Seo Taiji History

file - 07.14.2008 08:00

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of his debut solo album, KoME takes a look back at the career of Seo Taiji.

Introduction

Seo Taiji is so influential in his native South Korea that it is often said music can be divided into two eras: pre-Taiji and post-Taiji. He is often referred to as "the President of Culture". He can sing, dance, play guitar, bass, produce, he's a fashion icon, a businessman and a composer.

Pre-Debut

Jeong Hyeon-cheol was born on February 21st 1972. He was raised and educated in Seoul. During his early years in school he discovered a love of music that would eventually take over his life. He had always loved singing and mastered several instruments, particularly bass guitar. He became so engrossed with the idea of becoming involved in the music industry in some way that he even taught himself how to compose, produce and engineer music.

At the age of 15 he quit school due to rapidly falling grades, a result of his increasing obsession with music and playing guitar. It was clear that the young wannabe had a dream and would stop at nothing to fulfil it. The month before he finally quit school was said to be spent begging his father to allow him to drop out in order to pursue a music career.

In 1989, a 17 year old Seo Taiji was recruited by the metal band Sinawe and his rise to fame began.

Sinawe

Before Seo Taiji joined Sinawe as their bassist, the band were already somewhat established within the metal community. Their debut album had been released 1986 and they were now preparing to release their fourth album (simply entitled FOUR). Seo Taiji caught the eye of Shin Dae Chul, guitarist in Sinawe and a prominent figure in the Korean music scene, during a performance with some of his friends. Dae Chul was so impressed with what he saw that he asked the 17 year old to join the group.

Seo Taiji eventually left the group, citing "music differences" and the group's declining popularity as reasons.

Seo Taiji & Boys

After leaving Sinawe it was unclear what he was going to do. The most logical thing would probably have been to set up his own rock band with some unknown musicians but he did the polar opposite. At first Seo Taiji did intend on starting up his own rock band but soon discovered that it was difficult to find suitable and enthusiastic musicians in Korea so had plans to go to Japan to recruit musicians. At this point, Seo Taiji had a change of heart after discovering a new kind of music from America: rap. He was so taken with this new sort of music that he learned how to compose and perform it himself, quickly realising that the genre was possible in Korean. In 1991, he joined forces with renowned dancers Yang Hyun Suk (Yang Goon) and Lee Juno to form a boy band who were heavily inspired by the emerging American rap scene.

Their new kind of music reached a niche market that was both loved and hated. While the group, especially Seo Taiji, had faith in their music it wasn't certain that anyone else did. Luckily, it wasn't long before Bando Records gave the boys a contract that would set them on the road to becoming one of the most influential groups in Korea's music history.

The group's debut was broadcast on MBC back in 1992. The group performed their first single, Nan arayo, in front of a panel of judges and a studio audience. Neither seemed particularly impressed with the performance and the group received the lowest score on the show with the judges describing their sound as "incomprehensible".

The group's first album, Nan arayo!, surfaced in March 1992. The lead single may not have impressed judges a few months earlier but it certainly impressed the public and became a huge hit due to its then unique style of combining dance sounds with hip-hop vocals, as well as including some guitar sounds that could easily have been directly lifted from his previous band. The album itself went on to sell 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone. While the release may have seemed inconspicuous at the time, the group had unknowingly ushered in a new era and trend within the Korean music scene that can still be felt today. The album is often cited as being the first Korean rap album.

The group caused a stir when they fought for musicians' rights in Korea, suing their production company for holding a contract with them without their consent and fighting against infringements of copyright on their songs.

Possibly as a knee-jerk reaction to this, Seo Taiji set up a company called YOYO Entertainment, which established a system of management that had never previously been used on a mass scale. The system was that bands in the agency would manage themselves rather than relying on external management, as is traditional in the music industry worldwide.

In November, the band also gave the Korean music industry a different kind of shock when they announced that they would not be making TV appearances, in order to give themselves privacy to work on their second album. This was a shocking thing for a young group who should have been heavily dependent on media attention for promotion.

