Introduction: Times Square
Before I can ask an exhausted Eddie Nam any questions, he claims a victory. “You saw that Epik High was in Times Square?” says their entrepreneurial Korean-American manager. “Three Korean dudes, in the middle of Times Square. It’s pretty gnarly.”
These achievements have been in motion, perpetually, for almost two decades. They formed in 2001, and 20 years later, they released one of their biggest albums — Epik High is Here, Pt. 1 — this January. In the years betwixt, they brought rap to the mainstages of ubiquitous, conservative South Korean music shows as well as sold out several concerts in the US and Japan — the world’s two biggest music markets.
They’ve also had a few of their songs banned from the airwaves. “Epik High at their core, it’s always been real talk,” says Nam. Such real talk lands on songs like 2007’s “Nocturne,” a record which was banned from public broadcasts for spewing fire at religious institutions and capitalism. In it, Tablo raps lines like “you should be careful when you think the heavens will protect you / The flesh of the Lord becomes torn from the humans’ whipping,” to the dismay of South Korean censorship guidelines.
There’s a dissonance here. There always has been with Epik High. On one hand, the group is a mainstay of South Korea’s fairly conservative, shiny pop culture history. Remapping the Human Soul, the same record which features “Nocturne” and other songs delving into topics of suicide, sex, and war, also features the hit single “Love Love Love,” a dance-pop record with a soft-singing Lee Yoong Jin on the chorus.
This is the kind of duality that makes Epik High so impenetrable. They are just as happy making no-frills hip-hop records over breakbeats and orchestra loops as they are making pop tunes (and music videos sporting boho chic attire) that go hard at wedding receptions. They are just as willing to speak out against music industry moguls as they are willing to hastily attempt TikTok dances for magazine shoots.
“When I try to explain this in Western terms, I always say Epik High is like Coldplay, legacy-wise,” says Nam. They are at that level of pop band stardom. Yet, the group started in the image of underground group Dilated Peoples (they would even go on to collaborate with Rakaa). Two emcees, one DJ, boom-bap beats, samples, polysyllabic rhymes, disc scratches — they remain a hybrid hip-hop rose that bloomed from South Korean concrete.
It has never been easy. Before success, Epik High’s prospects as a freshly debuted rap group were slim, and their spirits were low. “The only thing I can think of is crying back then,” Tukutz said in a recent podcast. As success came, so did skepticism from Korean hip-hop heads and general audiences. Between the movement of conspiracy theorists which became severely disruptive to Tablo’s personal life in South Korea, and the constantly changing music industry surrounding them, turbulence has constantly underscored Epik High’s gradual and ceilingless climb.
Yet, somehow, Epik High is (still) here. Thus states the title of their January release, boasting — as is expected of any of Epik High’s albums — a massive gauntlet of big-name Korean features. Korean R&B standout GSoul appears, as well as Heize, Zico, Changmo, B.I and more.
Likely the biggest name of the bunch is CL, soloist and former star of idol music powerhouse 2NE1. She features on Epik High is Here, Pt. 1’s lead single, “Rosario,” a song which wearily declares triumph within a world of unending challenges. In the track’s chorus, CL credibly sings a mantra appropriate for Epik High, 18 years after their debut and relevant as ever:
“Out of my way, I am a legend and I’m here to stay!”
Part 1: “I Remember, Back in the Day”
The origins of Epik High are — as is typical of the group — of a diverse, unlikely, yet cosmically ordained nature. But, of course, if one is to tell that story, one is expected to start with the group’s eldest member and leader, Daniel Armand Lee — otherwise known as Tablo. Today’s Tablo is known as a respected star of Korean pop culture; a radio show host, a variety show star, a best-selling author, and, of course, a famous musician. He has always overachieved.
Tablo, and Childhood
Born in Seoul, Tablo’s family quickly moved to Jakarta for some years, then immigrated to Canada when he was 8 after stops in other countries. His constant relocation led to severe loneliness. “My childhood was a constant loop of saying teary goodbyes to old friends and awkward hellos to new ones,” he told Jae-Ha Kim in 2019.
His cultural and social experiences helped inspire him to become an astute poet from a young age, gaining the attention of South Korea’s biggest pop star of the ‘90s, Kim Gun-mo. This led to a collaboration wherein Tablo, then a second-year high school student, wrote lyrics for Kim’s “Rainy Christmas.”
“Even when I was young, and I wrote poetry and fiction, I’ve always unconsciously written with the heart of a lyricist,” he told HipHopLE in 2013 (passage translated by Icarus Walks). “If you look at the expression of emotion, I’m still like that. Whether I produce a song or borrow someone’s voice to convey the melody, I’m simply making home for the lyrics I have to express. I think that’s why I started with hip hop.”
But while poems, novels and pop songs gelled with superiors in Korea and abroad, it was hip hop that caught Tablo’s intention from a young age. He first was drawn to records like Doggystyle and Illmatic thanks to their parental advisory stickers. Later, he’d take interest in underground artists like Dilated Peoples. It became natural for Tablo to transition to writing rap lyrics.
“As I was trying to teach myself how to write rap lyrics, it occurred to me that writing hip-hop lyrics gave me the same sensation as when I was writing prose or poetry,” Tablo told The International Wave last year. “The way I write my lyrics is why a lot of [Epik High’s] songs translate well to paper. If you just print out my lyrics and read them, there’s a smooth transition.”
Tablo’s parents would often shoot down his dreams of making music. “[My father] would say, ‘Get out if you’re going to do music,’” he told Korean program Yashimanman in 2013. “Because of this, I left home a few times. He kept telling me to stop, so I gave up music and went to university.”
Then tragedy struck. “At that time, my friend who did music with me suddenly died of an illness. This was the friend I previously asked to realize my dreams in my stead. He died while I was in my first year of university. When I went to visit him, the last thing he told me was… he asked that I realized his dream for him.”
