Against the Flow
Pioneering hip-hop artist and producer Tiger JK has long defied convention, so KoreAm decided to take an unconventional approach to covering him.
First we look back at this Korean American rebel’s incredible 20-year career, which not only changed the face of music in Korea, but also planted seeds for a larger, lasting hip-hop movement. Then, we hear Tiger tell it like it was and is, in his own words, in a special interview conducted by the Smashing Pumpkins’ Jeff Schroeder.
by JULIE HA
photos by Vince Truspin
The humility and soft-spokenness of Suh Jung Kwon are surprising—even disarming—upon first meeting him.
Better known as Tiger JK, or Drunken Tiger, the Korean-born rapper is a global superstar, or, as the media and his fans deem him, “hip-hop royalty,” “the godfather of Korean hip-hop,” “the Jay-Z of Korea,” the “most popular Korean rapper in America, Asia and the world.” It’s worth noting that the latter was a designation by the Los Angeles Times, not some gushing fansite.
But on this overcast late Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, Tiger JK extends a warm hand and bows his head as he greets the people waiting for him at a photographer’s cozy Hollywood studio—no swagger in sight. The only indication that there is a major celebrity in our midst is the entourage surrounding him—a handful of men in dark jackets, including a buff, bald bodyguard named Tiny. And then there is, of course, Tiger’s wife, Yoon Mirae (also known as Tasha), herself a bona fide star carrying the title of the queen of Korean hip-hop. The couple has just flown in from Korea, where they live with their son Jordan, for KoreAm’s cover shoot. They will also be performing, along with fellow Korean hip-hop artist Bizzy, at the magazine’s annual Unforgettable gala the following day.
Initially, Tiger JK sits in the center of the couch, his hands together on his lap, head facing forward, almost like a schoolboy, but there is a slightly guilty look on his face. Speaking in hushed tones, he confesses that he’s a bit hung over and apologizes for the cornrows in his hair, perhaps concerned thatKoreAm readers might not like that kind of look.
Such modest demeanor seems to contrast sharply with the rebellious and revolutionary figure that Tiger JK is to his fans and anyone who has long followed his incredible 20-year career, lined with chart-topping singles, multiple music honors and collaborations with dozens of respected artists in genres as diverse as reggae and punk. Last fall the 39-year-old rapper/songwriter/producer world-premiered his ninth album, The Cure, timing it with the launch of his and his father, music journalist Suh Byung Hoo’s, new management company, Feel Ghood Music.
But, as with most pioneering figures, Tiger JK’s success came only after considerable growing pains. The truth is, when he made his debut in Korea in the early 1990s, hip-hop was largely considered low-grade music.
“It was sort of shiny, happy, cotton candy K-pop,” described music agent Bernie Cho, president of the DFSB Kollective, recalling the Korean music scene at the time. “Then along comes Drunken Tiger, roaring onto the scene. He not only opened doors, he kicked doors down for hip-hop music in Korea. If it weren’t for Drunken Tiger, there would be no rap categories or trophies at Korean music award shows.
Because, back in the day, hip-hop was so new, so raw, so disruptive, no one knew how to deal with it.”
Though born in Korea, Tiger spent about a decade of his youth in the U.S., including his teen years in Los Angeles. And, at a time when we saw the rise of L.A. gangsta rapper crews like N.W.A. with their in-your-face, anti-establishment lyrics, Tiger grew his passion for this music and the mic. Though he attended Beverly Hills High School, he kept a multiracial group of friends—at one point, he said he even joined a black gang—and took part in freestyle battles with some of L.A.’s now-legendary underground rappers.
“I was surprised when [Tiger JK] started dropping these rappers’ names that I grew up listening to, from a famous open mic in L.A.,” said Dumbfoundead, a.k.a. Jonathan Park, the most prominent Korean American rapper in Los Angeles today. “They’re not big at all, they’re super-underground. It was tripping me out.
“That’s when I started having respect for him because that just tells me he was a rap kid like me growing up, battling, paying your dues in rap, going to cyphers, like you’re supposed to do. He was actually participating in the culture. I know every f-cking Asian American rapper who’s doing anything … you talk to them, they got mad respect for JK.”
Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Tiger JK famously performed at a multiracial open-mic event in L.A., withstanding some initial anti-Asian boos from the crowd, but leaving many with their mouths agape after he showed them what this Asian kid could do with words and rhymes. That performance also got him noticed by Koreans overseas.
At the urging of his friends in Koreatown, he then decided to take his motherland by storm.
Bernie Cho, working for the Mnet music network at the time, recalled the buzz about this kid from L.A. who could hold his own with the best rappers out there. “It was hard to believe, but you had to see it to believe it,” said Cho, also a former producer for MTV Korea. “He was the real deal.”
But many Koreans weren’t ready for music so real and so raw.
