Meet Jay Park, the Korean hip hop polymath with America in his sights

The south Korean rap and R&B star talks being a music mogul and signing to Roc Nation

Park Jaebeom doesn’t act much like a celebrity, even though, as Jay Park, he's risen to the highest echelons of Asia’s urban music scene. Over the course of eight years, he’s released four albums, dozens of digital singles and collaborations, and undertaken two stints as a producer/judge on the rap reality TV show, Show Me The Money, which helped turn Korean hip hop into a commercial goldmine.

During soundcheck in London with his support acts, Hoody and Sik-K (who are, respectively, signed to his labels, AOMG and H1GHR MUSIC), Jay asks an engineer for a smoke machine. His request is as lowkey as asking a friend if they want a coffee, and when the engineer confirms said machine, Jay brings his hands briefly into a prayer position. “Thank you very much”, he says sincerely. In the no-frills dressing room, he’s affable and warm, and when the couches we’re sat on need to be moved for photos, Jay is first to start shoving them out of the way.

Park was born in Seattle, where he fell in love with hip hop and b-boying as a teenager, before joining the JYP Entertainment company in Seoul. He’s pragmatic about how he deals with people, whether it’s stranger, friend, or colleague. “At the end of the day,” he says, smiling, “it’s about being a good human being. You can’t take money and fame after you’re dead, that shit means nothing.” Jewellery-free, he's wearing a black bomber, which has ‘I Need A Cha Cha Beat’ emblazoned on the back – the ident used by producer (and business partner) Cha Cha Malone. Malone has worked on Park’s music since 2010, when the young artist was rebuilding his career after leaving the popular K-Pop group 2PM (and JYP Entertainment). Yet for all the boyish good looks and natural charm, there’s also something mercurial about Jay Park. A charismatic impatience accelerates his words; this is a man who’s always looking for his ‘what next?’

As both a rapper and a singer, Park combines restless creativity with a remarkable ear for a hook and a propensity to swerve lanes, traversing dark beats to smooth R&B to tongue-in-cheek pop. “A lot of people are comfortable labelling you because it’s easy”, he effuses. “Like, ‘He’s a rapper, he can only do this, he can only do these types of shows.’ I want to do everything. I want to feel comfortable being me.” Last year, he took home Musician of the Year at the highly regarded Korean Music Awards, set up his second record label, and in July he became the first Asian-American to sign to the holy grail of hip hop labels, Roc Nation, calling it “a win for Korea… for Asian Americans… for the overlooked and underappreciated.”

The Park/Roc relationship began with the changing of assumptions around the parameters of what a South Korean artist creates. “Someone at TIDAL came to our show in New York in 2016”, Park recalls, “and I guess he was expecting, like, K-Pop. But he was surprised, he saw we were doing R&B and hip hop authentically. They were like, ‘We want to work with you, we want to get you on TIDAL, let me introduce you to Roc.’ It developed into a deal for label and distribution, and now my A&R at Roc Nation is going to start managing me in the States and internationally.”

“I rarely get starstruck, but I’ve been a JAY-Z fan since fourth grade... now I’ve joined Roc Nation it’s even more crazy” – Jay Park

In late January 2018, Park met both Jay and Bey. In the photos, he looks like the happiest man alive. Park laughs. “I rarely get starstruck, but I’ve been a JAY-Z fan since fourth grade, and had a huge crush on Beyoncé in high school. I respect their artistry, and now I’ve joined Roc Nation it’s even more crazy.” He anticipates an album release “hopefully before the summer”, but is it hip hop or R&B? “It’s kind of all together”, he says, despite previously separating the styles, for the most part, on albums Worldwide and Everything You Wanted. “It’s all in English”, Jay adds helpfully.  “We’re getting the features in now, but the music is done.”

