undeaMaking music in this YouTube era may not be considered as special or mysterious as it was in the past. Nowadays, anyone can make a track or imitate playing music, and there are a whole lot of tips and references from experts that you can rely on. With entry barriers lowered, the difference in output seems preferably evident. Even though the methods might be similar, the attitude and experience towards music as an artform reflects a clear difference in the result. Like an artisan slogging its way towards a masterpiece, we shed light on Korean underground artists who firmly continue to create their own music while maintaining a low profile and ask them about their labels and music.rground labels seoul korea

3 Underground Labels in Seoul, Korea to Watch

Making music in this YouTube era may not be considered as special or mysterious as it was in the past. Nowadays, anyone can make a track or imitate playing music, and there are a whole lot of tips and references from experts that you can rely on. With entry barriers lowered, the difference in output seems preferably evident. Even though the methods might be similar, the attitude and experience towards music as an artform reflects a clear difference in the result. Like an artisan slogging its way towards a masterpiece, we shed light on Korean underground artists who firmly continue to create their own music while maintaining a low profile and ask them about their labels and music.

blaq lotus records label

Blaq Lotus Records

Discogs: Please introduce yourself. 

My name is Avantgarde Vak and I’m a DJ, producer, and sampling artist. I also run a one-man label called Blaq Lotus Records. Sometimes, I use the name Vansernu when I’m playing stuff more heavily associated with hip-hop.

D: How did you get into music?

In the late ’90s, I was trying to figure out my career path, and at that time, hip-hop was trending in South Korea. Naturally, I got deeply involved in the culture and started to rap and write lyrics. Then, I thought that I should make beats that I could rap on, but I was just a high schooler so I tried to gather as much money as I could and went to the gear store and got myself an MPC 2000XL. Since then, I quit school and got into producing by making beats. I made my first official debut in 2002 when my track “Wammin’ Up” was included in Leessang’s first album Leessang of Honey Family. Gradually, I felt more joy in making beats than rapping. In 2005, I completed my first instrumental album, Brown Boat #1, which was heavily influenced by Pete Rock’s PeteStrumentals and Shades of Blue by Madlib. This is probably the first jazz sample-based instrumental album in Korea. Since then, I’ve been constantly putting out instrumental mixtapes and I’m planning to release a new album this summer.

D: Tell us a little bit about your label.

Since my story is the label’s story, everything is pretty much personal. I came up with the name Blaq Lotus Records when I first got into producing, but it wasn’t until the release of  Brown Boat #1 when the name was used officially. Unfortunately, as soon as I got started with my label, I was scammed by the distribution company and I was in a state of loss and betrayal (I still don’t have any stocks of the Brown Boat #1 CD). Since then, I was totally lost, spending years mostly stuck at home. I did release The Upaloopa Vol.1: Grittiness Spheres, though, a funk- and soul-based series CD, but at that time, music media was getting transferred from CDs and cassettes to MP3 files, so that release was kind of overshadowed. I was having a hard time both mentally and economically, but I tried to keep my focus on exploring my own musical identity by collecting records, studying and modifying drum machines, etc. I kept myself secluded from the world, but I didn’t stop producing. During these years, I organized some tracks I produced and made an experimental album called Untitle. Yamang: Essence of Avant-Tape was released in 2017, both in LP and cassette format, and I think that was when Blaq Lotus Records started to take off as a proper label. This album had 12 tracks carefully selected from Avant-Tape, a mixtape series of sample-based tracks from various genres I used to put it up on Bandcamp. Of course, I did everything from mixing to mastering, and it was pressed in Canada and Japan. Thankfully, all the stocks were sold out at independent record shops in and out of the country. I can say that I gained a lot of confidence and discovered the potential for my productions and the way I operated my label through this album. Some might think that using old samplers and drum machines are just things from the past, but I believe that someone has to keep this way of making music alive. Plus, I don’t think there’s a better way of presenting my music than using this method.

D: As a small or one-person operation in the Korean underground scene, what is something that distinguishes your label from others?

First of all — including Korea — I can hardly assume that there are labels in the world that make music the way I do, so I think this is the most unique characteristic of my label. Also, I can freely decide things on my own and accept the results however they turn out. I get to decide all the criteria for running the label, and I act according to it, so I can say I don’t feel that much pressure towards success or feel the need to change my musical direction in a trendy way. Also, the fact that there are people who support the way I make music gives me the energy to go on with my label and music career.

Yamang- Essence Of Avant-Tape

D: Out of all your releases, which one do you have the most affection for?

