Pin It
NCT 127
NCT 127Courtesy of SM Entertainment

Meet NCT 127, the next K-pop group poised to cross over

The inventive 10-member group are starting to crack the US charts, arriving while industry interest in K-pop is at an all-time high

“We want to focus on spreading our music to the world,” Mark Lee, a Vancouver-born rapper who makes up one tenth of South Korean pop group NCT 127, eagerly tells Zane Lowe, “so we needed an English version of the song.” It’s mid-October, and Mark, along with the group’s other nine members, are standing opposite the Apple Music DJ in the company’s US headquarters. They’re here to give their new, Latin trap-infused single “Regular” its first play. The track is being released in English and Korean simultaneously, but with separate music videos, a rarity for a K-Pop group. It adds to the already heavy workload faced by idols, but the approach has paid off: two years and three mini-albums after their debut, NCT 127’s first full-length album, Regular-Irregular, landed at #86 on the Billboard 200, the second highest ever entry for a male K-Pop group. Not bad for a band who haven’t even held a solo show on US soil yet.

The Apple visit would be just one stop on NCT 127’s US media blitz, which saw them become the first ever K-Pop act for Apple Music’s ‘Up Next’ series, performances on Jimmy Kimmel and ABC’s Disney-led Mickey’s 90th Spectacular, treading the red carpet at the American Music Awards, and a number of TV interviews. It’s a trip that was “definitely unforgettable and exciting because we experienced a lot of firsts during it,” Mark says.

“It felt like a dream,” adds Johnny Seo, perhaps unwittingly evoking the group’s new album, which explores both their reality and dreams. “We met Tyra Banks and Ty Dolla $ign on the AMA’s red carpet, which was so cool. It felt unreal standing next to these international superstars.”

“Ty Dolla $ign even said that he wanted to collaborate with us,” pipes up 18-year old-vocalist Haechan (full name Lee Dong Hyeok). “I really, really hope it happens.”

NCT 127, are striking the US while the iron is hot, a heat generated by BTS, whose rise to fame and powerful fandom has sparked an industry-wide interest in K-Pop and its devoted audiences. While it has to be said that K-Pop has never legitimately failed in the USA (existing as a solid, but cyclical, niche), only BTS have won over non-K-Pop fans on a mainstream scale. The door they’ve knocked down has spurred other K-Pop companies to refocus on America, a territory they’ve historically been unable to maintain as a priority. Previously, K-pop faced almost total ambivalence from US media giants to promote their acts, and the industry has concentrated its energies, and money, on safe Asian markets instead. The opportunity is now there, but new challenges await, not least the music and media industry’s penchant for replication over innovation – something that’s already begun, with headlines either heralding or questioning other groups, including NCT 127, as “the next BTS”.

Such a description does a disservice to NCT 127. The group were born from  a utopian idea of creating artists and music that could specifically target different markets while remaining deeply intertwined. In February 2016, SM Entertainment’s CEO, Lee Soo-Man – the man who, in the mid-90s, helped develop the blueprint of training K-pop idols and placing them in groups, the standard practise still used today – outlined his vision for SM’s next generation of performers. He called his plan ‘New Culture Technology’, and the upcoming group ‘NCT’ (which stands for ‘Neo Culture Technology’). Idol groups, like most pop groups across the world, have fixed line-ups, but will often create a sub-unit or two, where specific members are put together into a separate, smaller group to bring out another musical angle or raise the profile of the selected artists.

NCT would take the wildly ambitious step of being a group with no boundaries. NCT would be the umbrella name for the group, and under any number of teams would flourish under it. Lee’s plans began with debuting a Seoul-based group, then subsequently introduce more teams, who’d work out of global cities and regions (Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, and Latin America were slated to follow). Members could be added to existing teams at any time – either being taken from other existing teams in an overlapping format, or plucked anew from SM’s in-house training system. On paper, it’s complex, and the reality is even more head-spinning – and even hardened K-Pop fans have struggled to keep track of the members as they criss-cross units.

“We want to focus on spreading our music to the world” – Mark Lee, NCT 127

The plan was rolled out in April 2016, with the seven-member NCT U, who debuted with the brilliantly eerie trap song “The 7th Sense”. In July 2016, NCT U’s members Lee Taeyong, Moon Taeil, Mark, Jaehyun (Jung Yoon Oh), and Chinese member Winwin (Dong Si Cheng), plus newcomers Haechan and Japanese member Nakamoto Yuta, would form the loud and brash NCT 127 (the ‘127’ in their name comes from Seoul’s geographical longitude), whose debut was the angular hype of “Fire Truck”. They added Doyoung (Kim Dong Young, from NCT U) and Chicago-born Johnny in late 2016, and, in September 2018, Kim Jungwoo (also NCT U).

Perhaps realising the enormity of the CEO’s idea (in monetary, creative, and promotional terms), SM have changed tactics since its announcement. Another Seoul-based unit, NCT Dream – a graduation-style unit, where members leave once they turn 19 – debuted in August 2016, while this year saw all 18 NCT members perform as NCT 2018. After much delay and rumour, the Chinese unit recently confirmed debut preparations, but the Latin-American and Japanese groups have seemingly vanished.

