by Jaeki Cho
In the early aughts, YG Entertainment opened its doors to two 13-year-old boys aspiring to become pop stars. The teens would study together as trainees for over five years before officially debuting in 2006 as members of K-pop group Big Bang.
One of them, known as G-Dragon, became celebrated as much for his music as his fashion sense1, splashed on blogs and magazine pages around the world.
The other, Taeyang, took a slightly different path. Though a style trendsetter in his own right—you couldn’t wave a camera at Paris Fashion Week this year without catching him and GD mingling somewhere—the singer born Dong Young-bae has earned most of his accolades as a result of his musical output. Taeyang is the closest Korea has to a true R&B star.
His boss, YG Entertainment CEO Yang Hyun-suk describes Taeyang as “the type whose understanding of music and dance are really deep.” The proof is in the 25-year-old’s output: Among the five Big Bang members, Taeyang was the first to release a solo effort (the mini-album Hot in 2008). Since then, he has released a string of hits, from his initial solo release, “Only Look At Me,” to the singles (“Where U At,” “Wedding Dress,” and “I Need a Girl”) off his debut full-length album, Solar (2010).
Whereas G-Dragon’s solo music is a hybrid of different genres, Taeyang’s catalog focuses solely on American-style R&B—and all that comes with it. On stage and in videos, Taeyang’s limber moves have earned him a rep as K-pop’s best natural dancer.
Taeyang broke his four-year solo hiatus last November, wresting the spotlight back with the aggressive “Ringa Linga,” which quickly soared to the top of the charts across Asia. As he finally drops his oft-delayed Rise album, Taeyang candidly shared his thoughts on the K-pop explosion to reconciling his solo dreams with his Big Bang obligations in this Noonchi exclusive interview.
How did you first get into music?
Taeyang: I started playing the piano at a young age. It didn’t matter what genre, I always knew I would become some sort of musician. I kept playing the piano until I was about 13 years old. Then I met members of Jinusean, who introduced me to hip-hop music. But even before then, I loved Michael Jackson. I remember the first time he came to Korea. I started to like him not because of his music, but because of his stage presence. I remember seeing him dance and thinking, “Man, I wish I could do that.” I would watch Michael Jackson on television and imitate his moves. And whenever there were opportunities to dance at school I would participate.
Back then, who were some artists you enjoyed listening to?
Taeyang: For hip-hop, I listened to Jay Z’s Blueprint repeatedly. I also listened to a lot of R&B music, like Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder, and others.
When did you decide to become a full-time musician?
Taeyang: It’s difficult for me to pinpoint a specific period, but probably when I was about 13 years old. That’s when I joined YG Entertainment, and I made the decision that I had to become a full-time musician no matter what.
During that period, YG Entertainment wasn’t as established as it is now. Were you wary of joining a company that hadn’t made its mark yet?
Taeyang: I didn’t have much thought about that because I was young. I just genuinely wanted to do it. My parents had a lot of reservations about me becoming a trainee. But honestly, YG Entertainment was the only company in Korea at the time that specialized in the type of music I loved. So there were no doubts in my mind like, “Oh, what if I don’t make it?” Even now, it doesn’t matter what I do, I always try to do things with an absolute sense of certainty.
You and G-Dragon were in a hip-hop/R&B duo called GDYB. When you realized that both of you would join a boy band called Big Bang, how did you feel?
Taeyang: I probably shared the same sentiment that Ji-yong [G-Dragon] had. I wasn’t too fond of it. I was a little annoyed. I wasn’t upset because we were debuting as a group, but it was more so skepticism on whether or not we’ll be doing music that’s too pop-friendly.
So you didn’t want to be an idol.
Taeyang: For me, just because you’re an idol, I don’t think you have restrictions on what you can and can’t do. People often ask, “Because you’re an idol, you shouldn’t be doing this, no?” That never crossed my mind. The reason I became a musician is because I wanted to do what I always imagined. I don’t think there should be a preconception of what an idol is.
“If I just did what I want to do, I would compile the songs I like, make a mixtape, and put it out for free online.”
