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Compelled to Make Hip Hop: A Conversation with Epik High’s Tablo

The following conversation belongs to a series of interviews with Asian artists with international upbringings who have traveled across continents to share their art with audiences in both the East and the West, and sought to bridge the divide between identities and artforms. Their works have served as a powerful testament to Asian representation across the world.

Myself a Korean-Canadian, I sit down with these artists to ask about their lives as eager students and inspiring mentors, travelers finding their way around roadblocks, creators of art.

The first time I was tasked with writing a concert review was also my first Epik High concert at the Paradise Rock Club during their world tour titled “sleepless in ____.” I remember jotting down on my notepad—“Seoul-ed out” puns, lobster plushies, Tablo poking fun at his band members’ Korean spiels. Channeling their playful spirit, I wrote in my review that Epik High had a “truly ‘epik’ team chemistry.”

Leader of the veteran South Korean hip-hop trio, rapper and producer Tablo is known for his stylish flow, versatile melodies, and lyrical depth. Born in Seoul and raised in Jakarta and Vancouver, Tablo says that interacting with different people, personalities, and ideologies helped him incorporate multiple perspectives in his creative process. By the age of sixteen, Tablo’s poems got the attention of famous Korean singer Kim Gun-mo, who made a song [“Rainy Christmas”] based off of Tablo’s lyrics.

Studying English at Stanford, Tablo continued to pursue his musical interests, joining an underground hip hop group, 4n Objectz, and performing at talent shows and clubs around San Francisco. But once he started his artist’s career in Korea, Tablo suffered an onslaught of backlash from Internet scandal-mongers labelling themselves “Tajinyo” who refused to believe that he graduated from Stanford.

Armed with these “most publicized troubles,” Tablo unabashedly raps about his personal hardships, bouts of depression, and sleeplessness. Even after fact-checks by the police and the release of a two-part documentary series titled “Tablo Goes to Stanford,” Tablo struggles to fight off the haters. Nevertheless, Tablo has pushed forth in his storytelling career, releasing new music, publishing books filled with inspiring aphorisms, and touring concert venues across the world.

Tablo and I talked about his love for conscious rap and Bob Dylan, his college highlights, coping with Tajinyo troubles, and his none-too-modest self appraisal, or as rappers might call it, “swag.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WL: Could you tell me more about your transition from writing lyrics to creating your own music?

T: As a child, I was always interested in telling stories. It didn’t really matter to me what form my story took. At first, writing came natural because it was just the easiest thing to do with a limited amount of equipment. You don’t need money to get a piece of paper and a pencil. That’s what I gravitated to because that’s what I had. 

Sometime during high school and college, I was heavily into music as a hobby. But some of my initial raps were horrible. As I was trying to teach myself how to write rap lyrics, it occurred to me that writing hip hop lyrics gave me the same sensation as when I was writing prose or poetry. I enjoyed the fact that I could have something on paper first and then be able to perform it for other people and gauge their reactions. I fell in love with that, and eventually, I leaned heavier into music. The way I write my lyrics is why a lot of [Epik High’s] songs translate well to paper. If you just print out my lyrics and read them, there’s a smooth transition.

WL: How has your global upbringing shaped your worldview and approach to music?

T: It’s less about the fact that I’ve experienced different locations and cultures but more that I’ve interacted with different people—the sheer amount of different personalities, different ideologies, different things that people care about. That exposure definitely allows me to have a very developed perspective on all things. I’ll read a line in a book, see something in a film, or experience something in a conversation, and I’ll understand, for instance, what “love” can be through multiple lenses. Whereas my [Epik High] members might have one perspective, I’ll simultaneously see multiple perspectives at the same time. This helps when I’m in my creative process, trying to express something or flesh out an idea.

One thing I embrace is that what I consider my identity to be will constantly change, and that it needs to change. I’ve been doing music for so long—it’s been 17 years and we have many albums. Recently, I did on my podcast an episode about Epik High’s music, and I had to go back to our early albums and listen a little bit. I realized that my albums, from the first album until now, document my identity, how it’s evolved, and become something new.

WL: Who have been your most personal lyrical influences?

T: When I was growing up, I was really into Bob Dylan, which is ironic because he eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was also into The Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana. Any music that was very lyrical, I was deep into. It was less about the melodies but more about the way people can play with words. I was really into NAS’s first album “Illmatic”—I think that was the first album I ever bought when I was a little kid. I fell in love with the way the images and scenes were painted with words.

WL: What were some lessons from your college years you took to heart?

T: I didn’t go to college intending to learn a skill that I didn’t have, or to take my first steps into a career. I was coming from a family and a cultural environment where it’s expected of you to go—as I’m sure you understand. But I knew that I had to go, and I set my expectations to a level of my liking, which was to go there and try to experience a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different people, a lot of different ideas.

Literature was the perfect major for that because basically you’re just reading a bunch of ideas from people, present and past. Books are the result of someone feeling so compelled to write down their ideas—to be recorded and spoken to other people. Usually those ideas are either the most beautiful or the most dangerous ideas. I also realized recently that I did a minor in Asian Studies. I completely forgot that I did that. Back in Asia, being Asian is not something special because that’s what you are, and that’s what everyone around you is. Nothing’s out of the ordinary. Back in Korea where I grew up, Asian stories weren’t “Asian” stories—they were just stories. Ironically enough, I got exposed to a lot of Asian stories once I was out of Asia.

