Jay Park, the Seattle bred artist taking full control of his own career, has become a man of many trades. From being the first Asian artist signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, to starting his own labels, including AOMG and H1GHR MUSIC, he has helped globalize the Korean hip-hop scene and simultaneously fostered a community of young talent sweeping the industry in Korea and abroad.
H1GHR MUSIC was founded in 2017, and now includes a diverse array of artists including Sik-K, pH-1, HAON, Woodie Gochild, Golden, Big Naughty, Trade L and more. For the first time since the label’s inception, the artists got together to release a two part compilation album, split into the RED TAPE, a collection of fiery hip-hop, and the BLUE TAPE, featuring smoother flavors of mellifluous R&B.
On coming together for this project, Jay says, "It was important for H1GHR MUSIC to create the compilation projects because first, we wanted to show everybody what's good with us. To put the newer artists on and to show what type of artists we have and what we are capable of. Secondly, it's to make everybody at the label, not just the artists, realize the synergy we can create when we do things as a team and the strength in it. Why we need each other and how we bring the best out of each other. Lastly, I've never spearheaded a compilation album before so it was simply for the challenge and to elevate the bar when it comes to music, visuals, and how to promote it for the culture."
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In conversation with four prominent members of H1GHR MUSIC, it became clear that a genuine love for their craft and the culture is what drives this globally recognized collective to success. Ph-1, a 31 year old Korean-American rapper, explains, “I chose to sign with H1GHR MUSIC because it was led by Jay Park. I have always had an utmost respect for his decision making skills and execution of his visions. He gave the artists probably the best deal a label can give, which showed me that he wasn’t in it for the money. He truly cared for the artists’ growth and the expansion of Korean hip-hop culture.”
Golden, the 32 year old Korean singer-songwriter who previously went by G.Soul, echoes this sentiment, “I’ve known Jay since we were teenagers and I always had a lot of love and respect for what he was building up. I was just happy to be a part of his new venture which was the start of H1GHR MUSIC.” 31 year old producer Woogie adds, “They take artists’ opinions into consideration when it comes to all acts of music.”
HAON is a 20 year old rapper who got scouted after winning “High School Rapper 2”, a Korean survival hip-hop show. He keeps it short but sweet, “This label is full of awesome people and always respects its artists’ opinions.”
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Besides providing content that the fans love, the compilation album provided an ability for the artists to join together with their labelmates and explore what they could create together. “We all recorded in front of the other members, so we could get immediate feedback on our verses/hooks. This really made all of us grow artistically, and we also became closer as friends” ph-1 says about their studio sessions. Golden adds on, “I love songs from the Blue Tape because most songs on the album have this good vibe and are uplifting. I think that’s what people need right now.”
HAON, on the other hand, opens up that the “RED TAPE feels a little more special to me since I participated in more parts in it. I especially like ‘DDDD freestyle’ and ‘check my bio’ from the RED TAPE that were made on impulse. It was just fun while making the songs.” Woogie, whose music is usually much more mellow, admits, “It was nice to work with people that I didn’t get a chance to collaborate with. I feel like I get to know more about them by making compilation albums together.”
On going global and representing the Korean hip-hop scene worldwide, the guys have various approaches and personal goals. For ph-1, “I hope to gain more fans worldwide. Being a fluent English speaker, I want to make more songs in English in order to promote myself outside of Korea. H1GHR MUSIC can definitely help me a lot because it already has a huge international fandom.” Woogie admits, “I’m not really used to the fact that people are enjoying my music outside of this country. My goal is to branch out to the world out there, not only limited to domestic.”
HAON takes the responsibility for expansion personally, sharing “It’ll be so nice if I can get to collaborate with someone well known globally or I personally respect. But this is not something H1GHR MUSIC can help me achieve, it’s rather something I need to work on harder.” Golden is also focused on personal growth, “There’s no right answer for anyone on how to get to their goal other than working hard and smart with a lot of patience and faith in their gift. So as long as I’m doing that, I think I’ll be fine.”
Each musician has a different story on how they chose their path, and the H1GHR crew is no exception. Describing his music style as “chill, easy to listen to, and melodic” ph-1 says. “When I was working 9 to 5 in New York, I was reached out to by many famous artists in Korea who were interested in my music. It gave me courage to pursue music 100%.” It’s no wonder he was in demand, as his lyricism captures the true essence of hip-hop: keeping it real.
