P in 2008.
g.o.d – “Friday Night”
G.O.D stands for “Groove Over Dose”, and they were another popular boy band from the era of bleached hair and oversized pants, and surprisingly, 3 of the original 5 members are Korean-Americans. Kim Tae Woo is still enjoying an extremely successful solo career to this day.
Seo Taiji – “Orange”
Seo Taiji is known for being a musical pioneer, and his career certainly didn’t end when Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded. Seo Taiji continued on as a solo artist, experimenting in different genres, like rock, rap, and electronica. In America, harder rock music was gaining prevalence in popular music with artists like Korn and Limp Bizkit. This song was certainly influenced by American culture as it makes reference to the “Orange Tribe”, a group of rich kids in the 1990s who bought American products and embraced American popular culture; it’s named so because oranges were very expensive and rare in Korea at the time.
Fin.K.L – “Now”
Continuing on with the late-1990s fairylike girl groups, Fin.K.L means “Fin (end) of Killing Liberty.” The group stayed together until slowly fizzling out in the mid 2000s to pursue solo careers, and member Lee Hyori just released her 5th solo album Monochrome.
Jaurim – “www.사이버디지탈.com / www.cyberdigital.com”
Obviously inspired by the recent emergence of the internet, as well as trend toward heavier rock in pop music, Jaurim released their third studio album The Wonderland in 2000. Led by the unique voice of Kim Yoon-ah, they’ve been making their own brand of Korean rock since the mid 1990s, and continue performing together to this day.
DJ DOC – “Run To You”
DJ DOC is a rap group that debuted in 1994, and is still together as a group. Their 2000 hit “Run To You” was their biggest hit from the early days of K-pop, and will still inspire everyone to get up and dance when sung at karaoke.
Cherry Filter – “낭만 고양이 / Romantic Cat”
The 2000s saw the disappearance of fairy-like girls and the emergence of some badass girls who knew how to rock. Cherry Filter formed in the late 1990s but “Romantic Cat” was their big breakout hit, and still their most well known song.
1TYM – “Hot 뜨거 / Hot Ddeugah”
1TYM was another definitive Korean hip-hop group from the earlier days of K-pop. Leader Teddy never really left YG and is still writing and producing hits for Big Bang, 2NE1, and other YG artists. “Hot Ddeugah” (ddeugah means hot) has an extremely simple but catchy chorus, which contributed to it being one of 1TYM’s biggest and well known hits.
Loveholic – “Loveholic”
The rocker girl movement continues on with Loveholic, who seamlessly blended rock with pop music. The self-titled track “Loveholic” comes off their first album Florist. Lead singer Jisun left the group in the late 2000s and continues on with her solo career.
Fly To The Sky – “Missing You”
In the early 2000s, every Korean girl’s heart with flutter at the name “Fly To The Sky.” This heartthrob duo consisted of Hwanhee and Brian; Brian is actually a Korean-American from New Jersey and is still active in K-pop as a solo musician, and more recently, he just started his own agency called B-You Entertainment.
Epik High – “평화의 날 / Peace Day”
Epik High is one of those quintessential K-pop groups whose their songs range from the upbeat, like “Peace Day”, to the more somber and even experimental on more recent albums. Led by the lyrical genius and Korean-Canadian Tablo, the group has been making catchy hip-hop mixed with pop since 2003. Recent years almost saw the end of Epik High, as an online group in Korea tried to claim Tablo had lied about attending Stanford University and the fact that he had earned both a bachelors and masters degree in just three and a half years. His name has since been cleared, and the defamers have been prosecuted, but unfortunately the stress from the controversy killed Tablo’s already-ill father. In 2012 Epik High came back with their seventh studio album 99.
Rain – “It’s Raining”
Rain or Bi (Korean for rain) debuted in 2002, but didn’t get really popular until his third album It’s Raining was released a couple years later. You might know Rain from Hollywood movies Ninja Assassin, Speed Racer, or from his ongoing fake feud with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Stephen vs. Rain on The Colbert Report
Clazziquai – “Novabossa”
Clazziquai Project emerged in the 2000s to push K-pop in the direction of dance music. Featuring a DJ as well as traditional pop vocalists Korean-Canadian Alex and Horan, the group has been experimenting with lounge, house, and electronica, and continues to until this day. 2012 saw controversy as Alex was caught drunk driving in Seoul, but Clazziquai is still working together and putting out music.
DBSK – “Rising Sun”
Dongbangshinki debuted in 2003 under SM Entertainment, quickly living up to their group name meaning “the Rising Gods of the East.” The boy band has experienced massive popularity throughout Asia and as far as South America and the Middle East. Contract disputes between the group and the label caused the group to split into a two member Tohoshinki and JYJ, a new group.
BoA – “Girls On Top”
Today, BoA is still one of the biggest names in K-pop. While her reign as the Asian pop queen might be over, she’s still releasing singles, appearing as a judge on the show K-Pop Star, and appearing in movies. Interestingly enough, BoA never planned on being a star; she was actually discovered when she went to auditions with her brother, who was auditioning at SM Entertainment.
Big Bang – “This Love (G-Dragon solo)”
Big Bang didn’t debut until 2006, but for years, a young G-Dragon had been quietly working away, writing hit songs for groups like 1TYM. Once Big Bang debuted with its lineup of good-looking and talented guys, it became the Korean boy group. G-Dragon raps over a sample from Maroon 5’s song “This Love” to create one of Big Bang’s first big singles.
Wonder Girls – “Tell Me”
JYP Entertainment was founded by singer, dancer, and producer Park Jin Young. He created the Wonder Girls as a wholesome, adorable hit girl group who enjoyed popularity in Korea and throughout Asia until they tried to take on the American market in 2009. Member Sun recently married and the group is currently on hiatus, but the agency claims they will not disband. With a catchy chorus and cute dance moves, “Tell Me” was one of their first hits, and it was the single that really put the Wonder Girls on the map.
SG Wannabe – “라라라 / Lalala”
One of the great things about K-pop is that, unlike American music, it doesn’t see borders between different genres of music. K-pop artists will mix rap with dance, rock with pop, and in the case of this song, country with ballad. This is a particularly nostalgic song for me as, when I was living in Korea in 2008, it would constantly be blaring out of every karaoke bar as you walked down the street.
Brown Eyed Girls – “Abracadabra”
Although the Brown Eyed Girl had hit songs before “Abracadabra”, this was the single to really establish the girls as producers of great dance music. It’s hard to listen to this song without dancing, and in fact if you watch Psy’s “Gentleman” music video, you might recognize both Ga-In from the Brown Eyed Girls, as well as the “Abracadabra” dance.
2PM – “Heartbeat”
This song marks a turning point for 2PM; it was produced just after controversy caused Jay Park to leave (read more about Jay Park here), the group named their 2009 album 1:59PM to signify that they weren’t truly complete without him.
Girls Generation – “Gee”
Girls Generation was certainly known in Korea in 2009, but it wasn’t until they released “Gee” that Korea went absolutely crazy for the girls. “Gee” was infectiously catchy, as well as having adorable dance; the formula for having a successful song in K-pop.