When I went to college, I wanted to spend some time studying Asia because I wanted to get an outsider’s perspective on who I am and where I’m coming from. Asian stories in America were like flowers blooming in the terrain of the “other.” So I spent my college days focusing on things that would inform me of who I am, who I can be, and who I need to be. That’s why I got involved with Asian American Studies, the Asian American Theater Project, and other cultural organizations.

WL: Take me through your artistic process.

T: As I mentioned earlier while talking about literature, I like to wait until I’m compelled to create. Luckily, I have been for a while in a position where I can choose to do that. I’m independent and pretty successful, so I am allowed to take the time. There’s no one pushing me to drop an album everyday. I am very blessed and fortunate that I can do this, so I like to just experience life as much as I can. Then if there is a feeling or an emotion or an event that compels me to record it on paper or in sound, that’s when I start moving.

The whole concept of writer’s block comes a lot to professional writers when they write like an athlete, constantly forcing themselves to meet a certain output standard. I was like that in the beginning of my career. I wrote like fifteen bars a day, and I had a very regimented system. But now, I wait for something to compel me. Once it does compel me, by the very nature of the fact that I’m compelled, there is no room to think about writer’s block or how difficult it is, because I am compelled.

Of course, waiting for that moment sometimes is very difficult and troubling. There will be stretches of time where nothing really happens in life, and there will be moments where I am compelled to write because something horrible is happening to me. But because I’m dealing with that horrible thing, it’s difficult for me to muster the energy to grab a pen.

The more I give of myself in my work, and the more I open up, I feel that so much more is returned. I am more comfortable being in a conversation than giving a monologue. I have no problem opening myself up to people. I really have nothing to hide. That’s the irony of my career, I guess, because many of the terrible things that I went through was a result of too much conversation and too much of me being opened up to the public. But paradoxically, that’s also what brings out the best in me and makes me who I am. It is this weird cycle of things.

WL: When you’re dealing with these “horrible” things—say, the Tajinyo incident—what have been your coping mechanisms?

T: When I encountered my most publicized troubles, luckily, I had just gotten married and had a child. This goes both ways. Having a family right at the moment of your worst time is really difficult because you’re riddled with guilt for not being able to protect your family—for making them go through something that they have no part in. But at the same time, having family is an incredible support system. Family reminds you that you have something to fight for.

Music also played a role. At this time, I wrote my first and only solo album called Fever’s End. When I was making that album, I wasn’t even aware I was making an album. I just had to do something so that I wouldn’t go crazy. The music did help me cope, but I wasn’t really aware that I was creating an album for public consumption. I just needed to put it out.

WL: How is the hip hop scene in Korea compared to that in the States?

T: Hip hop is a genre where things change up within a week. Before we even make comparisons of hip hop in America to hip hop in Asia, if you take two rappers from America and you compare them, they won’t be the same. If you take two rappers from Asia and compare the two of them, they won’t be the same either. Hip hop is a beautiful thing because it is built on people being unique. Even if you compare two rappers from the same city, you’re not going to get the same type of vibe or personality. That’s just the way hip hop is and that’s what makes hip hop so awesome.

Even in the States, what’s hot today will not be so hot a week later. It’s the same way in Korea. When I started back in the day in 2003, hip hop had been around but a lot of people just didn’t get it. But now hip hop is the most popular genre in Korea, which mirrors the way it is anywhere else in the world right now. It basically is mainstream culture.

WL: What makes hip hop meaningful for you?

If anything, the first rappers and DJs that helped create “hip hop” gave a huge gift to youth everywhere, because I can’t think of another genre or artform where this kind of uniqueness is allowed. Some will say rock and roll, but I’m not even sure that even rock can measure up. In everything we watch and consume within pop culture, I don’t think there is a single thing that hasn’t been influenced by hip hop. Even in the films that we’re watching right now, there are sensibilities and attitudes that are clearly influenced by hip hop. Shows like Atlanta, obviously, to comedy like Dave Chapelle, to even modern art in Guggenheim or MoMA—I guarantee you that you won’t be able to find a museum or gallery that doesn’t display art influenced by hip hop.

But the hip hop that I grew up listening to and that got me passionate about doing it at the beginning, the music that I was listening to, and where my core values are musically—that’s still there. At the time, I was listening to a lot of conscious rap and backpack hip hop. When I got heavy into hip hop, a lot of the rappers were talking about their struggles. It was very cultural. I respected that, I fell in love with that, and I learned a lot from it. Even like 17 years later, I’m still trying to make music in a way where it honors that and all of what I felt back in the day. Whether or not that’s still relevant in 2020, it really doesn’t matter to me. Hip hop is an incredible gift, and in what I try to do with it, I’m trying to honor that.

WL: What’s in store for you next?

T: Right now I’m completely focused on Epik High’s next album. We’re really deep into the creative process as we speak. I think it’s an important album for us because it’s our tenth full length studio album. There aren’t many hip hop groups in Korea that have hit that number. We’re performing at Coachella in October now. The end of 2020 is gonna be a very important time for us and our fans.

As I was saying at the beginning of our conversation, fundamentally, I am a storyteller. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I love to do. And that’s what I believe that I exist to do. I am slowly getting interested in telling stories in different forms whether it be writing, TV, or film. I’d like to be able to tell stories in ways other than music.

WL: Do you have any advice for current students or aspiring artists?

T: I guess it would be the advice that I’ve always been following. Do what compels you to do it, and at times, you have to wait for something to compel you. If you’re too busy and too preoccupied, when this thing that is supposed to compel you to do something arrives at your doorstep, you might miss it.