How Asian-Americans Found A Home In The World Of K-Pop

How Asian-Americans Found A Home In The World Of K-Pop

8:33am Apr 14, 2015
Asian music hitmaker Jae Chong, at work in a studio in Seoul. His work is all over Asian charts, but his passport is American.
Asian music hitmaker Jae Chong, at work in a studio in Seoul. His work is all over Asian charts, but his passport is American.
Elise Hu / NPR

It's no secret that the Korean entertainment industry's prime export — K-pop — is now a global phenomenon. But for what's considered a largely Asian hit-making machine, it's Americans who are often headlining the groups.

How did things come to be this way? To talk about it, we found a pioneer of the cross-over gambit, Jae Chong, in a basement studio in Seoul, or more specifically, a neighborhood you probably know of...

"It's in Gangnam," Chong says with a laugh.

Chong is an Asian superproducer. You can liken him to the Asian Dr. Luke, or Pharrell, since Chong was once an artist, too. These days, he's all about the pan-Asian group, Aziatix, which he founded a few years back.

But that's not his only claim to fame. He's written and produced hit singles for Mando-Pop supernovas like Coco Lee and A-mei, and several K-Pop stars who are household names in Asia, like Kim Gun Mo, and JYJ.

While his success is all over the Asian charts, his passport says U.S.A. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he, like so many American-born Koreans ... made it big in the Asian pop industry partly because of his American-ness.

"There's something about kids that grew up in the states. They have a certain kind of swagger and certain kind of things that you can't just learn," he says.

Chong moved to Korea in 1992, at age 19, to form one of the first Asian-hip-hop boy bands — SOLID. In the band, he used his Korean name, Jung Jae Yoon.

"At the time, there was practically nothing here, in terms of hip-hop or rap or anything like that. We used to dress funny, too. Like baggy pants, like really funky hairstyles and stuff and taxi drivers wouldn't stop for us," Chong recalls. "We don't know where our real home is you know? When I'm in the U.S. I feel like I'm an outsider, and here in Korea I'm sort of an outsider."

But once his group produced hits, the migration of American talent to Korea caught on. These days you'll find an American-born artist in most K-pop groups.

Chong says appearing Asian and having the swagger of an American is certainly helpful, but the draw for young Asian-American artists is just flat out economics. The Asian music industry is just more open to Asian-looking talent than the industry in the U-S.

"Aside from all the discrimination they get in the US entertainment industry," Chong says, "They feel like, okay, maybe I'll have a better chance out here, where I'm actually accepted a little more."

Now, a Korean entertainment industry that was nascent 20 years ago is more like a machine, with training camps, managers, marketers and more. It's a key cultural export for a relatively small country.

"It's grown, it's grown, it's grown. It's a huge amount of growth," says Mark Russell, the Seoul-based author of Pop Goes Korea, which analyzes the rise of K-pop over the last few decades.

"Even before Gangnam Style, I was running into Kpop in random parts around the world. When I was living in Spain, I was surprised how often I would hear kpop on the radio or on the music video channels there," Russell says.

As a result, the Asian-Americans who felt that outsiderness on both sides of the Pacific now have a home in the fast-flattening global economy. Artists and producers like Jae Chong are using it to their advantage. His group, Aziatix, is big all over the Asian continent. Not just in Korea.

"My thing is always trying to take K-pop to a global forum," Chong says.

They don't have to be of a single place. Why bother, when they can chase world music domination?

Jae Chong curated a list of his favorite songs that he's produced for Asian stars over the years. You can find it on our East Asia Tumblr, Elise Goes East.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the past few years, the Korean pop music scene has gone global. It's almost unavoidable, in fact. The phenomenon known as K-Pop is considered a largely Asian source of hit music, but the headliners are often Americans. NPR's Elise Hu explains K-Pop's cross-cultural influences.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In a basement studio in Seoul or, more specifically, a neighborhood you probably know of...

JAE CHONG: It's in Gangnam (laughter) for the people in the rest of the world.

HU: Famous for having a certain style.

...Asian super-producer Jae Chong hovers over a soundboard the length of a room. He's working on songs so new, he won't play them for us yet, but Asian music fans will know some of his earlier hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO")

AZIATIX: (Singing) Babe, I got to go, go, go, go, roll.

CHONG: Yeah. That was a little bit of Aziatix. What you just heard right there is a song called "Go." That was their debut single a couple years back.

HU: Chong founded that group and produces its music, and that's not his only claim to fame. He's written and produced hit singles from Mando-Pop supernovas like Coco Lee and A-mei and K-Pop stars who are household names in Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KIM GUN MO: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: People like Kim Gun Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE THE ONE")

JYJ: (Singing) Be the one, be the one, be the one.

HU: Or the group JYJ.

JYJ: (Singing) Do you right.

HU: Chong's success is all over the Asian charts, but his passport says USA. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he, like so many American-born Koreans, made it big in the Asian pop industry because of his Americanness.

CHONG: There's something about kids that grew up in the States, you know? They have a certain kind of swag and certain kind of things that you just can't learn, you know?

HU: He knows not just from a producer point of view, but because he's a pioneer in the now commonly adopted practice of Asian-Americans hopping over the Pacific to make it big in the motherland. He moved to Korea in 1992 at age 19 to form one of the first Asian hip-hop boy bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SOLID: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: The guy wrapping that verse is Jae Chong, whose name in the band was Jung Jae Yoon.

CHONG: At the time, there was, like, practically nothing here, you know, in terms of hip-hop or rap or anything like that. So I remember, like, we used to dress funny, too - you know, baggy pants and, you know, really funky hairstyles. And, like, and taxi drivers wouldn't stop for us. And we don't know where our real home is. You know, like, when I'm in the U.S., obviously I like an outsider, and here in Korea, I'm sort of an outsider.

HU: But once his group produced hits, the migration of American talent to Korea caught on. These days, you'll find an American-born artist in most K-Pop groups. Chung says appearing Asian and having the swagger of an American is helpful, but the draw is flat-out economics. The Asian music industry is just more open to Asian-looking talent than the industry in the U.S.

CHONG: Of course, aside from all discrimination they get in the U.S. entertainment industry, you know, they should feel like, OK, you know, I might have a better chance out here where I'm actually accepted a little more.

HU: Now a Korean entertainment industry that was nascent 20 years ago is more like a machine, with training camps, managers, marketers and more. It's a key cultural export, says Mark Russell.

MARK RUSSELL: And it's grown, it's grown, it's grown. It's a huge amount of growth.

HU: He's the Seoul-based author of "Pop Goes Korea," which analyzes the rise of K-Pop over the last few decades.

RUSSELL: Even before "Gangnam Style," I was running into K-Pop in random parts around the world. When I was living in Spain, I was surprised how often I would hear a K-Pop song on the radio or on the music video channels there.

HU: The Asian-Americans who felt that outsiderness on both sides of the Pacific now have a home in this fast-flattening global economy. Artists and producers like Jae Chong are using it to their advantage. His group, Aziatix, is big all over the Asian continent, not just in Korea.

CHONG: My thing is always trying to take K-Pop to a global kind of forum, you know?

HU: They don't have to be of one place. Why bother when they can chase world music domination?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO")

AZIATIX: (Singing) Going to go far away. Babe, I'm going far, far away.

HU: Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

AZIATIX: (Singing) Never be the way it was before. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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