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CHIRP DJ writesLetters From Korea

In a matter of days, I went from hipster-platinum to waeguk-nobody. In the beginning of May 2009, I packed up my crates of LPs, stepped down as Music Director of the burgeoning Chicago Independent Radio Project, quit my job at Reckless Records, handed over the helms of Plustapes/Addenda Records to my co-founder, canceled all my DJ gigs around Chicago’s west side (Whistler, Burlington, Danny’s, etc.), handed my cat over to my little brother, and left the city. Days later, I stepped off an airplane at Incheon Airport and took a late night bus to Daejeon, a city located in the heart of South Korea. I slept that night on a single-sized mattress, the only piece of furniture in my allotted studio apartment. Moments before I fell into a deep sleep after my 24-hour journey, I heartily questioned my decision.

I had no idea what to expect coming to South Korea; I had little time to prepare. On a whim, I inquired about a teaching job and not three weeks later reluctantly accepted one. It happened fast and with little premeditation. All I knew was that Chicago was feeling stuffy and redundant after four years. I needed adventure and a setting where I could effloresce into adulthood without too many outside influences. “Individuality” was the word of the moment, and nothing was more foreign to me than South Korea.

Innately, Korea is very different. But superficially, it’s rather westernized. Besides the Hangul script and the copious amount of dragonflies in late spring, Daejeon didn’t seem that far out. The kids dress rather stylishly, the technology is modern (if not slightly ahead of the U.S.) and commerce bustles. Daejeon is certainly a city, but it’s no Chicago. It’s about the size of Portland, OR actually. With the rather uneventful cultural touchstones and nightlife though, it’s much more akin to the Charlotte, NC’s of the world. It’s a city built around a particular business ethos (technological innovation in this case), not around the arts. The opportunities and communities that I gravitated toward in Chicago were obsolete.

Everything, and I mean everything, in Korea is animated. Nearly every store on every corner is blasting music out its doors. Or, at the least, there are dedicated and luminous neon lights for décor. My senses were saturated, and that I was thankful for. But where my sight, taste, smell and touch were satisfied, my hearing was left dumbfounded. Throughout the country, Korean pop is ubiquitous. And not just in placement, it’s loved in the hearts of the people as well. I have yet to meet a person who does not like the sugar-loaded, bubblegum techno, pop-rap, pseudo-soul of K-pop. Even after years of careful music listening, I have a tough time differentiating the groups, even after 7 months. But I have nary a student who can’t list every song on the current pop charts from memory (along with a quick rendition of each song’s chorus).

The song-of-the-moment – and moment in K-pop terms is about 6-8 weeks of chart dominance – when I arrived was Big Bang and 2NE1’s “Bubblegum.” Big Bang, a substantial veteran of the scene for being around for three years already, is a hit-making machine. Every female student of mine has a pencil cased covered in stickers of the five members’ smudge-free images. The production company behind them, YG Entertainment, is dominant and sly. They had just finished fastening the female equivalent of the Big Bang mold, 2NE1, and paired them together for a promotion song for a cell phone by LG Cyon. It is a popular strategy by promotion companies at the moment: crossover jingles. The song was a smash, two Big Bang members would go on to release lucrative solo albums in the fall, and 2NE1 would win numerous awards and accolades during the many year end award shows.

I, on the other hand, needed refuge. The culture I enjoyed, the music industry I loathed. That would change (somewhat). But for the moment, I needed escape. I turned to Miles Davis, an artist that I respect but don’t really get up in arms about. In fact, besides Sketches of Spain, Get Up With It is my only real focus in the vast discography of the archetypal jazz trumpeter. Its inch-thick haze of electric-organ-derived ambience was the perfect opposite of the crystalline K-pop. Composed of a series of session ranging from 1970-74, it also helped that the album was 2 hours-plus of music. Whenever the three-minute onslaught of hook-hook-hook would wear me down, I’d hole myself up in my apartment and lose myself in the endless funky grooves of Reggie Lucas’s static electric guitar and Michael Henderson’s loping bass lines. The tectonic shifts of atonality and seemingly structure-less jam sessions became just the rabbit hole I needed on those special occasions. It’s no wonder this record was so influential on Eno. Even without drugs, it easily trips you out.

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