pH-1: “I don’t want to bother with people trying to put me in a box”

One of Korean hip-hop’s most in-demand rappers on taking risks, romanticising life and not letting himself be pigeonholed

“I be in the studio / But I’m not even working, not even working,” pH-1 raps on his 2018 track ‘Flaker’. It’s a song about repeatedly bailing on your plans so you can stay home instead, and the excuses that come with that. Given the amount of music he’s released or featured on in the last few years, you can see why it’s such a believable pretence for him. You don’t find yourself being one of the most in-demand figures in Korean hip-hop without putting in some graft, after all.

Since releasing his debut single ‘Wavy’ in 2016, pH-1 – aka Harry Park – has built a reputation as one of the most exciting artists in the hip-hop scene. His lyrics are smart, his hooks infectious and he’s consistently carving his own path instead of following trends. What really stands out about his music, though, is the honesty and positivity that often fuels it – on 2019’s ‘Til I Die’, for example, he details the stresses of trying to make your dreams reality but waves them away to overcome them and committing to “jump in and give it my all / I’mma do this ’til I die”.

“What interests me in general is a human-to-human relationship”

Part of that positivity comes from an effect the rapper wants his music to have on his listeners – to leave them with a romantic view of life. “I have this ideal view of the world,” Park explains over Zoom from his home in Seoul. “Ideally, I would want people to love each other. I would want people, in times of depression, to get over that barrier and grow.” Having this optimistic perspective doesn’t mean the rapper doesn’t also struggle with the same gloom as the rest of us but, in his songs, he’d rather “twist it a little bit”: “Be honest but, at the same time, still have a positive outlook in my music. That way, people who listen to my music can also relate and finish listening to my song with a more positive view on life.”

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One pH-1 song brimming with positive spirit is ‘365&7’, his latest single, which features Jamie, and arrived earlier this year as an addictively bright and breezy ode to not being able to stop thinking about someone you love. While it might immediately lend itself to a swooning tale of romance, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about a lover, but can demonstrate feelings about family, friends and others. It’s this multifaceted nature of love that Park finds lends itself so easily to writing about in his music.

“What interests me in general is a human-to-human relationship,” he explains. “Love is a big part of a human relationship, right? Love has different sides to it – lust, pure love, parent-to-child love, friendship, jealousy, anger, betrayal.” In its many forms, love is what is always on his mind, one way or another, and the ways it affects his own actions and emotions.

Produced by TOIL, ‘365&7’ presents a shift for pH-1, whose work so far has largely been helmed by rapper and producer Mokyo. Although the pair had good musical chemistry, Park was concerned about the limiting effect of working with one person. “I felt like maybe I was putting myself in a box,” he says. “I hate to be in a box so I wanted to switch it up and work with many different types of talented artists or producers. I love it so far, trying different sounds.”

Being pigeonholed and labelled by others isn’t something that interests Park, not least because he doesn’t see himself as an artist who is just one thing. “Some people would argue that pH-1 is not 100 per cent hip-hop ’cause he’s pop, he’s R&B, whatever,” he says. “I don’t want to bother with people trying to put me in a box – I’m not always gonna rap. A year later I might just be singing like Justin Bieber or something. Who knows? I’m a very versatile person and I always like to change things up.”

“But the fact that a lot of great artists are asking me to be on their project is a huge blessing. I feel like, ‘What if I don’t do features now and a year later nobody wants me?’”

The many sides of pH-1 are visible all across his back catalogue, from the poppier cuts like ‘365&7’ and the Baek Yerin-featuring ‘Nerdy Love’, to the harder hip-hop of ‘Teléfono’ or the lowkey, sizzling likes of ‘Malibu’. He might only be five years out from his debut single, but he’s managed to pack a lot into that time.

