Seo Taiji and Boys
Seo Taiji and Boys (Korean: 서태지와 아이들) was a South Korean music group active from 1992 to 1996. Its three members Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-suk, and Lee Juno experimented with many different genres of popular Western music. Seo Taiji and Boys was highly successful and is credited with changing the South Korean music industry by pioneering the use of rap in Korean pop music and utilizing social critique, despite pressure from ethics and censorship committees. The band won the Grand Prize at the Seoul Music Awards in both 1992 and 1993. In April 1996, Billboard reported that the band's first three albums had each sold over 1.6 million copies, with the fourth nearing two million, making all four some of the best-selling albums in South Korea.
Seo Taiji and Boys
Seo Taiji and Boys in the early 1990s. From left: Yang Hyun-suk, Seo Taiji, and Lee Juno.
|Origin||Seoul, South Korea|
|Past members||Seo Taiji|
|Revised Romanization||Seo Taejiwa aideul|
|McCune–Reischauer||Sŏ T‘aeji-wa aidŭl|
After the breakup of the heavy metal band Sinawe in 1991, Seo Taiji switched gears and formed the group Seo Taiji and Boys with dancers and backing vocalists Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno. Yang said he first met Seo when the musician came to him to learn how to dance. "Blown away" by his music, Yang offered to join the group, and they later recruited Lee who was one of the top dancers in Korea and joined the group as a background dancer, despite being highly regarded in his own right, because the music "moved [his] heart." Seo Taiji came across MIDI technology for the first time in South Korea in the early 1990s and started experimenting with different MIDI sounds to create a new type of music that had not been heard by the public. He initially had no plans to debut as a dance/pop boy group, and Seo Taiji and Boys' mainstream success was a surprise.
1992: "I Know"Edit
The trio debuted on MBC's talent show on April 11, 1992 with their song "Nan Arayo" (난 알아요, "I Know") and got the lowest rating from the jury. However, the song and their self-titled debut album became so successful that, according to MTV Iggy, "K-pop music would never be the same" again. One of the first Korean rap songs, "Nan Arayo" was a hugely successful hit; its new jack swing-inspired beats, upbeat rap verses and pop-style choruses combined with a focus on new dance moves took Korean audiences by storm. Influenced by the videos for Technotronic's Pump Up the Jam and Snap!'s The Power, the music video for "Nan Arayo" features varying color saturation and chroma key editing, varying the angles of the dancers' bodies constantly. The group sold over 1.5 million copies of the album within a month of its release, and Seo Taiji and Boys won a Golden Disc Award for "Nan Arayo" in 1992. Spin named "Nan Arayo" number 4 on their 2012 list of the 21 Greatest K-Pop Songs of All Time. In 2015, Rolling Stone named it number 36 on its list of the 50 Greatest Boy Band Songs of All Time. "Nan Arayo" is also recognized for establishing the popularity of rap in K-pop and hybridizing the Korean ballad style with rap, rock, and techno.
Their 1993 second album took a different turn. Although remaining a mostly dance album, a few songs such as "Hayeoga" (하여가, 何如歌, "Anyway") combined elements of heavy metal and traditional Korean folk music through the use of the taepyeongso, a double-reed wind instrument, and melodic structure. While there was controversy that the guitar solo in the middle of the song plagiarized Testament's "First Strike is Deadly," the guitarist for the solo, Lee Tae-Seop, mentioned in an interview that the solo's arpeggios reinterpreted Scandinavian folk songs, which had no copyright. "Hayeoga" earned them their second Golden Disc Award. Moreover, while promoting the album, the group was banned from appearing on the national television channel KBS-TV because they wore earrings, ripped jeans and had dreadlocks, which ethics committees associated with reggae, resistance movements, and rejection of social norms (although their brightly dyed long hair in 1995 did not attract a similar ban). This was the first of the numerous controversies regarding Seo Taiji and Boys. The band's second album became the first 'double million sellers' album in Korean history.