The Beginnings of Epik High
During college, Tablo worked as a director’s assistant in New York, potentially looking to develop a career in film. The film’s investor then owned the Korean label Cream Records — whose roster included promising young hip-hop act CB Mass. At the time, hip hop was relegated to the fringes of Korean music culture. It had begun infiltrating through its influence on Seo Taiji & Boys — the first-ever K-pop group by many accounts, though Sobangcha fans may protest — but “true” hip-hop music and culture had only slowly permeated South Korean Internet circles in the mid-’90s.
“Fans of hip hop joined PC community groups like BLEX, Dope Soundz, and Show N Prove (SNP) to share Korean translations of English lyrics, swap imported cassette tapes and CDs, and discuss the meaning of hip hop in their lives,” reads the first chapter of Myoung-sun Song’s seminal English-language book on Korean hip-hop, 2019’s Hanguk Hip Hop: Global Rap in South Korea. “Simply put, hip hop did not start in the streets for Korea. It started in the rooms and personal computer spaces of hip hop fans and moved to the streets and performance spaces of Hongdae like Club Master Plan.”
CB Mass soon became one of the first Korean hip-hop acts to debut on big stages. Meanwhile, their label’s owner was scouting new talent. “At that time, the owner visited New York, and I always put headphones in my ears, so he asked what I was doing and I said that I was doing music as a hobby,” said Tablo to HipHopLE in 2014. “He asked to listen to the music I made, and after listening to a demo, he asked me if I had any thoughts on becoming a music artist. I thought it amusing and passed it over. But that demo continued to spread amongst the people around me, and I continued to receive similar offers.”
When Tablo encountered the second CB Mass record, 2001’s Massmatics, he was sold on the scene. Soon, he would approach Cream’s owner to meet with CB Mass, and CB Mass would quickly take interest in Tablo. He’d soon meet J-Win and Mithra Jin, both then members of an underground group called K-Ryders.
“This was a team that rose on the stage of Club Master Plan, which was a pioneering hip-hop venue at the time,” Kim Bong-hyeon, a leading Korean hip-hop journalist, tells me. “Because of this, when Mithra became a member of Epik High, I remember getting the impression that [Mithra’s presence] felt somewhat out of place. The image of a member of an underground hip-hop team suddenly becoming Epik High and appearing on TV.”
Mithra Jin, born Choi Jin in Busan in 1983, is the youngest member (or maknae) of Epik High. This is a fact likely to surprise many. He’s the tallest in the group at 5’10”, with a bulky frame, a beard, and a distinctively husky voice which effortlessly complements Tablo’s lighter rasp. Mithra first encountered hip hop in his second year of high school, then gained attention from his skills online, leading to J-Win finding him and recruiting him for K-Ryders. “I was lucky,” he told HipHopLE in 2014.
At the time, Mithra was pursuing styles like that of Jedi Mind Tricks — underground, aggressive, lyrical. His bandmates at times tease him for horrorcore elements he used to be into, too. But hip hop was new to him from a young age. “I didn’t know much music apart from that and… the songs that I knew were few,” he said in the 2019 interview with BuzzFeed. “J-Win gradually introduced me to a lot of music. I didn’t know a lot at the beginning so I learned and created at the same time.”
K-Ryders gained attention, as many underground Korean rappers did, at Club Master Plan. “The birth of Club Master Plan is significant in that it was the first venue that offered rappers a stage to return to each week during the formative years of Korean hip hop,” writes Sun in Hanguk Hip Hop. “Club Master Plan presented many established rappers today… a chance to hone their skills, perform on stage, and make a name for themselves.”
K-Ryders didn’t last too long. After disbanding in 2001, Mithra became a free agent of sorts, leading to his spot with Tablo in Epik High. They then recorded an album, Map of the Human Soul, after J-Win connected them with DJ Tukutz, who was working as a DJ for CB Mass. Tukutz was to DJ for them, though as a featured guest rather than as a member.
Born Kim Jeong-sik in 1981, DJ Tukutz is the charming yet reclusive glue that holds Epik High together. His scratching, musical sensibility and energetic charm made him an essential part of the trio.
Before DJing came into play for Tukutz, however, he was a dancer. “It was ages ago, but everyone in my generation was like that,” he says in an interview for HipHopLE. “Starting from school days, they would dance to DUEX, and Seo Taeji and Boys. Since I was interested in dancing, I would go to places like Daehakro or Itaewon to watch people dance. I also looked up and watched B-boy videos…”
From that B-boy passion came an interest in playing breakbeats. Using limited resources, Tukutz taught himself to play records using turntables, often through visiting Club Master Plan and observing. He’d later come into contact with DJ Wreckx, who was essentially “the pioneer of the Korean DJ world at that time,” then broadcast some of his mixes through MSN chatrooms. Someone heard a mix of his, sent it to J-Win, and the rest was history. Soon, he’d be DJing for CB Mass and connected with Tablo and Mithra, set to be a potent new group.
Then, suddenly, CB Mass went down in flames. Member Curbin was alleged to have embezzled significant amounts of money from production. Epik High’s debut was postponed. “We had our first album mastered and ready in our hands, but it was an absurd situation where we couldn’t pay for the recording and mixing/mastering,” Tablo said. “That was tens of millions of won of charge, but no matter how many jobs I work, I wouldn’t be able to pay back that debt, so I was actually giving up like, ‘Our dreams are ending here before they even start.’”
Survival, and Arrival
After their anti-climactic debut, Mithra ended up working in an Internet cafe — Tukutz worked in bars and retail stores, and Tablo worked in a bar and coffee shop. Meanwhile, the relentless push of J-Win would pry open new chances for Epik High.
“As CB Mass broke up, Dynamic Duo (the group formed with the remaining two members) was in a position where they could go to other companies relatively easily, and they eventually did,” said Tablo to HipHopLE. “We had no place to go because we only depended on CB Mass. [J-Win] went around every day trying to find a way to help us do music. He made our resumes and handed it over to countless companies, and went to all different places to beg for our sake. Then he met Woollim through someone’s introduction and even gave up on his own song fee to lead us to finally making a contract.”
