Nothing about DPR Live is predictable. From being a back-up dancer to almost going down the path of being a psychology lecturer, and now being one of the most prominent faces in K-hip-hop, DPR Live – real name Hong Da-bin – is on a spectrum that is as far reaching as his eclectic taste in music. But one thing that is consistent about him is his desire to influence people in a positive way.
While he is likely to be the first person you think of from the Dream Perfect Regime crew , you would be foolish to underestimate the men around him. DPR Live, IAN, Cream and REM have made a name for themselves for going outside of the traditional music structure in the South Korean entertainment industry. Forming bonds when they were just teenagers, discovering each other through IAN’s B-boying YouTube tutorials and meeting REM at a rooftop party in Seoul, these creative visionaries now oversee their own business, music and visual art under their own independent label and are paving a way for a new generation of artists in South Korea.
Last month, DPR Live released his latest EP, ‘IITE COOL’, a feel-good project that bares the emotional intelligence of a rapper who knows how to balance telling his story and allowing the fans to escape from the growing pains of life. It’s especially poignant in the midst of a pandemic, where the audience just needs to feel good.
NME spoke to DPR Live, with a special guest appearance from DPR REM, over Zoom in their studio in Seoul to talk about his upbringing on the American territory of Guam, collaborations with MAMAMOO’s Hwasa and why being “transparent” in music is so important to him.
Tell us more about growing up in Guam.
DPR Live: I went there when I was in kindergarten going up to first grade. There was obviously a variety of skin colours, a variety of cultures within the school. It was quite an experience to adjust to. But as soon as I adapted to the American culture and learned English I liked it. It was peaceful. Just in front of my house, there was the beach. Let’s just say that I got to be a kid in the neighbourhood, but when it came to school, it was pretty tough. There weren’t too many Asian people in our school and we were kind of the ethnicities to be picked on. So, it was hell but other than that, Guam was quite an experience. It really shaped who I am today.”
Who were your role models growing up?
DPR Live: “When I was a kid, my role model was just my father. When he was young, he used to wrestle. He used to do judo, used to be this fighting machine. And I always thought it was so cool, because he was so tough for his size. He is just as small as I am.
“My father really showed me when I was young that when you fall, all you have to do is get back up. And that’s something he really ingrained in me when I was young. He has a positive attitude, no matter how tough a situation gets, or how sad his situation gets, he always has a smile. And I guess when I was young, that was very heroic for me.”
Who are your musical inspirations?
DPR Live: “I really enjoyed Big Sean‘s music. His music really spoke to me. I would replay his album all the time and watch all his interviews. I also looked up to Logic, so when I first started music, those two hip-hop artists really moulded me. But I used to love punk rock, but it was more of the punk rock that was mainstream. I loved Fall Out Boy, Sum 41 and Paramore. Then I got to Korea, I fell in love with [G-Dragon], I fell in love with Beenzino … I fell in love with just a lot of musicians that were about quality.
The concept for your previous album ‘Is Anyone Out There?’ was “space”. What is the concept behind ‘IITE COOL’?
DPR Live: “For this one I had summer, specifically in mind. When I was making this it was freezing cold in Korea. It was snowing, everything was really cold. And I remember just thinking to myself, ‘I’m pretty sure Corona is still going to be around’. And, you know, global warming, it’s going to be hot. I just wanted to give some type of joy. I’ve always wanted to make a summer soundtrack, themed album. And I felt like this was a good time. After I made the songs that are in this album, REM gave me the idea of ‘why not naming it IITE cool?’ paying homage to the first EP ‘Coming To You Live’.”
The last album was deeply personal. How do you find the balance between telling your truth, while also giving the audience what they want?
DPR Live: “I think that part is very natural for me, because that’s how I started music. Everything I wrote about was very honest. Hence the name ‘Live’. I just really want to be transparent with my music. Sometimes as an artist you want to go really deep. Where, like the emotions you talked about, having three jobs, displaying my past with my father and school, those things are not a fun feeling.
“I made a decision in my head where when it comes to a full-length album, that’s where I want to paint in a way where I want to paint and talk about anything I want to talk about. Where, even if it doesn’t give you joy, it’ll still give you my rawest feelings and if you can relate to it, awesome. If you can’t, it’s alright because this is my story and this is how I feel.
“But when it comes to EPs like ‘Her’, ‘Coming To You Live’ and ‘IITE COOL’, or maybe singles or features, those things I try to keep my focus on giving some type of fun, because I feel a lot of people come to music to relate but also, they come to music to change the way they feel. I do my best to give some type of sonically enjoyable experience.”