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Park’s prolific tendencies might stem from a similar ethos to the X tattoo that’s etched into his pinky finger. The symbol serves as a reminder to not make promises because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future – and it’s that inability to see too far ahead of us that could explain why the rapper keeps himself so busy. “That’s 50 per cent true,” he replies, noting that he often worries he’s doing too much and people “might get sick of me”. “But the fact that a lot of great artists are asking me to be on their project is a huge blessing. I feel like, ‘What if I don’t do features now and a year later nobody wants me?’” (With that said, expect to see less “feat. pH-1” tags on tracks for the foreseeable – he’s taking a break from features for a while.)

ph-1 interview 365&7 jamie
pH-1. Credit H1GHR MUSIC

Having an urge to not get complacent or take the interest in him for granted reflects the fact that getting to this point hasn’t been straightforward for Park. Born in South Korea, his family later moved to Long Island, New York when he was 12. It was there he was exposed to hip-hop, started singing and playing the guitar and drums, and eventually gravitated towards rapping. But, because his parents had moved to the US to give the family better opportunities, he didn’t feel like he could risk it all and try to become a successful rapper in the States.

After spending some miserable time as a dental assistant and, later, as a web developer, he decided to move back to Korea around the age of 26 and give music a shot. If it didn’t work out in two years, he would return to the US and give up the mic. Compared to a lot of other acts, pH-1 might have started out as an artist “late” in life, but the experiences he gathered in that time have only helped him.

“If I didn’t have all those years of struggling to figure out my life then I wouldn’t know that music is actually the thing I really love doing,” he reasons. “That just makes me commit to it 100 per cent. If I had the opportunity to start doing music when I was in high school, I think I would have done it half-assed. Because I felt like I was behind everyone else, I had to give it 200 per cent.”

“If I just personally felt like my music wasn’t good enough or my passion wasn’t strong enough, I wouldn’t have come to Korea in the first place.”

Going back to Korea wasn’t easy. All of his friends and family were back in the States and he had no contacts in Seoul. “I would sit in my room, open up my laptop and look at the calendar and the whole month was empty,” he recalls. “It was very lonely and scary. I would have to go out there or contact people to meet up with me – ‘Give me an hour of your time’. I would have to hustle.”

Before things took off for the rapper, there were moments where he worried if things were really going to work out. Even if he wondered if he’d made a “huge mistake”, though, deep down he always backed himself. “I had this weird sense of confidence or belief that something was gonna happen for me,” he says. He’s not sure where that came from, but notes he is “very objective when it comes to self-evaluation”: “If I just personally felt like my music wasn’t good enough or my passion wasn’t strong enough, I wouldn’t have come to Korea in the first place. Objectively speaking, I felt like I had a shot if I were to give it my all.”

Since then, Park has proved his faith in himself to be well-placed. In that time, he’s become a founding member of prominent hip-hop label H1GHR Music, finished just shy of the top three on season seven of the Mnet TV rap competition Show Me The Money and, most recently, sold out his first solo concert at the 2,500-capacity Yes24 Live Hall in Seoul in under a minute.

“That was probably one of the most memorable times of my life,” he says of that performance. “I’m a very introverted and reserved person and, at times, I have very low self-esteem as a person and as an artist. I’m always doubting myself – do people actually want to spend money to come to my show? But it blew my mind. That was just confirmation that I actually made the right choice in becoming a musician in Korea. I was very thankful and it gave me the motivation to work harder.”

What pH-1 is working hard on right now is a new project, due for release later this summer. He’s tight-lipped about its details, sharing only that it’s “an album that pH-1 would make” and “an album for pH-1 fans”. Like all artists, he’s also been missing performing during the pandemic – even if it does make him feel “really nervous” in the moments before and after a show. He might not be able to physically do this with this next release, but he cites his long-term goal as to grow his fandom overseas.

“Europe, the States or Asia – wherever I can get myself,” he explains, his words reminiscent of 2019’s ‘Boat Ride’. “I can’t see everything I want to see, I can’t see it / I’m just at home,” he sings on that track, later reeling off a list of cities: “Florence, Paris, Tokyo, Venice, Havana, Sydney, London.” When he’s finally able to get back on the road, expect each stop he makes to fall in love with the pH-1 way of seeing things – real, romantic and full of hope.

pH-1’s new song ‘365&7’, featuring Jamie, is out now.

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