From his underground roots to mainstream dominance, the eclectic rapper is mixing up genres in a divided industry. He tells us why he'll never stop breaking the rules
Since their inception in Seoul’s underground scene in 2001, leading Korean hip hop group Epik High have uncompromisingly given voice to the country's politically switched-on youth: in 2003’s “Lesson One”, their leader Tablo asked, “Shall we multiply or divide the nation? / Break down like fractions, send our sons away to die?” In a country with a country with a locked border and mandatory military service, his words were nothing short of incendiary. A few years later, government agencies attempted to ban Epik High’s music from radio after the release of “Nocturne”, a track with lyrics that explored the corruption, sex, greed and the deadening grind of Korea's white collar culture. They couldn’t be further from the synchronised moves and lovelorn lyrics of your typical K-pop boy band.
In a thirteen-year career, the trio of leader and rapper Tablo, rapper Mithra Jin and DJ/producer DJ Tukutz have risen from the underground to become mainstays of the country’s digital charts, alongside their pop peers and TV soundtrack romantic ballads. They don’t quite fit into pop, but they’ve evolved beyond a traditional hip hop act too: and they’ve angered the underground community by daring to meld elements of rock, soul, R&B and pop with their rap verses. As a result, though, they’ve helped to shape an open-minded attitude which rap-leaning pop artists such as their YG label mates G-Dragon and CL of 2NE1 wholeheartedly embrace.
Yet Tablo's success hasn’t always been rosy. In 2010, the Canada-raised and Seoul-based artist became victim of a smear campaign started by an online group called TaJinYo that questioned the authenticity of his Stanford degree. In his words, it was a “witch-hunt” that nearly killed his career, and which he addresses on “Born Hater”, the lead single from Epik High’s current album Shoebox. “TaJinYo, you’re cute, I’m trying to love ya”, he rhymes in Korean, flipping his detractors off with a wink. Speaking from Japan today, his voice is warm with quiet, appreciative confidence. After all, he pulled off a comeback against all odds in a pop scene where public popularity rules.
In 2010 you were publicly accused of falsifying your Stanford degree, and South Korea turned against you. How did you deal with that time?
Tablo: I felt total despair. I’d created the name ‘Tablo’ for myself specifically to do music, and it was dragged through the mud. There was a huge national level scandal over something I didn't do! Once a person is robbed of their name and every good connotation it had, you don't know what name you're supposed to live by. Prior to signing with YG in 2011, I was convinced that I was never going to be an artist again.
How did your attitude towards the music industry change?
Tablo: I definitely made the conscious decision to shun celebrity. When my solo album came out (Fever’s End, 2011), I felt I needed to get the music out, but I only did one live performance, and then I was done. My Dad passed away, and his passing was the result of (the scandal) – he became very ill because of it. That’s an irreplaceable loss, and after he passed away I felt uncontrollable anger. I couldn’t become a slave to it, though, and at the same time I had my wife and baby. The happiness they gave me got me through.
You were introduced to your bandmates Tukutz and Mithra through friends in Seoul’s underground hip hop scene – what was the moment decided that you wanted to form a band with them?
Tablo: At the time we were young so we were just like, 'let's do a team together. We'd write together but they were terrible songs at first. All of us were on different wavelengths. We took it as a challenge though. At the time hip hop wasn't very big in Korea. There was a glass ceiling of how many copies a hip hop album could sell. They had this really low number, like 50,000 I think, and we were like, we need to break that ceiling.
“I actually hate that I'm considered an elder. Cos you know, in my heart I still feel like I'm 18” – Tablo
What was the turning point for you?
Tablo: I got on one of the biggest talk shows in Korea, and I spoke about how my parents were against me doing music and how music changed my life. I guess that story translated to the youth because they're going through (this struggle against their parents), and the message to achieve their dreams against other people's wishes.
Around your fourth album, Remapping the Human Soul you used to say “No genre, just music”. What statement were you making about Korean hip hop?
Tablo: The perception of Korean hip hop was very out-dated and isolated. The perception of what was good or ‘legitimate’ hip hop was too narrow. I still think that now. I didn't want to make safe hip hop. Hip hop's the one genre where playing it safe makes you look like you're not playing it safe, it's ironic: most other musicians in genres can do things without too much stigma. Eventually hip hop evolves but when it does there's a lot of fuss about it.
You produced the second side of that double album alone. Did that feel like Epik High was getting increasingly divided?
Tablo: That was the first really serious time we thought about breaking up the team. We had those kinds of talks. At the time I was slowly being interested in doing different projects, I guess it was a good and bad time.
You started to experiment more – what was the reaction like from other Korean rappers?
Tablo: They were on our side because we were successful, but I don't think musically they were on our side. Even our fans wondered what we wanted to do. People said we were too pop on certain songs and on others we were way too deep. We were making very polarising music! The problem I've always had is that I truly like all kinds of music.
In your diverse back catalogue, is there a song that stands out as a turning point?
Tablo: There are two. “Fly” – I think that was a turning point into pop. A lot of the hip hop heads were like, 'what is this? I don't really like it.' But at the same time it opened us up to a huge audience. The biggest shift was my solo album with YG. I'd figured out how to put everything into a signature sound but when we released 99 straight after I betrayed the whole signature sound I'd created! Shoebox is the closest thing to my signature sound and Epik High's signature sound in one album.
On (hip hop reality talent show) SMTM3 I could see how nervous people were when auditioning for you. Do you feel like an elder statesman of hip hop?
Tablo: I actually hate that I'm considered an elder. ‘Cause you know, in my heart I still feel like I'm 18. (laughs)
When you look at Korean hip hop today what do you think?
Tablo: Korean hip hop has grown organically – it’s a very unique scene, and it can give back to hip hop elsewhere. Before, it wasn't a Korean thing, it was created elsewhere and we had to adopt it but it's evolving and it's not a matter of size or numbers. I think that's what hip hop was and the way it was started; it's an art form that was created to be ever-changing.