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Jay B GOT7
Photography Jang Duk Hwa

Jay B is switching it up from his K-pop idol past

Having just signed to South Korea’s most notable hip hop label run by Jay Park, the former b-boyer and GOT7 member is treading new ground

As a child, Jae-beom Lim decided that if he should be anything in life, he should be like water. “Put water in a glass and it molds to that structure,” the musician explains. “I like to live freely, to flow with the flexibility to adapt to situations. That’s why I want to flow like water. If there’s a high tide, I adjust.” Lim has built a career around that fluidity, shape-shifting across identities, sounds, and styles. In the nine years he’s been making music, he’s been known as JB – a b-boy and member of K-pop groups JJ Project, GOT7, and Jus2 – and as Defsoul – a Soundcloud R&B singer and member of the music crew Offshore.

In January, GOT7 parted ways with management company JYP Entertainment after seven years at the top of the K-pop game. Within a few months, all of the members had announced next steps for their solo careers. All except Lim, who took his time drifting along a current of opportunities until he found the right one to pursue. Last week, he announced that he had signed to H1GHR Music, South Korea’s preeminent hip hop label, as Jay B. “Switch It Up”, his first single as a solo artist, dropped on Friday. 

When Dazed sits down to discuss the news over Zoom, Jay B pops up on screen in a chic black bucket hat and a leather jacket with an embroidered rose blossoming out of the chest pocket. It’s his first interview since signing to H1GHR and he’s admittedly a little nervous, but he smiles easily and broadly. Polite and a bit bashful, even in Korean, he talks in such short, succinct sentences that a translator reviewing the interview felt compelled to make a note: ‘Jay B speaks pretty bluntly’.

Jay B is best known as a vocalist, but his first love was dance. As a kid, he copied the moves in b-boy videos he saw on Cyworld, the Korean equivalent of MySpace. “I loved how proud I felt when I was able to master them,” he says, looking off into the distance. “That’s why I kept on going.” He found a b-boying cafe community on Naver, Korea’s Google equivalent. “I posted, ‘Who wants to practice with me?’” he recalls, “and we were literally out on the street and subway, dancing.’” 

When he was 15, he was scouted by JYP at a b-boy competition. At 20, he debuted as the leader and main vocalist of K-pop group GOT7. B-boying, tricking, tumbling, and acrobatics were defining elements of their performance style and to impress audiences, Jay B often threw down a ‘2000’, a beautiful show stopper of a move in which he twirls rapidly, like an upside down figure skater, on a single palm. “That was possible because I was young,” he admits. Now 27, Jay B is aging out of the youth-fueled K-pop industry. These days, “[b-boying hurts] a little bit,” he laughs.

As he talks, the door behind him opens and someone in a red Nike baseball cap and track jacket ambles into the room and out of frame. Jay B looks their way and stifles a surprised smile. H1GHR’s co-founder, Jay Park, is now eavesdropping on his latest signing. 

The two men are total opposites – Jay B is cautious and contemplative while Park is gregarious, bold, and opinionated – but they have remarkably similar backgrounds. Park is also a b-boy and a former leader of a K-pop group under JYP Entertainment, called 2PM. He left the company in 2009 and, after a short spell back home in the US, returned to Korea to reinvent himself as a leader in Korean hip hop and R&B and an evangelist for the genres abroad. He started his own successful solo career, then founded H1GHR and its sister label AOMG, now the most respected hip hop labels in the country. 

Park’s transformation from idol to hip hop mogul was unlikely. In Korea, “idol music” describes the work of groups and artists signed to entertainment agencies who manage their style, image, and sound. Historically, it has been used pejoratively in hip hop, R&B, and indie circles to denounce that music as a less authentic, and therefore less valuable, form of expression. In recent years that has changed (“I think nowadays, nobody sees idols as being any less artistic than real artists,” Jay B offers) but, at the time of Park’s transformation from idol to indie icon, he fought against those stereotypes every day. Now, he’s helping Jay B make the same jump.

“I never really thought about pursuing an idol (for H1GHR’s roster),” Park admits, waving a tattooed hand. But when Jay B’s GOT7 teammate Yugyeom signed to AOMG, Park recalled that Jay B was a b-boy and had put out more than 20 solo tracks on Soundcloud under his pseudonym Defsoul. Park grabbed Jay B’s contact info from a mutual friend, and offered to bring him into H1GHR’s fold. “I think the biggest difference is that, because we're not in the idol business, (our priority is to support) Jay B as a solo artist and what he wants to do with his music, not a collective of idols and what their brand is as a group.”

