And Now For Something Completely Different

To start 2016, I could talk about any of the horrifically depressing things affecting all our lives. But I don’t want to, quite frankly. I want to keep the feeling of a new start for as long as I can. I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but I do try to take it as a fresh beginning of sorts. And this year, I’ve decided to try and blog a bit more and widen my perspective. Originally, I intended this blog to be about a lot of stuff, not just autism, and I’d like to try and get back to that.

This post, however, is tangentially related to autism – I wanted to talk about a music group that has not only helped me be more comfortable in my autistic skin, but has also helped keep me going during this past awful, terrifying cowpie of a year. And hey, if some of you guys get new tunes to listen to in the process, so much the better. (NB. A  few of the songs linked here have some English profanity in them, so probably not safe for work.)

Let’s talk about Epik High.

Epik High is a Korean hip-hop group comprised of three men: DJ Tukutz, Mithra Jin, and Tablo (aka Daniel Lee). They got going in 2001, and have kept going ever since, though they took a hiatus of sorts when Mithra and Tukutz had to serve their mandatory military service (South Korea demands all men over a certain age serve for approximately 20 months; Tablo didn’t have to since he’s a Canadian citizen). They have eight albums to their credit, the last two of which have been on YG Entertainment, one of Korea’s biggest record labels.

epik-high

[Image description: Three Korean men standing next to each other, each holding a different type of vintage microphone on a stand. From L to R: Mithra Jin (wearing a black hat and houndstooth jacket), Tablo (wearing a blue sweater, collared shirt and jeans), DJ Tukutz (wearing a white turtleneck, black and white jacket and black trousers).]

When they came out, hip-hop was almost unknown in Korea. It got steadily more popular over the years – Tablo actually played a big role in that; he grew up all over the world, including in Canada and Switzerland, so he was exposed to a lot of Western music. They were going to call it quits after their third album, but it unexpectedly blew up, and off they went.

They had a lot of success before hiatus, but during hiatus, Tablo got caught up in a scandal through no fault of his own. The best article I can link on it comes from the magazine Wired, and it’s called The Stalking of Korean Hip-Hop Superstar Daniel Lee. The short version of events is that Tablo is a legitimate genius, having graduated from Stanford University in three and a half years with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English and creative writing, respectively. However, rumors began to circulate online that he had faked his credentials or otherwise obtained his degrees through illegitimate means. A group formed on the internet, referred to as Tajinyo (a Korean shorthand for “We Demand the Truth from Tablo”), and Tajinyo harassed him for years. Literal years.

He tried everything – he even set up a news program in Korea to follow him to Stanford, where they went to the registrar’s office and had his degrees confirmed by a high official of the university. Tajinyo ignored it. He published articles, showed family pictures – nothing. They started harassing his mother, his wife, everything. His family received death threats. They even targeted his baby daughter Haru (who may indeed be the cutest, most amazing child on the planet).  They essentially made him a recluse in his own apartment. Eventually, though, the police got warrants against some of the Tajinyo ringleaders, and were able to get the harassment to stop.

After the scandal, Tablo, Mithra and Tukutz reunited and put out their album 99 on YG, which was well received. Their most recent album is Shoebox, which came out approximately a year ago, and it is absolutely stellar. Absolutely one of my top five albums of all time.

Tablo’s behavior during and after the Tajinyo scandal is one of the major reasons that I have absolutely boundless respect for him. He suffers, and I do mean suffers, from depression and social anxiety. But he not only pursued action against his tormentors, he rebounded musically. His solo album, Fever’s End, came out on YG Entertainment in 2011, and it is quite legitimately stunning, from beginning to end.

feversend

[Image description: The album cover of Tablo’s 2011 release “Fever’s End.” It shows a pencil drawing of a white tiger, reclining on rocks next to a small tree. Next to it is a small pedestal on top of which monkeys stand, behind which a flowering tree with red and orange flowers grows. At the top, the word “Tablo” is written in black Western characters, with the Hangul for “Fever’s End” in red directly below it. ]

The Wired article calls Fever’s End a “lush, captivating explosion of pain, anger, and defiance.” It’s the latter that makes it so precious to me. 2015 has been a year, for me, of frustration, of fear and exhaustion. Quite simply, Fever’s End and Epik High’s other releases gave me strength when I needed it most. But they also allowed me to cry and feel when I needed to.

