LeeSsang has been around for 16 years. Gary, the rapper, and Gil, the vocalist, were members of the hiphop group in the 90s, Honey Family. They eventually broke away and formed LeeSsang. They have since released 8 albums and have managed to produce a thick portfolio of hits.
Psy belongs to one of the biggest management companies, YG Family. However, his music does not fit what is called KPop. He is not good looking (again, that’s good looking to Korean pop music standards, I personally think Psy and both LeeSsang members are good looking), young and does not sing melodramatic tunes. His performances and songs are characterized by humor and he is famous for ‘dressing up classy and dancing cheesy’.
LeeSsang songs are far from the popular music of Korean idols. Theirs is almost autobiographical. Their songs are stories of their lives, similar to the music of other HipHop greats like Tupac and Eminem. Gary, the lyricist of the group, said that their lives and lives of the people around them are the primary subjects of their songs. They are not really concerned about whether or not other people will find their song “singable” or not. They just create what they feel like writing.
This is an exact contradiction of idol songs that primarily talk about general subjects like attraction, love and looking good.
More importantly, their songs are neither melodramatic nor hyperactive. It’s the kind that you will jump to, nod your head to or wave your hand to. There is always an erratic mixture of feelings.
It pushes you up with their beats but they break you apart with their lyrics.
They cradle you with their soft tune but fire you up with their angry words.
Their songs talk about love but subliminally scream about the rotting popular culture.
They beat their breast with their success only to highlight their failures.
Their music is incredibly unpredictable and insanely unconventional. And boy have they evolved.
They have become braver. Their melodies have mixed different genres with so much abandon that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to classify them under one genre. They can go from ska to hip hop to rock in a matter of seconds. They can shift from relax to chaotic to indifference in a heartbeat.
Listening to their albums is a like a trip to a weightless dimension. They’ll pull your body and mind to different directions and you are helpless against it. It's the cleanest high you will ever experience.
They have also talked about subjects unimaginable to the impossibly well-mannered and conservative Koreans. While idol songs would allude to “passion” LeeSsang have blatantly talked about sex, hatred and greed.
LeeSsang dares. LeeSsang challenges. LeeSsang doesn’t give a fine eff to whatever except their own desire. It is the same courage that allowed Elvis to break the monotony of manufactured sound in the US during the 50s and 60s. It is the same brilliance that allowed The Beatles to put British on the map in the 60s and 70s. It is the same uniqueness that allowed Michael Jackson to provide pop the respect it deserves in the 80s and early 90s.
Paving the Way for Musicians
In the larger view of things, perhaps the most important impact of LeeSsang and Psy are paving that pretty darn rough road for other artists to have a chance at making a living through their music without having to pay for training under a management that may or may not see them fit to become a pop star.
“Ugly” (again, that’s ugly to Korean pop music standards. I cannot emphasize enough that what mainstream Koreans refer to as ugly, like Psy and LeeSsang, are, in fact, handsome) musicians that have real talents now have a chance.
TV programs are slowly paying attention to new musicians that are not necessarily backed up by the giant management companies and, perhaps more importantly, fans are starting to pay attention to non-idols. Fans are starting to learn how to listen quality music and are being introduced to new sounds.
Doubts and International Breakthrough
It is still questionable whether Psy can follow through with his initial hit. It is not likely for him to produce another hit in the Gangnam Style level but what is important is that he has done it. The door has been unlocked.
LeeSsang’s sound is of international calibre. Gary’s style has been deemed “uncopyable” because his beats are off tempo. It’s actually confusing to clap to his rap. You don’t know whether to follow the beat of the music or follow his rap which seems to have no pattern anyway. His lyrics are either pure poetry or very conversational. I found only one other rapper who comes close, a member of Rhymester from Japan but that's another post.
Gil, the vocalist, has a harsh non-commercial sound that’s so unique, you will never mistake his voice for anyone else. No one even comes close.
The one problem is that they don't speak English. They understand it and roughly speak it but are far from being able to speak it in a way that would capture the temperaments of the language. It is not impossible for them to break through the US market but it is going to be extremely difficult.
Their popularity may also be largely credited to a hit show where Gary has been a part of for more than two years now. The show, Running Man, has an urban adventure game show format. Although it is true that they got noticed more through the show, it is important to consider that they already had a thick portfolio of hit songs even before Running Man. They were already a respected duo, they were already considered artists and real musicians and everyone in the industry would know that you cannot sustain musical success by winning games in a variety show.
They’ll Owe it to LeeSsang and Psy
LeeSsang and Psy both break the mold of popular Korean celebrities with their history and music. The entertainment industry in Korea, or in any country for that matter, will always be an industry powered by money. Those who have it will have greater influence. Those who have money are wise enough to know that for as long as humanity remains a highly visually-dependent race, they will always bet on those who are easy on the eyes.
Psy and LeeSsang don’t have the edge of having the money or the looks. They have their music, one that they created themselves and they are proving that it is enough to start a musical revolution in Korea. Artists, old and new, have so much to learn from them. They own themselves which allows them the freedom to experiment with their music and only the consequence of their own perfectionist heart. They experiment, explore, dig deep into their minds on new ways to make songs. They don't care about critics. They care about their fans and they show it by, first, caring about their music.
It is rare for us to see a country going through musical adolescence. Most of us weren’t alive yet when Elvis and the Beatles came to prominence. We have that chance in Korea, thanks to LeeSsang and Psy.
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