And what Jay B wants to do as a solo artist is grow up a bit. His new single, “Switch It Up”, is unabashedly sensual. “Yes!” Park shouts emphatically from off screen as Jay B blushes, tries not to laugh in discomfort, and fails. “It’s definitely different from what I used to do,” he agrees. And it’s certainly not a song he could have made at JYP. First because, Park says, he and H1GHR cofounder and Seattle-based producer Cha Cha Malone “have a specific kind of touch when it comes to mixing [American R&B] with Korean R&B.” And second, because the lyrics of “Switch It Up” eschew the quaint metaphors and thinly-veiled innuendos of K-pop love songs. In their place are explicit sexual directives that more accurately reflect the maturity of Jay B’s 27 years. “You want me inside / Ride my body my way,” he croons after a verse from rapper Sokodomo that includes the lyrics: “You’re sticky with my pheromones.”

This evolution may be a surprise to some of his fans who know him as a member of GOT7. But over the last few years, there were signs that Jay B felt restless within the confines of idol expectations. In 2016 he began to use Defsoul and Offshore as testing grounds for a kind of more experimental, less polished R&B and hip-hop than he could make with GOT7. In 2019, he surprised fans with a nose stud and last year debuted a short-lived anti-eyebrow piercing, both highly unusual in Korea where facial piercings are rare, and practically unheard of in K-pop. “I get the feeling that I'm responsible for my life when I get piercings,” he told Allure last year. He says these were small experiments meant to push the expected boundaries for idols. “I was okay with being an idol, but why did I need to stick to a pre-set type?” he wondered. “What can’t I show the things that I wanna show? I always felt that way.” So, he flipped his mentality. “Rather than trying not to be an idol, I wanted to show that even an idol can do this,” he says. 

There is one distinct hallmark of idol life that he especially looks forward to leaving behind. “Making aegyo,” he says, referring to the cute, syrupy gestures that fans often ask idols to perform on demand. “I can’t do that anymore. Not because ‘that’s what idols do,’ but because I’m too old for that.” And – “I am actually naturally cute, without having to perform aegyo,” he adds, flashing a proud smile around the room as his team laughs. 

That’s fine by Park. “Coming from that idol background where you don't have a lot of freedom,” he says, “you do get very paranoid about a lot of things. You worry about a lot of things that you don't really have to. (At H1GHR), we're a little bit more free: you can wear what you want, you can say what you want.” Everything is fair game, “as long as it's not illegal!”

Park has been operating under this mentality for more than a decade. He’s also always been blessed with a quintessentially American gift of the gab. Jay B is much more reserved and will probably need years to adjust to H1GHR’s come-as-you-are culture. “It makes me worry,” Jay B admits, “but at the same time it feels good. I’m just trying to do my best.” During the interview, he maintains the careful reticence of someone trained to closely guard their innermost thoughts and opinions. Park says that former idols may not even have the experience of being asked personal questions. “When it comes to [interviews], it’s more about, ‘Oh, how do you get your abs!?’” he says. “They're not really like, ‘Yo, what are your philosophies as human being?’” 

So what are Jay B’s philosophies as a human being? He considers the question for a moment before answering. “I respect everyone. I consider everyone equal. Human beings are human beings. I guess that’s all I wanna say,” he says, nodding.

Jay B is opening up, slowly. In the past few months he has been refreshingly honest about taking medication for depression and panic attacks, a topic that’s still fairly taboo in Korea. “People recommended, ‘You should see a doctor. It helps a lot,’” he recalls. “After seeing a professional, I realised I’ve had this problem for a very long time.” 

“I hope I will have many opportunities to show who I am. I’m always grateful for those who love me. I can never deny that I was an idol” – Jay B

Sharing his struggle has made all the difference in his recovery. “People think it’s easy to talk, but it isn’t. And, at the same time, people who don’t understand it tend to brush it off, saying ‘It’s nothing,’” he explains animatedly. “I just wanted to let people know that it is a type of illness, and you need to be aware. And it only becomes harder if you keep it to yourself… at least, it did for me. What I think is most important is having a support system to rely on, and having enough courage to talk about your problem. It will help heal your heart. That’s what I did. So I hope that people will talk and get better. And there may be people who can’t speak up for themselves,” he adds, “so I wish everyone would try to understand each other. Be nice to one another.”

Jay B’s experience caring for his mental health didn’t just heal his heart, it gave him a new mission for his music. “Life not only has positive sides, but also has negative sides,” he says, “And I want to include them to broaden the spectrum (of what my music says) so that people can relate to it and it can possibly provide some comfort.” He explains that he loves the yin and yang symbol, which he has sported on hats and necklaces and used as his Instagram profile photo, because “where there’s lightness, there’s darkness, and vice versa,” he says, clenching his two fists in front of him. 

These opposite halves come together and coexist to form a whole and, “I think that’s life,” he says matter-of-factly. “I hope I will have many opportunities to show who I am. I’m always grateful for those who love me. I can never deny that I was an idol,” he says. Now he hopes that fans join him as he moves into his next act. “I just hope everyone will look forward to seeing the different sides of me… I showed JB as a part of GOT7. Now, I wanna make people remember Jay B as a part of H1GHR.”

Jay B's “Switch It Up” single is out now via H1GHR MUSIC