Epik High, a prolific – and I do mean prolific – South Korean hip hop group, is doing a North American tour. They’re doing their first show in Toronto this summer on June 14 at the Danforth Music Hall, and the tickets went on sale just this morning. “Hop on over to Ticketmaster.ca and get your ticket now!” is what I’d be saying if the show hadn’t already sold out!
Indeed, in an unprecedented turn of events, Epik High’s Toronto show – their first and hopefully not last – has, to my knowledge, the honour of being the first Korean act in Toronto to sell out on the first day of sales. For those of you unfamiliar with this group (though if you’re reading this blog that’s hard to imagine), I’ll provide a little bit of context for you . . .
Epik High is a three-man South Korean hip hop group led by the multi-talented Tablo, a.k.a. Lee Seon-woong, a.k.a. Daniel Armand Lee. He is a man who seems to have spent much of his childhood in transit, at one point attending high school at St. George’s, a private school In Vancouver. Later, as any fan can tell you, he received multiple degrees from Stanford University in creative writing and English literature. As such he is a bilingual rapper, and as a long-standing fan of both South Korean and North American hip hop, I have to say that, stylistically and lyrically, both his Korean and English tracks are generally excellent.
The other two members are Mithra Jin, a.k.a. Choi Jin, a.k.a. Sleeping M, a poet turned underground rapper who developed a strong reputation in the underground Korean hip hop scene, and DJ Tukutz, a.k.a. Kim Jeong Sik, a.k.a. Street T, a.k.a. DJ Carrot, who reportedly got his start in the underground rave scene in Japan. The three met in the vibrant world of South Korean underground hip hop in the early 2000s (this was before hip hop was “mainstream” in South Korea, mind you) and joined forces. The trio eventually joined up with The Movement, a hip hop collective started by Korean-American hip hop legends Drunken Tiger and Yoon Mi Rae, a.k.a. Tasha, and received tutelage under such greats as CB Mass – precursor to the now ridiculously famous Dynamic Duo and the now defunct TBNY.
After years of releasing singles and albums, doing concerts, and successfully straddling the line between hip hop and K-pop with increasingly high-profile feature artists, Epik High eventually secured their own record production company, Map the Soul, at the end of the past decade. However, tragedy struck. While Mithra Jin and Tukutz took a leave of absence to fulfill their two-year mandatory military service, Tablo became embroiled in a “scandal” surrounding the authenticity of his Stanford degrees. The charges of fraud, however, were later entirely debunked; they were eventually found to have been started by a disgruntled middle-aged man who had nothing to do with Tablo personally (apparently he could not understand how a mere rapper could obtain two degrees from a world-renowned institution).
This situation might have been quite comical if it hadn’t had an extremely adverse effect on the artist’s career, reputation, and subsequent mental well-being. Indeed, the smear campaign was very successful, as myriad netizens attacked and slandered the artist, which resulted in a major hiatus in Tablo’s career and the dissolution of Map the Soul. In my opinion the latter was the biggest tragedy, because Epik High had full creative control and released some of their most honest and (I’d say) best material under this label, lending further credence to the old axiom “Beware the netizen.”
As the story goes, Tablo’s wife, renowned actress Kang Hye Jung (whom North American audiences might remember from Oldboy and Welcome to Dondmakgol), had some connection with a little company called YG Entertainment (the brains behind Big Bang, 2ne1, and myriad other acts). So Tablo, with help of his wife, eventually signed a four-year contract with the prolific K-pop factory. He at first soloed under YG, collaborating with such YG artists as Taeyang in “No Tomorrow,” which is a pretty sick track. Eventually Mithra Jin and Tukutz finished their military service and returned to rapdom, resulting in Epik High’s current incarnation under YG Entertainment.
Frankly speaking, I find Epik High’s more recent stuff to be a little too YGish – as in very polished and overproduced, lacking that rough, down-to-earth DIY sound that I enjoyed during their Map the Soul days. Still, if you build a group on a solid foundation, you really can’t fail, and while I do prefer their older stuff, I can’t deny that their skill and talent shine through just as well in their latest music. Go YouTube them if you’ve never heard their music – you probably won’t be disappointed.
So now you’re up to speed, I have to say that I was very surprised that this concert sold out as quickly as it did. The event and sales were organized by Toronto-based Kpopme (check them out on Facebook), and for this relatively new promoter this was an unprecedented success – suffice it to say that my buddies at Kpopme are pretty happy. Despite Epik High’s immense popularity in South Korea, I was unsure of the extent of their fame here in Canada. Apparently it’s considerable, at least in Toronto – impressive! Sadly, as I thought I’d have more time to purchase a ticket, I did not act quickly enough and so was not able to obtain one. There is some talk of extending their time in Toronto by an extra day, but naturally that depends on a number of variables. Nothing has been confirmed yet, so there still might be hope if you’re in the same boat as me. However, if you managed to snag one, I hope you enjoy the show! (I’m sure you will.)
So what does this mean for the future of Korean acts in Toronto? Quite a bit, perhaps! Bringing an act like Epik High to Toronto was quite the gamble. Some time ago I was talking to one of the brains at Kpopme and he was lamenting the many problems inherent in presenting Korean acts in Canada, specifically Toronto. As you can probably imagine, the price of bringing Korean artists to Canada and providing the sort of accommodation they are accustomed to is not exactly cheap. Ergo, ticket prices will necessarily be on the steep side and venues perhaps not ideal, resulting in lower attendance and lack of profit. My friend informed me that this inability to cover their costs was the largest deterrent to bringing high-profile acts to Toronto. So kpopme, as well as other promoters, was not quite convinced of Toronto’s viability as a destination for South Korean acts. However, what we’ve seen this time around is that if the group has enough fans, there’s certainly money to be made, which forces the question, could Big Bang in Toronto be on the horizon?! At this point, the future seems full of possibilities!