Korean Rapper G-Dragon Talks K-Pop Hype, New EP and Past Scandals
The hairstyles are colorful, dance routines are perfectly choreographed, and the music’s stupidly infectious. If you don’t know, get to know K-pop: South Korea’s globetrotting bubble-gum music spree. The players are well-groomed “idols” that have gone through years of rigorous training, and the label heads are masterminds that oversee nearly every movement of their creations. Despite its manufactured tendencies, the fans—from Paris to Tokyo—love it. And it’s evident in the numbers as the profit margin increases yearly, raking in billions (trust, they’re dollars not Korean won).
And while the obedient ones make high sales and earn national darling statuses, what the critics and the kids want is someone who’s edgy. Enter: Big Bang’s G-Dragon. First came onto the scene as South Korea’s answer to Lil Bow Wow, the 24-year-old Kwon Ji-yong made his mark as a future star at an early age. Under the tutelage of South Korea’s de-facto hip-hop imprint YG Entertainment, Kwon made appearances on tracks of the label’s then poster acts throughout his teenage years. So his official debut as a member of boy band Big Bang initially came as a surprise. The results, however, were staggering, as the quintet spread across Asia’s pop market, with G-Dragon’s self-produced and written songs (“Last Farewell” and Lies”) amassing tremendous success.
His first solo album, Heartbreaker, released in 2009, continued his ascendancy as the country’s most influential icon for youth culture. His outfits inspire knockoffs, while acts of lesser foundation bite his musical style. Plus, unlike the typical clean-cut image administered by most K-pop acts, G-Dragon amassed a string of scandals (accusations of him puffing lye—a punishable offense in South Korea—and plagiarizing foreign music have made national headlines). Is he South Korea’s Kanye West? Certainly, it’s not an overstatement.
With his latest EP One of a Kind causing more noise than any other release from a K-pop artist this year, G-Dragon’s riding high from his own success. While in New York City for Big Bang’s Alive World Tour last November, XXL spoke with Korea’s most popular and recognized idol/rap artist. —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)
XXL: How did you first get introduced to rap and hip-hop?
G-Dragon: I was about nine years old when I first heard Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” Before that, I didn’t know anything about rap or hip-hop. I was just into Korean pop. This was before the K-pop phenomenon. I just listened to regular commercial music from Korea. I would just follow the choreographed dance routines. I didn’t have any ambitions of pursuing rapping. I liked dancing, so I did that. I occasionally rapped along to some homegrown Korean rap. And then a friend introduced me to Wu-Tang, and played me Enter the 36th Chambers. It was very shocking. And then I started to look for different albums. This was pre-Internet, so it’s hard to find the music, and it was even harder to find music videos. So I’d watch things little by little. If I saw a music video, I would watch it over and over again. And when I got to the fifth grade, I wrote my first verse. It was terrible, but I did it. [Laughs.] I started to listen to more Korean rap instead of Korean pop, which was still a very niche, underground genre at the time.
You debuted at a young age. You were part of a Korean hip-hop compilation album called Hip-Hop Flex 2001.
G-Dragon: There was this hip-hop collective called People Crew. And at the time, in Korea there was no real place to access rap music. So People Crew used to host this summer school program, which taught rapping and dancing. I begged my mom to attend that school to learn how to rap. And from the guys at People Crew I would get compliments that I was good. They introduced me to Lee Hee-sung, who was the leader of this four-member rap group called X-Teen. At the time Bow Wow was a big deal. I guess Hee-sung thought Korea needed its own version of a Bow Wow, and I think he wanted to be Jermaine Dupri. [Laughs.] So I was featured on Hip-Hop Flex 2001, and that made headlines in Korea as the youngest rapper in the country. YG Entertainment took notice and decided to take me in.
READ ON TO FIND OUT GD’S THOUGHTS ON OTHER K-POP BANDS!
So you wanted to be a rapper. Then how did you react when you found out that you’re debuting as a member of a boy band?
G-Dragon: At first, I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t understand it. Taeyang and myself were trainees at YG for a long time. So we figured we would debut as a hip-hop duo. A group of sort. Then they decided to pick three more members, and was planning on having us debut as an idol group. I wasn’t too fond of it. I actually hated it. I knew T.O.P as a kid, so we were friends. But I didn’t know the other two members. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do, so we would just practice choreography everyday. I really didn’t know what was going on. But YG, the label itself puts out boy bands, but they don’t strictly deal with bubblegum pop music. Since its foundational core is based around hip-hop, I trusted the label’s directions. It went well, so I’m satisfied now.