With that, Map of the Human Soul was released through Woollim, behind the title track “I Remember,” a Pete Rock-esque pop-rap tune meant to invoke memories of the ‘80s. “The fact that we considered such a subject as a popular subject seems to prove our pure ignorance at that time. It’s really a mess if you look at the video of our activities at that time. I’m not sure what we’re doing.”
The record was not a rousing success whatsoever. Tablo recalls the responses: “‘What are you guys? You don’t even look good, and you can’t even dance?’… I went for a newspaper interview. ‘Are you Tablo? I heard you went to Stanford University and Graduate School.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why would you do cheap music like hip-hop?’”
Of course, the money wasn’t great, either. After putting out an album, each member had made around 250,000 won (about $250 USD at the time). For the second album, Tablo and DJ Tukutz both stepped into production duties, because the label was unable/unwilling to pay outside producers.
The two doubted their suddenly necessary competency as producers. Tukutz had not long before recorded his first loop proudly onto a CD, of which he then covered the remainder with a Drunken Tiger album so as not to waste the purchase. The idea that they, at the time being amateurs, could produce an entire record up to the quality of their previous album (produced by J-Win and numerous other stalwarts of the Korean hip-hop scene that had ushered them in), seemed uncouth.
“Tablo said that we’ll make it all. I wanted to say that he was crazy,” said a laughing Tukutz in reflection. “We used to make beats then, but only at an amateur level. But what could we do? Tablo had said that we’d do it… We started making it the next day and it took about a year to make.”
Tablo, stressed by the label’s demands for a hit, made use of his pop inspiration to produce the track “Peace Day” from their second album, High Society. Inspired by Japanese group m-flo, “Peace Day” was not a smash hit, but it was a significant stepping stone in Epik High’s career. Namely, it helped them eat. “Thanks to ‘Day of Peace,’ we, who were not able to earn a single dollar before, were able to get a studio apartment, and it was a song we’re thankful for because it literally allowed us to eat and live (make a living),” said Tablo to HipHopLE.
“Day of Peace” and High Society also paved a pathway for Epik High’s upcoming success. DJ Tukutz developed an affinity for creating ‘90s East Coast hip-hop-style instrumentals, while Tablo’s productions provided for more radio accessibility and eclecticism. Their next album, Swan Songs, was meant to be Epik High’s last, but, thanks to their newfound formula, the group instead found their most spectacular success to date — both for them, and for Korean hip-hop.
Swan Songs is Kim Bong-hyeon’s pick for Epik High’s greatest album. “This is an album that colorfully contains/holds/captures hip-hop and pop, and I believe this is the identity of Epik High as a group,” Bong-hyeon tells me. Where DJ Tukutz lays down the beats for party-starting rap tracks like “Lesson 3” and “Ride,” Tablo produces most of the tracks on the record, including the one that changed everything.
“Fly” is, according to Bong-hyeon’s manuscript (which he sent CentralSauce excerpts from for our interview), “a song that shouts that [you] can fly higher than the birds in the sky even after love leaves you.” It is also “the most symbolic song when discussing the survival and settlement of hip-hop groups in Korea.” This is partially because of the themes of the record, but also because of its landmark success. On the debut of Show! Music Core, a rebrand of one of Korea’s biggest music shows, Epik High beat K-pop stars TVXQ to win the number one spot.
Music shows usually pick three top songs in the country and pit them against each other through their own criteria, which are usually based on sales, critics’ expertise, and more. The winners are almost always idols, and the processes have long been scrutinized. “Some may take issue with the poor credibility/reliability of a public broadcast’s ranking chart, but that is exactly the reason why Epik High’s number one is of even more of a dramatic symbolic significance,” says critic Yoon Ho-jun in a quoted passage from Kim’s manuscript:
“The fact that they topped this chart — known for its nontransparent ranking system, allegations of connections with big agencies, and exclusivity to genres other than idol music — shows that Epik High’s music had an extensive/wide popular appeal that could penetrate even the narrow, marketability-focused nature there… Epik High was accepted as one of the artists that teenagers/young adults, who are used to marketed idol music, enjoy listening to.”
This monumental achievement pushed Epik High to heights they’d not even dreamed of years prior. A CD sampler of Swan Songs went to Japan, where the group began to build popularity. “Fly” even made it to the soundtrack of FIFA 07; and yet, there was a sense of scrutiny from Korean hip-hop heads towards this success. “Fly” had raps on it, sure, but it featured glossy vocals from Amin J. of Soulciety, and it was set over a 130 BPM dance beat. In other words: too m-flo, not “real hip-hop.”
However, “Fly” was still a win for Korean hip-hop, regardless of what skepticism was there. “For example, let’s say that ‘Fly’ is not hip-hop,” Bong-hyeon says to me. “If so, is ‘Fly’ winning number one a case that has nothing to do with Korean hip-hop? Of course, it’s not that ‘Fly’s’ number one win caused many people — the public audience — to learn about the idea of ‘hip-hop sampling’ or search for a documentary about the Bronx block party. However, there must have been people who were introduced to Epik High’s ‘hip-hop’ songs in the album through ‘Fly’, and there must have also been people who became more familiar with the musical tool of ‘rap’. Also, it is already a widely known fact that many people came to know of many underground hip-hop musicians, such as Soul Company, through Epik High.”
Epik High carried this momentum through the next few years. Their 2007 record, Remapping the Human Soul, was the third best-selling album of the year in South Korea despite being a two-CD venture with numerous banned tracks. They’d go on to drop constantly, with records like 2009’s [e] receiving critical acclaim for their lyricism and experimentation. Tablo became a star through television shows and a long-running radio program, Tablo’s Dreaming Radio, with MBC.
Epik High found themselves experiencing a new type of turmoil. A fringe group of online conspiracy theorists caused infamous skepticism to bleed into the general public regarding Tablo’s educational history. The accusations leading to his having to flee the country for safety and peace of mind. Eventually, leaders of the movement were sentenced to prison for defamation, but the damage was inconsolable.