Despite the ever-swirling pool of names and members, NCT 127, as an entity, have become a steady force. They’re the busiest unit and have a striking, often gender neutral, style – from swathes of animal print and skirts to chokers and obscenely tight PVC trousers – and an easily identifiable sound, which swings through shimmering, teasing R&B (“Back 2 U”), rubbery piano house (“Summer 127”), and immaculate synth pop (“Come Back”). Their singles are anchored in tremulous bass and killer choruses, such as “Limitless”, whose trappy, sleazy sound is in direct contrast to the lyrics documenting their ambitions and desire to connect with an audience, and the chest-thumping “Cherry Bomb”, where they proclaim themselves the “biggest hit on the stage”.

“Regular” has a gentler sonic impact than its sibling singles, but the two versions have an important task; sitting at opposite ends of the album, they bookmark the two-sided concept. The Korean version is upfront, its lyrics rooted in the now, balanced between aspirational and the glow of increasing success, while the English cut sits at the end, the lyrics dripping in an imagined future of diamonds and supercars. “‘Regular’ is the first ‘Latin trap’ song we’ve worked on,” says rapper Taeyong, sporting a silvery grey mullet. “The album’s exciting because we try out many different genres, from ballads to electronica. We put a lot of thought into the tracklist and order so that it reflected our reality, then our dreams. It’s a much richer and fuller album, it showcases NCT 127’s evolved sound.” Latin America has embraced K-Pop and NCT 127 is not the first group (in K-Pop or SM Entertainment) to embrace the Latin sound, but in many ways, they’re a clear distillation of NCT’s ethos – global in their reach and output, diverse in their individual backgrounds, changeable yet interconnected.

Taeyong has mentioned previously that he’s merely NCT’s ‘acting leader’, but there’s little doubt of his position within the group’s dynamic. During their US interviews, conversation duties fell to fluent English speakers Jaehyun, Johnny, and Mark, but even casual observation showed 23-year-old Taeyong as a stabilising presence, the members looking to him for subtle visual cues. “He definitely has a charisma that comes with being the leader, he acts as the pillar of the group,” says vocalist Yuta, frankly. Like most idol groups, they’ve developed a familial bond thanks to years of training and living together. Because there are so many members, I always feel supported,” Doyoung enthuses. “It’s always fun and energetic, and we’re always ready to take on just about anything. We’re all so close that even when go eat or have some free time to play, we usually spend it together.” Taeil jumps in to back him up. “I love that we never, ever get bored,” he grins “The only bad thing I can think of is that we take so long to pick a menu when we go out to eat together.”

The recent move to include vocalist Jungwoo has been a smooth transition that speaks for the group’s adaptiveness and mutual respect for a shared goal. “I was a bit nervous when I first joined, but I’m really happy now,” says Jungwoo. “I feel like I’ve gained nine brothers.”

“I was a bit nervous when I first joined, but I’m really happy now. I feel like I’ve gained nine brothers” – Jungwoo, NCT 127

“We’ve all practiced with Jungwoo for a long time, so I was excited to hear that he’d be joining. He really adds a different charm to our group as a whole,” adds Johnny reassuringly. Gregarious, multilingual and charming, he’s singled out by Jaehyun as the “father figure of of the group, and a great listener.”

Johnny and Jaehyun have been radio DJs since early 2017, with a light entertainment programme called NCT’s Night Night, which is buoyed by the boys’ natural rapport, and an occasional surreal veer off the rails. “When I first started (presenting), I struggled a lot because everything was so new,” Jaehyun laughs “When we had promotions or events overseas, Johnny and I would room together and practice. I think it paid off, because we have great chemistry on-air. (But) I gain a lot from it too; talking with the listeners makes them feel like close friends, and radio provides us another space to heal and breathe.”

Another vital partnership lies between rappers, Mark and Taeyong, who frequently write their own lyrics, and have songwriting credits on the Regular-Irregular and NCT #127 Limitless albums. It’s been a slow, steady learning curve, and their latest contribution can be found on the woozy “My Van”, a diary-like journey through the day in the life of an idol. “Taeyong and I have worked on lyrics and our own music since we debuted,” says Mark. “We bounce a lot of ideas off of each other about the types of music or performances we want to try out. We’ve been working together like this for so long there’s a natural ease when it comes to writing or helping produce.”

At a mere 28 months old, NCT 127 have been more successful on the Korean charts with their albums rather than their singles, but their presence on the worldwide iTunes, Billboard’s Social, and World Albums charts has been consistent and it’s pushing upwards. “I’m so grateful for all the support we’ve been receiving, but we still have a lot more we want to show everyone,” Winwin points out. “Over the past two years, we’ve been lucky to experience so many things but we believe we’re still growing, and maturing, as artists,” adds Taeyong.  

However, Regular-Irregular is a significant cornerstone, not only in the USA but domestically, where “Regular” has racked up four wins on South Korea’s competitive weekly music shows, a significant uptick for an NCT 127 single. It’s made them cautiously excited and expectant about the future. “When we first debuted, we were trying to get a hang of it all – recording or performing on TV, doing promotions,” Mark says. “(Now) whenever we get to watch concerts of senior SM artists, it really pushes us to have our own concerts soon. We want to showcase our performances on-stage.”

NCT 127’s slow burn start has arguably toughened them for a bumpy road ahead. After all, the Asian market is volatile and saturated, America’s is vast and demanding, and, despite K-Pop’s advances, still squeamish of large groups. But with an already formidable arsenal of songs and multiple bilingual members, should NCT 127 get those longed-for concerts, and take them to the US alongside another charm offensive, it eventually won’t be a question of ‘if’ NCT 127 can crack America, but simply a statement of ‘when’.