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Meet the South Korean megastar making hip hop more eccentric

We spoke to Zico about his volcanic rise from Block B boyband leader to fearless, no-fucks-given rapper

“My biggest wish is that people see me as someone that’s good at music. After that, it’s up to the public and my audience to determine who I am,” says Zico (AKA Woo Ji Ho), the 24-year-old rapper, producer, and leader of Block B, one of South Korea’s most prominent boy bands. Featuring seven members, the group have become well known for their bold, brash fusion of heavyweight pop and spitfire hip hop, their music videos (“Her”, “NalinA”, “Very Good”) often laced with the colourful, madcap and straight-up surreal.

A prodigious writing ability, commanding stage presence and effervescent charisma has also earned Zico a significant solo career. Having started out on Seoul’s underground rap scene in 2010, his choice to conquer the mainstream means his style often teeters between the two worlds, a dichotomous position some might suggest G-Dragon or Jay Park are familiar with. Following several hit singles and a mentoring stint on talent show Show Me The Money, his debut solo album Gallery flew up South Korea’s music charts. Disregarding genre conventions, he pummelled through hip-pop anthem “Boys and Girls” and horn-flecked hit “Eureka”, but it was the hard and heavy sounds of “날(Predator)” and “Yes Or No” that showcased his ability as a ferocious, sometimes complex, wordsmith (“I need to ride a crooked road to be eloquent, problem child/ Hey little blossoms, quit if you’re scared of blood”), his lyrics resonating through the track like an air raid siren.

It could have all been quite different. Block B – boisterous and mouthy in their early years – lost a significant amount of public support after a flippant 2012 interview over Thailand’s devastating floods (which they rapidly apologised for), while the following year, Zico led the group through a major legal dispute with their agency. It earned them a release from their contract, but a long artistic silence followed. It was perhaps a combination of Zico’s sheer tenacity and talent that helped re-establish the group’s undeniable prowess, saving them from becoming another footnote in K-Pop’s colourful history.

So where is he at now? While the uber-catchy “Veni Vidi Vici” closed out 2015 with unabashed spectacle – “it’s (where) I showed all my accomplishments. You could say it’s a period where I’m moving onto the next chapter” – he’s made a surprising start to the new year with two pop-leaning ballads, “I Am You, You Are Me” and “It Was Love (ft. Luna of F(x))”. As he looks to conclude his first significant solo outing, we delve into what drives Zico towards becoming one of South Korea’s most major creative forces.

Your solo career has been one you’ve been working towards for some time. Have your goals changed since debuting with Block B in 2011 and now?

Zico: When we debuted, my goal was first and foremost focussed on the bigger picture, which was Block B. We planned in detail what we could achieve as a team, but we had a lot of interference while getting there, as well as times that were really hard. But we were able to learn how to overcome it and, of course, our fans gave us the most strength. I think as we entered the end of 2014 and after “Tough Cookie” came out, we all had a bit of greed in wanting to get our own names (separately) out there. The reason was that if I could strengthen the brand behind “Zico”, I believed I could return to Block B and the effect on the group would be immense. Last year, I think as I became more well known I wanted to try even harder in what I was doing while being given all these different opportunities.

Has there been a time when you’ve been conflicted in dividing your time and priorities?

Zico: It’s hard even at this moment! I need to continuously work on Block B tracks, dance practice, concerts, and I need to go to all my scheduled activities. At the same time, I’m building up Zico as an artist, and I can’t neglect that either. I think there are (always) limitations on time when trying to bring success to various things.

The lyrics of your track “Well Done” demonstrate a strong work ethic. Are you worried you may become complacent through success?

Zico: All my results and work are the driving force behind progress, and future plans easily come to mind when I see encouraging results. I don’t feel anxious when people around me are accomplishing a lot, rather, my energies are invigorated by other people’s great work and I try hard to catch up someone who is better than me. But I do worry that if I don’t keep moving then I’ll become complacent and lazy!

If you don’t reach a goal that you have set yourself, are you hard on yourself?

Zico: I am kind of hard on myself, but If something happened that I couldn’t control, I wouldn’t get frustrated. I just keep taking steps forward. I’m absolutely cool-headed in my work and I'm not wavered by people around me, or the temptation of bad things.

The lyrics of “Yes Or No” include the line: “Get out of my way, dabblers get your hands off of composing, finish practising your choreography, there’s no surgery that’ll make your skills grow, I guess my authenticity gave you faint hope”. Are you criticising idols who are trying to follow in your footsteps?

Zico: It’s not an offence or criticism to idol colleagues, it’s more like an expression of my self-confidence. I make a constant effort, and that’s why I can say those words. I don’t want to be categorized as a so-called ‘idol rapper’. I want to clarify this point ­– I’m an idol group member and at the same time, I’m a young-blood rapper and producer as well. When I release new work as a hip hop producer, I don’t want to be devalued because of my activities as an idol. I want dilettantes to be more serious about my work and hip hop itself, and to stop constantly comparing my ability to someone else because it’s meaningless.

In the past, you’ve said that “everything becomes material.” Where do you draw the line?

Zico: Some of what I write about are real life experiences. I don’t hesitate to tell my story and express my feelings and emotions through my lyrics, but telling someone else’s story is quite a touchy subject because it’s their privacy, so I do especially pay attention to not to give any trouble.

Your career has definitely had some tumultuous moments. How do you deal with criticism from the media now, compared to a couple of years ago?

Zico: I felt pretty resentful before, but now I try to rise above prejudice and believe I should remain aloof from everyday gossip. I listen to constructive criticism, but I try to not to care about personal insults. Something positive happens inside of me when people look down on me and underestimate my works. I think I can grow up because of the process, and I try to cope with a forward-looking attitude.

When do you feel most invincible, and when do you feel most vulnerable?

Zico: I feel most invincible when on a stage with my team members. I don’t want to show my weaknesses, but I am a normal 24-year-old so I become an ordinary boy when I’m with my family.

How would you like 2016 to pan out?

Zico: Of course I was very happy in 2015, but in 2016 I will hope that I’m even happier and that those around me are just as happy too.