I would say Yamang: Essence of Avant-Tape, which I mentioned earlier. First of all, it’s the first one that was made in vinyl format, and many people that I don’t even know showed love just for the music itself, so it’s a very meaningful record to me. Plus, I’m very confident about this album, and I don’t think I would ever be able to reproduce the musical emotions instilled in this album.

D: Are there any particular labels in Korea that you are interested in or perhaps you could recommend?

There are many great labels in Korea, but if I have to choose one, I would like to recommend Mung Music, which specializes mainly in free jazz. I found out about this label recently, and it’s quite unique that they only make releases in cassette formats. I also like the fact that the label runs things independently. One of the label’s artists is Daniel Ko, a saxophonist, and I must say that his performance is really incredible. I got to meet him through one of my acquaintances, and we even jammed together once when he brought his saxophone while I was DJing at a bar. It was a valuable experience, and I would like to work with him soon.

D: Tell us about your future plans.

Originally, I was supposed to have a gig in Japan and Russia this year, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. There is a new album destined to be released in June, and some tracks I sent out to a few artists before will soon be out. As for the mixtapes, I’ve been doing that for a long time, and I will continue to carry on. For me, releasing mixtapes is really meaningful because it’s a path that connects my music to the people, and I feel that there are quite a number of young people influenced in that process, so I feel a sense of responsibility. Oh, and last but not least, I will also update and sell the releases from Blaq Lotus through Discogs as well.

no slack records label

No Slack Records

D: Please introduce yourself. 

I’m Livigesh, a producer and the boss of electronic music label No Slack Records. I used to DJ before, but since I started to find live performances more interesting, I’m only focusing on the performer side of myself at the moment.

D: How did you get into music?

I learned how to play classical instruments — such as piano, violin, guitar — when I was young. Thanks to my father’s job, I lived in Ethiopia in my early years and went to an international school there. I was influenced by friends from various countries and learned how to play the electric guitar. Later on in Chicago, my friends and I formed a post-rock band, and that’s when I first listened to Aphex Twin by chance. I was totally in shock of the music, and it opened my eyes to electronic music such as techno and drum n’ bass. Then, I started to collect records of these genres. To think about it now, I think it was an essential period that broadened my musical taste. Also, that was the time when I first started producing, but I used Ableton just as a tool to put on beats in rock performances. Then, I met a like-minded friend while majoring in music at a university in Colorado and we formed a duo production team and got more carried away in electronic music. I came back to Korea in 2014, and since then, I’ve been constantly making music using my current name, Livigesh. I got the name “Livi” from a Roman historian and I just made up the “-gesh” part.

no slacno slack records livigeshk records livigesh

D: Tell us a little bit about your label.

“No slack” basically means work our ass off and not to fall behind, and it’s just an expression that my school friends and I used to say habitually. I’ve always thought that I should use this name for my label and the first two releases of No Slack Records were Disco Island, which I prepared for two years after I returned to Korea, and the sequel, At Ease. After that, it just naturally went with the flow. I started to do live performances, threw release parties, featured in OST, met my label artists, and planned many other projects. That’s how the label got to develop to where it is now. The objective of No Slack Records is “Timeless Electronic Music,” and we are continuing to evolve to accomplish that goal.

D: As a small or one-person operation in the Korean underground scene, what is something that distinguishes your label from others?

This doesn’t count for all record labels, but usually, the music that the label pursues doesn’t go beyond the category of a certain genre. Like, if it’s a house label, then they’ll mostly release house music. Within the boundary of electronic music, the label pursues various styles, such as ambient, industrial, drum n’ bass, downtempo, etc. Keeping that aim, we try to express the individuality of the artists as much as possible.

Bullet Ballet and Wolf Pack

D: Out of all your releases, which one do you have the most affection for?

I would say Kisewa’s Bullet Ballet and my own Wolf Pack, which was released last year. First, I have a lot of love for Bullet Ballet. It’s an experimental album that used actual drums instead of drum machines and added noise to give a combination of industrial feeling. Kisewa first came to me with mixing, mastering, and cover art all already done by herself, so I was really impressed by her sincerity. As for Wolf Pack, it was about two years in the making. I wanted to make music that had a standout rhythm structure because I was very much influenced at the time by drum n’ bass artists such as Squarepusher and Ceephax Acid Crew. I worked hard using drum machines to make my drums sound tight, and I think I did a pretty good job in that part so I’m quite satisfied with it.

D: Are there any particular labels in Korea that you are interested in or perhaps you could recommend?

Magic Strawberry Sound. It’s an indie label that I find interesting, and I personally know  Rainbow99, who is one of the label’s artists. He releases albums with tracks that he drew inspiration from while traveling around the whole nation over a long period of time. Also, he records the footage and transforms them into music videos and documentaries. By looking at such a process, I thought that artists in Magic Strawberry Sound would freely create interesting productions whenever they come up with brilliant ideas.

