Silence Makes the Beats Grow Stronger
Korea’s top hip-hop MC was arrested, charged, tortured, and convicted of smoking crank, despite any real evidence against him. His real crime? Rapping
A SEDAN GLIDES OUT OF Kimpo Airport in Seoul, South Korea. As the driver pulls onto the highway, she twists her head toward the backseat. “Top secret,” she says, pressing an index finger to her pursed lips, a black knit skull cap pulled low over her forehead. She doesn't look back again until she cuts the engine an hour later, stopping in front of an apartment complex on the edge of the city. “Out,” she says.
Chunky housing projects crowd each other, and in the courtyard among them sit four red-clay badminton courts, empty, their nets bouncing in a humid wind. The elevator smells like rotting kimchee as it ratchets up 12 floors. Its doors open onto blackness, and a motion sensor triggers a fluorescent tube. The light catches two eyes peeking through a crack in a door. Tasha Reid, a popular Korean MC, is waiting.
Reid, half-black, half-Korean, opens the door, revealing a mound of tight ginger curls, and pads into a small room with a bed and a desk. She sits on a thin mattress and rubs her hands together in anticipation of a smuggled gift. At a sight of a veined old paperback, Eldridge Cleaver's prison memoir, Soul On Ice, Reid smiles with disbelief. She carefully leafs through the yellowed pages, pausing at an underlined passage about an ailing man who lies beside the road to die, only to be revived by a sight of delicate, resplendent bird.
“‘He knows intuitively in his clinging to life that if the bird remains, he will regain his strength and health and live.’” Reid lets the book fall to her lap. “This feels like JK's talking to me,” she says, inhaling as though she would suck up the room. “He's the only friend I got.” Twenty-four hours earlier, in the L.A. apartment where the Korean-born rapper spent most of his adolescence, JK slipped the book into a messenger's hands. “That’s my life,” he said, tapping the faded cover. Suh Jung Kwon, also known as Tiger JK of the Korean hip-hop act Drunken Tiger, is now at the will of the Korean judicial system. He is a convict on probation. Tasha Reid is a fugitive, and if they establish contact, JK subjects himself to jail time. “I feel helpless,” he says. “And that’s the worst feeling when you’re a man. All I can think about is my girl.”
IN MAY, SEOUL investigations pulled JK, 26, off a tour promoting Drunken Tiger's second album, The Great Rebirth, and accused him of smoking methamphetamine. When JK refused to sign a confession under crushing interrogation tactics, prosecutors presented a court case against him that lacked a single piece of material evidence. He was found guilty by a judge in July, the decision based solely on the mismatched testimony of a rival, less influential rap group, whose members were facing jail time after confessing to their own drug use.
The string of events roused JK’s supporters, who embraced the sense of social outrage that had made Drunken Tiger the most popular hip-hop group in Korea. Protestors staged rallies in Seoul. “FREE JK” websites popped up on the Internet, fans flooded the prosecutor’s office with letters demanding his release. But they couldn't sway the outcome. “In America, [first time drug users] get fined, but that’s not the case in Korea,” says Park Sung-jin, the government lawyer who prosecuted JK. “Koreans are very disgusted by it.”
And the disgust is pervasive. JK’s real punishment lay not in his actual sentence (the standard two years’ probation) but in the nationwide ban from radio and TV that followed. He and Drunken Tiger can play shows, but they have ceased to exist outside a few closet clubs, their music and image deemed unfit for public consumption. “It’s a Confucian thing in Korea,” says Bernie Cho, a producer for MTV Korea, “If you’re accused of drugs, you’re not just going to get tainted. You’re immediately yanked off radio. You’re blacked out.”
EARLY IN MAY, while living in Seoul, JK learned that police had arrested members of Uptown, a softcore rap group that he knew well, on a series of drug charges. Uptown's influence on Korean music dwindled to almost nothing after four records, but Drunken Tiger, with The Great Rebirth climbing the charts, had established itself as “the first commercially successful true hip hop group,” according to Donemany, the owner of Seoul hip-hop club. Their latest single, “Fettucini,” was the most requested video on M.Net, a Korean music video channel, and because of them, an increasing number of Korean kids were greeting each other by saying, “Yo, what up nigga?”
Then a spike popped the balloon as investigators leaked word that they were looking for JK. He didn't know what to think. He'd experienced his share of substances-marijuana, mushrooms, Ecstasy, cocaine-but claims he wasn't dumb enough to get high in Korea and that his usage was behind him. If police wanted to arrest him, JK figured they would find him. But after several days and no cops, his face started showing up on TV news bulletins. “I was just dumbfounded,” he says. “I wasn’t even convicted yet, and I was reported as being the main provider.”
