KpopStarz had the opportunity to sit down with one of Korean hip-hop's most influential stars, Tiger JK of Drunken Tiger.
In this candid interview, Tiger JK discusses the course of his rap career from his father's musical influence and rap battles in Los Angeles to the rise of K-Pop and his new focus on making passionate, informed albums that leave his fans feeling great
See the exclusive interview below.
Drunken Tiger is about as ubiquitous to Korean hip-hop as it gets, and since they formed in the 1990's during the heyday of American rap, they continue to lead the herd in terms of style, lyrics, and dedication.
The highly regarded Korean-American group centers around founding member Tiger JK, a rapper whose influence permeates the essence of present-day K-Pop and who had his early start in a mix of global musical forces.
He has released nine studio albums as a part of Drunken Tiger and the continuing collaborations have elevated the group's focus and style to whole new levels.
From his first album, 1995's Enter the Tiger - which was heavily influenced by west coast American hip-hop - and innovative, reggae-inspired mid-career releases, to the redirection of his music with raw honesty and heart starting with 2009's Feel gHood Muzik, Tiger JK's career has taken many twists and turns spanning three different decades.
The son of a DJ, Tiger JK finds it hard to remember a time when he wasn't surrounded by music. Recalling the exceptionally large collection of vinyl records owned by his father, a tradition he still maintains to this day, Tiger JK admits his early musical influences were eclectic.
"[My father] being a DJ and one of the first pop columnists in Korea, I was exposed to all kinds of music from many different times, like Latin, jazz, R&B - heavy metal was really big back then," he explained.
His father was even responsible for his first introduction to hip-hop. "I didn't know back then, but I even listened to the first hip-hop album," he said referring to The Fat Boy's 1984 debut album Fat Boys.
With a passion for music engrained in him, Tiger JK's love of hip-hop flourished after his family relocated to Los Angeles when he was twelve.
"I was really excited whenever a new record came out, whenever one of my favorite artists came out, I was in line at the CD shops," Tiger JK recalled.
Inspired by west coast rappers like NWA and The Pharcyde, Tiger JK started out rhyming with friends at house parties.
"You'd go to house parties and find circles - circles of MCs just ciphering* and freestyling. My friends would get into it, and horrible or not, they would always call me out, and you can't really say no - I really wanted to say no - but I was actually peer pressured into doing it," he said. "It was fun, but I was really horrible."
Eventually, with practice, his skills improved and he began laying down some tracks with his friends. "We started recording for fun - and one song became three songs became a full album," Tiger JK continued. "We were rocking shows. We didn't have a lot of audiences, but we were going to freestyle battles and rocking shows, stuff like that... and that's how I got into hip-hop."
Not long afterward Tiger JK was given a one-way plane ticket to South Korea by a close friend, and despite some rocky times, he is now one of the most recognizable names in Korean music.
Tiger JK is humble about his success and was a bit shy when discussing his position as one of the most respected Korean-American artists of all time, although he joked, "People think I'm always acting humble because I'm such a narcissist."
"The fact that people still remember that I rap or that I make music, I think I'm blessed," he shared.
Although the rapper and his group Drunken Tiger are high on the list of influences rattled off by many of K-Pop's biggest stars today, Tiger JK still sees himself on the outside of the modern Korean Wave boom looking in.
"Sometimes, I'm not going to lie, you get bitter, you know. Night times when you're a little intoxicated and you're like 'Man, if I had YouTube back in the day... if K-Pop was poppin' back in the day... man!'"
But Tiger JK does admit the recent change in his musical style has been influenced by the rise in the popularity of K-Pop around the world.
He elaborated, "I got curious. I watched this K-Pop phenomenon blowing up... I watched carefully. I was also fascinated by this, no pun intended, this 'big bang' - you know what I'm saying? Something happened, like, this new universe was formed."
Comparing his newest inspirations to the early beginnings of his career, Tiger JK said, "Just like hip-hop, when I first got into it, I was fascinated by the culture. And now I'm doing this. Like talking to... not my fans - I talk to everybody's fans - 'Why are you into this? What is intriguing you or compelling you to be so ecstatic?'"
Nowadays Tiger JK says his motivations for making new music have changed. He wants to incite that same sort of rapturous response from his fans that K-Pop seems to bring out in people. He also draws influence from his own son and watching his reactions to the catchy beats of today's mainstream pop.
"I want to do music that makes people smile," he said. "Before I wanted to do songs that would provoke something - you know say things just for the sake of it. I wanted people to feel something. In Korea there were so many lines you can't cross."
Since his 2009 release of "Monster," all that has changed, Tiger JK explained. "When I make music now, I play it for my son. And when he reacts to it, I get excited."
In 2013, Tiger JK and the newest configuration of Drunken Tiger, including his wife Yoon Mirae and friend Bizzy (also collectively known as MFBTY or My Friends Better Than Yours), officially soared back into the Korean music scene with the mature and heartfelt album The Cure, and proving that even at nearly 40-years-old, he still has a lot of evolving to do.
"I want to make music, or a song, that might give somebody a smile," he explained. "I want to make a super positive record. Not that that is what I want to do forever, but I'm in a state, I'm in a zone where I just want to spread a positive aura."
Check out the first two parts of our KpopStarz exclusive interview with Tiger JK and listen to the critically acclaimed rapper explain the progression of his career and how he fits into the wider realm of K-Pop in his own words below.
* 'ciphering' is a hip-hop term referring to a jam session in which all participants play off each other and contribute to the creative experience