By its very nature, hip-hop is a rebellious art form, Dumbfoundead noted. “The Ice Cubes and Public Enemy, these are people that are fighting the establishment,” he said. “When you bring that sh-t out there, especially in a country where there are so many restrictions and it’s so conservative, … it’s like [Tiger JK] doing rap music is already like a symbol of being a rebel. He was a rebel. The first rebel.”
Dumbfoundead said that there were other artists rapping in Korea before Tiger, but the latter was more authentic. “I think everyone was doing it because they saw it in America, and they were like, ‘this is hot,’ as opposed to Tiger JK—he’s a rapper,” said the 27-year-old artist. “He wasn’t a singer dude trying to rap. He was the Eminem. Before, it was all Vanilla Ices.”
Tiger’s first solo album, Call Me Tiger, released by Oasis Records in Korea, flopped due in part to limited publicity because the single “Hide and Seek” couldn’t get any radio play.
“Every single or track got banned, had a redline, marked ‘explicit content,’ but I wasn’t cussing or nothing,” recalled Tiger JK, in an interview with Arirang TV in 2009. “Back then … everything’s rehearsed, everything’s in the box. I had no dancers, no stage clothes, no bling. … I was too raw. They banned my music, and they banned me.”
After that first effort, he would return to the States—he is a U.S. citizen—but gave Korea another try a few years later, this time teaming up with DJ Shine from New York to form Drunken Tiger. Their debut singles “I Want You” and “Do You Know Hip-hop” from their first album, Year of the Tiger (1999), are remembered today as classic and quintessential Drunken Tiger songs. Though their music was still seen as controversial, Korean youth started to gravitate toward this new sound and culture, showing industry naysayers that not everyone was satisfied with manufactured, choreographed K-pop fare.
The crew’s albums would feature noteworthy Drunken Tiger-affiliated artists like DJ Jhig (a Korean American), Micki Eyes (a Korean Italian American) and Roscoe Umali (a Filipino American), as well as several Korean hip-hop artists who were part of The Movement. The Movement crew, which included Tiger’s now-wife Yoon Mirae, was in many ways a movement to bring these artists’ music into the Korean mainstream, but also served almost as a support group for these still-marginalized artists, who would cheer each other on. “The Movement was created for those of us who felt isolated and down,” Tiger JK has said.
The collective would eventually sprout some of Korea’s most popular hip-hop crews today, including Epik High, Dynamic Duo and Leessang.
“[Tiger JK’s] impact goes beyond just, like, seeing him on TV or on the radio,” noted Dumbfoundead. “He had a huge influence on the subculture. I think the influence on the subculture is actually more important because it sparks that underground movement, and that seeps into the mainstream. It’s like planting seeds.”
And those seeds even spread to remote areas of the world. Korean hiphop artist Bizzy, currently performing with Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae under the name MFBTY, recalled how, in his late teens, he was living in New Zealand and one of his Maori friends told him to check out Tiger JK. “One of my closest friends brought me a CD, and he was telling me, ‘Yo, those are your people. Have you heard of this album?” recalled Bizzy, then part of the underground hip-hop scene in New Zealand. It was Tiger’s first album. “It was kind of funky because it wasn’t Korean people who introduced [me to] Tiger’s music. It was Maoris (indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) because they thought that the music was dope. I heard it, and it was fresh. I was, like, ‘Oh, that kind of music exists in Korea?’ That inspired me a lot.”
The early 2000s would see Drunken Tiger’s single “Good Life,” from the crew’s third album, The Legend Of…, climb to No. 1 in Korea; it is often referred to as the first time a purely hiphop song topped the Korean charts. That same single would claim the award for “Best Hip-hop Music Video” at the Mnet Music Video Festival in Korea. From there, Drunken Tiger’s fanbase swelled in Korea and beyond, with performances before capacity crowds of thousands at venues from Los Angeles to New York, Tokyo to Taipei.
Even after the departure of DJ Shine in 2005, Tiger JK would continue to use the Drunken Tiger name as a solo act, and his success only grew, with a hit sixth album, endorsements from companies like Hite Beer and Reebok Asia rolling in, and the establishment of his own record label, Jungle Entertainment in 2006.
But, notably, Tiger JK’s music didn’t intrigue based on shock value or explicitness. Ask fans of Drunken Tiger what draws them in, and they’ll use words like original, authentic, innovative, genius and honest. His music was not only influenced by L.A. rap, some tracks also carried Latin rhythms or a reggae vibe. He would also sample Korean instruments or songs, and rapped in Korean and English. “It’s very meticulous,” Cho said of Tiger’s songwriting. An example from his hard and heavy rap song “Monster” that Korean Americans can especially appreciate: Crazy jiujitsu but a hapkido flow. / You only throwin’ hands playing kai-bai-bo.
“Whether he mixes or mashes his verses in Korean or in English, every rhyme, every rhythm, every beat effortlessly flows,” added Cho. “The fact that he can seamlessly tap into his bicultural influences is a testament to his genius.”
