The History of Kpop, Chapter 3: Seo Taiji and the Boys

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt


When we last left off in moonROK’s “The History of Kpop” series, television broadcasting stations had been established as the primary means by which Koreans consumed music. As a result, their musical taste was confined to only what was broadcast on television, stunting the growth of any sort of new or original music. In fact, if not for Seo Taiji and the Boys, Korea’s domestic music industry risked dying out.

With the increased liberalization of the media and developments in communications technology in the 1990s, Koreans (and the rest of the world) were gaining quicker and easier access to American popular culture and artists, and they liked what they saw. Desire was growing among the Korean population for a fresher, more exciting form of entertainment than the slow ballads and traditional trot music that they had been listening to for the past 30 years. Furthermore, the 1990s saw an era of economic boom for Korea, boosting disposable income and buyer power, as well as leisure time for Korea’s youth, who were the primary consumers of popular culture. It was in this environment of pop culture curiosity and economic prosperity that Seo Taiji and the Boys took Korea by storm.

Before Seo Taiji and the Boys, Koreans had seen American music, and they had seen Korean music, but never before had they seen a combination of the two until the Saturday of April 11th, 1992, when they performed their first single, “Nan Arayo (I Know),” on MBC’s weekend music show. The group took the popular American sounds of rap, rock, techno, and R&B, and combined them with Korean lyrics, inventing a unique hybrid of modern and traditional popular culture from two very different parts of the world.

Although the show’s judges and live audience were quite obviously shocked and confused, the trio’s coordinated and highly energetic dance moves to their upbeat hip-hop tracks crazed teenagers all over the nation. In fact, the single went #1 for a record-breaking 17 weeks straight. Seo Taiji and the Boys created a completely new genre that distinguished the music of the youth from the music of the adults. For the first time, someone was writing music that kids and teenagers could relate to; the lyrics weren’t about dramatic breakups or shy glances at girls (though admittedly some of the lyrics were about love), but instead about frustration towards the school system and the oppression of youth via government brainwashing. Because of this, to this day most industry professionals name the exact date of Seo Taiji and the Boys’ debut performance as the definitive beginning of Kpop.

Not only did Seo Taiji and his crew (which you’ll notice includes Yang Hyun Suk, founder and CEO of YG Entertainment) create this new genre; they changed the entire Korean music industry. For the first time, an artist had not been defined or controlled by the broadcasting station. Seo wrote all of the music, discarding the need for the studio’s bands or arrangers. He designed all of the performances himself and thus had no use for the broadcasting station’s dance teams or choreographers. He did what no other artist had done before, and in doing so, he more or less destroyed the “studio star system” almost overnight.

No longer would artists be subjugated to the direction and demands of the broadcasting stations. After Seo Taiji and the Boys, the networks’ influence continued to weaken, and as it gradually did so, Korean entertainment companies formed in order to provide alternative paths to stardom. While Seo Taiji and the Boys only stayed together for a few years, they had a lasting and significant impact on the Korean music industry.


Producers saw great opportunity through the group’s immense success, but because they broke all of the rules of the studio system, the music industry had to find a new way to produce a stable supply of stars and hit songs. It is through this necessity for a new mode of operation, that large Korean entertainment companies came to dominate the Korean music industry. The creation of massive entertainment companies such as SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, will be the topic of next week’s column, so stay tuned to “The History of K-pop” to learn more about how and why K-pop is the way that it is today.


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  1. Queen Nymeria 8 years ago
    YG was part of “Seo Taiji and The Boys”? Wow. Love this entire series of “The History of Kpop”. It’s very informative!
  2. Julia 8 years ago
    You really have to respect Seo Taiji and the Boys for doing what they did. Imagine going out on TV with self-produced material doing something no one else had ever done before? Papa YG might drive us crazy these days, but we owe him haha.
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  4. […] And what about South Korea? While South Korea doesn’t have the same yankii culture that Japan does, the US influence on its pop culture is pretty well-documented, with the first-ever Korean boy band, Seo Taijji and the Boys, using a blend of hip hop, R&B, and pop music to express the spirit (if in a slightly watered-down form considering the censorship of the time) of delinquency. In a series of articles that discuss the history of K-pop, moonROK explains: […]

  5. […] funky, new, and fresh. It rose to number one on the South Korean singles chart. There it would stay for 17 weeks straight, subverting expectations given that the original judges from their talent show appearance didn't […]

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