Take a song like “Tide” (lyric video here) – piano heavy and mellow, but at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of anger. “You become a shooting star / The hand that gave you the shovel points fingers at you / And tells you that you dug your own grave” … tell me you haven’t experienced that feeling, especially those of us who are autistic. We’re always “doing it wrong.” We’re always “weird” or “wrong” or even “broken.” Tablo isn’t autistic, to my knowledge, but he has said he knows what it’s like to be the weird one, the offbeat one, the disturber, the pot-stirrer. It matters so much.

My personal favorite song on the album is “Thankful Breath,” because it absolutely mirrors how I feel nowadays, though there’s only one bad song on the album, in my opinion. The lyrics of “Thankful Breath” speak so much to the attitude I’ve developed after a year of trauma and trials and questioning whether keeping on was even worth it.

… By watching comedy shows that I didn’t want to be in
I regained the feeling of laughing that I completely forgot
Thank you to all the people in the tv screen
There are still many empty notebooks that I need to fill
There are many hyungs and dongsaengs that I need to take care of
There are still many questions that I haven’t asked
And many answers that I haven’t received …

And then, there’s Shoebox.

This album, quite simply, is magic.

Epik High has always been kind of piano heavy, and I really love that – I love the mix of the sweet piano line with these rap verses that are complex, intellectual and fun to spit back. There’s piano in almost every song on this album, and I’ve come to think of it as Tablo’s signature, almost – a note of world-weariness and a little melancholy, even in a song that’s defiant and awe-inspiring. The song I’m thinking of is the first track on the album. Its Korean title is 막을 올리며, but in English, it’s titled as “Encore.” This is Epik High at its very, very best, and I love, love, love this song. It’s every confidence boost I have ever needed in musical form.

The world said, “The show’s over”
With cold smiles and sneers – Everyone pretending
They can’t hear me. And I came through.
Even the hate from my enemies
Who are still fired up is fuel for my art
So fuck you and thank you!

shoebox

[Image description: The album cover of Epik High’s 2014 release “Shoebox.” The cover is mint green, with a drawing of a ballet dancer unlacing her toe shoes in the top left corner. At the bottom right corner is “Shoebox/Epik High”, written in Korean Hangul. ]

Something I dearly love about this album is Tablo being outright defiant and cocky. If you read his lyrics and his interviews, you can tell immediately that he’s an incredibly private, deep, sensitive person. But in songs like “Burj Khalifa” and “Born Hater,” he talks tough. It gave me the strength to think maybe I can be, too. So much of this world is ‘fake it til you make it,’ and if he can do it, I can too.

One of the later songs on the album is one that had to grow on me, but it’s a song that has come to mean a lot to me. It’s featuring Jay Park, a Korean-American singer with issues of his own, and together, it’s just Tablo, Mithra, Tukutz and Jay having a great time. It’s called Life Is Good, and it’s a really wonderful reminder that I’ve lived through a lot, that people have been jerks to me, that life has been hard for the people I love. But hey, guess what?

Life’s still good.

I know this post is long, and I know some of you might just not be interested in my music. But in 2015, I had severe illnesses in my family. I had to watch my roommate, who is my best friend, practically my sister (❤ 언니), be mistreated, fobbed off and gaslit because of her chronic illness. I was scrabbling for money all year, and still am; there are a lot of months where I worry about how to make rent. I struggle daily with sleep problems, executive functioning problems, and what I suspect is a burgeoning anxiety issue (not quite GAD, but at the same time, I don’t seem to stop worrying). Epik High and Tablo matter to me, because they show me that I am capable of carrying on. I am capable of great things.

I wanted to start the New Year off talking about something that makes me happy. And I wanted to give credit to people who, frankly, kept me me.

고마워, 오빠들. 내 하이는 EPIK 입니다.

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