He also draws from his life. His “8:45 Heaven,” which he wrote after the passing of his grandmother—at 8:45 a.m.—who helped raise him, is a fan favorite. Intimately performed, the song begins with a piano ballad introduction, and Tiger’s voice carries a longing and despair throughout, his voice sometimes breaking up and falling slightly off beat, yet he left that vulnerability in the track.
“I just fell in love with it,” said Hannah Jun, 24, a Korean American actress based in L.A., who has been a Drunken Tiger fan since high school. “It’s about his grandma, but it also relates to everything, anyone you love. It wasn’t heavy hip-hop, but it was very honest. You can actually feel it.
“His material is always personal. That’s why I think fans love him even more,” said Jun. “As a fan, you feel like you’re with him. It reminds you he’s human, too.”
And the human travails for Tiger have certainly been many. Not only did he contend with the early rejection of his music—he has said people even threw shoes at him—but he also faced a drug charge in 2000, widely believed to be trumped up by authorities trying to sabotage this controversial artist on the rise. It’s an almost unbelievable story that was documented in a Spin magazine article, which noted Tiger had passed a drug test and was not even in Korea at the time of his alleged crime. The charge led to an airtime ban of Drunken Tiger’s music, but he wouldn’t be silenced for long.
Then, by the mid-2000s, as Tiger’s success was soaring, he was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a spinal chord disease affecting one’s limbs and motor functions. It forced his hospitalization and a hiatus from performing. The disease, which can paralyze some patients, is incurable, and to this day, the rapper takes medication to treat the symptoms. In a 2009 TVN A Look at a Star documentary, his wife said, “No matter how sick he was, he didn’t want to show it and always kept smiling.”
He kept smiling and pushing himself, releasing a double-album of 27 tracks in 2009—this at a time when Korean artists were favoring releasing digital singles and not physical albums. Once again, Tiger went his own way. Feel gHood Muzik: The 8th Wonder would be named Album of the Year at the 2010 Seoul Music Awards, and was one of the best-selling CDs of the year in Korea, with all its tracks debuting in the Top 100 K-pop digital singles chart.
“He’s a very innovative individual, with his lyrics and music, and the choices he made with his career,” said Korean American singer/rapper Jay Park, formerly of K-pop band 2PM.
“I respect him as an artist and as a person,” added Park, who has collaborated and performed with Tiger JK. “To me, he’s an OG, a legend, but he’s super cool to me, and he’s super humble. He keeps it real and helps me out whenever he can.”
Park’s comments seem to reveal a sense of responsibility Tiger feels, and the title of godfather of Korean hip-hop doesn’t seem quite so hyperbolic anymore.
“A lot of what Tiger JK went through is almost like urban legend,” said Cho. “He’s been through some unbelievable hurdles and hardships that would derail most people. But he’s always found ways to get up and stand up—bigger, better, stronger.”
Today is no exception. Last July, Tiger revealed via Twitter that he, Yoon and Bizzy were leaving Jungle Entertainment. He has not publicly stated the reasons, though Tiger has said generally in the past, “the record business in Korea is shady.”The Drunken Tiger fansite, drunkencamp.com, quoted a source as saying the move was “related to business practices recently unearthed.”
Tiger’s new album, The Cure, released under his new label Feel Ghood Music seems to symbolize a fresh start for this hip-hop veteran. But it’s more. He has dedicated the album to his beloved dad, who is battling cancer. As KoreAm’s cover shoot last December was coming to a close, Tiger talked about how heavily his father’s serious condition was weighing on him and said that’s why he had been drinking the night before. He hoped the soulful title track—with the refrain, “I gotta get up. / Don’t give up now”—would uplift his father and anyone else going through difficult times.
The elder Suh, a former writer for Billboard, is a pioneering figure in his own right, instrumental in introducing pop music and culture to Korea’s shores through his writing and as a rock promoter, at a time when it was risky to do so. He has been called one of the most influential figures in the Korean music scene. That’s a title that could easily be applied to his son, who seems to have unknowingly followed in his father’s revolutionary footsteps, pushing boundaries for his own generation and opening up his motherland to new sounds and forms of expression.
“He created a real culture,” Dumbfoundead said of Tiger JK. “When I went to Korea over the last five years, it was incredible to see Korean hip-hop crews out there who rap and make beats, who don’t count on outside rappers to come in and throw shows.
“It’s been huge progress, where you can have rap groups compete up there with K-pop artists now. I think Korean hip-hop is at its peak.”
Incidentally, “The Cure” hit No. 1 on multiple charts in Korea, and the Billboard and Billboard Korea staffs ranked it No. 2 of the top 20 songs coming out of Korea in 2013. In other words, the Tiger is back. Again.
To purchase a digital copy of the issue for only $2.99, download the KoreAm app at the Apple App Store.
This article was published in the January 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).