1994: "Kyoshil Idea"Edit
The third album shifted to a more heavy metal and rock style. Danceable tunes were nearly non-existent except "Balhaereul Kkumkkumyeo" (발해를 꿈꾸며, "Dreaming of Balhae"), an alternative rock song indicating a hope of reuniting North and South Korea, which earned the group its third Golden Disc Award. Instead, songs such as the controversial "Kyoshil Idea" (교실 이데아, "Classroom Ideology") with death growl vocals, influenced by bands such as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine, by Ahn Heung-Chan of Crash took center stage. "Kyoshil Idea" was extremely critical of the Korean education system and the pressure placed on youth to succeed academically, such as doing well on university entrance exams. The song was banned from being played on TV and radio (but passed by ethics committees) for the censuring of the education system in its lyrics:
Every morning you lead us into a tiny classroom by 7:30, forcing the same things into the 7 million heads of children around the country. These dark, closed classrooms are swallowing us up. My life is too precious to be wasted here.
Additionally, the band was accused of backmasking Satanic messages in "Kyoshil Idea." Although the mainstream news media later proved these accusations to be groundless, the moral panic proved difficult to eliminate entirely.
1995: "Sidae Yugam"Edit
Not backing down, Seo Taiji and Boys' fourth album exploded with more controversial songs. "Come Back Home" was a foray into gangsta rap, featuring a high-pitched nasal voice influenced by B-Real of Cypress Hill in "Insane in the Brain" and by House of Pain. "Pilseung" (필승, 必勝, "Certain Victory") was also a hit with alternative rock sound and shouting voice reminiscent of House of Pain's "Jump Around." However, "Sidae Yugam" (시대유감, 時代遺憾, "Shame of the Times") was banned by the Public Performance Ethics Committee for having lyrics that criticized the government. The version of the song included on the album is instrumental only, as a refusal by Seo to rewrite or remove the original three lines that the Ethics Committee demanded be changed (in bold):
Educated elders are walking down the street holding pretty dolls. It seems that the day everyone has been secretly hoping for is coming today. Lips stained black. Gone is the era of honest people. [...] I wish for a new world that'll overturn everything. [...] I hope I can avenge the grudge in my heart. Tonight!
The backlash from the fans was immense, and the system of "pre-censorship" (사전심의제) was abolished in June 1996, partially as a result of this reaction. An EP titled Sidae Yugam including the original version of the song was released a month after the system was abolished.
Seo Taiji and Boys retired from South Korea's popular music scene in January 1996 during its heyday. Lee later stated that Seo made the decision to disband while recording their fourth album, much to the surprise of Yang and himself. The band's announcement of retirement was a huge disappointment for millions of fans in Korea. The compilation album Goodbye Best Album was released later that year.
Seo Taiji headed over to the United States soon after, while Lee Juno and Yang Hyun-suk established record labels right after their retirement. Yang Hyun-suk was successful in founding YG Entertainment, one of the three biggest record companies in the country. Seo Taiji returned to music two years later with a very successful solo career; he is now referred to as "the President of culture" in South Korea. In 2007, all four of Seo Taiji and Boys' albums were included in Kyunghyang Shinmun's Top 100 Pop Albums, with their first ranking the highest at number 24.
In 2014, when asked about a possible Seo Taiji and Boys reunion, Seo revealed that the three members had talked about it often. However, he said:
The biggest obstacle is that in the past, we put on really beautiful performances, which fans remember, but if we get back together now, I worry we might disappoint, so I am not confident. I lack more and more confidence as I get older. I don't think I'd be able to dance as fiercely as I had in the past.
