Hours before NME’s interview with Tablo, news of his COVID diagnosis breaks, right in the middle of promotions for Epik High’s highly anticipated album ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’. Ever the trooper, however, the Korean-Canadian musician calls from a room in the midst of quarantine. At 8:30am on a Wednesday morning, his sweatshirt clad form shakes and stills as he positions the camera in a brighter spot.
- READ MORE: Epik High’s Tablo: “I’ve gone through long periods where I felt like I was completely alone”
Over the course of the conversation, the oft-mythical man becomes more and more human: he cries easily, he’s not always sure of things, but he doesn’t take everything too seriously. He laughs at memes and comments fans leave on social media. He loves what he does, but sometimes hates it, especially when things are misunderstood, but he doesn’t care anymore. Tablo is here – present, in the moment – but, most importantly, he is content.
“All my life, I’ve been asked, ‘Who do you wanna be?’ Which, in another way, is asking you where you want to be. Where do you want to be in life when you’re 20, when you’re 30, when you’re 40? We imagine all these different things, right? Everybody in the world spends money to go somewhere that isn’t here.”
“But, in my mind, I want to be here. I feel fine just here,” he says. “When people ask me, ‘Hey, who do you wanna be? Where do you wanna be in life five years from now, 10 years from now?’ Whether or not you think that’s great or that’s horrible, or something to envy or something to laugh at, I don’t really care. Here is where I am.”
As someone whose generation grew up on a steady consumption of bite-sized show-off fuelled by constant doom-scrolling, the word “here” means a very different thing. It falls into the envy-inducing space of FOMO, touted around to show people that your life is so much more exciting and happening than everyone else’s – “I’m here, and you’re not. Well, sucks to be you, I guess.” “Here” brings dread, isolation, inadequacy, incapability, because you never want to miss out on it.
On both ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’ and its predecessor, however, Epik High approach this tiny four letter word with a moving reverence. Where ‘Part 1’ was a proverbial hand of comfort during the unpredictability of the pandemic – then, Epik High was here for you – ‘Part 2’ is something much more expansive, and yet deeply, deeply vulnerable and personal.
In some ways, the word “here” carries the gravity of all that Epik High are and have been through over the last 20 years, first as rookies that set themselves apart from the mainstream, and then as some of the founders and pioneers of modern-day Korean hip-hop. Wrapped up in these words are a myriad of emotions. The joy of a successful journey. Curiosity, mingled with tiredness and disbelief. The most important, however, is acceptance – not everything may have gone exactly the way they wanted, and they weren’t always coasting, but they’re here in this moment.
“At the beginning, when we first started, I really imagined that after five years, 10 years, 20 years, I would be somewhere very different from where I am now. And I don’t mean that like location-wise or fame or money-wise. I mean mentally, I imagined that there’s something at the end of the rainbow.” says Tablo, before the much-needed grounding.
“No amount of work and fame honestly leads to that. I realised that this imaginary thing that you aspire to or you feel is at the end of the rainbow, isn’t really there. I’m okay with that though – that I’m still exactly where I started, honestly.”
On the album, they close this loop – being right where they started – in more ways than one: the last track on ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’, ‘Champagne’, samples ‘Go’, the first song from their debut album, ‘Map Of The Human Soul’ – an acknowledgement of the trio’s time together over two decades and 10 albums.
“That audio clip at the beginning is the first time we had our own concert. That was before we were famous. That was even before our debut. It was at a very small club that we would always perform at.” Tablo recalls, adding that watching the video felt like an out-of-body experience. “We actually found that video and took the audio from it. It was just weird.”
“It was like seeing an alternate reality. We remember it [the moment] but it just seems like a moment that’s in a separate dimension, that is just stuck in that moment. It feels like it’s now, but in a different realm.” he explains.
Funny, that’s an apt descriptor for the rest of the album as well – like Cooper from Interstellar, you look through the bookcase at Epik High in all their highs and lows. On ‘Prequel’, for example, they reminisce about the early days: “Our first contract was for three years and $5,000 / Our first home was a $5,000 deposit and $300 a month / Our first pay was $10 bills in 3 thin envelopes / It was nothing, but who cares? / We can eat something tonight.”
‘Family Portrait’ infuses life into a slice of childhood, contrasting the colors there with the loneliness of adulthood, especially when you realize that some members of your family will only live on in portraits. “My dad would always walk faster than the rest of us, but now his steps are getting slower,” they say.
We meander through celebrations of victory, youthful vigor and endearing cockiness on tracks like ‘SuperRare’ – the classic Epik High bravado that never gets old – and the overwhelming, crippling loneliness and self-doubt of tracks such as ‘Gray So Gray’, ‘BRB’ and ‘I Hated Myself’ wrenches something ugly and painful from the inside. They directly contrast the confidence of the rest of the album, as if exposing the devastating wreckage it was masking in a weak moment.
“I’ve always been personal about problems, but I’ve always kind of hidden behind metaphors and poetic expressions. I don’t think I’ve ever been this explicit in what I’m feeling or what I’m thinking or whatever I went through.” says Tablo about the lyricism on the album, particularly the aforementioned tracks. “I think I just blurted out exactly what happened to me and what I’m feeling without making it sound elegant or beautiful. I don’t know why at this moment – that’s just where my mind went.” he adds.
At times, the way Tablo speaks – both in reality and through ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’ – sparks a fearsome uncertainty. The contentment and self-assuredness of his “here-ness” makes one wonder: he’s okay with a lot of things now, but does that also extend to the possibility of one day leaving all of this behind?
The answer comes simply and quickly to him: “Honestly, being forgotten or what people remember me as, I don’t think that’s really a big issue for me. I think it’s whether or not I can let go of this life.”
“I know that it’s gonna be really, really difficult to let go,” he says. “And sometimes we fear that by the time we actually decide to let go, there really might be no one on the other end that we’re letting go of.”
“It scares me sometimes that maybe we’re the only ones holding onto this, maybe the fans don’t care. Maybe there is no one out there that is as afraid of letting go of this thing that we made that we had together.” he adds.
‘You get it, right?’ is the undertone. Honestly, you do – the primal fear of pouring your soul into something, intertwining your identity with it, making it an extension of yourself only to one day realize that it meant something only to you. It’s cold here, and so very lonely. “At some point I decided that I should always be able to wake up the next morning and decide to stop doing whatever I did up till the day before,” Tablo explains how the possibility of one day saying goodbye factored into his present.
“That’s the ironic thing. As soon as I got into a mental state where I had no problem turning my back on the last 20 years, it helps me do this with a true passion every single day, because every morning, I choose to do it now.” he says.
So, that’s it? If this really was Epik High’s swansong, would he be okay with it?
“I don’t know if anyone will notice, but the last thing I say on the album is ‘Epik High was here’,” he says. “I don’t know why I did that. It was sort of just freestyle. Tukutz was like, ‘Can you just say something at the end?’ And I said a bunch of different things. And then at the end I was like, ‘Epik High was here’.
“I don’t know. It just sounds right. You don’t know with life. So, if that becomes literally the outro of my last work, I would like people to remember that Epik High was here.”
Epik High’s new album ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’ is out now.