When the second album, Hayeoga surfaced in June 1993 they managed to live up to the hype surrounding them. On hearing the album, it was clear why the band wanted to have privacy to record it. They had spent their time carefully crafting songs that managed to both maintain and evolve their original sound. The band were comfortable with combining rap and hip-hop, metal and traditional Korean instruments (such as the taepyeongso), often in the same song. The album went on to sell even more than their debut with a staggering 1.8 million copies sold.

Not content with being the biggest boy band in Korea, Seo Taiji & Boys left South Korea for their first Japanese performance in November 1993. The group had been invited to perform at the NHK Hall for the Asia Music Festival.

Seo Taiji has been quoted as saying, "I think rap and metal have a lot in common and ultimately aims at the same thing". He put these words into action on the band's third album, Seo Taiji & Boys III - Dreaming Bal Hae, on the song Gyosil Idea. The song acted as a means for him to exorcise his demons about his time in school in South Korea with the help of Ahn Heung-Chan from the thrash metal band Crash. The song showed a stark change in style for the band, combining the group's rap style with Ahn Heung-Chan's thunderous guitar work and extreme vocals.

The song was met with huge amounts of criticisms, some even labelling the song 'satanic' and Seo Taiji was accused of backwards masking Satanic messages. Seo Taiji met the critics head-on and listened to the parts of the song that were seen as satanic when played in reverse and noted that these passages were only similar to what people claimed was being said.

The rest of album did not fare much better. Seo Taiji had taken to writing about difficult issues and criticising society with a bluntness that alienated much of his fan base, which at the time was made up of teenage girls due to his 'idol' image.

The album signalled an overall change in the group's style, seemingly favouring rock and metal over their previous dance and rap elements and the group were even praised for releasing an album that favoured depth and maturity rather than aiming at album sales. It would appear that this had a stark effect on Seo Taiji himself, as much of the work displayed on this album is eerily similar to the work that he would produce as a solo artist.

Around this time, Seo Taiji was selected as one of the 100 people who changed Korea in the 50 years since its independence despite claims that he was avoiding his mandatory military service. He was also praised in magazines such as Mal and Chosun for his passion towards music and freedom of speech.

1995 was a seemingly inactive year for the group. They played a concert in January then disappeared into hiding again to work on their fourth album. At the concert, $400,000(US) was spent on a new speaker system to be installed in Seoul's Chamsil Gymnasium so that the concert could be of world-class quality. In September, a month before the album's eventual release, there was a stirring amongst the fans as advertisements started appearing for the high-anticipated album. In October fans were finally given the album they had waited for in the form of Come Back Home.

Not to be beaten by his previous album, the lyrics on Come Back Home were as ferocious and controversial. The album was littered with lyrics about the rise of capitalism and the unjust society they lived in. This upset the Korean authorities and ended in a bitter row between the pair. Sidaeyugam was almost banned by the Korean Performance Ethics Committee for having lyrics that were inappropriate to young listeners.

The song GOOD BYE served as an omen for the group's future. From the beginning the group had said that they would disband when they had achieved everything they wanted through their music. At the start of 1996, they announced that they had done just that and would be breaking up. Their sudden break-up at the height of their popularity was marked by rumours and hearsay, it was even rumoured that the group's break-up was due to interference by the Korean mafia. In order to say goodbye to their fans properly, they released a best of album.

Despite being inactive during 1996, the band's impact was enough that they still went on to win awards at the end of year ceremonies; most notable of which was the award for Asian Viewers Choice.

After the band split up, Yang Goon decided not to launch straight into a solo career but instead decided to help launch other artists. He set up the record label YG Entertainment before releasing a solo album.

Meanwhile Seo Taiji disappeared to America¬Ö

Solo Career

It was two years before anything was heard of Seo Taiji again. He moved to New York, kept a low profile and spent his time working on a comeback.

