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Making irregular the regular: NCT 127 on crafting own sonic identity

With the ambition to localize K-pop, NCT 127 has successfully carved its musical path with ‘no easy’ sounds

 
A teaser image of NCT 127’s 4th LP “2 Baddies” (SM Entertainment)
A teaser image of NCT 127’s 4th LP “2 Baddies” (SM Entertainment)

In the cutthroat K-pop industry, many bands throw their glitzy hats into the ring with elements that make up the so-called “idol sound,” high production value with catchy hooks sung by camera-ready idols. But NCT 127 did it in a way nobody has ever done before.

Short for Neo Culture Technology, NCT was formed under SM Entertainment in 2016 in a bid to produce an endless number of international boy bands under the NCT umbrella. It’s currently the biggest group in the music scene, with 23 members grouped under four different sub-units to localize K-pop around the world.

NCT 127 is the Seoul-based band; 127 reflects the city’s longitudinal coordinates, while WayV is China-based. NCT U is a member-fluid team representing all NCT units, meaning members of each sub-unit can freely join the band. NCT Dream is a unit created for teenage members, although SM removed the band’s graduation concept.

The then-seven-member group consisted of Korean members Tae-yong, Tae-il, Hae-chan and Jae-hyun, Yuta from Japan, Winwin from China and Mark from Canada. It stormed the music scene with its debut album “NCT #127,” released on July 6, 2016. In December, two members -- Johnny from the US and Do-young from Korea -- joined the band. In 2018, Jung-woo joined the group as a new member.

As a 10-piece K-pop act, NCT 127 has since crafted its own sonic identity and taken unique steps forward in its own style of music. But the band didn’t start off on a sure note.



Boy band NCT 127 (SM Entertainment)
Boy band NCT 127 (SM Entertainment)

Expectations for the multinational group were high leading up to its debut, as it was the first boy band from SM following the highly successful Exo. But unlike the easy-on-the-ear tunes its predecessors had put out as their debut songs, NCT 127 took a different path.

The band’s debut song, “Fire Truck,” didn’t have much to grab onto. It was a trap-influenced hip-hop track brimming with strong sirens and distorted sounds, which many said were unpleasant to listen to.

The band ventured into new sounds or tunes that idols didn’t opt for, especially in “Limitless,” and took home a win on music shows for “Cherry Bomb” in 2017. NCT 127 quickly caught on with its initially offbeat yet later addictive sound with its first LP, “Regular-Irregular,” dropped in 2018. The aptly named album muted regular songs and made it hard for many listeners to stomach.

NCT 127 went global with its 2nd LP, “NeoZone,” released in 2020.

The titular “Kick It” showed that noisy and complex tunes were the main characters behind the group’s narrative and boundary-defying concept. Filled with chants about Bruce Lee, the album debuted at No. 5 on Billboard 200 albums chart, proving that their atypical sound can find an audience in the US pop market. In the same year, the band logged its Japanese EP, “Loveholic,” which had the Japanese version of “Kick It” at No. 1 on Japan’s Oricon daily albums chart.

Not only did the band open a new paradigm of K-pop through its idiosyncratic formation and music, but it also proved popular through world tours.

Tickets for the band’s concerts at Seoul Gocheok Dome, the largest-capacity stadium here, sold out immediately. NCT 127 also hopped on its second dome tour across Japan and held two live sessions at Tokyo Dome, the biggest indoor stadium in Japan, garnering some 100,000 fans. The trek will include the Americas, Los Angeles and Newark, Latin America and more Asian cities.
 
Boy band NCT 127 (SM Entertainment)
Boy band NCT 127 (SM Entertainment)

“NCT 127 is an esoteric band. But since boy bands are fandom-based, NCT 127 was able to gain popularity among K-pop fans,” Lee Hye-jin, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said.

Taking a different path compared to other SM groups can be a unique approach, according to Lee.

“SM is rebranding itself through SMCU, which aims to connect every artist under one coherent storyline, and NCT plays a big part. Their music and concept are rare in the static K-pop industry, which can trigger fans’ interest. Also, if you listen carefully, the band’s songs are inspired by Black (American) music, which is why listeners can find it more like Western pop, and why it’s different from other idol groups.”

Meanwhile, NCT 127 is gearing up for a comeback with its 4th LP, “2 Baddies,” to be released on Sept. 16. Recently, Jae-hyun released his first solo track, “Forever Only,” as part of NCT’s solo and unit project “NCT Lab.”

By Park Jun-hee (junheeep97@heraldcorp.com)
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