Hip-hop is enjoying its highest glory days in the current music world. On broadcast days of shows like “Show Me The Money”, “Unpretty Rapstar”, hip-hop singers sweep off the portal sites keyword rankings and their names stay high on the music charts. As the number of artists turning naturally to hip-hop is growing, a fast reversal in quality that is growing bigger is happening. As we can talk about a “Korean hip-hop renaissance”, the “Meeting Hip-hop” corner will present you various musicians that lead the over and underground scene.
t/n: this is an on-going series.
He’s a Korean hip-hop legend, no, he’s history itself. We finally met Lee Hyun Do aka “D.O”.
When you talk about Korean hip-hop, you can’t never not talk about Lee Hyun Do. Still, it’s crazy that we’d get to have him as our first historical figure. No one would deny the fact that almost every hip-hop musician today was directly or indirectly influenced by his music. That’s the reason Lee Hyun Do was the number 1 figure on the list of the most suitable figures we should absolutely meet for this “Meeting Hip-Hop” interview series. We were able to meet him much faster than I thought.
Should I say it was in a history figure style? The interview with Lee Hyun Do began by listening to the “history of hip-hop”.
When he was a 15-year old middle school student, Lee Hyun Do experienced directly the birth of hip-hop in the US which is defined with two keywords : “illegitimate” and “808 Drum machine (TR-808)”.
“Hip-hop officially got recognized as a musical genre when the Grammys decided to make an official award category for rap. It was in 1989. It was even after Hodori was born in 1988. Hip-hop has no genealogy and his beginnings were completely illegitimate,” Lee Hyun Do pointed out about the difficulty to find precisely the roots of hip-hop. “Of course, some books place the beginning with “Good Times” by Chic in 1979 and it’s the origin of the word hip-hop. However, the word hip-hop itself has absolutely no meaning. You just say “hip” and “hop”. Same goes for funk that is now called a music of influential people with standards, but it was just a word created as it crossed over jazz first. It’s just the way the music genre derived from others and got a name,” he explained.” Aren’t there a few people in this world who are able to say they were the first? For instance, they say gagman Hong Ki Hoon became famous because of his deongdali series, but I was already enjoying these wordplays when I was in elementary school. If we go even further back in time, weren’t there already similar puns with Shakespear’s “to be or not to be”,” he added to show precisely how hard it was to define who started something.
Instead, Lee Hyun Do paid attention to “why, how” hip-hop became popular and grew and not to “by whom?”. And so he mentions the famous Roland Sound’s 808 Drum Machine (TR-808). “The 808 drum machine was released in 1980. It was a fresh instrument that was popular. Marvin Gaye, Isley Brother also used their own 808. However, it wasn’t popular in the same way Levi’s was. Roland Sound didn’t know either it would turn into a trend like “it’s a cool sound, no matter who listens to it”,” he explained about hip-hop beat making through the 808 drum machine.
What’s interesting is that no matter how the 808 machine is an instrument that stands for hip-hop originality, there are many young hip-hop artists nowadays who have never even seen one.
“The hig-hat sound or the clap sound, the bass sound that you hear in hip-hop beats, everything is something the 808 sound changed. Nowadays, the kids don’t even know what this 808 is, but they’re still good without even having seen one in their lives. When the hip-hop era started a few years ago, there were a few aspects about the beginning of hip-hop that couldn’t be understood. It’s obvious that it was popular and it was a trend, but it’s a music that evolves freely,” he revealed about the characteristic of hip-hop as a genre.
Since we pick up the subject of who started hip-hop (the current hip-hop music came to completion because of people who did rap like Run D.M.C or rhyme pioneer Rakim who were one of those who established it as a music genre, and Lee Hyun Do also mentioned them, so he can give a detailed explanation of their important connection)it’s also difficult to establish precisely who started hip-hop first in Korea.
“It’s hard to name someone or a team who established Korean hip-hop. A few bands on the indie scene are doing EDM right now and it’s rising as a genre. In a couple of years, if someone asks “who started EDM in Korea?”, no one will be able to tell because several people working in the shadow would have made it grow as a genre. Don’t people say that Hong Seo Bum-hyungnim founded Korean hip-hop because his song “Kimsatgat” is called the first rap song?” he said, smiling at this easy example.
