This is the 11th in a series on producers, MCs, DJs and artists working in the Korean underground hip-hop scene. Translators Ary Kim and Cha Yo-rim contributed to this article. ― Ed.
For rookie group Black Tree, being in today’s underground hip-hop scene is not easy. Those who have yet to make a name for themselves find it difficult to play at events, and there aren’t many options for places to perform.
“Basically what happens is all the artists, the famous artists, they get to perform at all the big events and things, but all the lesser known, they don’t get to perform at those,” said member J-Sseon. “A lot of people know that we’re good, but then at the same time it is, ‘But you’re not well known. So if you want to perform, make it so that people know you better and then you can come perform.’”
|(From left) Zan Dark, J-Sseon and Big Smalls of Black Tree|
For member Zan Dark, finding the balance between being true to their art and catering to the audience is a challenge. He said they often have to give up or add some things to their performances that they wouldn’t otherwise in order to put out something the crowd likes.
Black Tree said it’s the sad reality of hip-hop today, with the genre going more mainstream.
The group started out in 2011 as a project group with leader Big Smalls, Zan Dark and a third person who is no longer in the group. All three were performing separately at a weekly hip-hop show called Shining Ground and decided to try something together.
Their concept from the beginning was to present 100 percent, pure live performances. A lot of hip-hop artists will say they are live, though they use a lot of backing vocals or partial lip sync. So the group hoped to set themselves apart from the rest by not prerecording any of their music.
Unfortunately, not long after, the third member left and Black Tree was at a standstill. Big Smalls and Zan Dark made the decision to not only find a new member, but to make the group official. And they both knew who their perfect match would be: J-Sseon.
“His color actually blended in well with us,” said Zan Dark, referring to J-Sseon’s tone. Black Tree officially became a group in 2012.
Leader Big Smalls describes the group as an old school hip-hop team that focuses on live performances.
“What is most important is showing our team’s color through live performances. Fans who listen to recordings can easily lose interest, but fans that see and hear live performances don’t turn away as easily,” he said.
Big Smalls said he first became interested in hip-hop after incidentally listening to a track by Method Man. He likened it to falling in love at first sight. Once he heard the track, he was instantly interested in hip-hop.
For the other members, it was a little bit different. Zan Dark said he was actually interested in rock before hip-hop. But then in high school, a girl he liked was into the genre, so he began to practice rapping. What he found out was that it was easier for him to write in hip-hop and grew to love it all on his own.
J-Sseon said his interest in hip-hop was more natural. He started out listening to the original Korean hip-hop artists such as Seo Taiji, Garion and Drunken Tiger. But it was Eninem’s music video to “My Name Is” that came out when he was 11 or 12 that got him hooked.
The group said they blend well together and get along easily, though they all find inspiration in different ways. Zan Dark said he is interested in taking walks and just “talking to nature.” J-Sseon said everyday life inspires him. He said the most important thing with music is to put something out there that is relatable.
For Big Smalls, a 32-year-old father of three, his inspiration has changed from when he was younger.
“When I was younger, my goal was solely to stand on stage, but now I am the father of three children. I want to be able to feed them, give them good clothing and raise them in a good environment,” he said.
The group is currently working on their first album, though they have not yet set a release date, as they are focusing on putting out good, quality music and live performances. They said they hope to become a group that people 10 or 20 years from now will still love.
“Our leader says since we’re not good-looking, then we can’t help but be good with our music,” J-Sseon joked. “We want to do a performance where we don’t receive any applause, which means, not that we did a bad performance, but we left the audience speechless. … They don’t know what to say. They are just standing in awe.”
Zan Dark added that they want to be like Stevie Wonder or other artists that are known for their live performances. So much so that when people hear they have a concert, they know that it’s going to be worth their time and money, no questions asked.
By Emma Kalka (firstname.lastname@example.org)