Golden, who labels his sound as versatile, says “I’ve tried many different genres of music but I definitely care the most about the authenticity and sincerity. It can be a techno/dance song but still sound soulful with your honesty to make music.” This blending of genre, coupled with Golden’s honey vocals, are what allow him to breathe life into a chilled track like 'Selfish' from the Blue Tape, and switch to a higher tempo trap beat like 'H1ghr' over on the Red Tape.
Meanwhile, HAON’s youthful persona draws fans in, and this unique spark makes him a stand-out on the albums. He describes his flow as effortless, “I try to learn how to leave a message while keeping the fun with listening. I got to keep this style because it’s fun that I don’t think about anything while rapping or singing or listening to music.”
Woogie has an old school flare that still incorporates modern trends. “I just make music and express myself in my own way regardless of the genres such as hip-hop, jazz, blues etc.” To sum his style up, he notes, “Music that I pursue is vintage but also trendy.”
Just because the guys are focused on honing their craft, doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the way K-pop is taking over. Despite this, they recognize that no matter what umbrella they fit under, the music is the core of what they do. “I feel like I have to work hard, period. I see that there is a lot of interest in the Korean music scene all around the world, and it just means that I have to keep doing what I’m doing, but do it well. As long as I keep delivering quality music to everyone, I have no doubt that my label and I will grow even bigger than we are now,” ph-1 reflects thoughtfully.
Golden doesn’t view H1GHR MUSIC as outside of the realm of K-pop, and doesn’t see what label he’s signed to as a factor of how hard he’ll hustle. Meanwhile, HAON flexes his Gen-Z perspective on the globalization of Korean music, “It’s such a meaningful thing that K-pop is getting popular worldwide and dominates Billboard. However, this certain case is not the reason that keeps me moving forward. I just love this company and hip-hop culture, and rather the curiosity of ‘How far can we take it?’ or ‘What’s it going to be?’ is my motivation that makes me work harder. I’m working on finding my own strength in making music.”
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Though their sonic styles and life experiences differ, the common denominator is a strong affinity for Jay Park. Woogie sums it up as, “He leads us like a navigation system.” HAON looks up to various members of H1GHR Music for different admirable qualities, “There are so many things to learn from the close people around me. I always get inspiration from skillful pH-1, Sik-K’s passion, and Jay’s love.”
Their individual discographies deserve just as much attention for shaping their style as musicians. To define them through one song would be limiting, but their favorite tracks are the best way to dive into their music. Ph-1 says, “One of my favorite songs from my own discography is ‘DVD’. It is a very personal and emotional song I wrote a couple years back. Still to this day, it makes me sentimental when I listen to it.”
“My latest single ‘Hate Everything’ would have to be the one. I’d say it should be a theme song for this damn pandemic!” Golden laughs. Woogie is devoted to his entire discography, but gives a special shout-out, saying, “‘REWIND MY TAPE’ is like my diary”. HAON, who has amassed a following despite not releasing a full album, humbly shares “I would pick ‘OOOOOOL’ from the last EP for my favorite song,” while sending love to the illustrator who made a cartoon for the track.
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After reflecting on their individual favorites, the guys look forward to the future. A first for each member, the tapes serve as a solid reflection of the label as a whole, and provide a positive glimpse of what Korea has to offer in the conversation of global hip-hop. Golden says, “I think the compilation album is like an official introduction of H1GHR MUSIC and the different artists under the label. And it explains the synergy and what we do individually.”
Ph-1 backs this up, “I hope that the listeners will see how wide of a spectrum we have at H1GHR Music. Every one of us is talented and unique in our own ways, so I just hope that the listeners will be able to see our synergy in these tapes.”
Looking through the two part project and the various music videos accompanying the songs, the raw creativity and bridled passion for hip-hop and R&B comes full circle. With Jay Park’s vision and guidance, H1GHR MUSIC’s tapes are a staple of the Korean music scene, while highlighting the diversity of a plethora of free-thinking and motivated artists who won’t be put in a box.
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Words: Ashlee Mitchell
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