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The Noisey Guide to Korean Rap Pioneers Epik High

After a hiatus that sent one member into hiding from fans who wanted to kill him and the other two members into the military, one of Korea's favorite rap groups is back and about to tour North America.

by Madeleine Lee
May 22 2015, 5:51pm

Photos courtesy of YG Entertainment

Here’s how long it’s been since Epik High was last in North America: Their last gig was a tour with Far East Movement before “Like A G6.” But this year, after a well-received appearance at SXSW’s K-Pop Night Out, the Korean hip-hop trio announced a comprehensive tour of the US and Canada that starts in San Francisco on May 28 and ends in Toronto on June 14.

Their return is another milestone in a year where Korean rap has become as ubiquitous on the internet as K-pop. It’s only right, since Epik High was one of the first Korean hip-hop groups to make it big both in their home country and abroad, and their introspective lyrics and snappy beats have had a huge influence on the Korean rappers of today. But this tour isn’t just coasting on their legacy. After a long career full of ups and downs, the group is still making music that pushes the boundaries of what they’ve done before, supporting the rappers who grew up listening to their songs while playing on their level.

The group formed in 2003, with rappers Tablo and Mithra Jin and producer DJ Tukutz, but they didn’t break through to the public until their third album, 2005’s Swan Songs—an album that, as the title indicates, was meant to be their last. The singles “Fly” and “Paris” were hits in Korea and Japan, and the group’s career took off, with one hit single after another building on the inspirational, upbeat tone of “Fly.” K-pop idol rappers like the members of BTS talk a lot about how to not compromise their credibility as musical artists while being in the mainstream industry, but Epik High has been clear on their terms from the start. They’ve been openly commercial all along, but they’ve also always had an independent mindset. Since they started in the underground before hitting it big, their music never had to be designed to sell well. It just did. In the same year that Tablo participated in goofy corporate projects like Samsung’s AnyBand supergroup with K-pop stars BoA and Xia Junsu, the Epik High album Remapping the Human Soul had its sales age-restricted for covering topics like sexual crimes, war, and religion.

In 2009, at the height of Epik High’s initial popularity, a rumor started going around the internet that Tablo had falsified his degree from Stanford University, at a time when diploma fraud was a sensitive issue in South Korea and could lead to 18 months in jail for forgery. This turned into general accusations of identity theft and fraud, as well as a theory that the media was protecting Tablo as an elite member of society. A group called TaJinYo (short for “We Demand the Truth from Tablo”) formed to reinforce these claims, and their online conspiracy theories soon turned into real-life harassment and death threats that forced Tablo into hiding. After one last album, titled Epilogue, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz enlisted to fulfill their mandatory military service, and Epik High was put on hold.

Then, in 2011, Tablo released a two-part album through YG Entertainment, Fever’s End, with ten dark, depressing, beautiful songs written while he was holed up in his apartment. Once again, the title proved significant; the album was acclaimed not only internationally but within Korea, signifying that the era of hiding was over. Mithra Jin and Tukutz completed their military service, and in 2012 it was announced that the whole group had signed with YG.

Their album 99 was teased with Tablo, Big Bang member Seungri, and Psy holding up signs that said “DON’T HATE ME”—both the name of the single and a reference to the public scandals that all three had been in. It’s this kind of sly self-awareness that has characterized Epik High’s work since their comeback; rather than act like their hardships never happened, they acknowledge how they have made the group stronger. This North American tour comes on the heels of Shoebox, an album full of fresh sounds and the same thoughtful sensitivity that Epik High has come to represent over their 12-year career.

“Fly” (Swan Songs, 2005)

The motivational message and cheery sound of Epik High’s breakthrough single got it featured on the soundtrack for FIFA 07. The upbeat electronic track, smooth vocal hook and pattering back-and-forth rapping between Tablo and Mithra Jin helped to establish the template for Korean hip-hop of the period.

“Fan” (Remapping the Human Soul, 2007)

“Fan” is a dark take on the sound established by “Fly” and “Paris”: melodramatic strings, an anxious, double-time chorus, and lyrics from the viewpoint of an obsessive fan, with a creepy music video to match.

“Umbrella (feat. Younha)” (Pieces, Part One, 2008)

With a slower tempo and a stronger focus on the chorus than previous singles, “Umbrella” speaks to the group’s reputation for “depressing fun,” in that it is sad and hopeful at the same time. The chorus melody is so enduring that in 2014 Younha re-released it in solo ballad form.

“Wannabe (feat. Mellow)” ([e], 2009)

Epik High’s brainy sense of humor includes a love of themes and continuity between songs. [e] is one of their most ambitiously themed albums, with two discs named “[e]motion” and “[e]nergy” and multiple songs titled with the letters O, S, and T. “Wannabe” comes from the high-impact “[e]nergy” side, and its music video is also a two-parter; if you want to see what happens next, see the second music video from the album, “Trot”/“High Technology.”

“Run” (Epilogue, 2010)

Their last single before their hiatus, “Run” follows the same urgent, string-driven path as their earlier singles “Paris” and “Fan” but with a creeping sense of hopelessness underneath. The soaring instrumental makes you feel like running, but the chorus has the punchline: “No matter how much I run, I’m still on the same spot.”

“Tomorrow (feat. Taeyang)” (Fever’s End, 2011)

Tablo’s decision to join YG was a family-based one: It’s the same agency that manages his wife, actress Kang Hye-jung (who played Mido in Oldboy). This move brought him into YG’s musical family, too, and the year after Fever’s End, Tablo appeared on G-Dragon’s solo album, One of a Kind. Taeyang also features on Epik High’s album Shoebox, and Tablo reworked his song “Eyes, Nose, Lips” as part of a YG covers project of the song.

“Don’t Hate Me” (99, 2012)

99 is meant in part as a tribute to the music Epik High grew up with in the 90s. “Don’t Hate Me” is a snotty pop-punk track that turns the TaJinYo situation into a catchy refrain (“Everybody hates me, but you love me and I love you”) that also thanks the fans who stuck by the group through their hard times.

“Born Hater” (Shoebox, 2014)

“Born Hater” packs a clown car’s worth of features into five minutes of rubbery funk beat: a seasoned veteran (Verbal Jint, widely credited with fixing the way Korean rappers rhyme), a current star (Beenzino of trap kings Illionaire Records), and three new-generation YG idol rappers (Mino of Winner and Bobby and B.I. of iKON). It’s representative of the eras that Epik High’s career has spanned, but mostly it shows that haters unite us all.

“Shoebox (feat. MYK)” (Shoebox, 2014)

Tablo and DJ Tukutz are both dads now, and Tablo and his daughter Haru had a long stint on a popular variety show featuring celebrity dads looking after their children. If “Run” is about having to keep running with no purpose in the hopes of finding one, “Shoebox” gives us what that purpose is: coming home to the people you “sweat 365 days” for, who make your hard work worthwhile.

Epik High North America Tour Dates:

May 28 - San Francisco, The Warfield Theater
May 29 - Los Angeles, TBA
May 31 - Vancouver, Vogue Theatre
June 5 - Dallas, South Side Music Hall
June 12 - New York City, Best Buy Theater
June 14 - Toronto, Danforth Music Hall

Madeleine Lee is Noisey's most epik correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.