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The following is a SOOMPI exclusive interview by Saharial, one of our staff writers.
Just back from a week-long spell in the hospital and able to take a break from his schedule, it is late on a Friday night just before Christmas that I get the keenly awaited call from Tiger JK.
“Its 6am,” he says sounding tired but upbeat. “I didn’t sleep to make sure I could call you. Is it is a good time?”
For anyone who does not yet know who he is, Tiger JK (Jung-kwon Suh (서정권)) is the front man for Drunken Tiger. Often referred to as the Godfather of Korean Hip-Hop, he was first noticed in LA at a show aimed to promote racial harmony that took place just after the riots of 1992. It wasn’t until 1999 however that the line up of JK, DJ Shine, DJ Jhig, Mickie and Roscoe became Drunken Tiger and the first album ‘The Great Rebirth’ was dropped, breaking the mold of coordinated dances, make-up and matching outfits that was the trend. It was not an easy road to travel, but after a few changes in the line-up, Tiger JK released 6 albums altogether, gaining in popularity and respect.
After 7 years with DoReMi Records, Tiger JK formed Jungle Entertainment – his own label for people with the common goal to finally get to make the music they want to make. Then, right when he had an opportunity to really do things his own way, he got sick and was out for two years – constantly hospitalized with Myelitis, an inflammation of the spine that disrupts nerve signals and can lead to paralysis and permanent disability.
The doctors told him his career was over, that he should go home and rest, forget about doing much else. His weight ballooned by 30 pounds because of the steroids and pills he had to take, and it reached the point where he was not recognized and was even discriminated against. He too thought it was all over until one day he saw the light and went against doctors’ advice, exercising to reduce his weight back down to normal. It was from this dark place that the concept for his 7th album was born.
‘Sky Is the Limit’ is truly a personal album, the first released on his own Jungle Entertainment label, and while the title is, as he admits, a touch cliché, it is the only one that fits the concept of the album and what he hoped to achieve with it. He wanted to take a break from the expectations fans had of him and to be free to express himself musically once more, much like he had done at the start of his career. It represents his hopes and dreams, that there should be no limit on what he can do or want to achieve despite whatever setbacks life and his health throw at him.
So, if fans thought JK would reappear with an up-to-date modern sound, they would have been wrong. Instead, he stripped hip-hop down to its roots once more, looking back to the 90’s when the sound was young and fresh and exciting, a time when it was inspirational and fun. “I had been ambitious to change the scene, make a difference. The attitude was there and the lyrics, but the music wasn’t.”
He always enjoys the creative process, able to forget the world and lose himself in the task at hand, but coming from such a dark place, the more he worked on the album, the more personal it became. Regarding himself as a modern day Pansori, a musical storyteller, the songs tell of scenes and chapters of his life, each one intertwining like parts of a movie. ‘Mutant’, the second track on the album, is a good example of this – part-inspired by the movie ‘The Host’, it represents the toxins he felt had been injected into his life – how the steroids and pills made him feel and how different to others his Myelitis made him feel.
It’s not the first time that he has been inspired by movies; ‘Old Boy’ was one that formed the basis for a music video from the 5th album. At the start of the interview too, he mentioned how he wanted to create the same feel as Taxi Driver, that starred Robert De Niro, to echo the simplistic style of that era. Films of course are not the only influence on this album.
The roots of hip-hop lie in life in the American ghettos, a way of communicating the situation they were in and to talk about the world they were living in. Living just outside of Seoul, the ghettos of America are a far distance away and the projects near the army base are not the glamorous life of a celebrity. A glamorous lifestyle is not one he wants though, in case it would get him to lose touch with his musical roots and sell out to commercial success. As the album progressed, JK found that the music he was creating was relating to his immediate environment more and to the lives and stories of the neighbors he socializes with. To his neighbors, he is not a celebrity, and I get the impression that makes him happy.
It was during this creative process that his Grandmother died. Always regarding her as a best friend, she had raised him for most of his life and he felt her loss keenly. ‘8:45 Heaven’ was his way of expressing that loss, and while it makes many cry to listen to, it’s actually a song that makes him feel happy. He zones out and sees nothing but the song, putting his heart and soul into every performance with ease. Rapping on the stage, he can see people crying though, and to see their hearts and minds affected was a great moment for him too.
‘8:45 heaven’ was not originally chosen to be the first single, but now that it was, a music video was needed. Directors he had spoken to had wanted to do something grand with CG, the whole white doves and white light concept that to JK did not suit what the song was about. To go down that route would make him feel fake and he also wanted to have his sad moment via the song. He decided to go it alone and with a camcorder and basic editing system, filmed it himself. The editing process was arduous, but in the end he was satisfied the result.
Just like with the music, he took it back to simplicity to express himself. Black and white imagery and a simple idea were all that was needed. He wanted to be a soul conductor, playing instruments without them being there. The final result might not have been exactly how it was planned, but he really didn’t care and is happy to say it was done for his own selfish reasons. The MV was uploaded by a fan onto YouTube at some point, and the feedback it got him showed that he had done the right thing. It affected people who saw it, able to allow them to have their own sad moment for a lost loved one, something he has often been thanked for.
