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ZicoPhotography Elliott Morgan

Talking fame and fashion with Korean hip hop superstar Zico

The 25-year-old Block B star discusses the thin line between being loved and hated, separating your private and personal lives and why he doesn’t listen to his old music

Zico – the 25-year-old leader of seven-member K-Pop boy group Block B, and influential, award-winning Korean rapper – touched down in London for several reasons. He performed a sold out show at KOKO, revealed a collaboration with streetwear label MISBHV, and he squeezed in a few front row appearances at London Fashion Week Men’s shows – yet he admits, surprisingly, that up until now he hasn’t “really thought about what the meaning of style is.”

It’s an unexpected answer from a man who constantly tinkers with his look, on and off stage, with or without a stylist to hand. But then again, Zico (real name Woo Ji-ho) isn’t looking to give you what you expect. He’s as apt to write a twisted, mid-tempo ballad as a crazed pop banger for Block B, while his solo work – from his early, sample-heavy mixtapes to recent single “Bermuda Triangle”, a shade-throwing collaboration with R&B stars, Crush and Dean – remains as confrontational as ever.

Those mixtapes (2010’s Zico on the Block and 2012’s Zico on the Block 1.5) are a vital part of tracking his musical and personal journey and understanding just what he’s fought his way up from. The latter, released after a hiatus following an interview in Thailand that almost ended Block B’s budding career (and resulted in Zico shaving his head in repentance), strips away any idol gloss and puts his still raw talent under the microscope. He’s angry and ruminative but, simultaneously, questioning and pensive on tracks like “Battle Royal”, a young artist coming to terms with his entire world rapidly evolving, even spinning out of control, from teenager to idol to public enemy #1.

Since then, he’s appeared to wrestle at times with balancing the opposing demands of being both shiny idol and respected solo rapper, but over the past 18 months he seems to have embraced a merging of the two. This isn’t an isolated shedding of baggage; even the actions of the idol rappers whose efforts to mirror his career path, and whom he tore apart on 2015’s “My Team AR”, no longer rile him. “Even if there were people right now to come out that applied to that song, it wouldn't bother me,” Zico says, “It’s not important now.”

He still revels in hip hop’s celebration of swagger, but there’s a mindful determination to free himself from the genre’s stereotypical confines. Whether that’s penning a tender, acoustic-based song about then-girlfriend, AOA’s Seolhyun, locking lips on SNL Korea with fellow Block B member Park Kyung (controversially, in a country rarely gracious to its LGBTQ community), or posting a series of confessional tweets over the new year that revealed a Zico who realises he’s still a work in progress, it's an intriguing arc in his public narrative, which, while illuminated with deserving praise, has also been littered with outcry over, for example, his use of insensitive lyrics.

It may be this self-awareness, but also the definitive line he draws between Zico and Jiho, that makes him far quieter in person than you’d expect given the rowdiness of Block B, himself included, on their many TV appearances. Sat in a London hotel room, Zico is unfathomably polite and attentive, yet beneath that he exudes a steely stubbornness, no doubt a necessary quality for achieving fame and success. And although it takes him a little while to relax, he reveals himself to be genuine and eloquent as he discusses with Dazed his influence, growing up, overcoming self-doubt, and the necessity of artistic collaboration.

You collaborated with acclaimed Polish streetwear label MISBHV for a limited edition long sleeve shirt and released it during LFW Men’s. Has this given you the taste for doing more work with fashion brands?

Zico: There are a lot of brands I like and want to collaborate with, and MISBHV was one of them. I’m really glad that I was able to do that. If I had to pick another one, I’d probably choose J.W. Anderson or Vetements.

You’ve always sported wild looks in your music videos and your personal style is just as eye-catching. Do you feel like a style icon, or at least like you’re on the way to becoming one?

Zico: Ah, I don’t really know yet. People enjoy what I wear and people talk about it, but at the moment I feel like I’m closer to a musician than a style icon.  

“When there’s a thin line between being loved and hated... that’s when you’re the hottest” – Zico

Can we discuss ‘Bermuda Triangle’, because this song lays out how you see yourself in the media and in the music scene, and there are some interesting lyrics in there, like ‘became a big deal and changed a generation.’ What do you mean by that?

Zico: In each scene, there are musicians that represent the generation, and I believe we (with Dean and Crush) represent this one. We felt that personally, we’re changing the scene by doing what we’re doing right now. Just continuing with our careers is what’s changing the generation.

And yet you refer to yourselves on the track as three idiots/dorks – does that mean then that you don’t take yourself too seriously either?