Lee Hyun Do was being humble when he said Korean hip-hop was created by several persons, but many people see Deux as the Run DMC of Korea. Deux was the first group in Korea to release a song that was 100% rap. They were the first to release an album including four elements of hip-hop such as rap, b-boying, djaying and graffiti. Honestly, it is no mistake to say that Deux is the team that established hip-hop in Korea. However, Lee Hyun Do thought differently. His philosophy wasn’t that hip-hop was something fixed permanently.
“There were many different elements about it (Deux’s music) to call what we clearly feel now as the hip-hop genre. It was just Korean pop music to dance and sing. If anything, this dance was seen in Black music and the beat or things like that were clearly the originality (of hip-hop). That’s how I already felt back then, but it was clearly something cool and good, so I never had thoughts like “I’m going to dedicate my life to hip-hop”. However, I realized that people could relate to what I did and they enjoyed it. That’s why I told to myself I must search more about it and let people know about it,” he revealed about his personal music values.
Of course it’s not about sharing some poor understanding of hip-hop. Even without a special explanation, you can clearly figure it out just by listening to what he says about hip-hop. It’s just that his intention point was a bit different.
“What I knew was that hip-hop was real and had something to be seen. While crossing overseas to come to Korea, my idea changed, so it’s something I kept only in my heart. However, some people – like Garion’s MC Meta – who bravely and hungrily dug into it are being respected for it. However, you can’t do it through hip-hop only. Even if you use hip-hop elements, you must combine mainstream music elements to find a connection through the hit created. It’s (The Korean music industry) still not a structure that gives acknowledgement only through the ambition of its artists,” he said. “I never went through the underground scene and I was oriented toward mainstream music. It may safely be called a music following a Korean standard. I think I was just good at doing what I wanted to do and believed in it. I never told myself that I should definitely use rap in the songs I wanted to do. People liked it too and we worried a lot about stuff like the beat and the dancing that could be pleasant to show,” he said about the hip-hop music he aimed for. “If you want to niptick, you can say that “Into The Summer” is the most devoted Deux song, it’s not R&B, it’s not hip-hop, it’s just Korean music. As a musician, it’s a lifetime honor. It’s not about the music being great because it’s elaborate. Putting aside the genre from a musician perspective, the fact itself that the song is receiving love each summer is such a great honor,” he said, expressing his gratitude about the love and recognition his music receives. When asked if “Into The Summer” is still played a lot in summer even today, Lee Hyun Do replied, “try to count how many times you hear it in the summer. There aren’t many songs that came out in 1994 that you can still hear like that today,” he said with confidence. “Season songs are popular these days, so it’s a good time for “Cherry Blossom Ending”. Soon, it will be time for it (the “Into The Summer” season),” he replied, laughing.
As he revealed he recently met Busker Busker’s Brad, he said, “we drank beer together and thought about making a winter song together. I think it would be difficult because winter is all about carols. And even “Cherry Blossoms Ending” hero Brad himself said he couldn’t think as he went all “wow Mariah Carey”,” he explained as he mentioned Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” and triggered laughter.
So what kind of music Lee Hyun Do is seeking? We need to comeback a little to the 808 mentioned in the beginning.
As the original sound of hip-hop is full of the 808 sound, it seemed that it’s something Lee Hyun Do won’t change about in the future. Asked about if he’d use progressively a real band’s sound and not a machine sound in a section of a hip-hop song, his answer was “NO”.
“Back then, there was the Linndrum. It was a drum machine that was closer to the rock drum sound. The 808 drum machine was actually a machine contemptuously treated as people said it was like a toy’s sound. However, this electronic sound made the sound even more emphasized. The 1st hip-hop generation is the drum machine, the electronic sound. Hip-hop is real music? No way. When you look at people like Dr. Dré who are the most admired big nanmes in the hip-hop world now, the drum beat or the sampling you hear in their music is similar to old school funk albums and they just sampled them and recorded them on their computer. Sometimes, there’s a musician playing the instrument, but it’s not about playing to get the acoustic sound. Of course, you can have musicians playing for real in a live performance. You can’t create the studio sound with real musicians. Hip-hop is such an electronic music that you can’t even think about removing sampling and the drum machine when you talk hip-hop,” he explained clearly about hip-hop being called “electronic music” because it’s based on a drum machine.