As he co-directed the second MV, an obvious question is to ask if he would do it again, and not just for himself but for other artistes. The answer was a definite yes for himself, and for others too – if they have the right vibe and it’s a project he would be into. When he was younger, he told me, it was all about lyrics and rapping for flow, but now that he is older, he has stories to tell, and to be able to add to them visually is something that is really appealing. Indeed, in January, he is heading back to L.A. not just for some shows, but to direct some more videos – perhaps managing to shoot both ‘Mutant’ and ‘HollyHood’ there.
If you hadn’t heard of Drunken Tiger already, you might have been familiar with the collaborations JK has done. In 2006, he worked with Rain and JYP on a track whose proceeds went to UNICEF, and more recently, he worked with M (Lee Minwoo) on a track for his third album. The big names, he says, are “mad calculated and slick” and he admires how professional they are. Working with artists outside his close-knit crew is something he regards as more of a holiday, but if he doesn’t click with an artist, there would be no collaboration. He has turned down quite a few offers because of this which, while not business-savvy on his part as he says, keeps him true to the music. “Right time, right place, right click.” Seems to be the rule he goes by.
It’s fellow artists from Jungle Entertainment and ‘The Movement’ that he enthuses about the most though and he enjoys working in the family environment they all have that encourages spontaneity. He speaks highly of Ann, who he features on 태어나 다시 태어나도 [Even If I’m Reborn] (track 11) and is currently working with various rap artists in L.A., and believes in her ability to work within the US scene if she can overcome the prejudice that still seems to dog Asian artists. Names and praise trip off his tongue for Dok2 who is only 17 and a rap prodigy, featured on ‘Die Legend’ (track 15), as well as DoubleK, T (tasha), Bizzi, who all feature on his album – a visible indication of where his loyalties lie.
The two years out of the scene were frustrating for him, but not just health-wise. An introverted person even as a child, he always “kept a lot of shit to myself” and he had always avoided the party scene, preferring to stay home and work on music and writing lyrics. Rumors built up about him because of this absence, adding to the other labels that had him marked as a rebel, that had him banned, misunderstood, branded as a bad influence, his image not fitting that of the pretty boy package that companies always looked for.
He had a chance to fix a lot of these misconceptions when he took part in his first Variety show called ‘Taxi’ – the concept of which is to have a celebrity drive a taxi and chat with the passengers. He was asked to take part when, after one of his live performances, the taxi had picked up a couple who had given him a lot of praise for his music. It was something he enjoyed doing very much, a nice conversation in an intimate setting that helped him clear up some of the rumors and ideas that had built up around him.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, and he was the number one search on Naver in the week following the show, something that was “super helpful” and helped boost him to Number 3 in the Cyworld downloads.
It’s a truth about the industry today that unless you go on variety shows and saturate the market with your presence, it will be hard to have the success your album needs or deserves. For the longest time, he had been blacklisted by shows, which had arisen from the stage shows he gives at colleges and other live performances where he hypes up the crowds and gives them the opportunity to let off steam and stress. This energetic and “schizo” stage presence when performing live made most producers nervous, but combine that with his ‘reputation’ and they think he is incapable of performing appropriately for a younger audience.
There is a dilemma for artists like JK who want to stay true to their musical integrity but still crave success in order to get the message of their music to more than just loyal fans. The industry is, with album sales at least, going downhill fast. Technology moves so fast in Korea that you have to accept it – fighting it would be futile, especially the culture of downloading. It hasn’t helped him either that 90% of songs in the past have been banned from the airwaves, unlike the traditional pansori whose lyrics are far more explicit!
JK admits to not being very tech savvy, and while he doesn’t have a Cyworld, he does have two websites/communities, one in Korean and the other in English where he often posts. He has a lot of respect for his fans as they hold it down for him. He does wish for fans to buy CDs, like any other artist, because without that kind of support it makes it harder for other artists to gain recognition, especially in hip-hop, and he has seen so many acts already not get the recognition they deserve.
Drunken Tiger, the name now symbolic for independence from mainstream and champion for Korean hip-hop has now been around for almost 10 years. It has taken time, but it seems that Drunken Tiger’s voice is finally being heard. At the MKMF awards in November 2007 JK was presented with the award for Best Lyrics, as well as being nominated for the Best Hip Hop Video and Best Song of the Year for ‘8:45 Heaven’. As JK put it very succinctly…“These things cheer me up.”
Many thanks to JK for spending so much time and effort in contacting me for the interview, to Joyce Kim for co-ordinating and to Soomp for giving me the opportunity.
Since this article was written, Drunken Tiger won Best Hip Hop Song for “8:45 Heaven” at the 5th Annual Korean Music Awards on March 5, 2008.