Zico: It depends on the situation. When the three of us are together, we’re casual, I guess. When we’re together, we try not to talk about music. We mess about, we talk about random stuff.

Another bar in ‘Bermuda Triangle’ stated ‘reviews or interviews, always trying to fight with me / So cute.’ Can you elaborate on that?

Zico: Nowadays, there are people and comments trying to bring me down. It’s very childish. To me, it can actually be really fun (to see), and that’s what I wrote. When I see stuff like that, I find myself laughing about it – I don’t understand it, there’s no point to it. How can someone lack that much confidence about themselves (that they) try to get me down? I mean, I don’t even think I’m that great! (This used to create an) anger and energy that made me want to push harder, but now it’s not like that – instead, it’s cute.

When did you you get to that point where you could look at something hurtful and go, ‘Ah, forget it, I’m over that?’

Zico: (laughs) At one point I realised that (when) people write a negative review, it takes them the process of having to think about it, go online, then write it up. People are spending a part of their lives thinking about me, whether they like me or not. Since that point, I’ve changed. Filling the lives of those who hate you is the success of Zico’s existence. The scariest thing is (if there’s a) lack of interest. The best part is when there’s a thin line between being loved and hated – I guess that’s when you’re the hottest.

“When I go on stage, I have this aura of being super confident, to the point where someone might love to punch me in the face” – Zico

Over the new year, you wrote a series of tweets to your fans about yourself. They were quite critical – one mentioned you felt you had many deficiencies, in another you called yourself ‘an ordinary, distressed guy in his 20s.’ What made you write this, and what were you referring to?

Zico: When I go on stage, I have this aura of being super confident, to the point where someone might love to punch me in the face. I control myself to look like that on stage, I’ve never felt perfect. This may be my biggest weakness – when I look at myself, I feel like I’m lacking in so many areas. But in a way, that’s a positive thing, because I’m trying to fill those parts and reach above it. To be honest, I can’t tell you in which parts I’m lacking but, I would say musically, mostly. I try really, really hard to surpass that in my life and spend the most time on it.

I still play your old mixtapes – Zico on the Block and Zico on the Block 1.5. Do you ever listen to them?

Zico: No! (laughs)

Never ever?

Zico: Ah, ok, actually I listened to some of the music two weeks ago.

Which one?

Zico: Zico on the Block 1.5. All that music was made at the lowest point of my life, when I was 21. All of the hardships about my life are on that tape.

Is it too painful to listen to, then?

Zico: It’s not hard to listen to them, but when I listen to them I start to think a lot, and I remember a lot of the things that were going on. The thoughts I had then tend to come back. It doesn’t feel awesome.

“Most of the time I write a song when something happens to me. When I’m forced to write music, no matter how hard I try, nothing comes out” – Zico

You’re unstoppable when it comes to writing music – a quick search on Korea Music Copyright Association reveals around 82 writing credits alone. What’s your process? Are you always hearing melodies, beats, or lyrics in your head?

Zico: It’s not like I have these bright ideas or where things flash before me. There are times where I’ll have a sudden idea for a song. When I was younger, it was more like that – always in my head. But now most of the time I write a song when something happens to me. When I’m forced to write music, no matter how hard I try, nothing comes out. I come to write a music a lot when I’ve met someone and thought about a conversation we’ve had, or I’ve seen a movie – I get a lot of influence from that kind of thing.

You also collaborate a lot on your solo work – some standouts include Babylon, Zion.T, f(x)’s Luna, Winner’s Mino and The Quiett. Do you feel there’s less pressure, more fun, and more ideas when you do this?

Zico: All of that is part of the reason. When I write a song, I look for a featured artist when I feel like I can’t express it. For example, on a chorus part that I can’t do vocally, I’ll go find someone who will be able to do it justice. Or I’ll go to someone I respect or look up to, or who has a better idea for the song, or can make it more fun.

Which artist brings out the best in you?

Zico: Babylon. He’s best at supporting me. When I give him the song, he’s good about being loyal to his part and he’s able to follow the direction for what I want.

Without sounding patronising, it feels like you’ve grown a lot recently. Do you agree?

Zico: Mentally, I’m growing each year – but musically I’d like to grow as well.

Last year, you received a lot of media attention over the revealing of your relationship, and this was something you hadn’t experienced before. Has having gone through that intense scrutiny made you value your privacy even more?

Zico: Of course! Privacy belongs to yourself. Zico definitely should be shared with the world, but Woo Ji-ho is a different story – he has a life. That my private life was put out there was an invasion, but as more people recognise and know me as an artist, then this is a path I have chosen and it’s something I have to accept.

Additional translation by Katy Kim