Seoul, South Korea

Unmasking Korea’s Primary

Unmasking Korea’s Primary

By Anna Park
January 3, 2013

Korean hip-hop artists met significant mainstream success in 2012, from Epik High‘s recent comeback through YG Entertainment to Verbal Jint‘s chart-topping summer release, 10 Years of Misunderstandings. We also saw Zion.T emerge as one of the year’s hottest rookies and Supreme Team‘s E-Sens make his long-awaited return to the mic. Both Amoeba Culture artists owe their recent success to labelmate producer Choi Dong Hoon, also known as Primary.

Best known for the box he wears over his head, Primary has quickly become one of Korea’s most sought-after producers. He’s been on a roll this year, securing top spots on the music charts with each release from his Primary and the Messengers album. “See Through,” which features Zion.T and Dynamic Duo‘s Gaeko, is easily one of 2012′s most downloaded and recognizable tracks.

While Primary may be a new household name to some, the 29-year-old producer has been active within the underground hip-hop scene for years now, having kept company with artists like Dynamic Duo and Garion since 2004. His repertoire boasts an always-fresh blend of genres, from jazzy soul to hip-hop, and his army of messengers rounds up to over 20 collaborators. And with multiple projects already in the works, it seems he’s just getting warmed up. Amidst preparations for a busy 2013, Primary takes a moment to put the Korean hip-hop scene into perspective as he talks collaborations, musical inspirations and recent successes.

Tell us about your album, Primary and the Messengers.

Like its name, the album is a compilation of my work with various messengers. Even though it uses hip-hop as a foundation, I tried to create a variety of genre-free music and messages.

What have you been up to since the album release?

I’ve been busy with TV promotions, and I’ve been working on a track for a new project.

Where did you come up with the name Primary?

When I first started studying music, I took the name from the term “primary dominant” because I thought it had a good meaning to it.

How did you first get into producing music, specifically jazz and hip-hop?

I was initially into rock, having joined a band at school, but I never formally studied music. So I started studying music at Seoul Jazz Academy and fell in love with jazz music.

Soon enough I started listening to black music and that’s when I first got into hip-hop. At the time, I really liked guitarist Ronny Jordan’s music and dreamt of becoming a guitarist like him. But once I started making my own music, I decided to switch over to becoming a producer. That’s probably why I stopped practicing my guitar.

Where did the idea for the box mask come from? Doesn’t it get annoying to wear onstage?

People think I’m trying to be mysterious, but it’s nothing like that. In 2006, I debuted with an album under the band name Primary Skool. We thought it would be cool to have a character or mascot to represent us, so we picked something that wasn’t exactly trendy but that would be memorable. The mask must have left a big impression though, because when people thought Primary, they remembered the mask and not my face. So I’ve been wearing the mask a lot for performances these days.

To be honest, at first it was kind of stuffy, but I’m used to it now.

Do people ever recognize you offstage, when you’re out and about? Do you have any funny episodes to share?

Everyone knows the box mask, but my face hasn’t been put out there that much. People almost never recognize me. Recently, I’ve been hearing my music play in coffee shops, restaurants and bars, and unlike other artists, I get to see people’s honest reactions, which is pretty cool. I even heard my music at a movie theater, and it was fun monitoring people’s reactions.

Can you tell us about your different projects like Primary Skool and Primary Score?

Primary Skool is the name of a band of which I’m a member. Currently, we’re not promoting, but we often play as a live band for artists like Supreme Team and Dynamic Duo. We do plan on promoting again later though.

Primary Score was the name of a project that Score (also a member of Primary Skool) and I created. Right now, Score is working as Younha’s producer.

How do all of your collaborations come about? Do you write the song before or after reaching out to your messenger?

More often than not, I’ll compose a song first and then contact the artist. But there are also a lot of instances when I’ll pick an artist and then write a song that fits him or her. I think the latter results a more meaningful collaboration.

We’re particularly interested in “Poison,” the track featuring Supreme Team’s E-Sens. What’s the story behind that track?

I wanted to compose something unique, a track without a chorus that gradually builds up to a climax. Because sincere lyrics for this kind of song are so important, I thought E-Sens would be the perfect fit, and we worked together to match that theme.

In order to create a setting that would make emotions come out more naturally, we recorded late at night, just the two of us. We had the lights off, each of us with a glass of wine in hand. It was a really quiet session.

You’re quite connected in the underground scene. Who are you closest to, aside from your Amoeba Culture family? Are there any artists that you haven’t yet collaborated with that you’d like to work with? Any idols?

I think I’m close with most of the artists in the hip-hop scene. Korea’s hip-hop scene isn’t actually that big – plus, I’ve been around for a while. In terms of artists I want to work with, it changes a lot, depending on the track that I’m working on at the time. Recently though, I’ve come to think that Lee Hi’s voice is very attractive.

I’ve received requests from a handful of idol groups, and I’ve been working on a few groups’ albums. I can’t go into details yet, so I’ll only mention Infinite H for now.

Where did the idea for the minimalist box set for the music video of “? (Question Mark)” come from?

The music video was shot by Johnny Bros, and it was all their idea. They came to our meeting with that idea, inspired by the movie Dogville, and I thought it would fit well with the song.

You’ve been compared to the British producer Mark Ronson for all of your critically acclaimed collaborations. Thoughts on that comparison?

Mark Ronson is my favorite producer, so to even be compared to him is an honor.

What music do you listen to regularly?

As I mentioned above, I love Mark Ronson’s music. I also listen to a lot of jazz music. And even though I listen to a lot of today’s music, I’ve mostly been diggin’ old-school records.

What would you like overseas listeners of your music to know about you? 

I think the best way to get to know me is to listen to my album.

What should they know about the underground music scene in Korea?

I do believe that K-pop today exists because Korea’s indie scene exists alongside it. Korea’s underground scene isn’t a minor league that couldn’t make it to the major league, and I hope people will come to recognize that.

Final message to MTV K readers?

Please love my album, Primary and the Messengers, and watch out for my next move.

Purchase Primary and the Messengers LP on iTunes.
Follow Primary on Twitter.

Images courtesy of Amoeba Culture.
Interview translated from Korean | Words, interview and translation by Anna Park

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