Tablo’s father would pass away during the situation, his health deteriorating due to the stress of it. “I lost my dad … as a direct result of what people did … for no reason,” he told AP. “It’s been a long time, yes, but it’s not something that I can ever be OK with and that will affect everything I do. There is a hole that can’t be filled.”
Then came divorce from Woollim Entertainment, which did not apparently have the greatest of relationships with Epik High. Eventually, the group found themselves at a new home: YG Entertainment, home of Big Bang, 2NE1, PSY, and more.
At the time, YG were at the peak of their powers, due in great part to their idols’ fluorescent successes. They helped Epik High put out some of their most popular work to date through albums 99, Shoebox and We’ve Done Something Wonderful, which then helped Tablo reemerge into glory.
All the while, Epik High founded numerous independent ventures. Map the Soul, the first indie company Tablo founded, ended up seeing its demise after one of the executives at the helm embezzled funds. Later on, Epik High would move on from YG in 2017 at the end of their contract, then work independently, joining Eddie Nam’s management in 2019.
New ventures appeared. Nam, alongside his CEO brother Brian and his pop star eldest brother Eric Nam, pioneered DIVE Studios, a company bringing forth podcast content with Korean stars. Of course, Tablo would have his own podcast — the self-titled Tablo Podcast — seeing him host a talk program once again, similar to Dreaming Radio, but in English, and with numerous YouTube hits, including stories of Tukutz nearly ruining Tablo’s marriage to famous actress Kang Hye-jung and games of “would you rather” with his beloved daughter, Haru. This was launched to coincide with the release of 2019’s mini-album, Sleepless in __________. After 56 episodes, the show ended to allow Epik High to fully focus on their new record.
So now, Tablo’s a famous dad. In fact, so is Tukutz. In February, Mithra announced he’ll be having a child as well. Somehow, all of these men are in their 30s, married, and (to be) with children, yet are still in a Dilated Peoples-style rap group that they formed while working dead-end jobs after being scammed out of money in the early 2000s. Seeing their apparent comfortability in interview settings gives one the impression that, in fact, Epik High are as here as they have ever been. The most important indicator of this is the music.
Part 2: Black Swan Songs
“You feel comfort in knowing someone can relate, feel and/or see similarly how the world is,” says Kenia, a hardcore fan from Mexico who has been following Epik High since 2014. “The messages their songs hold are a lot like life. Ups, downs, and in-betweens.”
Kenia is one of millions of worldwide fans of the Korean hip-hop group. Fans of Epik High tend to herald their lyrical acumen and thematic ambition, using it to draw their own conclusions and find their own inspirations. “After listening to Shoebox, I thought the album name fit so well,” says Kenia. “The songs are precious memories you keep in a box. That album helped me grow and find peace at the same time.”
The Shoebox album, released in 2014, was a relatively late-career success for the stalwarts. It topped the Billboard World Charts and charted well on Gaon. One of their most popular records under YG, the tracklist included the highly successful posse cut “Born Hater,” a hard-hitting Tukutz-produced tune over five minutes in length featuring a murderer’s row of Korean emcees, all taking aim at haters.
Verbal Jint, considered a pioneer of complex rhyming in Korean rap, features alongside popular veteran Beenzino, as well as three K-pop idols: Mino of Winner, and B.I. and Bobby of IKon, the latter of whom had famously just won season three of Mnet’s rap competition show Show Me the Money, which at the time was considered a tentpole proving ground of the Korean rap scene.
Shoebox also features a rap-ballad remix of the year’s biggest hit (arguably), Taeyang of Big Bang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” which also became a hit of its own for Tablo and Epik High. That’s the group’s famous duality; Epik High will always make catchy pop records, and they will always make lyrical rap records. Epik High will always tune back into their past, but will always change with the times.
“I think I have two different versions of myself inside me,” Tablo told HipHopLE. “There is the me who enjoys and makes songs like ‘Lesson One (Tablo’s Word)’ and ‘Trace (출처)’. Then there is the me who enjoys and makes songs like ‘Umbrella’ or ‘Airbag.’ In equal amounts.”
In 2021, Epik High are modernized. Just as in America, Southern hip-hop and its wide-ranging influence have become too pervasive for mainstream pop and hip-hop acts to avoid. Epik High are informed by this influence on “Rosario,” a track produced by DJ Tukutz — among others.
Where the group’s DJ once was committed to the ‘90s East Coast style of instrumental, “Rosario” sees him trade the metaphorical MPC for a more Ableton sound. This would be a nightmare for many hip-hop musicians, but for artists who produced their second album while learning on the job in their early 20s, it’s basically a layup. “I wanted to make an exciting song using this tempo,” says Tukutz in a podcast exchange between the group. “We literally partied like kids to the song.”
The group found the original beat was generally too hype. “I thought you guys were planning a choreography for it,” replies Mithra, giggling.
“It was some club shit,” agrees Tukutz.
“My lyrics were pretty depressing,” Tablo counters. “So it didn’t feel right. We decided to balance and meet in the middle.”
The result is a sharp, Atlanta-influenced bounce, carried by a jaded acoustic guitar progression. “Love me when I’m here, shut up when I’m gone,” raps Tablo. “You ain’t missing nobody, you’re missing a heart / Is it not as easy as it was to murder? / Where everything is a crime punishable by death, all of you must be without a spot of sin.”
This back-and-forth dynamic is only possible because the group communicates with the honesty of long-time friends. “Anyways, I think we make a good team because we don’t have a ‘yes-man,’” says Tablo. “Even though we’re cold, we’re all cold to ourselves too.”
January’s Epik High is Here, Pt. 1 works as a statement of purpose. Though they may warm up to all manner of new ideas and trends, they’re still those cold guys. Innovation and adaptation will color Epik High’s releases with time, but they will remain themselves, and much of their approach to their art will remain the same. In other words, they’re still here.
