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K-pop pioneer Seo Taiji’s 30 years remembered in 30 hits

Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
Referred to as the “culture president” of South Korean music, Seo Taiji is a living legend of K-pop who has paved the path in which the modern Korean music industry was built upon.

Born Jeong Hyun-cheol in 1972, Seo kicked off his music career as part of a heavy metal band named Sinawe at the age of 17. In 1992 he formed Seo Taiji and Boys with members Yang Hyun-seok and Lee Juno and made his official debut with single “I Know” on March 23. The trio instantly shot to fame, introducing Western pop and hip-hop genres into mainstream sounds and rewrote the history of Korean pop music.

With a slew of bold hits under its belt, the band came to set the standards of what we know as K-pop music, especially idol music, and also brought about social changes with songs that challenged the norms and appealed to the youths of 1990s. The band abruptly disbanded in 1996.

Seo returned as a solo act after a two-year hiatus. Barely appearing in public and unveiling himself only with bursts of new music that continued to extend influence on listeners. Dropping his last album “Quiet Night” in 2014, Seo has been on an indefinite hiatus since.

In commemoration of Seo's 30th anniversary, here are 30 of Seo’s most career-defining hits as a belated celebration and a brief look back on the roots of the K-pop music that we listen to.

Seo Taiji and Boys members (from left) Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-seok and Lee Juno (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji and Boys members (from left) Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-seok and Lee Juno (SeoTaiji Company)

1. “Nan Arayo (I Know)”
While this debut song of band Seo Taiji and Boys received the lowest score of the night for its performance on a TV talent show in 1992, that didn’t stop it from taking the nation by storm with its eclectic sound fusing elements of hip-hop, Western pop and dance music.

2. “You in the Fantasy”
The success of “I Know” was soon followed by “You in the Fantasy,” another single from the band’s first debut LP. Consisting of only rap verses, a format never-before-seen in the local music scene until then, this rowdy techno- and synth-infused dance tune questions one’s preconceived reality.

3. “Hayeoga (Anyhow Song)”
“Hayeoga” deviates in sound from the debut single, combining elements of heavy metal with traditional gukak sounds through the use of “taepyeongso,” a Korean wind instrument. The second LP, on which the song was listed, became the first record in Korea to sell over 2 million copies.

4. “Our Own Memories”
Marked as the first so-called “fan song” by a musician in the K-pop history, this song, composed and penned by Seo, is a letter for the fans, sincerely delivering his gratitude and love to the fans and promising an eternity with them. While Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded later, this song has kept many fans with Seo throughout the many ups and down in his career. 

5. “Swamp of Death”
Perhaps not the most loved among Seo’s discography, this pop-rock track directly touches upon the issue of drug use, a topic not commonly dealt with music. The lyrics tell the story of a drug addict, and the simple beats over which the vocals growl low is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous,” which is not surprising, as Seo is an avid fan of Jackson and whom he was heavily influenced by.

6. “To You”
Another song written by Seo in devotion to his fans, this score consists of gentle vocals, soft raps and flowing narration, hitting the ears like a sweet whisper. Seo Taiji dropped a new metal remake of the song in 2000, which was included on the sixth album “Tai Ji.” The song regained prominence in 2013 with the popular TV series ”Reply 1994“ in which balladeer Sung Si-kyung’s remake of the song was used. 

Seo Taiji and Boys members (from left) Lee Juno, Seo Taiji and Yang Hyun-seok. (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji and Boys members (from left) Lee Juno, Seo Taiji and Yang Hyun-seok. (SeoTaiji Company)
7. “Dreaming of Balhae”
This alternative rock track voices the hope of unification of Korea. Ringing out the importance of peace on the Korean Peninsula, the song was later included in high school textbooks and, in April 2018, was played during the inter-Korean summit as the leaders of two Koreas closed their meeting.

8. “Kyoshil Idea (Classroom Ideology)”
This metal-infused rock score from the third LP went up front with condemning the stressful Korean education system for suffocating students mentally and creatively by pressuring them to succeed academically. While the song received a sensational support from youths, it was banned from being played on air for its lyrics censuring the education system. The band was accused of backmasking Satanic messages in the song, which was later proved groundless.

9. “Come Back Home”
The trio forayed into gangsta rap with this title song of their fourth LP. The lyrics rail against the societal pressures on teenagers that pushed them to run away from home, with the chorus reflecting their parents’ perspectives. Working as a mediator between the youths and their parents, it had a ripple effect on the society and brought back many youngsters home. BTS released a remake of the song in 2017 as part of Seo’s 25th anniversary project ”Time: Traveler.“

10. “Pilseung (Must Triumph)”
An alternative rock score from the fourth LP, the song marked the band’s return to the bold, classic rock sound. ”I felt rejuvenated,“ Seo had said about the album in a later interview.

11. “Good Bye”
Never did the fans know when this was listed on the fourth LP, that it was a farewell note from Seo. The song was only instrumental in the fourth LP, with the version with the vocals later released on their 1996 compilation, entitled “Goodbye Best Album.” Seo sang the song live for the first time during his 25th anniversary concert, and said, ”This was a song that expressed how I felt back then, and I dared not sing it to you until now.“

12. “Sidae Yugam (Shame of the Times)”
The song was blocked by censors who screened the song ahead of release and forbade the act from including lyrics critical of the government. Refusing to rewrite the lyrics, he removed the vocals and dropped an instrumental version. Enraged fans protested against the screening system, playing a significant role in the abolishment of the system in 1996.

Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
13. “Take Two”
Seo resumed his music career in 1998 with the fifth LP ”Seo Tai Ji,“ a mostly heavy metal-coated album with some of the tracks titled just by number, including this alternative rock number. The lyrics are about the conflict between the new and old, criticizing the communication breakdown between the older generation and the youths.

14. “Take Five”
One of the most renowned tracks from his first solo album, ”Take Five“ is considered to take on a brighter disposition with flashes of late- ‘90s college rock. The lyrics send the message to fans that Seo is returning to music after discovering the good people around him and the good inside himself.

15. “Tank”
The public recognition for soloist Seo Taiji exploded with the 2000 sixth LP,  with which he fully embraced his heavy metal side with hits, including this track. The lyrics lash out at the system that oppresses his values and creativity, and was later given the spotlight in 2002 in relation to the Yangju highway incident, in which two school girls were struck and killed by a US armored vehicle.

16. “Orange”
A nu metal track which brings light upon the heavy guitar riffs and Seo’s cynical raps which were received well by the local music critics. The title, ”Orange,“ is suggestive of the song’s message, which criticizes snobs and hypocrites who put on a false mask or who goes against his stated virtues, just like an orange which looks different from the inside and out.

17. “Internet War”
The song sends a warning against the harmful side-effects of the internet and the dangerous behaviors spreading in the cyberspace -- a timely message when internet technology was on the rise. The song is better known among the younger K-pop listeners after boy band SHINee’s Jonghyun and Taemin performed it in 2012.

18. “Daegyeongseong (Feel The Soul)”
The song was originally released as a track of Seo’s sixth LP under the title ”Daegyeongseong,“ in which Gyeongseong refers to the name of Seoul during the Japanese colonial rule in the early- until mid-’90s. It was later remastered in 2001 as a Japanese single, with the titled renamed in English as ”Feel the Soul.“

19. “Ultramania”
The song was created by Seo in devotion to his fans and the people of all extreme tastes and passion -- who are referred to by the word ”mania.“ Seo called them those who actually bring about meaningful changes in the world. The sound, a mixing of hardcore rock with heavy metal, peppered with Seo’s raps, was also acclaimed by fans of music. 

Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)

20. “Heffy End”
Just as the other songs of the seventh LP, which tend to expound on the emotional aspects, this song in essence is a sad love song which shows the obsessiveness of a woman who confines her lover. Seo shows the deviated love by intentionally misspelling it as ”Heffy“ instead of ”Happy.“

21. “Robot”
This lead track of his seventh LP, ”7th Issue“ is about Seo’s own youth, portrayed through a boy who is gradually destroyed by the cruelty that exists in the overly digitalized society. It draws on the feelings of losing his emotions and becoming empty with age, the anguish that he had felt growing older.

22. “Live Wire”
A hit lead single of the seventh album, ”Live Wire“ continues the vivacious energy of ”Ultramania.“ Seo goes onto add drum and bass sounds into several of his songs in the seventh LP, including this one, cranking up the rock sound and making it catchy. The song sings of celebrating musical freedom and his steadfast devotion to music.

23. “F.M Business”
The song is the most similar in its nu metal sound with the songs of his sixth LP, unlike the other tracks of ”7th Issue“ with which Seo made some new attempts. The song lampoons the commercialized music business and the artist exploitation from record labels, and his frustration at having to return to such an industry. ”F.M Business“ stands for ”F----- up Music Business.“

24. “October 4th”
This track represents a shift in his usual heavy metal style, lightly driven by two guitars, which later makes a dramatic transition into a full ensemble with heavy percussion and a bass guitar. The lyrics tell the story of a man whose mind is flooded with memories of a lost love, which Seo later revealed was inspired from his very first love in middle school. Written in numbers, ”October 4th“ is ”1004,“ which also means ”angel“ in Korean.

25. “0 (Zero)”
The longest track on the album, ”0“ is one of Seo’s uncontested masterpieces. Compared to the heavy, pensive lyrics about being ”reduced to zero“ after a long, hopeless life, this symphonic rock piece boasts a beautiful rock sound born from Seo’s mastery in music making.

26. “Moai”
Following a long hiatus, Seo returned in 2008 with “Moai,” the first of his ambitious three-part mystery series. Seo introduced a new experimental style that he created and coined it ”nature pound” with this track, which draws inspiration from the mysterious statues of Easter Island, which had long fascinated him, and the music video was partially shot on the island.

27. “Bermuda (Triangle)”
The second single from the eighth LP, the lyrics metaphorically deal with opening one’s eyes to sex, comparing the experience to getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and learning to become an adult by finding one’s way out of the mysterious region. Seo later married actor Lee Eun-sung who appears in the song’s music video.

Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)
Seo Taiji (SeoTaiji Company)

28. “Morning Snow”
The song rings out a calm ethereal vibe that stands out among the dark, mysterious sounds of the eighth album. It expresses his gratitude for fans and the innocent love they share, just like the pristine untouched snow of the early morning. Some say the song may have been a farewell to the fans as the lyrics sing of cherishing this moment that will soon turn into the past, which he will remember forever.

29. “Sogyeokdong”
Fronting his ninth LP “Quiet Night,” “Sogyeokdong” was released in October 2014. Taking the name of his hometown in Jongno-gu, Seoul, “Sogyeokdong” came in two versions -- the first release featuring the voice of singer-songwriter IU over Seo’s composition, and the second one with Seo’s solo vocals.

30. “”
Seo continues his takedown of societal norms through his music in this synth-rock tune, which Seo said was inspired by his daughter. The name is a compound word of Christmas and Halloween, and the song, as well as the accompanying Tim Burton-like music video, depicts two towns with the stereotypical roles twisted into Santa Claus and Halloween monsters.

By Choi Ji-won (