To kick off this brand new feature, UnitedKpop focusses on Seo Taiji (birth name, Jeong Hyeon-cheol), who is widely considered in Asia to be the founder of modern Korean pop music. Idolised and revered by successive younger generations, Seo Taiji has had a massive influence on today’s K-pop stars and enjoys a status akin to that of Michael Jackson.
As a rebellious teenager, Jeong Hyeon-cheol dropped out of high school at age fourteen to pursue a career in music and soon gained experience in a number of amateur bands. Aged just seventeen, he adopted his stage name of Seo Taiji when he started playing bass with Sinawe, arguably South Korea’s first heavy metal band. Despite his humble appearance, he proved to be an electrifying stage performer and was equally at ease with both metal and rap styles of music.
By 1992 he had formed his own mainstream dance trio, Seo Taiji and (the) Boys, alongside fellow members Yang Hyun Suk and Lee Juno. Their debut single, Nan Arayo (I Know), was an instantly catchy hit that topped the charts for a record-breaking, seventeen consecutive weeks and propelled the group to pop mega-stardom.
Nan Arayo has gone down in history as one of the most iconic K-Pop songs ever written and its colossal popularity led to American influences creeping into Korean pop music. However, the initial reception to Seo Taiji and Boys was less than positive when they first debuted on an MBC talent contest: the band had a hostile reaction from both the studio audience and the judges, who gave their performance the lowest score possible!
Nan Arayo’s release coincided with the liberalisation of Korean attitudes towards politics and, as a consequence, this new style of music met with the overwhelming approval of the highly lucrative youth market. The song’s appeal is still fresh today and it has been covered live by many contemporary K-Pop artists, with performances from BoA, Teen Top and JYJ, to name but a few.
Between 1992 and 1995 the group released 4 massively popular albums, entitled Seo Taiji and Boys (Volumes 1 to 4), with many hit singles being spawned from each release. As someone with a social conscience, several of Seo Taiji’s songs highlighted controversial issues and caused a stir in South Korea: for example, political strife and division between North and South Korea was tackled in alternative rock song Dreaming of Balhae, which indicated a hope for reunification and was viewed positively.
With the release of Class Idea, though, Seo Taiji was perceived by the older, more conservative, generation as practically the devil incarnate! His thrash metal track contained lyrics that were extremely critical of the education system, as well as the parental pressure placed on youngsters to excel, and Seo Taiji was subsequently viewed as a potentially bad influence on the youth of the nation. Some people even went so far as to say that Seo Taiji and Boys had a sinister agenda to brainwash music consumers with reversed Satanic messages in their songs, but these claims were ultimately proven to be completely baseless.
Addressing this overblown fracas, Seo Taiji claimed to have heard the “incriminating” evidence and categorically stated that it bore no resemblance to the alleged “Satanic messages.” In spite of this criticism, he kept on pumping out the hits and contributed to a worthwhile cause with the gangster rap song Come Back Home. It addressed the issue of runaway teens and this massive hit actually encouraged many youngsters to return home to their families. Another song considered extremely provocative was Regret of Times, with lyrics that advocated youth rebellion. It was dubbed unfit for consumption by minors, but the huge fan backlash against this decision partially led to the abolition of South Korea’s pre-censorship laws, in July 1996.
Later that same year, Seo Taiji and Boys reached the end of the road, when the group members disbanded to pursue other projects. Seo Taiji emigrated to the US and embarked upon a solo career in 1998, which saw his phenomenal success continue to this day; Lee Juno went on to become a dance instructor at his own company, DM Skool, as well as producing music, directing films and founding a brand of hip hop street wear called Dance Machine and Yang Hyun Suk put his years of experience in the group to good use when he established his own record company, YG Entertainment.
Today, YG Entertainment is home to many unconventional hip hop artists such as Big Bang, 2NE1 and PSY and, through this venture, Yang keeps the trademark Seo Taiji and Boys style alive. Relatively few artists in the K-Pop world have reached the dizzy heights of Seo Taiji and Boys’ success and it’s a remarkable achievement that their trademark street sound continues to influence each new generation of young K-Pop idols, thanks to their introduction of rap and rock music to Korea.
Nan Arayo (I Know) cover versions:
G-Dragon, Se7en and Taeyang
Regret of The Times Cover