How would you say Big Bang is different from other K-pop groups?
G-Dragon: These days, the musicality of idol groups have improved—I mean, there’s still a very few who actually produce or write their own music. But as a K-pop idol group, at the time of our debut, we were the only ones who produced and wrote our own music. I think we were the first as K-pop idols. So if I would pinpoint a difference, is the fact the members write their own songs. Since we make our own songs, we have a better understanding and appreciation when we perform on stage. We know what we’re good at. It’s not like somebody’s giving us a song. We’re doing what we like to do. So it helped us build a tighter world of our own, musically. Music needs to be associable. Since we’re writing our own music, we’re better at expressing our own thoughts and feelings, instead of someone else translating those feelings for you.
I heard from Choice37 (YG’s in-house producer) that you tweak and reconstruct tracks to fit your own vision. Explain your songwriting and production process.
G-Dragon: Ever since I was a kid, one of the assignments I received from YG Entertainment was writing songs. When I was in middle school, they would tell me to write one song per week. By that I mean, coming up with your melodies and lyrics by using an American instrumental. I did that for about a year. And then, the time duration shortened. I was told to write a new song every three days, and then it became two days, and one day. Since I was trained to do it for so long, writing a song a day became really easy for me. It kind of became a hobby. On top of that, I have a good support system. Whether it’s Teddy, or now it’s Choice, they produce a lot of tracks and laid the groundwork for me. I would say they do most of the work, and I kind of oversee the direction.
FIND OUT HOW MUSIC VIDEOS FOR “ONE OF A KIND” AND “CRAYON” WERE MADE!
The videos for “One of a Kind,” and “Crayon” made a lot of noise on the viral sphere. Who is director Suh Hyun-seung? And how much creative input did you have in those videos?
G-Dragon: Suh Hyun-seung is really, just crazy. He’s a real outsider. Kind of an otaku. He’s not social. Doesn’t meet a lot of people. He’s not driven by money. If he’s shooting a video, he’ll listen to the song, and if he likes it, he’ll work on it. He needs to have a vision. He needs to have a creative connection with the artist. I feel like a lot of other artists, even though they want to work with him, they can’t. [Suh] is the type that if he listens to your music, and doesn’t like it, he won’t answer you. Luckily, he likes the music put out by my company, and during the creation process, we met on a daily basis. He has his own editing room at the YG headquarters. And when you think of it as work, I feel like it doesn’t really come out the way you want. That pertains to anything. Whether it’s music, song, fashion, or video. You just got to chill, look at funny videos, talk about what could be a good idea. I care a lot about the aesthetics of my videos. And I try my best to be as detail oriented as possible. For instance, if people only think of direct translations of the lyrics, we want to illustrate that with a twist to give it a deeper meaning. So when people see it, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s interesting how that could mean something different.” Instead of making a video that’s worth a glimpse, we try to make something that has replay values.
How are the music videos for your solo projects different from group efforts?
G-Dragon: When we’re working on videos for Big Bang, since the group’s more mainstream, we tend to concentrate on catering to a broader audience. When I’m working on my solo projects, I just do what I want to do. I can be funny, funky. My image itself isn’t all that clean cut, so for this project, I tried to have more fun with it. All the singles from the project are very different. So the director and I tried our best to highlight those elements.
“That XX,” felt very personal. Was it based on real-life events?
G-Dragon: All the songs I write, I mean, of course, some level of fiction is in the mix, but I try to write my own stories for the most part. I wouldn’t say I completely went through that same experience, but when I felt those types of emotions, I remembered it well, and I just jotted it down.
G-Dragon: Man, I could be a sucker. [Laughs.]
G-Dragon: Now? Maybe not. But when I was younger, just because you like someone doesn’t mean she’ll be with you. I’ve had many experiences when the feelings weren’t mutual. [Laughs.] When I’m on the rap tip, I could rap about sluts, I could do all of that, but when I’m singing a love song, it needs that mournful, loser’s emotions in a way. I think that works better. It’s kind of that Korean ballad sentiment.
NEXT! GD SPEAKS ON PLAGIARISM SCANDAL AND THE K-POP BUBBLE!
Since we’re on the subject of writing and producing, I want to ask you about the scandals you faced for plagiarism. I thought it was just a lack of understanding for sampling in South Korea. Thoughts?