Influence and legacyEdit
Prior to Seo Taiji and Boys, the Korean music industry was primarily influenced by American and Japanese folk music due to the colonial roots of South Korea. This music dominated the Korean music industry until the country lifted the travel ban which was in place until 1988. The lift of the ban allowed musical elements from foreign countries to become more accessible. Consequently, in the 1990s Seo Taiji and Boys used MIDI technology to begin incorporating Western music elements such as rap, rock, and techno into his music. Also, Seo Taiji and Boys began incorporating the English language into their music, a popular trend in South Korea, that resulted due to increased reliance on the United States for economic stability. By incorporating these musical elements with Korea’s ballad music, Seo Taiji and Boys provided the basis for the hybridization of Korea's music with that of the West, resulting in the foundation of modern K-pop. This hybridization of music and foregrounding of dance movements was one of the fundamental reasons for the popularity of Korean pop music, especially among teenage and early 20s listeners, as it also promoted Korean pop music's ability to penetrate foreign markets in what has become known as the Korean Wave. Doobo Shim, a researcher of Asian culture, credits Seo Taiji and Boys with creating the "distinctively Korean pop style" which became commonplace. Moreover, the band was voted as the most crucial Korean cultural product in a survey conducted by the Samsung Economic Research Institute in 1997.
Seo Taiji and Boys acted as an instrument of change within Korea, challenging censorship laws as well as the television networks hegemony over the music market. In 1995 the Korean Broadcasting Ethics Committee demanded that Seo Taiji and Boys change the lyrics for "Shidae Yugam." This incited protests and resulted in the abolishment of music pre-censorship in Korea. Seo Taiji also did not have to rely on television networks due to the fact that he owned his own studio. This autonomy allowed Seo to bring subcultures in Korea, such as heavy metal, to the forefront of popular culture and challenge pervasive social norms. The band's independent success diminished the power of the television networks to dictate which artists appeared on shows, and gave rise to the influence of record labels and talent agencies. Such companies led to the formation of bands such as H.O.T., Sechs Kies, Uptown, and Shinhwa.
Additionally, Seo Taiji and Boys' fashion contrasted sharply with the convention at the time. The band members' style ranged from wearing tailored jackets and neat dress shirts to street fashion. They incorporated traditional Korean folk costumes and Scottish kilts, showcasing a variety of cultures. Seo Taiji and Boys pioneered the "snowboard look," which included dark sunglasses, ski hats, and large parkas. Furthermore, the band members' wearing of dreadlocks in 1993 caused a reactionary ban of the band on national television.
Another aspect of Korean pop that Seo Taiji and Boys influenced was dance. The band was the first to turn dance into a dominant feature in performance by including breakdancing routines. Dancer Nam Hyun-joon cites Seo Taiji and Boys as a primary influence, and appeared in one of band member Lee Juno's music videos.
Celebrating the Seo Taiji and Boys' 25th anniversary project "TIME: TRAVELER", the band BTS remade "Come Back Home" in 2017, reflecting a similar sentiment to the societal change that Seo argued for in his songs. While maintaining the gangsta rap style, J-Hope raps: "I feel suffocated in my life. What is blocking my life is my fear towards tomorrow," while RM adds, "Because we are still young, there's a decent future. Now wipe those old tears and come back home."  While Seo's social critique of Korean culture was predated by songs of Kim Min-ki, who focused on political violence during the Fourth Republic of Korea under the leader Park Chung-hee, Seo's songs included more direct lyrics and maintained his musical identity by refusing to acquiesce to the pre-censorship policies of the time. In fact, his artistry was unhampered by marketing and advertising campaigns, which may have contributed to the band's success.
- Studio albums
- Seo Taiji and Boys (1992)
- Seo Taiji and Boys II (1993)
- Seo Taiji and Boys III (1994)
- Seo Taiji and Boys IV (1995)
- Extended plays
- Sidae Yugam (1996)
- Live and remix albums
- Taiji Boys Live & Techno Mix (1992)
- '93 Last Festival (1994)
- '95 Taijiboys Concert: Farewell to the Sky (1995)
- Seo Taiji and Boys (1994, Japan-exclusive)
- Goodbye Best Album (1996)
- Seotaiji [&] 20: We Are Here: '93 Last Festival / '95 Taijiboys Concert: Farewell to the Sky (2012)
|1992||Main Prize||Seo Taiji and Boys||Won|
|1992||Grand Prize||Seo Taiji and Boys||Won|
|New Artist Award||Won|
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