How Seo Taiji combatted censorship and paved the way for K-pop

A ‘rebellious youth’ image.

Highly stylized choreography; meticulous album rollouts; socially conscious lyrics; a dedicated and committed fandom. Although these are hallmarks of K-pop music today, many of them started with Seo Taiji and his group, Seo Taiji and Boys. In this article, let’s explore how Taiji, “the president of culture,” paved the way for K-pop (and Korean hip hop) to become the cultural behemoth it is today while challenging censorship laws, creating innovative sounds, and burning a path forward for Korean youth culture.

A period of change

While hip hop and Black youth culture exploded in popularity in America, this cultural export didn’t reach the ears of young South Koreans until the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Korea was undergoing a period of massive change during this period; as censorship laws and the 1989 travel ban were lifted, hints of western culture began to trickle in.

Hip hop music gained a slow but steady audience in the Itaewon clubs of Seoul in the ’80s. While they were initially limited to American soldiers located in the U.S. army base in Yongsan, they eventually opened to Korean citizens, allowing them to hear the sounds of hip hop and new jack swing through artists like Michael Jackson and Run-D.M.C. Suddenly, the sounds, fashion, and dance styles of the west reached a new and impressionable market.

Prevailing pop music dancers like Hyeon Jin-young and groups like Deux introduced even wider audiences to hip hop and b-boy style by dancing to the palettes of new jack swing, hip hop, funk and more. However, the prevailing sound of Korean pop was still trot music—folk music from the era of Japanese occupation sung in vibrato—as well as pop ballads.

The beginnings of Seo Taiji and Boys

Enter Seo Taiji. Born Jeong Hyeon-Cheol in 1972, Taiji had musical ambitions early on, dropping out of high school to join heavy metal project Sinawe at age 16. Once the group disbanded, he went to search for his next project. Although he was a talented vocalist and experienced producer in his own right (having learned MIDI sequencing and his way around a DAW), the 20-year-old Taiji lacked dance training. He approached rising star Yang Hyun-suk for dance lessons, and the two decided to craft a group together with dancer Lee Juno. The newly-formed Seo Taiji and Boys—who blended new jack swing beats with catchy pop choruses and eye-popping choreography—seemed prime for immediate critical and commercial success.

…Except not quite. In the Korean music industry, groups ‘debut’ after a period of training to a worldwide audience, typically on a big network TV show. Seo Taiji and Boys debuted on April 11, 1992 on MBC’s talent show, performing “Nan Arayo (I Know).” As South Korea’s answer to Bill Bev DeVoe or Guy, they wore matching jumpsuits, danced in tight synchronization, and rapped to audiences still unfamiliar to the western vocal style. The judges of the MBC panel were unimpressed. They panned the songwriting and the vocal delivery, and slapped them with the lowest score out of any performer that night.

It didn’t end up mattering. Rebuking the staid and out-of-touch reaction from the MBC hosts, Taiji’s newly captivated fandom went to work. “Nan Arayo” went number one and remained there for 17 weeks, selling over 1.5 million copies within its first month of release, and the group took home a Golden Disc Award in 1992. From there, Taiji’s ascent was unstoppable. Seo Taiji and Boys followed “Nan Arayo” with the eurodance inspired, rave-style offering of “You, In the Fantasy” as part of their self-titled 1992 release.

The industry followed suit. Agencies developed artists marketed towards a younger demographic as the rise of talent conglomerates followed in Taiji’s stead and crafted groups that blended hip hop and rock as he had done. Fiercely independent and freed from the constraints of a management corporation, Taiji had creative control over both the music and the direction of the group. A heads-down worker and private person between album cycles, the idea of creating mystique, silence, and anticipation between releases as Taiji had done is now commonplace in the Korean popular music industry.

The MBC judges’ reaction to their debut was a taste of things to come for Seo Taiji and Boys. Prominent media figures like television hosts and radio DJs disavowed the group’s socially conscious lyricism and western influences. They faced censorship, public scrutiny, and pushback by an older generation uncomfortable with their boundary-pushing music, rebellious image, and use of both English and Korean lyrics. For the records that followed their debut, controversy would trail closely behind.

Seo Taiji and Boys II

1993 saw the release of Seo Taiji and Boys II, which featured lead single “Hayeoga” (“Anyhow Song”). Like the rest of the record, the track introduced an eclectic mix of flavors, incorporating elements of ’90s eurodance, reggae, traditional Korean instrumentation, and more overt metal arrangements.

Despite the album’s massive success (it was the first to sell two million copies and earned them another Golden Disc Award), Korean mainstream media continued their blackballing of the group. KBS-TV banned the group from TV appearances because they wore their hair in dreadlocks. Every controversy only bolstered Taiji’s popularity, cementing his trio as an icon of youth rebellion.

Seo Taiji and Boys III

From here, Taiji fully leaned into questioning the status quo. For their third self-titled record Seo Taiji and Boys III, Taiji took cues from the socially conscious lyrics of Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine to the rap-rock blends of Rick Rubin’s work with Beastie Boys into their most politically charged, heavy album yet.

No longer shying away from his metal roots, Taiji collaborated with thrash metal vocalist Ahn Heung-Chan of Crash for the boundary-shattering “Kyoshil Idea” (“Classroom Idea”). In the song, Taiji takes aim at the Korean educational system, accusing the government and schools of imposing unfair expectations on kids to succeed.

Young listeners flocked and stood by the track, but predictably, it was also met with unanimous outcry. The right wing accused Taiji of hiding Satanic messages in the record, obscured with backmasking. The track, a rap-rock production with unapologetic call-and-response vocals, was banned from TV and radio.

Seo Taiji and Boys IV

With their fourth and final record, Taiji’s project was slammed with its biggest controversy yet. Seo Taiji and Boys IV included the most politically charged messages by far. Released in October of 1995, IV took cues from gangsta rap and alternative rock while not shying away from the band’s rock rap sound. The Cypress Hill-inspired “Come Back Home” was a hit, later covered by BTS in 2017.

One song in particular, “Sidae Yugam (Regret of the Times)” would change Korean censorship law forever. The track was rejected by the Public Performance Ethics Committee for including lyrics about the government like “gone is the era of honest people” and “I wish for a new world that will overturn everything.”

Taiji refused to remove the song from the album or change the lyrics. As a result, the track’s instrumental version was included in the pressings of the album. The backlash was immense, with fans inundating the committee’s office with letters decrying the decision. The committee decided to rid of pre-censorship practices (banning media before release) altogether because of “Sidae Yugam” in 1996. However, with the endless public pressure intensifying, an exhausted Taiji told his bandmates during production of IV that he was planning to end the group. They disbanded in January 1996, after the album sold 2.6 million copies.

Each member found success in their own right, with Taiji enjoying a long solo career while Yang Hyun-suk formed YG Entertainment, the massive agency home to BLACKPINK, BIGBANG, and many more. It goes without saying that K-pop and the music industry today wouldn’t be where they are today without Taiji’s massively influential work.

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May 27, 2021

Kenneth Takanami Herman Kenneth Takanami Herman is a Content Strategist at Splice who produces electronic music as Kenneth Takanami.