On ‘Hula Hoops’, you worked with Beenzino, who is on your golden list, and MAMAMOO’s Hwasa. How did this collaboration happen?
DPR Live: “So I featured on [‘I’m Bad Too’ from Hwasa’s debut mini-album ‘María’] and I really enjoyed making that song. I got to meet Hwasa then and she was just so sweet and so down to earth. And I always had in mind, ‘She’s so cool. We should definitely make something’, and she was down.
“We actually had another single that was supposed to come out together. And we were in the midst of shooting the video, but we realised, ‘Oh, this song might not be a song that we would want to put out quality wise’. Because we’re so sensitive with quality it got cancelled. I actually was very sorry when I told Hwasa. I said, ‘I’m so sorry. You wrote this and you took your time out. But I feel as an artist, I can’t live with this going out.’ It was really cool because she understood completely. She said, ‘I’m on the same page with you. If you ever need me as a feature again, please contact me.’ And that’s kind of how we left it off.
“And with Beenzino, like you said, he’s always been on my golden list, not just for collaborations but I just wanted to sit down and chill and talk to him and maybe get some tips and advice because he is a seasoned veteran in Korea. When we met we just clicked. He was so cool and he started coming to our studio, we started going to his studio and we worked on a bunch of songs actually. I think we worked on 20 songs. Around the time I was finishing up my album I just asked him, ‘Hey, I’m doing this ‘Hula Hoops’ song. Hwasa’s on it. There’s an empty verse, would you want to give it a try?’ He was more than down, and that’s kind of how that came about.
Let’s talk about the ‘Yellow Cab’ MV. What was the process of making this because it feels very different from what I have seen of you.
DPR Live: “‘Is Anybody Out There?’ has an array of emotions that people don’t really tap into, but I switched lanes right away and decided to give the fans a bright mood again. ‘Yellow Cab’ is funky, it’s energetic, it’s bright. So, shooting this music video our intention was to just have fun and not be so serious. You can see my extra goofy side. I’m twerking in that thing.”
DPR REM: “People can interpret it the way they want. Basically, we made it look like it’s a love story. But at the end of the day, if we really look into the lyrics, you see it’s about the ups and downs with music, the industry and the fans. It’s just our way of putting a nice little teen high spirit into it.”
I was thinking about ‘Eung Freestyle’ and how you embody hip-hop in the song.
DPR REM: “‘Eung Freestyle’ was a passion project more than anything. It was like a cypher amongst people [who were] trending, but we wanted to put our own twist to it. And the best way to do it was to just get the most underground kids we were tight with at the time. The place was shot at a very traditional-looking Korean house. But for us, we’re in Korea, we’re shooting at the most Korean-esque house that we could find. It was mostly for showing the Korean audience this type of stuff is also doable by Koreans. And that somehow got huge global exposure, which we’re super grateful for.”
How do you manage to do it with so much respect, because I am cognizant of the fact that there are those who just think that putting on an afro wig and fake dreadlocks is how you pay homage to hip-hop.
DPR REM: “This is something that we talk about a lot with each other. Even our peers in Korea, I feel like, there’s still a long way to go with stuff like this. So, we just try to be mindful, and just try to educate. I think that’s the key word, it’s educating people. It’s not just telling someone ‘No’, but it’s telling them the concept of why, that’s how you really educate someone. And I feel like we as a community can do better in that aspect. It will really help the next generation in terms of really getting different motives and different values that are a bit more humanistic.”
I read that you said that if there’s one thing DPR does not compromise on it is the art. “Money should not be a hindrance to art”. Is there an example of a time that you were glad that you did not compromise?
DPR REM: “It was the previous album ‘Is Anybody Out There?’”
DPR Live: “Yeah.”
DPR REM: “You have to think about it. We built a world and with that, we had to sell it in a real way. Visually, we had to do that part justice. And that means the styling, the set design, the amount of tricks and camera work that has to go into the planning of it. We went into our own pockets to get it out there. And that doesn’t make sense in any business. But for the arts, and that is our motto for DPR. And me being the business guy behind this, I had to sacrifice that. I had to just cut that idea out that we’re doing this for a profit and just be like, ‘We’re doing this because we want to set a legacy.’ And to show that even this indie label can put out top-notch cinematic work.”
If there were any three artists across the world, living or dead, that you could bring to Korea and show them like this is what Korea is about. But also show them what DPR are about. Who would they be?
Is there anything else you want your fans to know about this album?
DPR LIVE: “I just want the fans to have a great time with this album this summer. Because Corona sucks and we have to vibe out.”