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.