G-Dragon: Umm, I don’t know. I’m Korean. I grew up in Korea. And there are still many things in the Korean music industry that has not yet been figured out. I think it’s totally understandable that people don’t grasp the concept of sampling. And everybody will have a different take on the song. It’s not really about right or wrong. Just because a select few believe it, don’t mean they’re wrong either. If they felt that way, then that’s what it is. In the end of the day, I’m not ashamed, so I don’t really comment on it.
I think after Big Bang, there’s been a surge of K-pop idol groups with very similar styles. What are your thoughts?
G-Dragon: Uh-huh. [Laughs.] I like it, personally. I’m sure it’s not all because of us. But after our debut, a lot of K-pop idols with more concentration on their music definitely started to appear more. I don’t know how much of them really do it, but to actually have idols that write their own songs are a good thing.
But you don’t feel a certain way about them biting Big Bang’s style?
G-Dragon: I did feel a certain way. I felt that way before. Maybe two years ago? When I was a little younger? Not saying I’m old, but back then whether it was style or music, I didn’t want to be lumped into a category. Now, I don’t really care. It’s whatever. When I look at the bigger picture, to see how it’ll influence the generations that’ll come after us, I think having more artists is a good thing. There needs to be more people that are good, so I can be better, too. They’re saying this and that about Korean Wave—I don’t really believe it.
I’m glad you mentioned that. What are your thoughts about K-pop’s current boom? Is it odd for you?
G-Dragon: I don’t really think I know myself. I don’t quite get how [K-pop] is functioning. But I’m certain that we need to grab the approval when we have the chance. Unfortunately, in Korea, I feel some people are just seeing the dollar signs. Sending out artists who aren’t fully prepared out into the foreign markets. I’m still against such approaches. There’s definitely good and bad. Obviously, it’s huge that such a small country is able to churn out talents to come all the way out to the U.S. and Europe. It’s also serving as a gateway to the Korean culture. The music, the people, and the arts are spreading; I think that’s the good part. The bad part is seeing artists, who we look at and just don’t feel like they’re good. This is my personal opinion, but there are some acts that I’m a little embarrassed to look at. Since the people here don’t know much about Korea, their perceptions about its music will be restricted to those acts. That’s a bit unfortunate.
Well, then is G-Dragon part of K-pop?
G-Dragon: I can't say I hate the title. Because at the end of the day, it’s pop music from Korea. But in the long run, I don’t want to be affiliated with that name. I don’t want to go to a foreign country and get lumped into that genre. I’m just looking at the bigger picture. This K-pop title might be good for now, but looking ahead it could hold me back, like a prison of sort. I’m a little wary about that.
GD BREAKS DOWN WHY YG IS THE BEST LABEL FOR A MUSICIAN!
You started out as a rapper, and then became an idol, and now you’ve become an artist. Which title do you prefer?
G-Dragon: I’ve always liked being a rapper. I’d like to be remembered as a rapper. Somehow I ended up singing, too. I mean, I enjoy it. I’m having fun. But my roots are rap and hip-hop. So, I’m going to be a rapper. [Laughs.]
Now that you’ve acquired some level of success as a solo artist, you ever thought about branching out and starting your own imprint?
G-Dragon: I’ve been with YG since I was a kid, so I never even thought about anyplace else. I think YG provides the best environment for a musician. I’ve met many artists in America, artists in South East Asia, and I think it doesn’t matter where you go; there isn’t really a place like YG anywhere. It really gives a lot of support, it doesn’t hold back on helping artists who want to create music. Since we can do a lot of different things, and not have to worry about money, it’s great. And I never thought about starting a label, or I’m just not really confident yet. I’ve never done it. I think a business guy is different from an artist. They walk different paths. Artists create the best outputs when they’re having fun. And when a good business partner supports them from the side, it creates great synergy. When someone’s trying to do both, I think the music gets bad and the business gets bad, too.
You ever felt like the Korean market is a bit stuffy and restricting? Whether it’s the weed scandal or the sampling issue, these things are nothing in America.
G-Dragon: I wouldn’t say it’s stuffy. I mean there are definitely times I feel that way. Times I don’t understand it. But the cultures are shifting for the better. And, you know, I’m Korean, man. [Laughs.] You know if you’re in Rome, live in the Roman way. I grew up there, I was born there, and so I should follow its guidelines, live like a Korean. And I really love Korea. I grew up listening to Korean music, and was able to get to where I am because of it. There are definitely times I’m not satisfied, but I’ve gained a lot more and learned a lot more. I think it’s going to get better. Many people, myself included, are trying to shed new lights on the culture and keep it moving.