“How long has it been? It's been three years since the show?” At some point during the conversation with Clash, Stray Kids’ 22-year old leader, Bang Chan, laughs: “We were young — I was still the oldest, but thinking about I.N here, he was quite young.”
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He is referring to the group’s youngest member, I.N, and the eponymous reality show that chronicled the genesis of the octet for the latter part of 2017. Unlike other survival shows where contestants battled it out as individuals to become part of a hopeful final line-up, Stray Kids had a common goal: to debut as one.
Every week, as the members went up against impossible deadlines and trainees from other agencies, they built themselves from the ground up in the face of backbreaking pressure.
“Thinking about it, it was like the first experience for us. Learning new stuff and knowing there are these kinds of criteria of what we do here, these musicians. Everything was just really new and fun.”
Chan speaks in his trademark upbeat tone, with a precociousness that often seems misplaced with his soft features. Reflecting on the group’s intense journey from the practice room to the stage, his words are restrained, as if he’s trying to give every aspect its due: “The fact that we had to go through those really hard missions, and knowing that there was a chance of failing and not completing it, that was a bit hard to go through.”
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The eight members — Chan, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, HAN, Felix, Seungmin, and I.N — have come a long way since then, releasing six EPs — five of them within the first year of debut — winning countless awards, and touring the world twice. Most of all, establishing themselves as the frontrunners of a musical generation that gives in to the demands of cathartic creative expression, however vulnerable it may make them seem.
“We don't think there is any difference between the story that we want to tell and the message,” says HAN, the group’s main rapper and one-third of 3RACHA, his sub-unit with Chan and fellow rapper Changbin that has produced nearly all of the group’s music since day one. “The music that we like and the music that we want to do? There is no difference. That basically is Stray Kids’ music.”
This seamless alignment between vision and execution is a result of Stray Kids’ unprecedented structure — as an unspoken rule, there is usually too much at stake with the debut of a new group to allow much freedom. Any kind of creative agency comes a few years down the line, when the foundation has been laid and the footing strong.
Since their debut, Stray Kids has upended that pattern: not only did Chan personally select all the members of the group — a decision traditionally reserved for the higher-ups — but the members have also had complete control of their music since the beginning, with 3RACHA at the forefront. It’s allowed the group to set its own pace in an otherwise expeditious industry, letting them explore who they are as opposed to catching up with everyone else.
Park Jin Young, CEO of JYP Entertainment — Stray Kids’ parent agency — credited the group’s thematic narrative to this independence last year, just before the release of its new album, Clé 1: Miroh, the first chapter in a three-parter deep dive into growing pains.
“Your group wasn’t formed by the company initially. You guys set your own musical style through ‘Mixtape’ [the group’s pre-debut EP],” he told 3RACHA. “That’s how you chose reality over some fiction. I respected your efforts to become united organically.”
“I think freedom is a really, really important aspect of Stray Kids in general. You know how we make our own music and lyrics? Every [other] content we have has our opinions on it as well — that itself is just really big freedom.” says Chan almost a year later, pausing intermittently to weigh the question on his tongue. “It's because of that freedom that we can be creative; we can do what we want, we can feel free, and feel more comfortable approaching our fans.”
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This independence has fostered an honesty that runs deep into the group’s collective fabric: for the members, what they believe in and what their fans — collectively known as STAYs — are concerned with are one and the same. It’s why the group’s efforts to tap into its fans’ thoughts stretch beyond fan-meetings and concerts.
Throughout 2019, Chan did weekly live sessions on popular streaming app VLive, where he shared music recommendations, talked about his day, encouraged fans to fall in love with being alive and expressing who they loved, or just kept them company through a hard day of work. I.N has his own series titled The Youngest’s Private Life, while dancer Hyunjin tells fans to hang in there on Hyunjin’s Counseling Center.
“Our motive is STAY,” rapper Changbin’s words are as purposeful off stage as on it. “Sometimes it [working] is difficult because we're turning out so much music, but when we think about the fans who are going to be enjoying the songs, the performances in the future, it really does motivate us and keeps us going.”
For the group, encapsulating the essence of who they are is only possible when both Stray Kids and STAY are in the same corner. From the rushing excitement of “Miroh”, when you’ve just sprouted wings and are ready to soar; to the frightening diffidence of 'Side Effects', when you’re questioning every move and wondering whether you made the right choice in the first place; to the vindicating relief on 'Levanter', where you finally accept that growing up means having to let go of some things and adapting to others to find yourself.
Whether they’re staging an uprising and taking back control from an oppressive system or doing the Renegade like their lives depend on it, Stray Kids are on the same journey as their fans.
Park Jin Young put it into perspective during his talk with 3RACHA last year, elaborating why it was essential for the group to take off at their own pace: “You’re moving up step by step. If it happens too fast, you could get lost on the way. You could wonder: ‘What’s happening?’ When new fans join, it’s like they have a reason to. It’s not like they got into the craze. It’s more like they understand and like what they found in you.”
Despite the whirlwind of constantly producing and putting out music, there are quiet moments that the group treasures, if only as necessary breaks. “No matter how busy we are, I think each member tries to think about the things we have to do. We love music, we enjoy it, so we talk about a lot of musical stories and the people around who feel important,” says Seungmin of how the members keep up their spirits.
“Naturally, [when] we do reach a block, we don't force ourselves to keep making that music. We take that break to listen to other artists or watch other music videos and kind of move forward from that,” explains Changbin.
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What about revisiting some old 3RACHA gems? The question elicits loud groans from Chan, Changbin, and Han, while the others dissolve into giggles and cheers.
“Of course, we never look for them [their old songs], we never listen to them. Well, sometimes. Maybe,” Chan laughs through the words as he explains why 3RACHA are reluctant to pull out their pre-debut tracks. “Of course, it's really cringey. It's hard to listen to. I don't know why we don't take them down. There's no reason to — we love it, fans have fun with it. It's something we made in the past; it's kind of a part of our discography, so yeah, we just let it be.”
Given the chance, however, Han — amidst louder protests this time — picks the playful, flirty “WOW” as the song he’d remake: “I want to make a version with all eight members. If we were to make it right now, there will probably be a new sense of a little bit of cringe or cuteness to it.”
“Really?” The incredulity is evident in Chan’s voice, but that’s about as far as the element of surprise goes.
After being together for as long as they have, there’s very little to explore as far as personal dynamics go. “We have been together for a really long time. So, if there is anything to learn about each other, we have already,” Hyunjin explains.
With their personal dynamic settled into a comfortable second skin and a successful era of exploring the self behind them, Stray Kids is ready for a new era, hopefully one where reservations about K-pop are left behind in the dust.
“Of course, it's K-pop music, but it's still music in general,” says Chan. “The fact that they say it might be kind of manufactured, they could also be talking about the process of the music. There are a lot of things that go into it — marketing or making the albums or music videos — so it might seem manufactured. In the end, it's a really big team project. Maybe the process could be manufactured, but the end-result has got a lot of people's spirits and energy in it.”
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Words: L. Singh
Photo Credits: JYP Entertainment, Courtesy of SubKulture Entertainment
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