You can say that Lee Hyun Do has tried different things while seeking this music made in an electronic, computer environment. (It’s similar to the nature of hip-hop that samples several genres). Honestly, this is something someone who listened constanly to Lee Hyun Do’s music can be aware of. “D.O FUNK” album that he did with Han Sang Won who is Korea’s best blues, funk guitarist is the representative album of his work.
About the album “D.O Funk”, Lee Hyun Do said, “it’s a universally acknowledged fact that Deux or I are from the 1st generation of hip-hop. I wasn’t a hip-hop specialist that only did hip-hop. I like electronic music made by Black people, so I used it to create Korean songs. It’s the same for “D.O Funk”. I decided to create funk music by using an electronic sound and this is how the project began. However, funk is a music of influential people and I knew there would be negative comments from the funk experts, so I made a request to Han Sang Won-hyung and I told him “I entrust you with the guitar and the bass. And I will do everything through computer”. We had a mutual understanding and this is how the album was made. This goes for funk music too, but it’s not about judging if computer music is right or wrong to use technology once it became mainstream. Graphic designers today make their designs through computer, but didn’t they draw with pencils before? Drawing by pencil gave a distinct flavor, but you don’t call fake or a fraud the graphic designer who says he doesn’t draw by pencil. It’s exaclty the same here,” he explained about his working method.
Now I understand at some extent the musical path Lee Hyun Do walked on until now. And his musical values were seen recently one more time through a a small challenge. The fact that he produced the debut song of So Yumi who signed withD.O Entertainment, his own agency. What’s interesting is that So Yumi is a trot singer. Lee Hyun Do used the genre “electrot” as Eniac and he composed So Yumi’s title track “Shake Me Up” and “Luxury Man”.
“D.O Entertainment isn’t an agency for one specific genre. It’s an agency founded for music. Eniac is doing group activities with a team called Team Document. We both expand the radius of our musical activities. And if I want to go for one music genre, I don’t have a shallow approach. I personally studied orchestration, I feel it, I play and it’s the same for rock. I don’t want to compose a song with the feeling that I’m trying to hop on som bandwagon. So Yumi was a producer’s project. They told me “this young and pretty girl used to be in a girl group and now she sings trot because she enjoys it. Her father is So Myung” and I thought it would very interesting. I thought it would make our producing team quite happy if we took on this opportunity to create a hit,” he said about his reason for taking on this trot challenge.
As he also kept working on OSTs, Lee Hyun Do tried out various musical things. “I like broadening my horizons because it’s fun,” he answered loud and clear. “No matter how much a genre changes,doesn’t each music has its core? It’s about understanding what it is. Besides, if an instrument gets open nowadays, only the mauals are different, we still use the exact same instruments. That’s why people often talk about the overlap of black music or white music. Music is slowly becoming hybrid, a mix. I want to understand properly how it is and it’s interesting. Right now, I’m not looking for one specific genre. It’s just that computer is the instrument I use and my way to express myself, so I’m doing the music I can express and I can create through computer music,” he added.
The reason Lee Hyun Do was so fascinated by computer music was the fact that it had no limit. “Skrillex used to play in a heavy metal band, but he felt there was limit to this band, so he left because he wanted to try to do things on his own. And he does heavy metal through his synthesizer. The range of what he could express widened. Being able to express your own thoughts, creating a new sound that you didn’t even think was possible is interesting. Playing with instruments has its limit, but here you can express anything you want,” he said, revealing the advantage of computer music.
Lee Hyun Do revealed that one of his three life mentors was Sakamoto Ryuichi whose was a big influence on his own life values.