Going from commander-in-chief of his own independent operation to one of many artists in a corporation doesn’t faze Park. “I was an established artist before I went in…” he says matter-of-factly, and right now that’s both a safety net and a skeleton key to maintaining artistic control. Take his latest single, the slow EDM of “Forget About Tomorrow”, which is, he says, a couple of years old. “I just kind of had it, and didn’t know what to do with it”, Park elaborates. “Roc said, ‘We want to release it’, then said ‘That shouldn’t be the first single off the label’, so I was like, ‘Okay, cool, I’ll just release it.’” Unperturbed by the change of plans, Park commissioned a striking choreography video, clocked one and half million views in a week and carried on.

Given then the broad scale of his achievements, what’s behind the move? “It’s not about being super famous”, Park stresses. “My first goal was to do what I’m passionate about – dance, hip hop and R&B – but I also wanted to support my family and friends and create opportunities for me and people I believe in. It makes everything I do meaningful. I’m gonna continue to do that but on a bigger scale. If it was like, I did this and now I’m gonna eat this lobster and this steak, just me…. that’s not a goal. If I buy a gold necklace, I buy 19 for the whole squad. If I spread positive energy to them, they’ll spread positive energy and so forth, and little by little it changes the world.”

As it happens, the timing of Park’s focus on “putting work in in the States” feels providential. Hip hop and R&B has never been bigger in South Korea, but much like its pop counterpart, the market is busting at the seams. Riding an ever-increasing wave in early 2016, AOMG (founded by Park in 2013, with rapper Simon Dominic joining as co-CEO the following year) struck “a strategic partnership” with the entertainment giant CJ E&M (which also owns Mnet, who produces Show Me The Money). While the duo still rule their roost, surely the view has changed with the genre’s unprecedented commercialisation.

“Time and numbers only exist because humans made it up. I don’t think animals are like, ‘Oh shit, I’m 31, I gotta do this by now’” – Jay Park

Park hesitates. “It definitely opened a lot of doors, because before it was just like the boy and girl groups, and that’s good for the people that do this music. The negative is that everything gets saturated very quickly. Because Korea is so small, that when one person jumps on a wave, everyone jumps on, the trend dies and it’s on to the next thing. Cultural wise, the roots are not very deep. A lot of people they say they like hip hop, but they just like Show Me The Money,” Jay says, sounding intense. “There has to be more people that bring light to the culture part, people that have mainstream influence... We’ll see how it goes”, he adds, ending on an invisible question mark.

For Park, however, the music, the culture, and the running of his labels is everything. “I live what I do”, he grins. “It’s 365, 24 hours a day. I’m thinking about what we can do with this artist, what I can do myself over here and how we can tie it all together. I’ve become very good at multitasking. That’s how I’ve got to the place I’m at in a relatively short space of time – I’ve only been doing my thing for eight years…”

Eight years of success in music these days may as well be equal to half a century. But Park, who turns 31 in in April, isn’t buying it. He’s still coming up. “Time and numbers only exist because humans made it up”, he says. “I don’t think animals are like, ‘Oh shit, I’m 31, I gotta do this by now.’ I’m getting older, but I threw away that concept of time. I just look at it as life, birth to death. And I want to use my life to cement my legacy the best I can.”

Park’s audience is a melting pot across race, gender, and age, and when he walks onstage at The Troxy in London (still wearing the same clothes from soundcheck), the screaming is cacophonous, and remains that way for over an hour. As the bouncy suggestiveness of “Mommae” drops towards the show’s end, Jay stops grinding to whip off his tee and everyone, already hyped to breaking point, completely loses their shit. A guy, whose girlfriend is staring with heart-eyes at the stage, punches his fist upwards. “Fuck yeah!” he screams, elated. “Jay-ay, Jay-ay!” Afterwards, three girls huddle as people stream around them, some wet from the champagne that was sprayed across the crowd. “Oh my god”, wails one, and they clutch each other’s hands, fuelled on pure adrenaline, “that was so amazing!” America, are you ready?