Tablo’s approach to features — which have for years been plentiful, eye-catching, and acclaimed on Epik High’s albums — remains based on a “casting” strategy. “The artists are like character actors, and we’re in the director’s chair,” Tablo told MTV this year. “We know exactly what we want for the scene and who would be the best actor to deliver that scene.”
Their consistent honesty gives depth to the message of Epik High is Here. The album aims to provide comfort and connectivity to listeners during a deeply uncomfortable and disillusioned time for many. “We’re all confused, but Epik High is here for you and with you,” he says. “For me, I think ‘here’ is not a fixed place — it’s an ever-changing place that is both physical and spiritual. Even when you look at the arc of Epik High’s career, ‘here’ has changed so many times, where sometimes ‘here’ is a very good place and we’re flying high, and sometimes ‘here’ is the lowest of lows.”
If “Rosario” is a single driven by its percussive bounce, “Based on a True Story” is a comfortable opposite. It mirrors Epik High’s hit from years past, “Love Story” with superstar IU, but “Based On” is more jarring. There are no drums. A somber piano piece plays behind R&B star Heize’s fluttering harmonies. Strings accentuate section changes. The result is a hip-hop track that could double as the score for a silent short film, or an emotional scene in a Hallyu drama. “I think this story is like mine,” sings Heize. “I can only see the tragedy all over the screen,” raps Mithra.
“‘Based on a True Story’ is for people dealing with heartbreak,” Tablo continues in his MTV interview. “In moments of heartbreak, you want to put your attention into any story that is not your own, so you watch TV and movies and listen to songs to forget.”
The contrast in sonics and themes between “Rosario” and “Based on a True Story” are demonstrative of Epik High’s diverse approaches throughout Epik High is Here, Pt. 1’s tracklist. “True Crime” featuring soft-singing Miso is a dark, yet danceable number approaching love with the dramatics of an us-against-the-world crime drama: “How can a world that has turned its back on love comprehend love that has turned its back from the world?” raps Tablo.
Meanwhile, cuts like “In Self-Defense” and “Social Distance 16” see Epik High returning to the raw, backpack hip-hop approach that they’ve long prided themselves for. The latter contains Tablo’s signature mix of social commentary and dour soloism (with Mithra beginning and completing lines here and there): “The industry makes me sick and there’s no vaccine; this damn scene that made me sick / Ain’t nothing new, I’ve always been social distancing.”
Songs like these indicate most clearly what allows Epik High, with every sound and aesthetic they try on, to be so formless and versatile; it’s in the bars.
“We’ve created these songs with scars, not sounds”
Tablo and Mithra Jin’s lyrics remain the most obvious thread of consistency stringing between Epik High’s danceable pop tracks and boom-bap posse cuts. Regardless of a track’s sound or theme, not only will the group showcase sharp technical skills as emcees, they will also write songs that, as Tablo tweeted in late 2019, “make you stare at a wall for 24 minutes just thinking.”
It’s not enough to say Epik High are good at rapping. They are good at writing lyrics that connect to profound human experiences. Mithra’s flow is blunt, but his lyrics are extravagantly poetic. He is not one to lean heavily on English words and phrases to make his verses pop — a strategy many popular K-rappers undertake. Mithra’s verses often steadily make use of the Korean language, akin to acts like Garion of Korean hip hop’s infancy.
His words are at times cryptic — especially when translated — but delivered with a calm assertiveness that suggests they speak for themselves. At times, he will personify concepts and objects. On 2007’s “알고 보니 (Come to Find Out)”, he describes the process of aging and losing one’s youthful fire as such: “My heart that used to stand its ground, saying it could dash anywhere in a breath every day and asking me to let go / Is now becoming bruised without realising / As it becomes mature, it hurts.”
Where Mithra often seeks to relay images in his verses, Tablo shows more of a propensity to toy with sound. Assonance and wordplay appear in his rhymes often. “For example,” Bong-hyeon continues, “in the case of lyrics such as ‘Don’t ask how I am / All I want is a mirror to my apathy’, [Tablo] continues his rhyme scheme with ‘don’t ask (mutji mah)’ and ‘apathy (mushimham)’ and simultaneously reflects the emotion/imagery of the song nicely by using the word ‘apathy’ as a choice of expression.”
Of course, his famed bilingualism also contributed to his affinity for language and cultural crossover. “The fact that I’m bilingual seems to affect my writing the most,” he told Jae-Ha Kim in March of 2019. “There are certain beautiful words that embody a world of emotions in the Korean language that don’t have counterparts in English. And vice versa. So being versed in both allows my emotions to have a much larger playing field.”
Tablo and Mithra’s lyrical approaches have developed over time. When asked about his propensity to use “Korean words that could not be understood immediately in the first hearing,” Mithra told HipHopLE in their 2014 interview: “At that time, I just used the things that I felt comfortable with, but I felt that other people were very uncomfortable. (All laugh) I tried to improve a little bit in each album. I’m still trying hard now.”
Tablo differs from Mithra in his selectivity with words and expressions. “The lyrics used should be utmostly in the simplest way even in declaring a tough problem,” Tablo responds in the HipHopLE interview. “In case there is no single word or phrase for replacement, no matter how difficult it is to be understood, it should still be used though. However, if finding an intuitive way to express one’s feeling is too difficult and troublesome, there’s no choice but to give up. This expression should not be used. You have to wait until you find the most suitable expression.”
This kind of all-or-nothing approach speaks to Tablo and Epik High’s (in)famous perfectionism. “I’ve never seen this recording, mixing and mastering process take so damn long,” their manager Eddie Nam tells me. “It’s like, Tablo can be stuck on a piano chord on Lesson Zero for like, three weeks. He was like ‘does it sound ok? Is it too uplifting, is this too dark?’ And he’ll just lock himself away in a dungeon, and then somehow still find time to be a husband and a father to Haru.”
