Although Epik High debuted in 2003, the hip hop trio’s extended hiatus from 2009 meant that many newer K-pop fans (such as myself) are not as familiar with Epik High as older fans are. During their active years the group released six studio albums, enjoying mainstream success from their third album Swan Songs onwards. Though the hiatus was originally due to members completing their military service, the (ultimately unnecessary) scandal surrounding Tablo‘s academic qualifications meant that the group went on an indefinite break. Fortunately, though, Tablo was able to bounce back and sign with YG Entertainment after leaving Epik High’s company Woollim Entertainment and release the very well-received Fever. The remaining two members of Epik High, DJ Tukutz and Mithra Jin, soon followed, and will drop their new album any time now. So, I thought I’d make the best of this opportunity to learn more about Epik High, courtesy of Amy, Bethany and Patricia.
Amy: I have to cheat and say two: “Map the Soul” the album, and Tablo’s “Eternal Morning: Soundtrack to a Lost Film.” Not only are they two of my favorite albums ever, but they bring back good memories I associate with a time when I listened to them.
Bethany: I absolutely love “One” and “Fan,” because they were the first two Epik High songs that really caught my attention. Also, “Run” is another favorite because while it’s a little different from their previous material, Tablo and Mithra really rocked every aspect of that song. I promise the fact that L is in the music video has nothing to do with my love for the song.
Patricia: The “Map the Soul” album was what sparked my love for Epik High. Call me a late player to the game if you will, but you can’t say that I started off on a bad foot. I was still in high school when “Map the Soul” was released, and I have a lot of fond memories of listening to “Believe” and “Top Gun” on the bus ride to school, haha. My junior prom was actually the same day as the Epik High concert in New York, and even though my 15 year old self was convinced that prom-related festivities took precedence over seeing Epik High in concert, I still remember jamming to the album with my best friend (and fellow Epik High fan!) on the way to prom. Sigh, memories.
2. How do you think Epik High has been able to influence K-pop? Did they cause any kind of shift, or did they just add more colour to the K-pop music scene?
Amy: I’m not sure if they made any direct impact on the K-pop scene itself, but I’m really glad that they’re popular enough to be considered super mainstream. God knows that the mainstream in K-pop has very little variety and Epik High spruces things up a bit.
Bethany: I would say that they added more color and variety than really made an impact on the K-pop scene. Epik High appealed to a wider range of K-pop fans because of the strong hip-hop influence on their music. I have lots of friends who dislike K-pop but adore Epik High because they don’t consider the group to be part of K-pop. One thing they probably contributed to was the fusion of hip-hop and K-pop elements though, because many idol groups now try to bring the same intensity Epik High had in their music to the stage. Whether they’re successful or not is debatable.
Patricia: There’s no doubt in my mind that, in terms of exposure and popularity, Epik High is as mainstream as it gets; however, they still stay true to their roots in the less-illuminated K-hiphop community. Considering how gimmicky and “made-up” mainstream K-pop can be, I think it’s really important to have a bridge like Epik High between these two vastly different music scenes. This bridge isn’t upheld by Epik High’s musical style (which is constantly evolving) as much as it is by Epik High’s general attitude towards both music scenes; the Epik High members maintain tight friendships and good business relationships with artists in mainstream K-pop (the infamous Mithra-Heechul and Tablo-DBSK bromances being two of the most prominent), while continuing to maintain their own style in their artistic craft. And it’s no secret that Epik High is tight with the underground scene, having made efforts to feature underexposed artists on their own tracks. There’s a lot of potential for animosity between mainstream artists and non-mainstream artists (um, anyone seen Dumbfoundead lately?), but Epik High’s presence in both the mainstream and underground communities is friendly on both fronts. It’s somewhat humbling to watch.
3. We hear a lot about Epik High’s music, but what about the members themselves? Most new K-pop fans will most likely only be familiar with Tablo, but how about DJ Tukutz and Mithra Jin? What is their group dynamic like?
Amy: I think this is interesting because people expect the same kinds of interactions between the three members like they usually would for actual boy and girl groups, but Epik doesn’t roll like that, and that’s cool too. I think it’s evident in the way they talk to one another that they’re pretty much set to be friends for the rest of their lives, as well as being great professional counterparts to one another. How their relationships are outside of music really influences their work, so I’m really glad for their bond. I think it’s even more important for a group like Epik to be great together on and off-stage, because they are one of the few mainstream acts who makes their own music, so it’s nice to think that if K-pop boy/girl groups had control over their music and they were super close in real life that Epik’s work as a group would be the perfect personal/professional meld.
