Epik High's Tablo on the Korean hip hop trio's new album, being a dad and avoiding the 'darkness' in the industry

South Korean hip hop trio Epik High (from left) DJ Tukutz, Tablo and Mithra Jin.
PHOTO: Courtesy of EN Management

When South Korea first went into lockdown last year, the members of Epik High thought it was strange that their lives didn’t really change.

“For years, we had either been at the studio or at home,” said Tablo, one of the hip-hop trio’s two rappers. “Nothing had changed, although the world was changing. The only difference was that we were wearing masks – and even that wasn’t so different because we have air pollution problems in Korea. We were like, ‘Dude, we’ve been social distancing for a long time.’”

This realisation resulted in Social Distance 16, one of the 10 songs on the group’s new album, Epik High Is Here, Pt. 1, which dropped on Monday. On the brief, barely-more-than-a-minute-long track, the group explores how, as they sing, “The industry makes me sick and there’s no vaccine.”

It’s an ironic line in a way, as Epik High have been one of South Korea’s most influential hip-hop crews for nearly two decades. But they still feel like outsiders, an issue they deal with on the album.

Epik High released their first album in 2003.
PHOTO: Courtesy of EN Management

Since the release of their first album, Map of the Human Soul, in 2003, the group has swung between being independent – as they are now – and signed to labels, including with Woollim Entertainment, a mid-tier label, and YG Entertainment, one of South Korea’s historic “big three” K-pop companies currently best known as the home of Blackpink.

Comprising of Tablo, fellow rapper Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz, Epik High have regularly collaborated with the biggest names in the South Korean music world, but do their best to remain outsiders.

“I try to avoid [the industry] as much as possible because I feel like there’s some darkness there I don’t want to be a part of. I just don’t enjoy it,” Tablo said.

The new album’s release was split into two parts because Epik High created too many songs they couldn’t bear to cut.

There is method behind how they were divided: part one is meant to be heard alone, while the upcoming second part is meant to be experienced with others.

“Some of the songs on the next album are ones we would love people to listen to in crowds,” Tablo said. “Unfortunately, we can’t decide [whether that will be possible] right now. The world is gonna have to decide when the next album comes out.” He later admits that even if the pandemic continues and concerts don’t resume, the group plans to drop Epik High is Here, Pt. 2 within the year so there is not too much distance between the releases.

Tablo admits he has no idea where Epik High is right now. “When we started, we were lost. That’s why we called [our first album] Map of the Human Soul. We still have no idea where we’re going. We don’t even know how we got here, but this is where Epik High is and we’re going to present it as it is.”

The new album kicks off with Lesson Zero, the latest in a series of Lesson songs the trio has featured on their albums in the past. This one, Tablo said, is different: the other songs were him throwing questions at figures from his youth he felt had negatively affected him, but Lesson Zero is about him wondering whether his music has had a similar negative influence on younger people.

“I did these songs and looked back, and was wondering if by making them I was doing the same things for my audience. So many [fans] were quoting these songs as if they’re answers. But I wasn’t ever providing answers. It was coming from a person who was confused. So I wanted to take it back to zero, literally.”

 

Other stand-out songs on the album include True Crime, featuring R&B singer Miso, a love song that touches on a taboo relationship, and two songs that deal with moral ambiguity: End of the World with R&B singer G.Soul, and Acceptance Speech, which marks the return of former Ikon member B.I to the music world after a hiatus last year.

The album ends almost anachronistically with Wish You Were Here, which features Tablo ruminating on the perceptions that have accompanied his being a father. His 10-year-old daughter Haru evens makes a brief appearance.

“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, and people’s take on that is that I’m washed up. But I’d rather be washed up on shore here than drowning in my past. That was like my thesis statement. That’s a weird set of lyrics ending an album. Even if you do feel that way, you’d hide it, right?”

This vulnerability is what Tablo believes has made people keep listening to Epik High for so long. “We don’t have a perfect facade. We’ve never been perfectly great, making all the right decisions where you can only praise us, having this completely media-controlled personality. We have none of this. I think the fact that we have vulnerabilities, in that nothing we create will ever be perfect, is ironically why we’re still chugging along.”

There was a time when it seemed like Epik High would not be able to keep chugging along: in 2010, Tablo was accused of falsifying his dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, with thousands of people online claiming he couldn’t have accomplished both in a period of three years. Though his name was ultimately cleared, in the interim he became the South Korean music world’s most hated individual.

“On [new album track] Rosario, at the end of my verse, I say, ‘If you weren’t there with me when I was crying or weeping, you better not be around when I was smiling.’ I think that was the thing that was closest to home when I was writing this album, that simple sentiment. ’Cause every single time I went through my lows, I was alone. How quick people are to ditch you when you’re considered toxic.

“It’s great if you have people you can trust, but at the end of the day you’re alone. Whenever you run into misfortune, you’re going to realise you’re alone. People are going to disappear. But even when that happens, I want people to be able to become like a phoenix. I want my audience to be able to survive those situations, but it first requires you to realise that that’s going to happen.”

Epik High Is Here, Pt. 1 is particularly interesting to Tablo because most of the collaborators aren’t familiar faces or among their go-tos. The album features a lot of new voices, most of whom Tablo says the band felt drawn to because they saw them as being in “the middle of their character arcs”.

“For some reason, we keep trying to pretend we’re looking to these stars that are unblemished or never fail, or never can be wrong. But for me, I’ve always learned more from stars who are troubled. I believe that the stories that come from them can ironically teach us more needed lessons.”

Rapper and singer CL, who features in Rosario, reflects this.

She was previously a labelmate of Epik High at YG, but they never released music together. Currently she’s at a new stage in her career after years of anticipating an America-focused release that never surfaced (Tablo says he wrote some tracks for it).

Known both for her role in girl group 2NE1 and as “The Baddest Female” of a soloist in her own right, she is set to release a new album in the first half of 2021 that she’s delayed several times.

Rosario wouldn’t have existed without CL; immediately after writing the song, Tablo felt it had to be her who featured on it.

“We were ready to scrap the song if she wasn’t going to do it. There was no one else who could do it. And a few days [after reaching out to her], she had the vocals back to us.”

On the subject of collaborators, Tablo said he keeps a mental list of those he wants to pay back for working with him or the group when they needed support. He said he wrote the 2019 hit Song Request by Lee Sora, featuring BTS’s Suga, partially in gratitude for Lee appearing on his 2011 Fever’s End solo album, his first release following the controversy over his degrees.

Epik High plan to release Epik High is Here, Pt. 2 within the year.
PHOTO: Courtesy of EN Management

Rage and reflectiveness permeate the new album, but it also is filled with acceptance.

“I think for the first time in my life I’m at peace with the fact that I’m OK with no one being around,” Tablo said. “I’m OK with being alone. I have my wife, my daughter. I think the world has tried so many times to make me hate myself, but I realised that some of the reasons why some people hate me are the various reasons why I like me.

“I love myself because I make mistakes all the time and I learn from each and every one of them. People will believe certain lies about me or something, and the reason why I don’t correct every single thing is because it’s just not worth it. What would I gain from it? I’d be gaining the love or acknowledgement of people that would do that, people that don’t really care.

“But when people do that, I’m like, ‘OK. You guys think certain things of me and hate me, but I love that regardless of what all of you think. I know myself, and I kind of enjoy that only I know myself.’ I’m happy.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.