Epik High’s musicality is based on a meticulous mapping of sounds and ideas like these — a piano being uplifting or dark, a beat being too optimistic for the shrill lyrics it accompanies. It is almost as if Epik High sees their music’s sonic components as lyrical in their own right.
For example, Tablo’s 2021 interview with Switched on Pop invokes a detailed discussion of the group’s musical choices on Epik High is Here, Part 1. “It’s subdued, definitely can feel dark,” says co-host Charlie Harding. “I get quite somber, quiet acoustic instrumentation, with beats accompanying them. This very strange juxtaposition.”
On the subject of “Rosario,” specifically, Tablo discusses the production process involving a choice to keep a musician’s somewhat bumpy first take to preserve the eerie, rough feeling in the song’s lead guitar part. “If you notice, the guitar player kind of messes up,” he says. “But we were just like, ‘I love that. I love how it’s imperfect. Let’s go with that.’”
It seems bizarre that a group can be so polished and focused in so many respects, for such a long time — a 20-year-old rap group where the rappers still want to improve at rapping, and the DJ still wants to improve at DJing — a 20-year-old rap group with ten studio albums, two EPs, a remix album and two special albums — a 20-year-old rap group that tinkers with every genre from classical to Korean trot, seemingly meticulous over every detail of every track along the way.
It also seems bizarre that this same group can not only be so successful for so long, but successful in a way that brings middle-aged Asian hip-hop heads and young American pop lovers into the same party. Epik High have devoted fans in every part of the world where humans congregate en masse. That’s super rare for a non-English act.
For a lyrics-focused hip-hop act from a country slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania, that doesn’t sing, dance, or stream video games, and writes almost always in a language that it is said only around 80 million people on Earth speak (about a quarter of which come from a country north of Hanguk which is completely blocked off from the rest of the world culturally and politically), this kind of success is practically impossible.
One can only understand how Epik High can be so beloved when one analyzes the ideas behind the art they create — and when one recognizes the impact of these ideas.
Mapping the Human Soul
Every Epik High album has a theme. Themes connect from album to album, leading to a worldbuilding experience. “I wanted my discography to be intertextual,” Tablo says in an episode of The Tablo Podcast.
“The reason why is, at the time, I felt like a lot of the music that was coming out was great, I loved the music — but I felt like technically you could give that song to another person and it wouldn’t make that big of a difference. I didn’t feel like the music or albums were coming from a unique personality, with a unique set of hopes and fears, and dreams and nightmares. I wanted to create a discography where the albums were speaking to each other, where it was all living or breathing within a shared universe, so that the listener will know that it’s authentically coming from me.”
Records like 2003’s Map of the Human Soul, 2007’s Remapping the Human Soul and 2009’s Map the Soul reference Jungian archetypal theory as a framework to examine and criticize ideas of the human condition. Records like 2014’s Shoebox, as Kenia mentioned earlier, resemble a shoebox of stored memories. But the release that perhaps most exemplifies Epik High’s capacity for thematic storytelling is 2019’s mini-album, Sleepless in __________.
Throughout their career, Epik High has shown a penchant for discussing mental health issues in their work, even touching on suicide on tracks like “행복합니다 (I Am Happy)” from 2007. But Sleepless in __________, even with its slim 20 minute and 51-second runtime, is as cohesive and creative as hip-hop records about mental health have ever gotten.
The record begins with “Sleepless,” a minute-long intro that starts with an unsettling amount of silence, then a slow, arpeggiating dulcimer. Behind it is a quiet, robotic, female voice, asking the listener questions, starting with: “Do you have trouble sleeping?” Then more, such as: “Are you heartbroken?” “Do you find that things you once enjoyed no longer interest you?” A piano eventually replaces the dulcimer. The final question: “Are you always… sleepless?”
Next comes “In Seoul,” which starts with dithered piano chords. Swinging drums slam in with a cymbal, setting a scene with an extended instrumental opening. The darkness and traditional hip-hop elements of Epik High are back, with an unsettling yet shiny tinge. Tablo and Mithra contribute verses filled with resentment and exhaustion with a present moment in an uneven society. “I’m sleepless in Seoul,” sings Sunwoo Jung-a on the song’s chorus. “Anxious thoughts and regrets gather in my room.”
These two cuts are followed by the record’s single “Lovedrunk,” featuring famed K-R&B artist Crush. The song is one of Epik High’s versions of a classic Korean ballad akin to tunes like “Love Story” — on “Lovedrunk,” the performers sing and rap of dealing with the end of a relationship through medicating with alcohol and other substances: “The lingering attachment still can’t let go of my hands / Perhaps, after separating from what seemed longer than eternity, all that’s left to do is get drunk,” raps Mithra.
Then comes “Eternal Sunshine,” a much-ballyhooed tune produced by BTS’ Suga. The song’s funky whimsy brings some brightness to the gloomy, heavy album, like a sunrise uplifting the listener from a long, arduous night. “I wish you eternal sunshine,” Tablo croons at the end of the song’s pre-chorus, which precedes its sticky chorus recalling the robot voice of “Sleepless”: “Do you get lonely? Sick with anxiety? Can’t trust nobody? Well, same here.” At the end, Tablo mutters an addendum: “Well, I’m here.”
The purpose behind Sleepless In __________ is multifaceted, but part of it was to showcase a return to form after Epik High’s separation from YG, as if to say, as Tablo does in “Eternal Sunshine,” and as they do in the title of this year’s LP, that they are here. “People recognize and love that the album sounds like a classic Epik High album,” Tablo told HipHopKR.
But, to Billboard, the group’s leader expounded on the unique approaches and ideas of Sleepless In __________. “This album, I think, is our current mindset,” says Tablo. Rather than a declarative statement of pride in Epik High’s indie return, the group chose to explore the ups and downs of sleeplessness — something that seemed ever-present in their world, and their own lives.
“I’ve always had insomnia,” says Tablo. “Sometimes that insomnia was brought on by the fact that I was very driven by a dream. I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep early because time was so precious and I didn’t want to waste it sleeping. That was a good reason to be sleepless. At the same time, there were many times when I was sleepless because reality had become like a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep.”
