By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief
This year, SXSW, the world’s largest music conference, hosted its third annual “K-pop Night Out” showcase in Austin, Texas.
As a native Austinite, I feel it is my patriotic duty to first and foremost provide an explanation of what exactly SXSW (South-by-Southwest) is. Now one of the largest tech, film, and music conferences/festivals in the world, SXSW started out as a hush-hush industry insider’s weekend. Artists would register for the small festival, and then come to Austin to show off their newest material at free showcases in the hopes that an agent from a major record label or studio would be in town, see the show, and want to sign them to the label. Since its inception in 1987, the festival has grown explosively. Last year more than 28,000 artists, innovators, and industry professionals registered for the conference.
With its significant growth came a global spotlight and a wider spectrum of acts performing at the festival, and with the genre’s steadily increasing global popularity, Korean music was an obvious choice for a new and exciting showcase in 2013, and thus “K-pop Night Out” was born. f(x) headlined the first ever showcase, with Jay Park and Hyuna headlining “K-pop Night Out” the year after. In its third year this year, the lineup was stacked with variety and big names.
Eastern Sidekick started off the showcase with a garage rock set with a sound somewhere in between that of Radiohead and Nirvana’s. While most of the attendees for the may not have been there for Eastern Sidekick, they left with the group’s name written down in a note on their phone. Eastern Sidekick set the tone of the showcase, making sure that everyone knew that the night was not just about idols or even about “K-pop,” but about the music of Korea.
Next up was Asian Chairshot, a band whose sound was described by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder as, “One of the most unique voices to emerge in contemporary Korean music. Imagine Shin Joong Hyun jamming with Black Sabbath combined with the forward thinking sonics of Radiohead.” This description is incredibly accurate; the band was all at once mellow yet fierce, exploratory yet rooted in classic rock. With a sound a bit more intense than that of their opening act, Asian Chairshot got the crowd amped for the upcoming acts.
With dresses the color of honey and voices that sounded like it, The Barberettes had the crowd swooning as soon as they hit the stage. The group is a female vocal trio that covers songs from the ’50s and ’60s in addition to writing their own original singles, which are largely a mash-up of traditional Korean music and retro American doo-wop. The drastic difference between Asian Chairshot’s grunge rock and The Barberettes’ retro bubblegum bop hardly went noticed by the crowd, who squealed with excitement as soon as the girls stepped up to their vintage microphones.
The Barberettes were followed by EE, a group that I admittedly knew nothing about prior to the show, but who ended up being one of my favorites of the night. The group is a performance team of dancers and musicians headed up by main vocalist Lee Yunjoung and her husband and DJ, Lee Hyunjoon. The Korean surname “Lee” is actually pronounced like you say the letter “E,” hence the group’s name; when Lee Yunjoung took the stage she proudly exclaimed, “We are EE! I’m the little E, he’s the big E!” just before going absolutely insane with her group on stage. With a sound reminiscent of both M.I.A and Die Antwoord, EE had the crowd — for lack of a better phrase — going H.A.M. It’s safe to say that EE was definitely the breakout group of the showcase. With their carnival-esque performance style and infectious beats, EE is sure to be the most-searched group in the lineup since the show.
Following EE was one of the most hyped acts not just in K-pop, but at all of SXSW. Prior to the March 19 showcase, Hitchhiker spent a few days wandering the streets of downtown Austin in his full-body spaceman suit, drawing much attention from SXSW attendees. Originally a songwriter for SM Entertainment, Hitchhiker has written for and worked with the likes of BoA, SHINee, f(x), Girls’ Generation, EXO, and more, and while his records are distributed by SM Entertainment, Hitchhiker is signed to his own independent label, FIT.
Famous for his debut single, “11 ELEVEN,” and its strangely endearing “wah wah” sound, Hitchhiker has been gathering interest not just from K-pop fans who associate him with SM, but with electronic music fans all over the world. After space walking out onto the stage, Hitchhiker kicked off his set with “11 ELEVEN,” leaving space in the song for the fans to fill in the wah wahs themselves. Since “11 ELEVEN” is his only released single so far, the rest of Hitchhiker’s set was new material to the crowd, whose heads were collectively banging to the massive drops in the EDM/DJ set. Hitchhiker was clearly a crowd favorite and is probably responsible for the extreme heat in the venue due to all of the dancing he caused.
With the end of Hitchhiker’s set also came a massive surge towards the stage for the next group up, Crayon Pop. Trading their tracksuits and helmets for all black leather super hero suits, the girls came out looking quite a bit more fierce than we’re used to. They started off their set with “Uh-ee,” before introducing themselves in English. Being one of the few groups in K-pop today that does not have any non-Koreans or native English speakers in the mix, the girls struggled through their sentences before adorably giving up and peeking at their hands, where they had each written their individual lines down.
Crayon Pop continued through their set, eventually debuting their upcoming single, “FM.” With mechanical choreography resembling something like Transformer robot changing shapes, “FM” is a distinctly new side of Crayon Pop that we haven’t seen before. The music video doesn’t drop until March 27, but I feel pretty confident in saying that Crayon Pop will be shedding their cutesy image for a more serious, mature one this time around. The group closed out their set with their megahit “Bar Bar Bar,” as the audience jumped along in waves resembling those crazy anchovies that invade the Krusty Krab in Spongebob Squarepants (perhaps the most random but also most accurate cultural reference I’ve ever used). All in all, Crayon Pop’s performance was impressive considering the smaller than usual size of the stage and the loud, hysterical screaming coming from the group’s many fans in the audience, and they were easily the right choice to put between Hitchhiker and the closing act.
The closers of the night, as their name insinuates, were nothing short of epic. As DJ Tukutz walked on stage, the screams were enough to bring the entire venue crumbling to the ground. The screams grew in volume as Tukutz started spinning “Born Hater,” and reached a peak decibel when Tablo exploded onto the stage and began rapping. Mithra Jin made his entrance when it was time for his verse, encouraging another wave of squeals before the crowd settled into its groove. Epik High started out by performing a lot of their new material from “Shoebox” and even tossed in a short performance of “Light It Up” by label mate G-Dragon. The group also performed a few of their slightly deeper cuts, including “Love, Love, Love,” which was released in 2007, and “Fly” which was released in 2005.
While all of the performances of the showcase are hard to compare due to their wide spectrum of genres and exposure, if I had to pick a winner, it would be Epik High. All three members have a palpable energy that flows outward and spills into the audience as effortlessly as the rhymes flow from their mouths. Considered pioneers of hip-hop in Korea, Epik High gave an accordingly historic performance at “K-pop Night Out,” and those in attendence are part of a lucky few who were able to see the Korean music legends in action in such close quarters. Epik High closed out the show with what is arguably one of the best, most passionate performances I have ever seen in K-pop; I’m not sure how “K-pop Night Out” will be able to top this year’s showcase next year, but I’m sure SXSW will find a way.
All in all, this year’s “K-pop Night Out” was SXSW’s best so far. With a wide variety of acts that excel in their own genres, the showcase had something for everyone; from mainstream girl group fanatics to indie rockers to hip-hop heads and everyone in between, the showcase was curated to appeal to all tastes. As K-pop continues to climb in global popularity, I look forward to seeing more amazing K-pop lineups at SXSW in the coming years.
You can check out all of moonROK’s pictures from this year’s “K-pop Night Out” on our Official Facebook Page.
Tags: Asian Chairshot BoA Crayon Pop Eastern Sidekick EE Epik High EXO f(x) G-Dragon Girls' Generation Hitchhiker Hyuna Jay Park SHINee SM Entertainment The Barberettes