Return of the Tiger and the Queen
Two urban music pioneers return to the U.S. and discuss what it’s like to spread the hip-hop gospel in South Korea.
by Lorna Soonhee Umphrey
It was a match made in in hip-hop heaven.
In 2007, Tiger JK, founder of pioneering Korean hip-hop group Drunken Tiger, married Yoon Mirae (born Tasha Reid), a biracial former teenage member of late-1990s R&B group Uptown and now considered South Korea’s “Queen of Soul.” While comparisons could be drawn to Jay-Z and Beyonce, this couple, individually, has done far more to advance their respective genres in Korea than Jigga or Beyonce ever did in the States. Each gained international acclaim in Korea, breaking boundaries by tackling sensitive issues, such as the sex trade in Korea in the video for Drunken Tiger’s “I Want You” and racism in Korea in Yoon Mirae’s “Black Happiness.”
As the Korean music industry changed, both of these artists were able to maintain their own style and keep their fans, even after taking a few years off to create one of their best hits—their son, Jordan. KoreAm sat down with Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae before “The Jungle Concert in L.A.,” held at the historic Wiltern Theater in December, which was their first joint concert in America.
You were recently a judge for Superstar K (a Korean version of American Idol). What was that experience like?
Yoon Mirae: It was excruciating, but I had a really good time. I don’t regret doing it. I did, however, have to think about it a lot before I said yes to doing it. I didn’t really feel like I was in a position to tell people what they weren’t doing right because I, myself, am still trying to learn. Music is definitely one thing that there is no end to, there’s always something new to learn. But aside from all of that, out of all people, I got to actually make one person’s dream come true. I remember when I wanted to sing and how much I loved music, and still do love music, and how it felt when I finally signed my contract, and when my album finally came out. And to be able to do that for somebody else was really, really cool.
Would you do it again?
YM: I might. I won’t say no. I’m still learning Korean, so there are a lot of things that I did want to say [on the show], but I wasn’t able to say in the way that I wanted to. And I don’t think that’s fair to the contestants. Obviously, if I had known that, I might had reconsidered doing it, but now that I know, unless my Korean gets a lot better than what it is right now, I might not do it.
What’s it like to have grown up in the U.S. and now live and perform in Korea?
YM: It was kind of natural. Being biracial, it was hard for me in both places. When I was in the States, you’d get picked on for being Korean. When I moved to Korea, I got picked on for being American. I’ve had my share [of racism], but no more than other people. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think it made me who I am and I did manage to get a good song out of it.
Are you happy living in Korea?
YM: I am. It’s home. It’s really funny because, when I’m there I’m like, “God, I can’t wait to get away and get a vacation.” And then as soon as I leave, I’m like, “I want to go back home.” It’s like a love/hate relationship we have.
[Tiger JK joins the conversation.]
How much has the Korean music scene changed from when you first started?
YM: For me, when I first started, hip-hop was basically nonexistent in Korea. I mean, there were a few underground clubs, but very few and far [between]. Until I met JK actually, I didn’t even know they existed. We were just really frowned upon. There were no places to perform or to listen to the music. Hip-hop artists would just get together and make our own shows, and we would be the artist and each other’s fans. As opposed to now, you can’t throw a concert or show or benefit without inviting at least one hip-hop artist, so I think we’ve come a long way. There’s still some ignorance and some misconceptions about hip-hop … and we still have a ways to go, but it’s a beautiful thing.
Tiger JK: I think the world shrank, and Korea became sort of the mecca of the entertainment industry. So a lot of people are actually taking stuff from what’s happening in Korea. Back in the day, we couldn’t imagine artists from the States coming through, having their after-parties, chilling with us, you know what I mean?
JK, you grew up in Los Angeles, how much of an influence did it have on you?
JK: Hip-hop was a way of life. It’s corny, it’s cliché, but it was what we did. And I never thought I would become a rapper. I just loved the culture. I loved the music, fashion and what those cats were able to do with words … yeah, I think we were all just rebelling. There were a lot of stereotypes— I didn’t like it. But I was not really rebelling. I was like, ‘Yo, I’m not good at math.’ So I think I got into hiphop just to show that Asians could be dumb like me! [Laughs.] I don’t have to be good at math, and I can be a rapper. I didn’t think anybody would take me seriously. They thought I was comic relief. Like, yeah, this Korean cat is trying to rap. And now it has become global, like some sort of universal language, and people are taking us more seriously.
As a couple, you took a break from the public eye and had a son. Was it risky to do this and why did you feel the need to?
YM: I think in the industry it’s always risky to take a long break, especially in Korea, where people drop albums just like that. But I don’t know, I’m very blessed. My fans are very understanding and patient. For some reason, it keeps being three or four years between albums, and they’ve always managed to be patient and very loving.
[JK and I] just wanted to spend time with our kid, and [the fans] were understanding. I think if the music is good and they feel it, they’ll be there. If it’s 10 years, 20 years, one year, one month, it doesn’t really matter.