“If you look at somebody and you want to check that they’re alive, you zoom in on the fact that they’re breathing, right?” he continues. “Most of the time you don’t notice that someone is breathing until they’re not. To observe someone’s sleeplessness allows you to see why they’re breathing. And what is either driving them or what is making them suffer from nightmares. I think sleeplessness shows so much about a person.”
One of the most resonant elements of Sleepless in __________ is its lack of self-centeredness; rather than merely talk about themselves for 20 minutes, Epik High take numerous opportunities to make such observations on interrelated sleepless experiences, ones which audiences can relate to around the world. It’s for this reason that the __________ exists in the title: “On our album we say ‘Sleepless’ ‘In Seoul,’ that’s just for us, right? That’s where we are right now,” Tablo told Billboard in 2019. ‘That’s where we were recording the song and the album. We are sleepless in Seoul, but people listening to this album are going to be sleepless elsewhere, so we left it blank so that people can mentally fill it in.”
The following track, “No Different,” featuring Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna, explores the universality of the album’s themes. It is an all-English cut wherein Tablo rap-sings in a hushed tone about a type of heartbreak, examining the light left in a broken relationship, while subliminally examining the light left in his eyes, as well as the lights in those of his listeners. In the chorus, Yuna warmly belts a creed: “Baby you and me ain’t no different / We are one and the same, the two of us / We suffer the same condition: love.”
Then the album closes with “Rain Again Tomorrow,” a fast yet downtrodden tune about the ubiquity of exhaustion and sleeplessness. “Even alcohol or sleeping pills don’t work anymore / Had the sleep playlist on all night long / Endless beats to relax and study to / F—k ‘em all, man I hate this.” This reference also underscores the lo-fi sonics of Sleepless in __________, which have become immensely popular in recent years through playlists for sleep and study — which serve as a gentle reminder of a growing, universal struggle to do both.
A female voice, chopped up and sampled throughout “Rain Again Tomorrow,” then forms a distorted progression at the end, repeating the words “Rain down.” Suddenly, a muffled piano plays over the newly centered sample, then a filtered, jazzy drum loop. This is “Lullaby For a Cat,” the album’s closer. Tablo raps, but the fidelity of his audio is severely compromised; distorted, fuzzy, lo-fi. “Tuck you in as I tuck another tear behind my eyelids,” he raps, then softly says “Good night.” A string section, then Jung-A’s voice on “In Seoul,” carries the track into the night. Faint white noise, then a click, ends the album.
When asked why Tablo titled the closer “Lullaby For a Cat,” he tweeted: “When I was writing the song, I had a vision of a person in bed late at night unable to fall asleep, with a cat by her side. This person wants the cat to get a good night’s sleep and find the tranquility she herself will not find tonight.”
Perhaps this dynamic parallels Epik High’s dynamic with their global audience. Their career has brought them ungodly amounts of sleeplessness; before they could even debut, they faced familial rejection, friendly betrayal, and broke summers. “I had no money,” Tablo says in one podcast episode. “Mithra and I were living in a room that was smaller than this space here. We didn’t have air conditioning. It was a hot summer. We had a fridge where we would take turns having our head in the freezer to stay cool. And someone had given us a huge bottle of Bailey’s… We were so thirsty, but we couldn’t buy bottled water, that at times we would ration out the Bailey’s and drink that because we were so thirsty. And the tap water wasn’t good, so we’re getting drunk during the afternoon on a hot day.”
Success did not end their suffering. Between unwarranted scandals, ostracization and further personal betrayals, the group faced more than many could handle. Rather than turn away from their situation and move onto something else, the group used their platforms and skills to create art intended to help people. It is as if they are the restless souls singing their listeners, like cats, to sleep. Over and over again, Epik High tells us: We are here. We are going to express ourselves in the only way we know how. We hope this helps.
Thankfully, it seems to have worked. “Their music helps heal and push further, I think,” Kenia says. “Their songs help you swallow the hard pill called ‘life.’”
Conclusion: We’ve Done Something Wonderful
Now what? More Epik High, surely. “Let’s just say the last two years have definitely been quite the journey,” Eddie Nam tells me. “2020 was not easy for any of us, but we really put our heads together and tried to find different opportunities and ways to stay connected at a time that was very difficult.”
Bad luck and good luck remain intertwined for the hip-hop veterans. As Korean music and culture have reached larger global audiences, allowing for mainstays like Epik High to reach even more exposure, the entertainment world has practically shut down via pandemic. Additionally, industry beef between Kakao M and Spotify led to Epik High’s music being pulled from the platform globally, alongside tons of other artists. And with the visibility of violent anti-Asian sentiment increasing since the start of the pandemic, perhaps staying stuck in Seoul for now is safer for the group anyway.
But Epik High, under Nam’s management, have no interest in stagnancy. Their brand will not let them stagnate anyway. They are already Epik High, and their presence cannot be avoided within the ever-popular K-pop industry. “I think Epik High has obviously ‘paved the way’ for many,” says Nam. “I think it’s a very interesting, transformative time, to say the least. Because even less than 5 years ago, people were more than willing to just shit on K-pop and be like ‘Man, that’s so manufactured, that’s terrible.’”
The rise of BTS has undoubtedly turned some heads. For one, the Grammy-nominated Big Hit Music group incorporates hip hop, socially conscious messages, and a sense of honesty in their music. Naturally, the world’s biggest pop act has referenced Epik High and showed love to them on countless occasions as a tremendous source of love and inspiration (DJ Tukutz even notes he bought a member of the group jajangmyeon before their debut).
“BTS came in and were like, ‘Yo, we’re going to be ourselves,’” says Nam. “‘We don’t need to cater to anybody. We’re gonna be ourselves and crush it out of the park and people are gonna take this seriously.’”
But the seven member group’s billion dollar worth in Korea, generated in great part due to their massive fanbase (of which this author is a member), has caused many investors to suddenly desire a stake in something similar. “They see the power of the fans, and they see money signs, and they want a piece of it.”