When you debuted as solo artist, your music and performances drew comparisons to American artists like Omarion. How’s your musical style different now than before?
Taeyang: Personally, I feel like I’m still following that lineage of R&B music. But I don’t have a specific set of rules for the type of music I make. Of course, what I love and like is very clear. The artists I’m inspired by fall in that lane, so people could categorize my sound as similar to that of an Usher or an Omarion. But just because I do R&B-style of music, I don’t feel obliged to do just that.
Looking back, how do you feel about your debut album, Solar?
Taeyang: Honestly, I can’t rate my albums. In the end, the listener rates them. Nobody goes into making an album thinking, “Man, I don’t think I’m there yet.” For me at least, I made it because I felt like it was ready. Listening to it now, I don’t feel like it’s lacking. If the people that listen to it don’t enjoy it then that’s that. If they do enjoy it, I’m thankful. Looking back, I think I thought about things a little too much. I should’ve enjoyed the music more instead of thinking about it. If I could give out an excuse, I was very busy. I was under a deadline. I wanted to enjoy the creation process of the album, but the fact that I couldn’t do that disappoints me a little.
I feel like people that have an ear for R&B music really liked Solar. But I also feel like that the R&B market isn’t as big in Korea as in other parts of the world.
Taeyang: There are certainly constraints for expression in Korea. Personally, I’d like to make an album without having any sort of restrictions, but realistically speaking, that’s very difficult. The type of topics I can discuss are limited.
Ever thought about putting out a free mixtape?
Taeyang: Oh, I would love to do that! I’ve been wanting to do that since 2011. But it’s the same story. I constantly work on new material because I love to do it, without a guarantee those records will end up on the album. Many times, there’s a bigger likelihood the song I like won’t make it to the final cut. Producers that work with me would praise those records, but since the label is putting out the album, I don’t have the ultimate say. I feel like that’s everywhere though. If I just did what I want to do, I would compile the songs I like, make a mixtape, and put it out for free online.
What are your goals for your new album, Rise?
Taeyang: I just want every song to be a banger. To be a single. The overall concept is important, too, but I just want every track to be a hit. What I’m working on definitely has a very strong, hip-hop vibe. “Unusual” is the word I want to say as the theme that connects all the songs. For the past year or so, that’s been the style that attracted me the most.
What are some of your studio habits?
Taeyang: I don’t have a specific habit, but after seeing how foreign artists like Chris Brown get their work done, I’ve changed a lot of the way I approach my music. For instance, it doesn’t matter how many takes I do in the studio, I eventually end up going with the first take. That first feeling just can’t be recaptured. You might get a better sense of rhythm, hit the note more nicely, but in the end it’s all about the feeling. I go into the booth, and I do about two takes. If I’m not in the mood, I just don’t record that day.
Who are some artists who you’ve been listening to?
Taeyang: I thought Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream was a crazy album. I also enjoy listening to a lot of older music. Like Prince, just classic R&B. For my next album, I don’t want to sound like anybody else. Of course, someone will inspire me, but I just want to explore my own musical identity.
Who’s one person you want to work with?
Taeyang: Anybody. I have no standard. It’s all about the feeling. Getting a tattoo is no different. Coming into the U.S. I thought about getting a tattoo. I had no idea who I was going to get it from. So I just Googled hundreds of photos of tattoos. I found several pieces that caught my attention and realized that Anil Gupta did all of them. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t even know if he was that famous. I just liked his work. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, the chemistry is what’s most important.
“Why do people like K-pop? I’m curious. Baffled. Amazed. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. The world is interested in K-pop and Korean music right now.”
What about for relationships?
Taeyang: Whether it’s music, tattoo, clothes, girls, it’s all about the feeling. I know it once I see it. I don’t need to have a conversation; I just know it when she passes by. I think to myself, “I need to meet someone like her.” I’ve already come across three people like that. I slipped on all three. Hopefully, next time.
What’s the worst breakup you’ve ever had?
