Photos by Julien Bowry
The Toronto date of Epik High’s North American tour was the last one of the tour and one of the first to sell out. The line outside of the Danforth Music Hall on Sunday wound around the block not once, but twice. One fan came all the way from Tokyo to follow the trio on tour; another was shocked to see a lineup for a Korean hip-hop group she’d listened to back in high school.
It's been a long journey for the trio of Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz; there was a time when this tour would have seemed impossible. The group has been together since 2003, but they broke through on the charts in 2005 with their single “Fly,” from an album they were expecting would be their last. After a few years, a string of hit singles, and gathering enough clout to start their own record label, a rumor that Tablo, who was raised internationally, had faked his Stanford degree turned into death threats from the internet, forcing the group into hiatus. But two years later, the group found a new home with YG Entertainment, which, before it was the home of Big Bang and 2NE1, was one of the first hip-hop labels in the country. Epik High have since released two albums on the label and shot back to fame both at home and internationally, leading up to this tour, the biggest for any Korean act in North America since 2010.
If Epik High were tired after playing ten shows in 18 days (expanded from the original six dates), they showed absolutely no sign of it on stage. After opening with “Encore,” the first track of their most recent album Shoebox, they showed Toronto some love with a snippet of Drake’s “Started from the Bottom”—also a fitting summary of their career—before launching into their first big hit, “Fly,” a decade old but no less energetic for it.
The setlist continued in this way, switching between classic singles (“High Technology”; “Umbrella,” where the crowd took over for Younha’s chorus) and fan favorites from their YG-era albums, 99 and Shoebox. There were also occasional breaks for audience interaction that included a question-and-answer period and Tukutz dancing to Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.” It was clear everyone in the audience knew the group well, and Epik High rewarded them, speculating together over the future rap career of Tablo’s daughter Haru and teasing that they wouldn’t do the cardio-workout choreography for “Fan” before busting it out for the last chorus.
More pensive songs were left out, aside from Tablo’s slow-burning cover of Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” which the entire audience sang along to, word for word. It’s not that the slower songs aren’t still relevant to Epik High’s sound today (see last album’s “We Fight Ourselves,” among other recent cuts), but this was a celebration, and there was no vibe killing allowed. And there’s a lot to celebrate.
This tour is a significant milestone in Epik High’s career, but particularly coming from a group that has been around since the beginning, it’s also a significant milestone for Korean hip-hop’s international profile in a year in which the genre is more visible outside of South Korea than ever. While individual singles have been catching interest in North America via the internet, the high turnout for a group that both pioneered the genre and continues to be relevant to it today shows that this is not just a novelty but a genre that has roots and will keep growing. At the very end of the night, the tour production staff brought out a cake covered in candles, which the three members of Epik High blew out together—shortly before grabbing fistfuls of cake and throwing them in each other’s faces.
I spoke backstage with the group before the show, with Tablo translating for Mithra Jin and Tukutz.
This is your last stop on the tour, and it’s the first time you’ve been here in a long time. Have you noticed anything’s changed since the last time you were here? A change in the audience or the reception you get at shows?
Tablo: What amazed us the last time we were here on tour in 2009, we did a tour and at the time we were surprised that a huge portion of the audience was non-Asian fans. We thought that was great and amazing. This time around, it was that taken to the next level. Certain shows, I don’t think there were many Koreans there. It’s a strange and very delightful feeling that these fans who definitely would have a harder time accessing what we do in Korea, our music or the things we do on TV, whatever... The fact that they took the time to get to know us that well, where they are singing along to our songs and laughing at our inside jokes, that’s the best feeling in the world, and it’s something we’re totally grateful for.
So what do you think is the appeal of Korean hip-hop to people who may not speak the language or may not be able to access it so easily?
(Tablo consults with Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz.)
We actually don’t really know. We can only answer for why our fans our drawn to us. I think the way hip-hop has collided with every other thing we experience in our respective environments has created a quirkiness, a uniqueness you won’t find in other hip-hop groups or in other K-pop groups. I think whenever cultures clash and collide, something new comes out of it, and when lucky, something beautiful comes out of it.
I know you have some plans for the future with your new sub-label under YG, High Ground. Can you talk a bit about that? Are you looking to spotlight artists that have been around for longer, bring up newer artists, cross over more between K-pop and K-hip hop—
High Ground wants to be a label without borders or boundaries. No specific genre will be the main genre. No specific sound will be the label’s sound. We just want to find iconic personalities. They could be in the streets of Hongdae in Seoul, or they could be in the streets of Tokyo, New York, LA, Toronto, Montreal. Wherever they are, if we feel that we can help them get their voices heard and get their uniqueness seen, we’re along for the ride. High Ground is deliberately setting itself up as a label that’s based everywhere. We have people in New York, we have people in LA, we have people all over the world who are going to help us discover these talents.
How do you feel about the current high profile of Korean hip-hop both in Korea and internationally? With the crossover of K-pop idols who rap, and the popularity of Show Me the Money [an elimination contest show for rappers, where Tablo was a judge on season 3]. A lot of people I know here watched Show Me the Money.
Tablo: I’m on the new season too.
Mithra Jin: It’s an interesting situation right now. Ten or 12 years ago when we first started, no one imagined that hip-hop would be a mainstream genre in Korea. I feel very optimistic because hip-hop grew a lot with us.
Tablo: Even with the new kids that are doing it right now, they’re doing a very good job. It’s only going to grow exponentially, and the whole world will know what Korean hip-hop has to offer.
Tukutz: I’m very grateful that the genre we love is being loved. I’m grateful most of all because we’re not only one of the pioneers of the genre, but we’re still in it currently.
Tablo: We can’t believe we’re still selling out shows, and we are totally grateful.
Madeleine Lee is Noisey's Canadian K-pop correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Julien Bowry is a photographer based in Toronto. Follow him on Instagram.