“You know, when we took that picture in Brooklyn, some guys were driving by, and just when we were about to take it, those guys rolled down their window and said ‘Hey! Are you the Teriyaki Boyz?!’” Tablo, the frontman of Epik High, shares. He is pointing at the framed Map The Soul 2009 tour poster propped up behind me that was signed to my name. It’s been 13 years since that encounter and through it all, Tablo has managed to navigate the trials and tribulations of life, balancing marriage and fatherhood, while being one of the three geniuses behind the Korean alternative hip-hop group Epik High.
Considerably penning some of the most powerful and intricate bars in music, Tablo (whose real name is Daniel Lee) alongside Mithra Jin and Tukutz, has been in the Korean rap game for over 20 years — debuting in 2003 (though formed in 2001). Some of their greatest hits like “Umbrella”, “Run,” and “1 Minute, 1 Second” preach like biblical verses that can name them the Holy Trinity of hip-hop; as the consistent callouts on our vulnerabilities, love, society, and our mental health remain evident in their discography. Not to mention how seamless the three finesse music that can be dark, grim, and real, and then counteracting that with a visual component full of satire and fun.
“Well, see the thing with Epik High — and I think it’s the key to our success — we’re not very self-serious,” Tablo says via Zoom, while donning a white ‘90s style Nirvana tee. It’s always been like that over the last two decades. Epik High may be the legendary hip-hop trio everyone knows, but to the guys themselves, it’s a camaraderie of three who are continuing to experience life together while doing what they love to do.
With 10 studio albums, two EPs, and a couple of compilations and remixes under their belt, Epik High are on the forefront of Korean hip-hop, amplifying the genre to the mainstream. Their achievements and success speak for themselves: iconic collaborations ranging from underground to international artists, groundbreaking performances at Coachella, award-winning projects — they’re all more than epic.
Part one of their two-part tenth album, Epik High Is Here Part 1, paints the grim reality of the human condition in the midst of adapting to the new norm in the global pandemic. However, with the release of Epik High Is Here Part 2, the 12-track project serves as the sonic journey of what seems to be the beginning of the end. Lead singles “Super Rare” and “Gray So Gray” — two songs with polar opposites in meaning — Tablo, Mithra Jin, and Tukutz perfectly encapsulate the duality of susceptibility and badassery Epik High was always known for.
In what can arguably be the perfect pandemic soundtrack, Tablo, the recording artist, lyricist, composer, producer, Stanford graduate, family man, and, ironically at the moment, self-proclaimed “COVID brain” caught up with me in the midst of quarantining in his bedroom in to discuss Epik High’s legacy, Epik High Is Here Part 2, touring, and Coachella.
Congratulations on Epik High Is Here, Part 2. What was it like working on it this time around?
We imagined this coming out when all of this COVID stuff would be over. We wanted the album to be a celebration; so we had happier, upbeat songs because we thought it would be like this great reopening where everybody rushes out into the streets and just [gives] hugs and kisses, goes to parties and shows. But as we all now know this is going on a lot longer than we imagined. As time progressed, the way we create our albums, our mood, or our thoughts at the time really dramatically affects it. It’s not like we can set out to create a happy album. And as this was getting extended and you know all of us were dealing with our own demons and stuff, I think it just naturally turned into the album that it is right now. I actually like it a lot, I think it reflects better what everybody may have been going through and hopefully, they can identify with that and get the consolation that they need.
You’ve invited old and new faces to collaborate for Part 2. How was working with them?
I always think it’s interesting where I have an ear to the music scene. I’m not as active in public, but I’m always listening to new stuff that comes out and making a mental note of people that I want to work with. We work with them then we discover they were fans of Epik High at some point. For example, with “Face ID”, GIRIBOY and JUSTHIS posted their Epik High album collections on Instagram and shared how this is a moment for them. That really pulled on my heartstrings because I was just happy to be working with these talented kids. WONSTEIN did covers of our songs back in the day and gave us demo CDs. I met pH-1 for the first time at Epik High’s New York concert. Everything feels like it’s coming back full-circle to be working with them. So even when we’re working with artists that we’ve never worked with on this album we’re somehow all connected and it fits in with the theme of the album that combines the past, present, and future.
In “Super Rare,” you touched on hustle culture and the journey to fame. What are your thoughts on success?
