There’s a sense of comfort that comes when you’ve been doing something for 20 years that can be both a blessing and a curse. “We walk into a room and we will be able to make a song and it will be polished, good and have substance, but honestly, it gets boring,” Epik High’s Tablo explains of the Korean hip-hop legends’ own experience with this conundrum.
Despite promising never to release another full-length album, last year, the trio – completed by Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz – found themselves back in the studio with songs pouring out of them. This time, though, things were different – they were working with new musicians, in a new environment, with no pre-conceived plans for what they were making. “We were just messing around and I liked that it happened that way,” says Tablo. “We were like, ‘Let’s just have fun – whatever comes out tonight comes out’.”
The resulting ‘Strawberry’ proved to both Epik High and their fans that they could still surprise, giving the iconic group a new impetus to move forward, 20 years on from their debut album ‘Map Of The Human Soul’. As their ‘All Time High’ tour rolled through London, the trio sat down with NME to discuss this new chapter in their story, look back on their career so far, and share what the future holds for one of Korea’s most important hip-hop acts.
This tour is called the ‘All Time High’ tour – do you feel like Epik High are at the top of your game right now, 20 years in?
Tablo: “I think the fact that it doesn’t feel like 20 years or even 10 years means that we’re doing good. It honestly doesn’t feel any different from when we first started. We are constantly reminded of how long it’s been, but unless somebody is mentioning it, it doesn’t even pop into our heads. So clearly, we’re still enjoying it. When we look into the audience, we constantly have new fans. So I think that helps us not think about time.”
What is it about Epik High that means you’re still appealing to new people all the time?
Tablo: “I think it’s because we’re funny. I’m not kidding. Music is important. Performing our asses off – that’s great. All that is important but I think the language that transcends time and eras is humour. Epik High has never been too serious – our music can be dead serious, but, as people, we are very playful. We like to mess around. I’m sure you’ve seen my Twitter feed. It’s basically just a meme page. We like to have laughs with our fans and I think that translates to anybody. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, it doesn’t matter how old you are or what your specific tastes are – humour will get through to you.”
You’ve been promoting your new project ‘Strawberry’ with memes on your Twitter page. Mithra Jin and Tukutz, what was your reaction when Tablo first had this idea to promote via memes?
Tukutz: “It was funny. So funny.”
Mithra Jin: “Great plan.”
Tablo: “I don’t think they care. They’ve been with me for a long time so they know what to expect. Honestly, also, I don’t think they get my memes at all. There’s no loneliness like the loneliness you feel when you’re friends don’t get your memes. But it’s OK, our audience gets it.”
‘Strawberry’ happened after you made a decision not to make any more full-length albums. You started work on it when you were in LA last year – what was it about LA that inspired you to start making more music?
Tablo: “We were in LA for this festival that was a complete train wreck – it was like Fyre Fest with K-pop, I’m not kidding. We did that, and then we had a few days off and I think the psychological shock of what we had just been through, of the train wreck [made us feel] ‘We don’t even want to hang out, what are we going to do here? We’ve got a few days, maybe we’ll meet some musicians’. And then we hung out with some musicians and we ended up making music and made about 16 songs in three days: ‘Oh god, here we go again’. Our fans have been saying that it sounds very different from what we usually do. It sounds more current, it sounds more laidback and fun. I like it a lot, actually.”
Are spontaneity and fun the key for you moving forward then?
Tablo: “Definitely. [About] 90 per cent of the lyrics on this album are basically freestyle. I liked that because I know exactly what’s going to come out of us when we get into a studio and work for a month. I know exactly what types of songs will come out. They’ll feel good and they’ll feel very Epik High, but we’re not surprised by it. We’ve done it for so long and we’ve made so many songs that at the beginning of a songwriting process, we know exactly what to do. It’s not a bad thing because we’re good at it. We’ve mastered that craft. So there’s no room for surprises, really, in a controlled environment.
“So [on ‘Strawberry’], we were working with people we don’t know in different places. Whoever was throwing out an idea, if it was good, we just went with it. I think this is the only way to really stay an artist, honestly. You can be a craftsman or you can be an artist. We started off as artists but at a certain point, we became craftsmen. We need to go back to being more childlike and having that sense of wonder.”
Tablo, you featured with BTS‘ RM on ‘All Day’ on his album ‘Indigo’ last year. The famous anecdote is that you didn’t hear the song before you agreed to be on it. What is it about RM as a songwriter and an artist where you just know you’re going to want to be involved with him regardless?
Tablo: “First of all, RM really, really, really loves music. We’re closest to RM and Suga, and the two of them when we meet, they will not talk about anything other than music. They’re obsessed with it. It’s just like when we were their age. When you love music that much, it’s literally impossible to create a bad song. When RM hit me up, I was getting on a plane, so I couldn’t download the song, but I just knew it was gonna be good. So it was no problem saying yes, without hearing it.”
Tablo, you’re working on a new solo project right now – Tukutz, Mithra Jin, can we expect solo music from you in the future?
Tukutz: “No. I changed my mind. Never. It’s too tough.”
Tablo: “Honestly, that’s why I haven’t released a solo album for so long too. I actually enjoy it most when we’re making it together. Even if we’re not all working on that song, just them being there helps me. [turns to Mithra Jin] You don’t want to either?”
Mithra Jin: “No, no, no.”
Tablo: “We have solo tracks on the albums. We have this song called ‘Strawberry’ – which isn’t on the ‘Strawberry’ album, which is really weird – where Mithra sings. It’s this bossa nova kind of vibe. [That’s] a song that Mithra does by himself.”
You’ve said that Epik High are never going to disband or stop making music, so what does the future look like for the group?
Tablo: “Honestly, we didn’t imagine we’d be touring the world this deep into our career – never imagined it. The thing is, people that know us and the general industry in Korea, they never imagined it, obviously, because they don’t even believe it. They’ve never seen a group last this long, first of all, but they’ve never seen a group at our age touring the world with hip-hop music. This is not normal.
“I’m sure we’re gonna end up in directions we never imagined. Every year is fun for that reason, because we have absolutely no expectations. We’re not hungry for more attention or more accolades. We are completely fine with just this repeating. We’re happy – we’re happy to be performing, we’re happy to still be making music. Everything else is just a bonus – and the bonuses just keep happening.”