Bethany: The group dynamic between the members of Epik High has always seemed more genuine to me than just pure idol relationship fluff. The three members have been working in Korean entertainment long enough to be exposed to lots of obstacles, so I feel like while we don’t see the three of them together that often, they’re very supportive of each other as friends and co-workers. Woollim Entertainment is a smaller company when Epik High was signed to them, and the three of them are grown men, so they have lives outside Epik High. I think they work together so well because after so many years, they’ve already established the strengths and weaknesses of each member and use that knowledge to their advantage.
Patricia: I don’t have much to add to what Amy and Bethany have already said, save for this: if you haven’t checked out Epik High’s homemade videos on their old MapTheSoul YouTube channel, you’re missing out. These videos probably epitomize Epik High’s group dynamic better than anything else out there.
4. Now that Epik High as a group has moved to YG Entertainment, how do you think this change in management will effect Epik High and its material?
Amy: This is the big question, isn’t it? YG enthusiasts swear nothing’s going to be different, whereas those who aren’t such big YG fans are worried for some kind of major change. So far in what we’ve seen, nothing has changed for the drastic, which I’m glad for. But I think it’d be naive to say that YG won’t change Epik at all. YG is as mainstream as it gets and whether or not it’s just their inherit style or they’re chasing for a product that sells, they’re going to make changes to Epik. This is the most apparent already in the way they’ve edited Epik’s visual aesthetic. All that eyeliner and all those spikes on Tablo didn’t feel very Tablo, but felt very YG. The cover of Epik’s new album also screams YG with the styling and accessorizing. I mean, it’s not the end of the world that they’re wearing more eyeliner than I’m used to, but it is a reflection of YG permeating into Epik’s art.
The one musical change that is going to take some getting used to is YG incorporating a ton of the other YG artists into Epik’s own work. I get that inter-company promotion is the norm for K-pop, but I really hope they keep it at a minimum. It’s sort of telling that pre-YG Epik never worked with YG (out of their own choosing, mind you), isn’t it? Or rather, pre-Epik YG never thought to collaborate with Epik, either. I really could do without the Bom features or the Lee Hayi plugs. It takes away from the indie artists that Epik were so good at featuring on their tracks because it gave them more exposure that a lot of non-Korean K-pop fans would’ve never discovered on their own.
Bethany: I’m just going to go ahead and say that I think Yang Hyun-suk, having already worked with Tablo on his solo album, is going to allow Epik High to produce basically what the members are comfortable with producing. After all, Epik High is more of an artistic investment for the company instead of a flashy, new-idol one (considering the fact that Epik High already has an established fanbase). After listening to “It’s Cold,” I’m not too worried that their sound is going to change drastically because of the switch they made from Woollim to YG. Like Amy said, perhaps visual changes are unavoidable, but I don’t think that any musical change will really rock the Epik High boat.
Patricia: Judging from the material on Tablo’s solo album (and an excellent solo album it was), I think it’s safe to assume that YG will be keeping its paws a safe distance away from Epik High’s stuff. In fact, I even think it’s safe to assume that the reins on creative control will be directly in the hands of Epik High, with YG there to just take care of the technical aspects. But despite all this, there’s no doubt in my mind that Epik High will become more YG-ified, solely from working around YG people and being in the YG environment. YG strikes me as a place that produces a certain type of artist with a certain style, so the institutions within YG will be molded to fit that style. It’s not to say that Epik High must now alter their work to stay in line with the YG “groove;” rather, the evolution of their musical and artistic style will continue growing along YG lines.
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First Psy, now Epik High: it’s like YG is becoming the home of second chances in K-pop. I think we can expect YG to manage Epik High in the same way they are managing Psy: the aesthetics will be changed, but creative control is left in the hands of theartist. Personally, I don’t mind the eye-liner, though the hair might take some getting used to; as long as they’re not smothered in fur like Tablo was in his MV for “Bad,” I’m fine. The midpoint Epik High inhabits between the mainstream and the underground will not be affected either, I hope. Like Amy, I expect more collaborations with other YG artists, but hopefully we can see more collaborations with other acts as well. In fact, hearing about the members maintaining relations with both “sides” of the industry is something that makes them somehow more relatable, and I would love to see that in play.
The euphoria surrounding Epik High’s comeback is a very understandable reaction; there really was the possibility that Epik High might never have reformed after their hiatus, but to see them continue together is very heart-warming and speaks of their desire to continue making music–and to continue to work together. I mean if military service and sizeable anti-fan clubs can’t keep them apart and away from music, what can?
What do you guys think of Epik High? Are you a longtime fan of the group, or someone who cannot wait to experience an Epik High release in its full for the first time? And how on earth is Mithra Jin the youngest of the trio? And Tablo is the oldest? I can’t even…
(Images via Woollim Entertainment, Map The Soul, YG Entertainment)