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[Herald Interview] After 3 years, Epik High raps as if it’s their last

Whether it’s a student studying in a library or an office worker surrounded by piles of paper, the dark vibe of Epik High’s music has long functioned as a remedy for many people struggling with their daily lives.

The hip-hop trio’s music dives deep into subjects like desperation, remorse and anger -- everyday emotions that people would rather avoid discussing -- and consoles people in its own way.

Three years after topping the charts with “Shoebox,” Epik High, which consists of Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz, has returned with its ninth full-length album “We’ve Done Something Wonderful,” a gloomy record released Monday. But the group seemed much more laid back and at ease, compared to the days when its members angrily ranted about society. 

(From left) Mithra Jin, Tablo and DJ Tukutz of hip-hop trio Epik High (YG Entertainment)
(From left) Mithra Jin, Tablo and DJ Tukutz of hip-hop trio Epik High (YG Entertainment)

“When we promoted ‘Pencil Sharpener,’ it was as if we were holding a magic stick, like we could change this world with a pen and paper. Compared to our ambitious past, however, we now feel afraid and burdened when in front of a blank sheet to write down lyrics,” said Epik High’s producer and rapper Tablo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Tuesday.

“And we decided to talk about those honest feelings through music. After everything we’ve been through, which included times when I almost quit music regardless of my will, I became thankful for everything.”

The 14-year-old group’s 11-track album “We’ve Done Something Wonderful” is fronted by two lead tracks “Home is Far Away” and “Love Story,” featuring singers Oh Hyuk and IU, respectively.

“Home is Far Away” depicts the inner struggles of those who contemplate their seemingly far-fetched goals. The track also centers on the disheartening moment of failing to find an empty taxi when one is returning home from work.

As for “Love Story,” Tablo explained that the song was influenced by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s films and said that he wanted the song to be like a movie about painful love.

Asked why the group partnered with IU, Tablo said, “First of all, I’m a fan of IU. Her voice is special in that it sounds warm and cold at the same time, which is very attractive. I thought such a combination could well deliver the song’s message about love, which is a combination of those two emotions.”

DJ Tukutz, who was in charge of casting IU and Oh Hyuk, said that he was especially happy when Oh Hyuk accepted his request, as the artist is notorious for being unresponsive. 

The intensity of the album explodes with tracks such as the hard-hitting “No Thank You” featuring Song Min-ho of Winner, Simon Dominic and The Quiett, “Here Comes the Regrets” featuring Lee Hi, and “Bleed.”  

(YG Entertainment)
(YG Entertainment)

“In fact, all three of us are very negative, and we tend to sink ourselves into deep despair. But we’ve been making efforts to become more positive, which is also reflected in our music,” Tablo said.

But the unique identity of the group remains, its music heavy with introspective and contemplative lyrics.

Like people frantically kicking their feet against drowning, Tablo said people’s lives are like those desperate feet beneath the peaceful surface. And Epik High’s music has been focusing on those hidden moments, according to Tablo.

“Whenever I meet people, I always think that they will have their own desperation and struggles, no matter how emotionless they seem to be,” he said.

Epik High also addressed the recent controversy sparked by the R-rated “No Thank You” -- which some critics said included profanity in its lyrics -- saying that the group had not expected the song to become an issue at all. 

(YG Entertainment)
(YG Entertainment)

Epik High shot to stardom in 2003 with its debut album, “Map of the Human Soul.” The group rose from the underground hip-hop scene with hits such as “Fly,” “Love Love Love” and “Umbrella.” After moving from Woolim Entertainment to YG Entertainment in 2012, the trio dropped its eighth studio album “Shoebox” in 2014, with two of its lead singles “Happen Ending” and “Spoiler” being highly acclaimed by critics.

In March 2015, Epik High performed at the SXSW event in Austin, Texas, and in April 2016, the group became only the second Korean artist to perform at the Coachella music festival. In 2015, Tablo became the head of the YG Entertainment indie sublabel HIGHGRND, which houses indie acts like Hyukoh Band led by Oh Hyuk and The Black Skirts, but he resigned from the post in July to focus on the return of Epik High.

Also an experienced producer, Tablo said that he had recently written a song for veteran singer Lee So-ra, with a punchline that Suga of BTS will feature in the song. He said that he prefers an unconventional combination of artists, expressing his hope to work with balladeer Sung Si-kyung and a member of Twice, who hail from very different musical genres.

“Some fans say that our new album gives an impression that it’s going to be our last record. If fact, we worked on the album with such a mindset. While we don’t want to use the word ‘last,’ we realized that there are unexpected moments that can crash our music career,” Tablo said.

“That’s why we are so grateful to have this interview right now, as it’s going to be one of our very few record-related activities,”

As is usual for the group, Epik High does not plan to appear on TV programs or music shows to promote its new album. But the group will hold concerts on Nov. 3 and 4 at Blue Square Samsung Card Hall in Hannam-dong, central Seoul.

Released to coincide with the 14th anniversary of the group’s first album “Map of the Human Soul” in October 2003, “We’ve Done Something Wonderful” has been going strong on both domestic and foreign charts. Several tracks from the album, including its two lead tracks, have swept several local charts as of Tuesday, while the album went on to top the iTunes Top Albums Chart in 10 countries including Colombia, Peru, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

By Hong Dam-young (