By Caroline Li
Northwest Asian Weekly
I saw a line wrapping around the block awaiting the arrival of Epik High on a Saturday night at the King Cat Theater in Belltown. The Korean pop stars posed for photos outside the venue before performing to the sold out crowd.
Epik High’s seventh album, titled “Map the Soul,” was released last March. It has both Korean and English tracks, giving the group a good reason to go on its first international tour. The group concluded their U.S. tour on May 23 in Seattle.
Along with U.S.-based, Asian hip-hop groups, Kero One, MYK, and Far East Movement, Epik High proved that Asian hip-hop has transformed into its own subculture that has a strong and growing global fanbase. The majority of the crowd, heavily recruited from the college campuses, was of Korean descent. Even those who did not understand Korean swayed back and forth, and bobbed their heads to the blaring beats.
Epik High is composed of Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz. Even though the group is often classified in the K-pop genre, it’s not a generic boy band.
Aside from being in a room full of underage Asians and waving of glow sticks from the crowd, the vibe was similar to a hardcore rap concert. No joke. I was surprised.
This time, they said bye-bye to the catchy ballads and performed songs from their new album, which is a classic take on rap — lyrics backed by beats and some real attitude.
In March, the group began selling its music and other merchandise exclusively on their Web site, www.mapthesoul.com. It’s an artist portal Web site that allows the artist and the fans to communicate directly on a one-on-one basis.
It features personal blogs maintained by the artists, a videolog called “mapTV.” The bilingual site (Korean and English) is maintained personally by the artists so that their music could be distributed directly from the artists to the fans.
“Map the Soul” was the group’s first release since the departure from its major recording label, Woolim Entertainment. The new album was released under their new independent label, Map the Soul, Inc. After years in the music industry, the group says it decided to turn its backs on all its big money contracts to stay true to its art and to its fans.
“We understand that our work may be priceless, but we don’t want to slap on a price that’ll hurt the fans financially,” Tablo stated in a press release. “We want our fans to always get more than what they pay for, in comparison to fans of other artists. In order to eliminate the fluff in the pricing, we realized that selling and distributing this work ourselves is the only way.”
This new release is a combination of a music CD and a book, which is described as a “book album.” Epik High wrote on its Web site that it hopes this new combination will inspire and encourage artists of all trades.
Expanding its horizons also meant expanding its fan base. “Map the Soul” was produced to appeal to anyone and everyone, the group has stated. The new album contains 10 tracks and has guest appearances by some of the most popular underground and indie hip-hop musicians in Korea and abroad — ingredients in making the new album a hip-hop classic.
When the group made its debut in Korea in 2003, the public wasn’t familiar with its sound because hip-hop wasn’t popular in that part of Asia. As a result, the group tried to find a place for itself in the mainstream music industry in Korea, while also trying to stay true to the members’ talents by continuing to perform in smaller communities. Tablo, the group’s lead, holds a bachelors and masters degree in English literature and creative writing from Stanford University, and is often praised for his intelligence and poetic lyrics. DJ Tukutz started his DJ career in Japan’s underground rave and hip-hop scene. Mirtha Jin’s beatboxing talent is also mind blowing.
Bottom line, they are the real thing and their talent backs them up.
Their music, mostly produced by DJ Tukutz and Tablo, has been known to be pieces of literature, urban poetry, soulful, and even witty. The majority of their songs deal with serious social issues, but it is their more light hearted songs such as “Fly” and “Love Love Love” that have been their big hits.
The guys put a lot of heart and work into revamping their image for this milestone in their career. Whether they will achieve what they set out for is unknown at this point, but these guys seem like they welcome the challenge. In the opening track of their new release, Epik High spits an empowering message, saying, “If we did it, you can too,” reiterating their philosophy that revolution begins with one step. The song pats on the backs of all who struggle to keep their dreams alive.
Either way, it was apparent that both hardcore and new fans love love love Epik High. ♦
Caroline Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.