Pre-Seo Taiji

Seo Taiji and the Boys, Promo Photo, XINMSN

Seo Taiji and Boys, XINMSN

Seo Taiji is forebear of Hallyu-era K-pop because he was the first Korean artist to successfully fuse Western music genres with a Korean sensibility.  Doobo Shim explains that prior to the 1980s, Korean popular music was dominated by a style that was “largely associated with the pathos of the older generation”:  “The Korean ballad is characterized by mellow sounds and amorous lyrics influenced by Western styles such as easy listening and American folk music (for example, songs by Simon and Garfunkel)” (35).  Prior to the 1990s, the Korean music industry was also very controlled:  “Musicians were required to perform with the television networks’ in-house studio bands and dancers, which deprived the country of the opportunity for diverse elements of local pop music to grow spontaneously. These conditions influenced musical styles to fit into the specifications of the television medium, such that songs usually had a long instrumental introduction and an extended fade-out, to allow emcees to make some announcements, or a link between one song and another” (Shim, 35-36).

However, when Seo Taiji and Boys debuted in 1992, the group brought something completely different to mainstream Korea.

Seo Taiji and Boys, Nan Arayo (MBC Yeonyetukjong) (c.1992)

During this performance of its debut single, “Nan Arayo,” the group demonstrates classic b-boy moves from the 1990s. Sally Banes explains that the basic format of breaking, a form of dance associated with hip hop, “was at first quite fixed”:  “The dancers and onlookers formed an impromptu circle.  Each person’s turn in the ring was brief—ten to thirty seconds—but packed with action and meaning” (15).  The choreography in this live version of “Nan Arayo” uses this format, allowing each member of the group to highlight his part of the song.    

Because it its uniqueness, the group’s initial reception was less than ideal.  Online writer Sianface recalls: “The group's debut was broadcast on MBC back in 1992. The group performed their first single, “Nan Arayo,” in front of a panel of judges and a studio audience. Neither seemed particularly impressed with the performance and the group received the lowest score on the show with the judges describing their sound as ‘incomprehensible” (“Seo Taiji History”).  The group’s arrival on the music scene challenged the status quo with a musical style influenced by American hip-hop that appealed to Korean youth of the time.  Asphodel adds:  “Korea had never experienced music like the kind that the group was introducing then. Seo Taiji & Boys had successfully fused rap lyrics and pop music, and delivered it through hip hop dance. While the older audience shunned the ‘senseless noise’ of rap and its questionable lyrical content, it became an immediate hit with the younger generations.”

This response was also related to the nature of Korean culture during the 1970s and 1980s.  Jeff Chang recovers a history where, even though Koreans were “exposed to ‘Soul Train’ and funk music via the U.S. Armed Forces Korea Network,” they were also subject to cultural repression: "As the decade wore on, he escalated his “social purification” campaign, detaining artists, intellectuals and church leaders. In the first six months of 1976 alone, police reported checking over 600,000 men on hair length and possession of “obscene” T-shirts. Park’s censorship committee blocked hundreds of American songs, from “We Shall Overcome” to 'Me and Mrs. Jones.'"

From 1980 until the election of Korea’s first civilian leader, Kim Young SamChun Doo Hwan imposed a brand of authoritarian rule that suppressed cultural expression:  “The government also removed many soap operas, comedy shows, song and dance programs, and other ‘decadent’ programs from the visual media, and numerous writers and publishers of comic books were arrested for producing ‘cruel, obscene, violent, and degrading comic books’” (Lee, 136).  Seo Taiji and Boys appearance in 1992 represented the first fruits of a less culturally-repressive Korea.