You know how they say success is subjective and everyone has their own definition of success? Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. Regardless of your personal definition of success, society has decided certain criteria for what they deem as actual success. Even if you have achieved personal success and you’re perfectly content, society will look at that and say, “That’s not success…” and then proceed to crush your perfect contentment. I’ve always had to fight to defend my personal definition of success. I always have people trying to tempt me to try to do something I don’t really particularly want to do, promising me things that really don’t mean that much to me (money and fame) and Epik High has been very good at doing it on our own terms and maintaining it. But it hasn’t been easy.
Then what would you say is your personal key to success?
I’m not doing what I do as a means to get to something or to acquire something. I decided early on that I will do what I can’t avoid which for me is creating stuff. You can take my career away, you could literally ban me from doing music but the very next minute I will be creating something else. It’s just unbearable for me to not create something and that’s just who I am. Once you discover that, that’s success. Success for a short moment is attainable by anybody and if it is fleeting, it’s not really success. I want to be achieving things only if they’re lasting. And the first thing I discovered was that I have an inevitable passion for what I do.
You always have to think of the bigger picture because you never know when something is going to end the next day.
Exactly! I mean, who really wants 15 minutes of fame, right? We’ve done it for 20 years now, we’ve had moments where we had the spotlight on us and throughout it all, I don’t think those moments really matter. There are certain things that are lasting and if you are able to spot them, appreciate them and fight to defend them. That’s success.
Fans may notice the reunion between Epik High and Younha on this album with “Gray So Gray” and “Rain Song.” How was working with her again after 14 years?
Yeah, it’s been awhile! I was surprised how well we worked together even after all these years. I realized there aren’t many vocalists who can deliver the melodies that I write the way she does. Literally, she sang it once and it was perfect. Then we went on Yoo Jae Suk’s show and Jae Suk hyung (“older brother”) was like, “I really want to hear you guys do another song together,” and it just worked out where his wish came true.
You’ve sprinkled references to past releases in this album. Is there one you’ve become fond of?
The beginning of “Champagne” has an audio clip from a video of us [performing “Go!”] at our first performance as Epik High. And this was when we weren’t famous, when we didn’t even imagine we would ever be famous. We were in a tiny underground club performing for whoever was there. We put it in the song because […] I don’t really separate the past, present, and future. I think of it as this singular thing that is happening constantly. Hence Epik High Is Here.
Speaking of “Champagne,” how does it feel to come this far?
We’re not super serious about ourselves so I don’t even think we’ve ever sat down and been like, “Look at all the things we’ve achieved!” or “Look how far we’ve come!” We get together and we’re like, “What do you want to eat today? We got to finish this thing.” It’s always hectic and fun. It’s nearly impossible for us to be serious about anything, especially ourselves. We’ve never really pat ourselves on the back.
What are you popping a bottle to now?
I just want to get over COVID. I haven’t seen my members for a while in real life. The good thing is we’re going on tour for over two months and we finish it off with Coachella. It’s going to be an amazing adventure. We haven’t been able to tour for over two years. So, just think of how much energy we have to release on stage. We’re just gonna go crazy so we’re totally excited for that right now.
Anything else you’d like to tell me?
I think we’re gonna live in a pretty exciting world. You can call me a futurist or whatever you want, but I’m always interested in the future about what can be. And usually, the things I imagine materialize. It’s not fantasy. You know the fact my best friend is 11, my daughter? I watch the things that she’s interested in and I can just see that we’re about to head into a world that we’ve never experienced. It’s going to be fascinating, scary at times, but ultimately beneficial in some way. There will always be forces that try to reign that in, or to stop it from happening or to criticize without full information because of fear, but that’s always happening.
And the reason that I’m mentioning this is one thing about Epik High, when we started, artists were releasing cassette tapes. Then one or two albums in, we didn’t have to release cassette tapes anymore because people wouldn’t buy them. Then streaming happened and social media happened, before that the smartphone came out. All of these things while we were doing Epik High, so many paradigm shifts have happened with technology, with culture. The fact that we have been able to navigate through all that is because we enjoyed it. Not because we sat back. We didn’t do that! We enjoyed it and that made us able to navigate through all those changes certain companies can’t even do. I would just love for people to be critical in a world where everyone is trying to scam you. But my message for people would be to enjoy it a little bit as well, you know?
Epik High Is Here Part 2 is out now via OURS Co/Genie Music. Get it here.