It may sound dramatic and slightly over the top, but were it not for Seo Taiji and Boys, Korea’s music industry would be a lot different than what it is today. With the Korean music industry still a ‘behind closed doors’ affair, the only development it had in the 1990s was through the era where video was becoming the norm and access to world news, culture, fashion, entertainment and the latest fads was easily at hand. It was a time of rebellion and the era of youth before tradition, where people were beginning to find their voices and express themselves freely.
For the longest time, the Korean music industry relied on its traditions of ballad songs and the slightly more up beat Trot songs – songs which spoke of the past wars, saying goodbye to loved ones, farming, and the separation of North and South Korea. In the eyes of South Koreans, American culture was always associated with war, or the fact they knew too much. So the idea that American music could have a collaborative connection to Korean music was completely unheard of and a feat that no-one dared try… until 11th April 1992.
Seo Taiji and Boys performed their very first single, Nan Arayo on a Korean broadcast station. Combining American rap, techno and metal music with Korean lyrics and some traditional usage of the Gayageum to give a more authentic Korean sound, the trio created the first hybrid of modern and traditional music from opposing sides of the world. To this day most industry professionals and music journalists alike state the date of Seo Taiji and Boys debut performance as the beginning of the new musical genre – K-pop.
Their first step onto the stage and across television screens created a ripple of emotions. The older generation were ashamed and disappointed, whereas the younger generation were in celebration that their voices could be heard through lyrics and songs. Nan Arayo was #1 on Korean charts for 17 weeks and had changed the Korean music industry with a new genre of music for the youth of Korea.
Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun Suk and Lee Juno formed the group of three rebellious performers. Their first self titled album released in 1992 featured ten songs, such as Blind Love, which is performed completely in English and has some resemblance to the UK dance scene back in the early 1980s. There’s also Rock N Roll Dance, which has a huge early 1980s American hip-hop feel, with long guitar solos and repetitive backing vocals mixed with some Korean lyrics to keep the song relevant to their audience. Their first album was a slow introduction of American metal, dance and hip-hop movements, with a promise to explore more styles as their rise to fame became apparent.
Their second album was released in 1993 with their main release Hayeoga introducing the use of street dance and mixing traditional Korean gayageum sounds with American hip-hop beats. Beat boxing, B-boy dancing and even American fashion were used to make a point of rebelling the conformed normality of traditional wears. Off the same album, and showing some diversity, To You is reminiscent of an early 1980s western love song, filled with Michael Jackson-esque narration, Lionel Richie undertones and the use of the Korean language in a new era ballad style, completely different to the ballads the older generation was used to. The new style and appearance of the trio resulted in them being banned from appearing on a number of television shows, because they wore earrings, ripped jeans and had dreadlocks. For the older generation (who had the most say within the music industry) it insinuated that western cultures were “taking over” the tradition of Korea, that they were disrespecting their history and the Korean culture. Unfortunately for Seo Taiji and Boys, this was their first scandal in a long line of others to come.
1994 saw a third album filled with metal influences and alternative dance songs. Balhaereul featured some psychedelic guitar solos which represent another new music style, but it was also the beginning of a more prominent sound mixing and storytelling through the production of their music videos. The same release and video is noted to be one of the group’s most prominent songs, aimed to talk about the reunification between North and South Korea. Their release of Kyoshil Idaeyo and its extremely heavy (for that era) metal coverage, was aimed at the Korean education system of the time, which criticised the pressures placed on the youth of the time to succeed academically. By using the element of metal music along with alternative dance routines, they not only created K-pop, but they also created a new metal scene for Korea. The songs were so different from what the elder generation were used to, resulting in further rumours and scandal, notably that Seo Taiji and Boys were back masking satanic rituals in their music to brainwash the youth into wrong doings. It seems that it’s not just the western countries that associate heavy metal and rock music with the devil!
Following the disbandment of American rock band Nirvana, it was evident that Seo Taiji and Boys were inspired, and in 1995 released Sad Pain. Introducing grunge, rock, pop sounds to the Korean masses, their music video tells a story of emotional pain, suffering, broken love, and shows the raw performances of the members. Taking their sound to a whole new level, the group released Pilseung, which combined punk, metal, rock, pop and (for the time) some really unruly hair colours. At this point even more pressure was placed on the trio as their new found style, sound and attitudes were deemed inappropriate and “too much for the youth”.
Their fourth and final album featured the new style rap song Come Back Home which was a flashback look to their early days – if you listen carefully to the song itself you can hear the same rhythmic sounds of K-hip-hop idols today. In the mid 1990s extreme sports became a huge fad across Europe and the US. Not one to miss out on introducing a new cultural shock, Seo Taiji and Boys used the opportunity to show their skills at some snowboarding in their music video for Free Style, whilst performing to their new American grunge song. Proving their place within the transformation of Korea, the song Sidae Yugam featured behind the scenes shots and sections of previous music videos that were not used. Unfortunately the song itself was banned across the country for its use of lyrics that criticised the Korean government. This sent Seo Taiji and Boys fans into turmoil; the backlash from the fans was so immense that the system of pre-censorship within the Korean entertainment industry was destroyed a year later.
When January of 1996 rolled around, things took a surprising turn for the group as lead singer Seo Taiji announced to his group members that he wanted to disband the trio, and so Goodbye was released to say thank you and goodbye to their fans. This was not the end for the members, as Seo Taiji headed off to the US but kept his name prominent in the music industry through writing songs and lyrics for many K-pop idols of the modern day.
In 1998 he returned to the music scene with the first of 12 solo albums. In 2008 he made a comeback where he is now referred as “The president of culture” (his song Christmalo.Win is recommended). As for Yang Hyun Suk, the disbandment of the group was possibly one of the biggest moments of his career, as soon after he created his own entertainment company – YG Entertainment. One of the biggest entertainment companies in Korea, YG Entertainment house big worldwide idols such as Big Bang, 2NE1, Winner, Ikon, G-Dragon, Epik High, Jinusean, Lee Hi, Akdong Musician and a big favourite to many, Psy. Things with Lee Juno were not as elaborate as the other members. He was always known for his great dancing skills and he allowed them to be used as a tutor, but generally he kept himself to himself and out of the fame radar.
Although there are not many videos and songs of Seo Taiji and Boys available online, everyone should get to know the name, the looks, and the style that is reminiscent of the trio. These three men created a movement that not only created its own genre, but it also created a voice for youths, a multi-cultural understanding of growth, and a doorway for Korea to grow as a country. Their impact, not only in the music industry, but as mentors to those artists that we listen to today, has truly set a standard. It’s now up to today’s K-pop idols to continue on the journey that Seo Taiji and Boys started. Hopefully today’s artists will see that diversity in their style, their music, and that taking risks with their lyrics can make them go down in history as legendary tutors for the new generation.
The next episode of K-pop Go! will be a trip to the 2000’s with “Millennial Magic” and an introduction to MC The Max. If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact me on Kpopkimi@hotmail.co.uk – Logo Credit goes to Lizzy Holbrook.