D: Tell us about your future plans.

One of my label’s projects, Seiryun’s Too Chill, just got released in February this year. I’m also going to release a new album soon under my real name Junmin Cho. It’s going to be a memoir kind of album composed of folk and alternative rock that I made during my teenage years and early twenties. But above all, I would really love to open a label party when this COVID situation is over.

eastern standard sounds label

Eastern Standard Sounds

D: Please introduce yourself. 

Oh Jeong Seok (Cheong Dahl) is my name and I’m a record producer, general director, and the founder of Eastern Standard Sounds. I’m also a trumpet player as well as a DJ, and collect reggae, funk, jazz, and many other records from different genres.

D: How did you get into music?

While I was exploring the world of music to find my taste, the soothing and vibrant feeling of jazz caught my ears. Then I was heavily into ska, a Jamaican music style that was actually influenced by jazz. From ska, I naturally got connected with Jamaica’s staple music, reggae, and I was fascinated by the instruments that help organize these types of genres — trumpet, to be specific. Later on, I became a member of Kingston Rudieska and ran an offline/online store that dealt with reggae, ska, and dub records. That’s when we first used the name Eastern Standard Sounds (ESS). Looking back, I think that was the period when the label took its first step, as well as being the start for me as a record producer.

eastern standard sounds oh jeong seok cheong dahl

D: Tell us a little bit about your label.

Being involved with reggae music for almost 20 years, I thought this genre could make it in Korea’s market as well. The first record out from ESS was Heaven is Here in 2016 by NST & The Soul Sauce, a group that I was playing trumpet in. At that time, NST & The Soul Sauce was an unknown band, and when they released this tribute album for the legendary reggae musician Rico Rodriguez, there was more positive feedback from overseas, which was somewhat surprising. I felt there is potential in localized Jamaican music, so we started experimenting and made new attempts by combining reggae and Korea’s pansori together to come up with a new form of music. NST & The Soul Sauce Meets Kim YulHee’s Version took its motive from two of the five episodes in pansori — Simcheongga and Heungbuga — and it received high praises in various worldwide festivals such as Fuji Rock Festival, WOMEX, Trans Musicales, Kennedy Center Honors, and more. The album was also nominated in the best jazz crossover category in the 2019 Korean Music Awards. Unfortunately, we can’t proceed with any kind of tour events at the moment due to the COVID situation, but a new follow-up single, “동해바다 (East Sea)” from last year’s The Swallow Knows was released recently. In addition, we’re also putting a lot of effort into our agency part for distribution and promotion of creative musicians such as Chudahye Chagis and Omar & The Eastern Power, as well as producing records for the other rookie reggae dub artists artists, including 신한태와 레게소울 (Shinhantae and Reggae Soul).

D: As a small or one-person operation in the Korean underground scene, what is something that distinguishes your label from others?

“Roots and Culture” is the slogan of ESS. It’s pretty obvious, but I believe that music shouldn’t just be understood as a genre concept, but more as a culture. While running this music label, I felt that no matter where the music is from, everything is connected together from the roots. So, in order to interact with the world, I feel that it is best to discover music from our own cultural ground and come up with ways to work creatively with it. ESS is a small label in Korea, but we make music with a firm belief, so I think this is what makes our label unique.

Version

D: Out of all your releases, which one do you have the most affection for?

Probably Version by NST & The Soul Sauce Meets Kim Yulhee, which I talked about earlier. I have a lot of affection for this one because it’s a monumental album that introduced our idealistic “Korean reggae” to the world. Also owing to it, our music has received recognition by many people in Korea as well. If you are still in the dark about ESS’s music, I recommend you to give it a try.

D: Are there any particular labels in Korea that you are interested in or perhaps you could recommend?

I don’t know much about other labels, but I would like to pick Kim Oki and the projects he is involved with. Kim Oki was a fellow musician who used to play together with me in NST & The Soul Sauce. He was always the type of musician with a strong desire to create his own music world, so he managed to pave his own path and position himself in a league of his own in the Korean jazz scene.

D: Tell us about your future plans.

New albums and singles from my label’s artists will soon be released. I’m planning to put more focus on 7-inch vinyl. I also have plans to resume with many domestic and oversea acts once we are through with this COVID situation. In a broader perspective, we hope ESS can create a better environment for talented artists so that they can only concentrate on music without worrying about other things. To achieve such a goal, we will stay faithful to our musical roots and leave our traces along the journey, so even when it’s about releasing one album, we want that to be a masterpiece. Well, maybe that was a little too heroic.

 


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