When it comes to the Korean music industry, Epik High is in a unique position. It’s been over a decade and a half since the trio of Tablo (Daniel Lee), Mithra Jin (Choi Jin) and DJ Tukutz (Kim Jeong-sik) got their start as a hip-hop crew and since the early ‘00s they’ve remained consistently one of the most impactful alt hip-hop presences in the South Korean music world. Over the years they’ve gone from being part of the underground hip-hop scene to working under Woollim Entertainment, which currently houses K-pop groups INFINITE, Lovelyz and Golden Child. After leaving Woollim they founded Map The Soul in 2009, then joined YG Entertainment in 2012, home to the likes of BIGBANG and BLACKPINK. Throughout it at all, they have successfully maneuvered carving out a distinct identity for themselves while embracing their place as a K-pop adjacent act.
Epik High recently left YG, and are doing things their own way for the time being. Which means they’re working on their first album since the emotional heft, and occasional humor, of last year’s We’ve Done Something Wonderful without any work space to call their own. It’s prompted them to promote an upcoming European tour through comical videos Tablo’s directed and edited, and use a recording studio that they only have temporary use of because its building is up for sale.
Meeting up in Seoul weeks before the end of 2018, Epik High discussed their thoughts about their career and going independent after being under one of South Korea’s “Big 3” K-pop labels for years.
About a year after releasing your We’ve Done Something Wonderful album, you announced your departure from YG Entertainment this October. Why did you want to go independent?
Tablo: Honestly, I don’t think it was like a huge, enormous decision for us. Our contract just naturally ended. We were at YG for seven years, which to some acts is their whole career, right? Actually in our 15 years, it was the longest time we have ever spent at one label. The music that we put out there and the stuff that we tried was great. It was probably something that wouldn’t have happened at any other label. But we also believe in the importance of moving on and continuing to grow. At this point it seems like for us to grow in different directions we need to be in complete control of what we do. We also need that drive and that hunger, where we are forced into situations where we have to do things ourselves. Those situations are usually the ones where we come up with our most creative things because we run into roadblocks.
We have no idea how long we’ll be able to do this for. We don’t make that decision. All we can do is try new things and pray that the universe takes us in the right direction. So we decided, at least for the next how many years, “Let’s try to do things our way.” In a completely new way, and just take risks.
Would being signed to a company keep you from taking risks? Would you say they're risk averse?
Tablo: I’m not sure if they’re risk averse, because there’s definitely a lot of companies and acts in Korea that are doing things that are very different. No one ever expected some of these groups and acts to do this well, and the way they did it was in an unexpected way. They took different roads to get there. But I think for a group like us, the way that risk is defined may be different. The risks that we want to take may not seem like profitable risks to others. And it’s totally understandable because many of them are not. The things we want to do, it really has nothing to do with business. And I know this is for Forbes but a lot of things we do have nothing to do with business in the short term. At this point in our career it’s healthy to not make every decision based on business.
Epik High has been independent in the past. How do you expect things to be different now?
Tukutz: The last time we were independent, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were very, very young. I was very afraid at that time. So whenever I run into a roadblock this time around or a similar situation that I experienced then, my first instinct is to panic. But I remind myself that it’s not the same. I have years and years of experience since then. I’m still afraid but I’m confident in being able to overcome it.
Tablo: Things have gotten much better [for independent acts]. In comparison, when we did the independent thing last time with Map the Soul people didn’t have YouTube channels. It wasn’t a prevalent thing. It wasn’t something you had to have. We were trying to figure out why we had made a Youtube channel originally. But the only reason why we made it was because we had a bunch of videos that we needed to put up and we didn’t have server space. It was costly. So we were like, ‘Where do we put this?’ So we put them up on YouTube and it became the hub of the label. We had no idea what we were doing, but we would put up these funny videos of us fake rapping and stuff. Just things like that. Instagram and Twitter… Now all these things have become very established, they basically are the industry.
So would you say that your career has followed the path of technology innovation over the past few years?