Taeyang: My first love. This is before my debut. I think that feeling still lingers. Even now, when I’m sick, or in pain, or tired, I still see her in my dream. It’s a long story of how we broke up. It’s not that I can’t let her go. I still think about her, and I’m not sure if I could meet someone like her, again. I’ll probably get older, and eventually marry someone. Actually, I don’t even know if I want to. Even if I have a girlfriend, I think the person I truly love will always be my first love. I can tell you.
I feel like you’ve successfully avoided negative publicity throughout your career.
Taeyang: I didn’t create my image that way. Since I debuted, I told the press that I never had a girlfriend. At the time, I didn’t have a girlfriend and I don’t have one now. I date girls, but I’m not seeing anyone in particular. I feel like my image was shaped into a certain way. And I don’t like it. That’s not me. Inside me there are many features that are rebellious. I could be very negative about a lot of things. If I like someone, I’m very polite. But if I don’t feel a connection to someone, I don’t even acknowledge that person. I’m just very honest about my feelings.
I think the music you’ve released as Taeyang is slightly different than what you release as part of Big Bang. Did that ever become an issue?
Taeyang: Yes, it did actually. A few years ago, it was a big concern of mine. It was very difficult for me. As a solo artist I’m a certain way, and as a member of Big Bang I have to be different. There was this gap. I had to participate in singles that I didn’t necessarily agree with creatively. Solo albums are my passion. Although I love doing music with members of Big Bang, there were many things I had to do as obligation. But even that gap disappeared after a while.
What was the turning point?
Taeyang: In 2011, seeing GD and Daesung going through their troubles, I was directly moved by it. I realized that I was too concerned about myself. Seeing them going through those things made me realize the most important thing for me is the people I love. Without them, it doesn’t matter if I do the music I like, I wouldn’t be as happy. Right before the incidents, I had these worries like, “I have an image as an artist, but being a part of Big Bang limits me.” That became trivial after I realized how crucial other members were to my life. I was too concerned with what other people thought and expected from me. And as a result, being around other members just created this breach. But in reality, when I’m actually me, I enjoy every part about being a member of Big Bang. All types of worries like, “I need to be a progressive R&B artist in Korea” were just personal wishes.
How did it feel that Big Bang’s last album, Alive, was such a success?
Taeyang: It was just really emotional. I was in a ride with my road manager listening to the album, and I saw all the pain and tribulation my teammates had to go through. I felt bad for them, and at the same time I was so happy that the album was finished. I like Alive more than my solo project. There’s a real story behind it. I don’t care what people think about the album. I really like it. Just thinking about my teammates, and the stuff they had to go through, and seeing how great the album is, I cried a bit during that car ride.
I feel like there are many K-pop idols that channel Big Bang’s style. How does it feel?
Taeyang: I like it. But I don’t know if they do it because they like us. Their label might want them to do that. I feel divided. On one hand, they are groups following our footsteps, so I feel thankful. Then there’s the feeling of, “Why particularly our style?” [Laughs.] Like, there are so many people that are great. Why us?
How do you perceive this K-pop phenomenon?
Taeyang: To be honest with you I’m not saying that our group is so great, or I’m great. But it’s like, “Why? Why do people like K-pop?” I’m curious. Baffled. Amazed. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. The world is interested in K-pop and Korean music right now. I wish that people in Korea who are widely known and recognized understand that this is our time. I’m not talking about skilled indie artists like Jinbo; I’m talking about those who are overseeing entertainment companies and pretty much directing these idols. Many of them are using this opportunity to make money. And I hate that. But do idols realize it? I think they’re just happy because they’re popular.
But you’re part of that system, no?
Taeyang: Well, I feel like YG doesn’t really give into the standardized norm of how K-pop labels operate. They don’t send us out to random music festivals. In that regard, I really love my company. A lot of so-called idols partake in this created movement without really knowing what it is. It’s unfortunate. If it doesn’t come from a genuine place, people are going to check you. It’s too bad. Because there are so many great artists in Korea who make great music, but those people don’t get the recognition as much as others that are using the genre as a moneymaking tool.
Original on noonchi.