Meanwhile, Tablo’s stance on K-pop is supportive, though at points critical. “K-pop is pretty amazing. But one thing it is not amazing at is brutal honesty or brutal emotional vulnerability in its songs,” he told Switched on Pop. “BTS, for example, is the definitive K-pop group, but their lyrics expose their vulnerabilities. And the lyrics are very honest. And I think that’s why they’ve been able to connect so well with so many different people. But I would not say that that’s entirely common. It’s really hard to expose vulnerability in K-pop. But it needs to be done.”
It is the yin-yang of K-pop’s success that also works as a helping of both good and bad luck for Epik High. The group will be happy to see many of their juniors and admirers succeed and bring their own form of artistry to the world. But, given that they are not an idol group, their unique presence is often tucked away behind the presence of idols. The sales pitch is complicated, and their value is not currently being sought out.
Tablo has also been apt to note the overt stigmatization of the Korean music industry in global media. “I do not like that they try to pigeonhole K-pop and the Korean music industry as this super factory-like, corporate machine,” he says on another Tablo Podcast episode. “Because where the hell do you think we got that from? …They only focus on a few specific cases where that happens, and make it seem like every single part of this scene here is like that.”
This kind of generalization, based to some degree in long-standing orientalist sentiments in the “West,” makes it more difficult for fully autonomous and groundbreaking artists like Epik High to break through glass ceilings around the globe.
“We have possibly the most interesting independent scene of anywhere in the world,” Tablo continues, with artists like Hyukoh, Lee So-ra and more having served as potential examples. “The different genres we have, the different messages, the different crews, everything is very vibrant and alive — and even with some of the companies that are being described as super factory-like, I know a ton of artists there that are super independent and creative.”
Many will also notice the rise of attention being given to the Korean R&B and hip-hop scenes, with the former notably featuring DEAN, a singer who has received beaucoup critical acclaim and racked up big view totals when featured on the YouTube show COLORS. The latter is now more diverse than ever, but is also as corporatized as ever, carried by controversial competition shows like Mnet’s Show Me The Money and High School Rapper.
Opinions on the state of K-hip hop are mixed. “From the late 1990s to the 2000s, I think Korean hip hop was like a small country,” says Kim Bong-hyeon. “However, it has become a genre that is in the limelight the most/gets the most attention, and as such, there are many rappers, the industry grew, and a lot of money gets circulated.”
With the rise of mainstream names like Loco and countless idol group members who double as rappers, marketability and accessibility have become a focus for many aspiring Korean artists. “Of course, because of this, I feel like some of the tight-knitness and humanity that was present in the past has disappeared/diminished,” Bong-hyeon continues, “but I feel that perhaps this is more of a natural/expected change rather than necessarily a bad one.”
Some will disagree. Veteran K-rapper P-Type notes the pressurized economic state and the rise of flashy rap success stories in Korea have caused many middle-class Korean youths to see the genre as an emboldening career path as opposed to a passion.
“Out of the three to four thousand rappers who stand in line to audition for Show Me the Money, how many are really living hip hop?” he told Donga in 2015. “I think this shows how deformed Korean hip hop is… Today, getting into a good college does not guarantee employment or success. Because this formula is broken, students begin to question, ‘Why go to college?’ They started asking, ‘What can I do to make a living?’… Hip hop has become a viable option as an occupation. ‘That person has tattoos on his body, swears in his lyrics, wears designer clothes, and did not even go to college.’… Of course, hip hop can be read as a musical style, but those who enter the scene should see hip hop as more than just having swag or technique. Meeting a good rap tutor, going on Show Me the Money, and making money for their parents should not be a formula for success” (translation by Myoung-sun Song in Hanguk Hip Hop, 2019).
Indeed, some young performers in Korea are instructed by “rap tutors,” often from rappers working side-jobs as tutors to compensate for the lack of pay musicians receive. The upward mobility and performativity of hip hop as a pipeline in South Korea seems like an alternate dimension from the hip-hop scene Epik High entered.
When the group started, there was no money in Korean hip hop. Hip-hop fashion was worn as a statement of rebellion and devoutness to the culture — certainly not as a way to fit in. Where today, pop singers may incorporate trendy hip-hop styles in order to maintain/obtain relevance, Epik High were a hip-hop act that had to incorporate trendy pop styles in order to succeed. “By bringing hip hop and pop together in both hands, they chose the wisest method that enabled hip-hop groups to survive and be recognized in Korea at the time,” said Kim Bong-hyeon.
But Epik High made pop music in earnest. Their doing so is not merely a calculated choice for them to sell records, even if many may critique them as such. “Since we create two very different/contrasting colors in one frame/body… I think our team is loved because we do all that under a single name of Epik High, but this also comes with disadvantages/side consequences,” Tablo told HipHopLE. “There are mixed reviews and divided reactions among fans as well… We may seem like we don’t have a solid backbone/identity. But I cannot hold myself back from doing the music I want to do. If I have to give up one side, I may as well give up on music itself entirely.”
As a result, Epik High has reached the mountaintop. The group continues to climb because they enjoy climbing, and while they would love to see if they can get farther up, they’re more focused on being themselves than anything else.
“Tablo’s entire life is like a movie, and the guy is fearless,” says Nam. “He’s literally been in the face of death on multiple occasions. It’s really inspirational work with this guy and also Epik High. Because they’re fearless, and not in a dickhead way of ‘we fucking rock, we’re the best, we do what we want.’ The things that people might give them shit for, are the exact reasons why I’m like ‘Y’all are brave, and I respect the hell out of you for saying these things.’”
The corporatization of a scene leads to its value being extracted, from above and below, for monetary purposes. Korean pop music, like pop music everywhere else, is filled with inauthenticity. Korean hip hop, as it grows in popularity, is seeing a similar fate. But those who are looking for honesty in Korean music need not fret. After all, Epik High is still here.