There was another problem: Tasha Reid, who had been a member of Uptown for five years. “Uptown wasn’t respected,” Donemany says, “but Tasha was, because she was one of the first female artists to be rapping.” Her face appeared next to JK’s on every news bulletin. It makes a great headline: rappers, in love and on the run from the law. Before JK turned himself in, he told Tasha to hide out until he discovered what investigators were after. She's spent three months as a fugitive, wanted by the police nationwide, and has ventured outdoors only once. “I don't want to be a part of the music industry in Korea anymore,” she says. “I have 500 different excuses why I'm going through this. The hardest part is I can’t see J.”
They’ve been separated since JK stepped inside the Seoul District Prosecutor's Office on May 2, where Prosecutor Park Sung-jin started in on him immediately. According to JK, “he said, ‘I'm gonna make your life miserable. I’m gonna make your family’s life miserable, your girlfriend’s life miserable. You better sign this fucking statement now.’” (Park denies the allegations, noting that he handled JK's case in the same manner as others he has investigated.) Between all the shouting, all JK could figure out was that Park was accusing him of smoking crank with members of Uptown.
“I kept asking for my attorney,” JK says, “but they said, ‘This ain’t no fucking America. This ain’t no O.J trial. We’ll fucking convict you.’ I didn't say anything and they were making fun of me saying, ‘All right, you have the right to remain silent,’ mocking the American system.”
JK submitted to two drug tests, urine and hair, passing them both. (“In a hair test,” says Park, “the drug remains for six months.”) Then he looked closely at the paperwork: The dates they listed along with his alleged activity, July through December, 1999, corresponded to the time he spent in L.A., laying tracks for The Great Rebirth. “When they saw JK’s passport, they changed [their dates] to June,” says JK's lawyer, Lee Hangsee, who arrived two hours into the initial interrogation. (Park claims that the dates weren't revised but were inaccurate: “It was some day in June, but we don't know exactly which day it was.”)
The pressure mounted as two rappers from Uptown, Steve Kim and Carlos Lee, along with Kim's girlfriend, Susan Park, entered the interrogation room. “they're like, ‘J, man, you did it,’” JK says. “But they couldn't look at me in the eye. I lost it. I was about to scrap. All the investigators held me down and were like, ‘You fucking punk American wannabe fool.’”
The investigators chose their slurs carefully, JK always said that he wanted to be different from all the other Korean acts, and Drunken Tiger's demeanor made good on that ambition. They slouched and scowled during interviews and talked about late-night parties and taking down MCs. They made videos with guns, motorcycles, and hookers. They rhymed on themes that were historically off-limits in Korean pop music, which is dominated by make-out songs and yearning ballads about puppy love performed by grinning dancers under a pound of makeup. “Packaged pop, that's what sold records, but Drunken Tiger did their own thing,” says MTV's Cho. “They would come out in flip-flops, no makeup, and get dissed for it,” adds David Kebo, a longtime friend of JK's. “But lots of kids started feeling it.”
Denying claims that authorities targeted JK for his “negative” influence over Korean youth, Prosecutor Park claims that he “didn't even know that JK was a hip-hop artist when he was brought in.” But Uptown member Young-John Kim tells him a different story. When Kim (who was arrested with his bandmates in April) admitted his crime, Park threatened him with seven years in jail unless he agreed to a deal. “Prosecutor Park said, “If you cooperate with us, we’ll help you.” Kim says. “Don't everyone know what that means?” (But unlike his bandmates, Kim refused to participate.)
JK spent the next month and a half locked up in the gang section of Anyang prison on the edge of Seoul. A stew of pestilence, his cell held ten prisoners, with no beds and a communal waste hole in the corner. “One nigga robbed houses and raped girls,” JK says. “Another fool killed, like, ten people.”
A triple black belt in taekwondo, JK's skills served him well in the violent atmosphere, and he earned a little respect. But it wasn't Friday night with the fellas. The rough conditions aggravated JK's asthma, and prison officials denied him medical attention. When his mother tried to deliver him a blanket, guards stopped her at the Anyang gate, saying, “Druggies don't need blankets.”
“That wasn't the worst part,” JK says. Every morning, guards transported him to the prosecutor's office for “the same questions over and over. No attorney.” It's a tactic used often enough in Korea to warrant its own term-pulu pon-and it’s designed to grind a suspect into autographing whatever the prosecutor puts in front of him. JK claims that he was routinely left tied up for hours, roused in the darkness, smacked around and threatened with an iron rod if he didn't put his pen to a confession. “I almost signed the paper,” he says. (Park also denies these allegations.)
But JK strengthened when he learned of a 500-person demonstration that his fans held in Seoul's University Row Park on May 26, when it appeared that he would be locked up indefinitely. “It was an impressive show of support,” says Chris Walters, a Canadian videographer who attended the rally. “People were chanting ‘Free JK! Free JK!’ There were several speakers, people freestyling on stage and beatboxing in the crowd.” A photo of a sign that read FUCK THE POLICE made it into the Seoul Korean-language paper the next day, the expletive written in English.
