South Korean hip-hop icon Drunken Tiger has opened up about struggling with financial difficulties five years ago.
He said during a group interview with reporters on Thursday that he was so financially strapped that he considered giving up music and starting a tteokbokki (a spicy rice cake dish) stand in his neighborhood.
In South Korea, a tteokbokki stand is one of the most common businesses opened by low-income self-employed workers.
The story came as a surprise because the award-winning hip-hop artist is known as a pioneer of Korean hip hop who helped bring the genre into the mainstream in the 1990s.
Making its debut in 1999 as a duo, Drunken Tiger has been an object of admiration for younger rappers. It became a one-member act led by frontman Tiger JK after the departure of DJ Shine in 2004.
But Drunken Tiger hadn’t released a full-length album for years after the ninth one, titled “The Cure,” in 2013.
The 44-year-old, whose real name is Seo Jeong-kwon, suffered from troubles with his management agency and ensuing financial problems, as well as the death of his father.
“I was mentally ruined,” he recalled. “I used to drink two bottles of soju every morning to start the day. I hated reality so much. I felt like it was all my fault that my father passed away,” he said. Soju is a Korean distilled liquor.
What troubled him most was a sense of guilt that he was responsible for all the hardships Yoonmirae, one of the country’s most prominent hip-hop divas, experienced as his wife.
“So I thought I should give up music and find another job. I considered starting a tteokbokki stand in my neighborhood as it has a kindergarten, an elementary school and a middle school all in the same place.”
Fortunately, that didn’t happen and he returned to music.
In 2013, he launched a hip-hop group, named MFBTY, with rapper Bizzy and Yoonmirae and resumed activities. Like the title of the group’s first single, “Salja,” which means ‘Let’s survive’ in Korean, it was a team he forged to make ends meet. The song’s English title is “The Cure.”
“Looking back, all the interviews I did at that time were full of lies,” he bitterly recalled. “When asked ‘Why did you create MFBTY?,’ I politely answered that I wanted to experiment with something new. But in fact it was because it was the only way to earn a living.”
Bizzy was expelled from his management agency before launching the group, he explained.
“We made songs with money borrowed from a distribution company, earned money by performing the songs to pay the money back … It was the endless repetition of such a life, so we were in no position to release an album.”
What made him stick to his career for 20 years, despite all the hardships, appears to be his profound love of music.
He had the confidence to say that “All the music that isn’t music should be stopped now” in “Do You Know Hip-hop,” a track off Drunken Tiger’s first studio album in 1999.
“Before this song was out, I was taken to a tremendously famous record label. Critics, experts and CEOs of various record labels sat around and said, ‘Stand here, turn around, jump, what’s your personal skill? Take off your clothes. You need to get double eyelid surgery. Drunken Tiger is a professional wrestler’s name, so change it. And they played songs by the most popular idol groups at that time and said ‘This is genuine rap.”
Last week, he released “Drunken Tiger X: Rebirth of Tiger JK,” the final album under the Drunken Tiger moniker. The 10th full-length album from Drunken Tiger contains 30 tracks on two CDs featuring over a dozen prominent K-pop artists, including BTS’ RM, Seventeen’s Vernon, rapper Dok2 and SechsKies’ Eun Ji-won.
“Timeless,” featuring RM, debuted at No. 1 on the hip-hop chart, the K-pop chart and the music video chart of the US iTunes upon its release. It also ranked high on the main pop chart.
When asked about the album’s subtitle, Tiger JK took a long pause before answering.
“My junior colleagues and I can create Korean-style hip hop, It would also mean a rebirth to me,” he said. He now leads the hip hop label Feel Ghood Music that manages such artists as Yoonmirae, Junoflo and Mrshll.
“I’ve listened to LPs of (legendary Korean singers like) Cho Yong-pil, Shin Joong-hyun, Bunny Girls and Pearl Sisters countless times, which I inherited from my father,” he said. “We Koreans have lots of music that is genuine. I thought sampling of this music could make Korean-style hip hop. The hip hop community may criticize it for being close to trot songs, but I want to keep this style.” (Yonhap)