Tablo: Yea, I think we were in very early and now it has exceeded everything and everyone’s expectations. In a way almost every artist is already independent, if you think about it. Even with boy bands or girl groups, even though there’s a huge company behind them most of them have this space, this private space, where they are creating content independently. All this stuff that’s on their social media is independent content if you think about it. And the relationships that they’re building with their fans are just as an independent artist would. Being independent, I don’t think that's even a talking point at this point.
What’s changed in the industry that you think it’ll become the typical way things work?
Tablo: If you have more than two, three people in the room, even if you’re having the same conversation you’re going to have a lot of people who are technically having a different conversation. They’re not going to be on the same page. That just happens. It makes more sense to just have a select group of people, small numbers, that are focused and believe in your vision and share your values. That way it’s easier to be accountable. It just makes more sense.
I think a lot of people are already independent. A huge number of [South Korean] hip-hop acts, they’re mostly independent. A lot of the R&B and urban music acts are independent. I think what’s happening is that the big labels, they’re very innovative as well. So they have a pulse on the industry. They probably have a much better understanding than we do. For example, J.Y. Park [founder of JYP Entertainment], I saw his keynote and he’s very intelligent, right? We’re personal friends with him. But when he said that [the company shifted its management structure to work in smaller teams], I was like, “Okay, so that is where this is going if JYP knows this.” I think that’s the way YG does it too. Even the big labels are basically creating these focus groups around the artists so that it’s not an artist working with 200 people they don’t know the names of. I think it’s evolving, even with the big labels. Obviously that’s the way it’s going.
Other than making the music, what’s everyone’s role now that you’re doing everything on your own?
Tablo: What a lot of people don’t understand is that we’ve been functioning like an independent label within YG for the last seven years. That’s why it was a very good working relationship, because there was a lot that we handled on our own and YG was very supportive of that. Many other companies wouldn’t probably have allowed us to do that.
Music aside, I guess what a lot of people may not know is that all of our merchandise, Mithra’s been in charge of it. He’s literally designed and gone to factories and stuff to be in charge. So he’s the merch guy. He also does a lot of [Adobe] Photoshop, Illustrator. I’m the video guy for now. I like making stuff video-wise, so since we don’t have a video person I’m doing that. But it takes up too much time, so we need to find somebody to help. So if anyone reads this article and wants to help us, even just translating and putting captions in English... It just takes up too much time. Tukutz... So all the things you don’t want to do? Like 99% of the stuff that most people don’t want to do, like accounting and calling people, and sending things back and forth, and paperwork? Just a lot of stuff that artists are not equipped to do? He handles that. Though all of the international stuff, unfortunately because of the language and my background, I work with.
How do you guys feel about 2019?
Tukutz: We have multiple tours planned. We hope to release an album. Maybe more than one project, though.
Tablo: Almost all of the things we’re aiming to do is in 2019. Of course, we’re excited but at the same time it’s going to be the first trial year of this newly independent state. So it’s exciting and also worrisome. For example, we don’t even have an office. Our focus right now is getting the album done so it’s going to be a hectic year. But it’s fun. We’re definitely going to release more things than we used to. Because we don’t know when we’re going to die. [Laughs] That’s not what I meant. But that’s true.
We don’t know how long we can do this for. For us to be releasing things once every three years like we used to? In order for you to be releasing stuff every three years, you either have to be a highlander or a vampire. You’ve gotta be an immortal where time is not an issue. Or you have to be like Jay-Z. We’re neither. So I think we do need to release more things, because we have a lot to do and say, and a lot of things we want to do. So we want to release more frequently than every three years. Which still won’t seem industry standard, because most artists right now drop things like every three months. But “more frequently” for us means one well-made project per year, maybe. It’s better than once every three years, that’s just crazy. But we’re not doing this because we have to. We don’t have to. We don’t really have to do anything. But we want to.
You can read the full interview on Forbes.
And as an extra: Epik High celebrated the holidays together with their wives and children :D
source: blobyblo, forbes