After 47 days, a judge granted JK bail. But at the trial, the outcome was inevitable. Uptown's testimony contradicted itself repeatedly, with witnesses finding difficulty agreeing on times, locations, and other details relating to when they participated in crucial events. “I think what Steve and Carlos and Susan did in court was wrong," says Young-John Kim. None of it mattered. “Uptown and JK were friends,” says attorney Lee. “That’s what the judge used as logic: why would they have reason to accuse him?”
“ALL THE SINGERS IN KOREA are like cheerleaders,” JK says, exiting a record store in L.A's Koreatown. (As his probation allows, JK left the country two weeks after his conviction.) “‘Life is good. Korea's perfect.’ We were the first group to rap about the dark side of life. We knew something was going to happen.”
JK’s anger at what he considered a stifling system took shape in his lyrics. “All we puppets tangled up in one string/Just dancing our ass off to the same old tunes,” reads one Drunken Tiger song, translated from Korean.
His rhymes spoke of sublimated knowledge he believes only a segment of the population possessed- but this was meant as an advance for Korean culture, not a condemnation of it. With his partner, DJ Shine, he moved between English and Korean rhymes, sampling old Korean tunes, not Western songs. “They realized that there was a whole wealth of local material,” says Cho. “They redefined hip-hop in their own context.” As one lyric suggests, JK was trying to create a new musical hybrid which he hoped would open Korean people's minds.
But many didn't appreciate the effort, as his intended enlightenment was rooted in the razing of ancient traditions. Even though, as Cho says, Korean hip-hop has gone from “fashion statement to full-on movement” in the past couple of years, it is still largely relegated to underage pubs and alleyway clubs. “The underground scene is getting bigger and bigger, but it really hasn't broken mainstream,” Donemany says.
“Every time people in Korea see hip-hop on MTV, the rappers are all thugged out, all ghetto,” JK says. “They don’t understand. I'm Korean, and I hate to say it, but Koreans are very racist. They think other races are barbarians, especially African-Americans. Koreans don't want anything that's different.”
Given the obvious roots of his music, JK has never been able to escape the history of hostility between blacks and Koreans, and he's tried to straddle both worlds for years. Hitting adolescence on the crabgrass of Beverly Hills (his family left Seoul when he was 11), JK became preoccupied with how local blacks, whites, and Latinos-even other Asians-expected him to wear his Korean heritage like an ugly T-shirt. He could be good at math, they told him, but he couldn't be cool, and JK raged at the racism. He became a warrior for Korean pride, picking fights with anyone who uttered a rude comment. “I was a wannabe superhero nigga,” he says. “I would whup somebody's ass and stand over him and say, ‘What you think of Koreans now?’”
One night, during another ideological scrap, he brawled so well against members of a black gang, the Criminal Minded Kings, that they offered him a place among them. “People in my own race were player-hating because they were trying to be white. And I felt more comfortable with CMK than with these fake-ass cats. Use the word nigga now ’cause when I hung out with CMK I became the person I am.”
It was 1990, and N.W.A and Public Enemy formed the soundtrack as JK cruised L.A. in a beat-up Olds, his hair twisted into nappy braids. But while he increasingly identified with black culture, he says he never relinquished his Korean identity. He opened a taekwondo club, where he spent time as an instructor. He studied the Buddhist sutras that his father had taught him as a child. “I was trying to turn being Asian into something cool,” he says.
But in 1991, around the time a Korean shop owner was sentenced to five years' probation for killing a 15-year-old African-American girl, and Ice Cube rapped on “Black Korea” about “Oriental one-penny-countin’ motherfuckers” and “little chop suey ass,” JK started to realize that some barriers were permanent.
“Ice Cube, he was mad racist,” he says. “Chop suey isn’t even Korean. But when people heard the song, they enjoyed it.” JK couldn't understand the lack of response from the Korean-American community, and he started to feel that something needed to be said. After the L.A. riots in 1992, a local radio DJ named Namdhi decided to hold a rap show in South Central, which would promote racial harmony by featuring international MCs. Namdhi hadn't booked a Korean act, and JK decided to use the slot as an opportunity. But instead of delivering a political speech, he says he wanted to earn respect by proving that the hip-hop condition was transmutable.
“I knew I was going to get clowned,” he says, “but I knew that if I put my heart into it they would get the message-that Koreans can do it, too. The crowd was going, ‘chung-ching-chung,’ the good old stereotypical dis. They were booing, but when I started flipping my Korean. I saw fools with their mouths open.”
