Putting the K in Hip-Hop: South Korea’s Jay Park

The 36-year-old is now one of South Korea’s most recognized entertainers: He founded two of the country’s biggest hip-hop labels, released several hits, has his own soju liquor brand and was the first Asian-American to sign a record deal. Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

But the success was hard-fought, he told AFP in an exclusive interview, after his first shot at fame — debuting as the leader of a K-pop band — was mired in a scandal that led him to leave Seoul for his native Seattle.

„I faced a lot of backlash,” Park told AFP, adding that he was once „blacklisted from the industry”.

The trouble began with some throwaway comments Park posted online — then in her late teens — criticizing the intense idol training regimen, the K-pop industry and South Korea.

A Korean media frenzy ensued, the fallout forcing Park to leave 2PM, a seven-member boy band under major label JYP Entertainment.

He moved back to Seattle and worked at a used tire store, but he kept his musical dreams alive, eventually releasing „Naughtin’ on You” — a cover of the BOB and Bruno Mars song — on his YouTube channel.

„I wanted to show my fans that I’m doing well and I wanted to show people what kind of music I’m into and what kind of artist I am. So I put up a cover. It blew up,” he said.

The song, which received more than two million views in a day, catapulted him back into the music industry and marked „a fresh start” for Park.

This allowed him to rethink his musical style and transition from pop to rap — something that would eventually help transform South Korea’s fledgling hip-hop scene.

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He said it was not a calculated decision or a grand plan, but an attempt to move past restrictive labels.

„If I say I’m a rapper, I can only rap. But I love to rap, I love to dance, I love to sing,” he said, adding, „I’ll always be grateful to hip-hop culture. „For helping him restart his career.

Struggle for survival

Park’s story is unusual: After leaving one of the biggest agencies the industry is built on, it’s rare for a K-pop flop to have a successful music career.

„It didn’t happen overnight. Obviously it took a lot of work,” Park told AFP of her musical comeback.

Hundreds of thousands of aspiring K-pop stars go through a grueling idol training regimen, notorious for high stress and long hours, analysts say.

Only 60 percent of the trainees get an „introduction,” industry statistics show, and all of them are signed to big companies like BTS’s HYBE or its main competitor, SM Entertainment.

Without that support, „the chances of survival are very slim,” said music critic Kim Do-hyeon.

„A lot of groups are disbanding,” he said.

After Park left 2PM, she was left to fend for herself in the industry and spoke about her struggles in finding musicians willing to feature on her debut solo album.

But even when the career odds are stacked against you, it’s still possible to succeed with the right mindset, Park said.

„There’s a limit to what agencies can do for you, and it seems that willpower and determination can fill the gap,” he said.

Change careers

Now Park is trying to change the industry — or a small part of it — for the better.

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He has already founded two of South Korea’s major hip-hop labels. Now his career has come full circle by founding a third label with the aim of creating a boy band.

But he does it his way: Rather than the precise training and obsessive controls pioneered by major agencies, Park says, real relationships and „being free together” are key to success.

Park will be a mentor to her new apprentices — something she says she longs for when she started in the industry at 18.

„I’m not bitter about anything, I don’t hate anybody, I don’t hate anybody. I don’t have time for that. I don’t have time to think about things from the past,” he said.

„I can’t change the past, so I can change the future, that’s why I work.”

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