In July 1998, Seo Taiji returned to Korea with his first solo album: Seo Taiji. The album was produced by the man himself and continued where Seo Taiji and Boys left off, continuing to combine American-style rock with Korean vocals. Needless to say his comeback was a huge success and went on to sell over a million copies.

In 2000, he returned with a second solo album, Ultramania. There was much excitement amongst fans at his return, which prompted Seo Taiji to hold a concert in Seoul as well as hosting a comeback special on MBC. He ended the year with a series of major concerts, including an internet live broadcast from Jam-sil Olympic Stadium, an appearance at the World Peace Music Festival and participation in the Studio 2000 concert for MBC's Music Camp. In December, he solidified his position as one of Korea's most influential musicians when Japan's NHK televised a documentary about him on their network.

It wasn't until 2001 that Seo Taiji set up one of the most important rock festivals in Korea: ETPFEST (Eerie Taiji People Fest). While the first festival, in October, featured Seo Taiji as the main act it has since gone on to feature international rock artists such as Tommy Lee (Motley Crue), Marilyn Manson and The Used. The 2002 ETPFEST was particularly special. hide (X JAPAN), who had died 4 years previously, made his first showcase in Korea at the festival. His former support members performed on stage with hide's image and voice on a screen in the background. After the performance, hide's parents and his brother, Hiroshi, were backstage to thank Seo Taiji and he was presented with hide's Fernandes MG-360S guitar, which is yellow with pink hearts.

The following year, Seo Taiji capitalised on his success by releasing a re-recorded version of his second solo album combined with a live concert. The result was Seo Taiji 6th Album Re-recording & ETPFEST Live. Once all activities were complete promoting this album, rumours started to circulate that he was working on a new album of original material.

The rumours were true and, after a stint rehearsing in Japan, Seo Taiji returned to Korea to perform a series of concerts called Live Wire as well as the album, 7th Issue, being released. Until the album was on the shelves, it was shrouded in secrecy once again proving Seo Taiji to be a master of publicity. Some reports were even claiming that the album would see him attempt lounge music or even trip hop. It also created headlines because, in a time when Korea's music industry was in a slump, it sold 300,000 copies in the pre-sale alone.

To celebrate the 77th anniversary of KBS, they held a special broadcast featuring Seo Taiji alongside other Korean favourites such as Nell, Wheesung, Se7en and PIA. The broadcast featured the singer performing some of his new songs, old songs and presentations of music videos. Over 2,000 flocked to KBS Hall to attend the event.

In 2005, Seo Taiji was recognised by the Korean National Assembly as the representative musician of the 1990s when their English website was opened.

After 2005, things went quiet on the Seo Taiji front.

15th Anniversary

In early 2007, Seo Taiji signed a contract with car manufacturer GM Daewoo worth a reported well over 1 billion won. Despite the fact that this was far from the singer's first commercial, it gained much publicity

Seo Taiji celebrated his 15th anniversary with the release of an album featuring all of the albums from his career so far. The album sold-out during the presales and, one the day of official release, at several stores in Korea people were lined up outside to collect their copies. Seo Taiji was criticised by some music critics as using the limited edition album as a gimmick to earn money from old fame rather than trying to help revitalise the Korean music industry. He retaliated by stating that this attitude reflected poorly on the Korean music scene as he had proved that he could sell tickets and albums based on the music rather than depending on TV appearances and the like.

In December 2007, Seo Taiji staged his first comeback concerts. Artist such as Epik High, Sweet Sorrow, Nell and PIA performed some of his best-known songs in front of the sell-out crowd, while Seo Taiji himself made no appearance.

In early 2008, reports started to emerge of a new album in May. Not long after that, plans for a tour were announced. May came and went with no further news of a release from the singer. Finally, he announced definite plans to perform at the 2008 ETPFEST in August.

While no definite date has been set for either the tour or the album, reports seem to point to a September world tour and an album to be released after the Beijing Olympics. Needless to say fans are excited at the prospect of any new activities from their hero and one can only eagerly await official news from the Taiji camp.
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