Word spread through the Korean-American community press, and along with a demo tape he made “as a souvenir,” news of JK made it all the way back to Seoul. Several Korean labels wanted to know more about this kid who went into the ‘hood during the riots and came away with something they had never heard before. Meanwhile, JK became increasingly involved in the L.A. hip-hop scene, where it wasn't hard to spot fellow Koreans. He met DJ Shine (Mark Yim) from Flushing, Queens, and together with an L.A. DJ named James Jhig, Drunken Tiger took shape. One of the biggest labels in Seoul, Doremi Records, signed the group in 1997.
After encouraging sales of a 1998 CD, Doremi released Drunken Tiger’s second album, The Great Rebirth, last April. The group toured Korea; Doremi claims that in three weeks, the CD sold more than 150,000 copies, huge numbers for Korean hip-hop (there is no independent source that verifies Korean record sales). But that’s where it ended. “They got hauled down just as they were bum-rushing the charts,” says Cho. “It just didn’t add up. Why them? But more important, why then? The timing couldn't be more wrong,” Cho pauses. “Or more right.”
JK OPENS THE DOOR to his family's cramped two-bedroom L.A. apartment. His father, Suh Byung Hoo, is on the phone to a newspaper editor in Seoul, proselytizing about JK’s troubles, when flames fly up from his ashtray. He has filled it with scraps of paper, and he runs to the kitchen for an extinguishing glass of water. (JK’s troubles have scattered his family. His mother resides in Seoul now, lobbying for her son's cause to anyone who will listen.)
“Sometimes I can’t believe this is happening,” says Suh, who was a Seoul rock promoter and correspondent for Billboard magazine in the 1970s, when the martial-law government silenced recording artists in a similar manner. Shin Jong-hyun, considered Korea's Eric Clapton, was one of a large group of folk and rock'n'roll musicians that President Park Chung-hee arrested and tortured.
“Three people held me down,” Shin says. “They put a towel over my face and poured water on it. I went unconscious. I woke up 20 minutes later and they began again.” After Shin was forced to sign a confession on drug charges, the government banned his music, and he spent the next 20 years hidden from public view.
Suh Byung Hoo is determined to prevent his son from returning to such a climate. Because JK's lawyer filed an appeal to his conviction, Suh fears that his son will be the target of further harassment. But JK says he hasn't the will to battle his father, preferring to keep his emotions and intentions to himself. “I wanna go back for everything that I started,” he says. “My dad wants me to be safe. But all I can think about is my girl. We were gonna go to Vegas and get married.”
The phone rings. JK answers in the back bedroom, with a hand cupped over the receiver, and closes the door. It’s Reid. She whispers, and he whispers too, and they use code names to be safe. They talk for a few minutes before JK’s father knocks on the door. “Who is it, JK?” he asks, his tone rising in admonition as he opens the door. JK hangs up. “Nobody, pops,” he says, and his father wheels back to the living room.
“I’m freaking out, but I gotta keep it low,” JK says, grabbing a set of keys and walking out of the house. “Can’t show my emotions, I tell my pops, he’ll say, ‘What're you doing!’ I talk to her, I'm an accessory. Boom- two years.”
While JK's brand of free-your-nationalism turned him into a national pariah, he says he's almost ready to stop the silence. Recording with Drunken Tiger may be off limits in Korea, but the rest of Asia is wide open, and JK plans on pushing his music in China, Japan, and Hong Kong before releasing a record in the U.S. “I’m starting to feel the power of words,” he says. “And now it’s become my duty to express myself truthfully. I really want to show people that it’s ok to fucking change. I want to show that people’s voices do matter. When I saw everything go down with Tupac and Biggie, I thought I was watching a movie, how they were getting player-hated. But now I know it'’ real.”
JK drives out to South Central and parks beyond the Crenshaw Pawn Shop, where a freestyle show is about to begin at a club called Kaotic Sounds. He’s just here to listen tonight, and he picks a spot at the back of the club, his baseball hat turned low. “I wonder what Tasha's up to right now,” he says.
(In three days, JK will discover that Reid is in police custody, enduring her own pulu pon. After ten days of interrogation, she will be coaxed into admitting her guilt. A prosecutor will force her to sign a paper stating that JK participated in her illegalities. It will stand as evidence in JK’s appeal this winter. As a final discomfort, Reid may be subpoenaed to testify against JK. “If it happens, it's gonna be the most cruel and tragic shit that could rip our hearts apart for good,” JK says.)
Skunk fumes snake through the small club as it fills up. JK rocks back and forth, trying to see the MCs through all the heads. But it gets too crowded, and he gives up. He disappears under his hat, the rhymes hitting him as his head weaves back and forth, his brim casting a half-moon shadow that skims across his features. “The Korean government doesn’t want you to question them,” JK yells as the beats kick from towering speakers. “They don’t want a second opinion. Hip-hop gets you to have your own mind. And it's a pain in the ass when niggas be getting their own minds.”