“Sakamoto Ryuichi is an international master of the music world. He crossed over in various different fields to collaborate with gagmen, to work on ads, video games. Seeing this image of him was the opportunity to break my own paradigme. I thought “he really can do everything. It’s awesome”. The first time I was contacted to produce So Yumi, I wondered if it wouldn’t be harmful to my career and I felt sorry. However, once I received this offer, I thought about him (Sakamoto Ryuichi). I felt it would be actually more interesting because I thought there would be people who might be surprised too if I did this. Excluding my own creation, I think it would be nice if it didn’t matter either to people and they could still say “ah, this music is nice”,” he revealed about broadening his musical field.
Now, it’s more appropriate to call Lee Hyun Do a musician than a hip-hop artist, but it’s clear that his hip-hop DNA didn’t disappear. In the past, in the present and in the future, Lee Hyun Do would always remain as the godfather of the hip-hop scene. He didn’t miss out on giving advice to his hoobaes.
“We can say that the hip-hop scene grew a lot bigger, but I think there’s still a long way to go. It’s exactly the same for other music genres, but there aren’t a lot of artists who actually earn money. It seems it’s only money talk, but these artists get married and they must take care of their family. The structure has yet to allow them to be financially independant. It is the reality that there are sill many of them who disappear because they have the talent but not the recognition. Of course, hip-hop is being less and less considered as a niche market, but there’s still a long way to go before the market is being more recognized in a deeper musical way,” he said, expressing his regrets that the current music industry has yet to fully acknowledge hip-hop. “If you want me to talk as a sunbae who walked down that path first, I hope they’ll do what they want without regret and without being different from who they are. I hope there will be a synergy effect (with the hoobaes) as we move forward step by step. In the past, it happened many times that I turned away from people, but there were many times working with someone else would have created a better result. Afterwards, the conflict just belongs to the past. I want to say that conflicts can be interesting sometimes, so when it happens in a moderate way, if there can be a synergy effect from working with someone on a different line or about a different genre, it’s a mutual advantage. Being stubborn is that I’m from the 1st generation. Stubborness made me right 8 times out of 10. However, when I think about it now, I feel like there could have been an agreement at least for one of the two things if I hadn’t been stubborn. So I hope young people will use their energy wisely and not focus on themselves,” he said as a loving piece of advice about his hoobaes and the hip-hop scene.
P.S. It wasn’t included in the interview, but here’s some news Lee Hyun Do’s fans might be curious about.
Number 1: The reason he gave up on advancing on the US market and returned to Korea. “The US are a complete business world. I thought I was in front of the door, but it wasn’t the case. It’s a place based on big business, so you’re limited if you have no support. Sometimes, they suddenly debut in South America or somewhere like this and they appear there, this is just market logic and they already have the support they need.”
About the failure of his collaboration project with Wu Tang Clan right when it was about to happen. “It was a rumor a bit exaggerated. I met and talk with just one of their members. He said he’d do a featuring on my song if I gave him money. However, I thought it would be meaningless to do it like this since it was a lot of money, so I didn’t do it. It was Raekwon.”
Number 2: About the Deux 20th-year anniversary album project, the anniversay project is completely finished.
“It was made only with producers and singer-producers who have genuine respect. I’m really thankful to all the people who participated to this project,” he said as he expressed his gratitude.
And about the fact fans thought HaHa & Skull would be a part of the project, “They’ve always shown a lot of respect to Deux, but they were never on the list of people who would do the album project. I think people were misinformed,” he said.
Number 3: it’s about soccer and not music. He’s soccer-crazy and watches every game of each European country league and even the UEFA Europa League. He revealed that he’s a fan of the Real Madrid team. “This image of strength and good balance is beautiful,” he explained about why he prefered Real Madrid.
The interview was held on April 18th. A few hours later, on the 19th at dawn, the 33 round between Chelsea and Manchester United would take place. When asked about the game between ManU, which was leading the league with 6 wins in a row, and Chelsea whose performances hadn’t been good lately, Lee Hyun Do picked Chelsea with no hesitation. That day, Chelsea won, just like he had predicated, which confirmed his discerning eye.
T/n: black music and white music… * sigh * in 2015.
Donga via Nate
Translation: @thesunnytown – thesunnytown.wordpress.com