Archive For The “Music” Category

Busta Rhymes On ‘Extinction Level Event 2’ And Hip-Hop As A Daily Practice

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Busta Rhymes On ‘Extinction Level Event 2’ And Hip-Hop As A Daily Practice

Busta Rhymes’ latest album is Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God.

Flo Ngala/Courtesy of the artist

Flo Ngala/Courtesy of the artist

When it comes to the most enthralling rappers, there’s no one like Busta Rhymes. At 19 years old, he famously made a scene-stealing guest appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” A few years later, in 1996, he started releasing the string of solo albums and singles that made him world famous — not just for delivery and flow, but as a showman. The music video for “Gimme Some More,” from 1998’s E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, is a case in point: Busta swaps costumes and characters over and over for the camera, rapping as a boxer, a cowboy and a zoot-suited gangster over a beat that samples Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score.

More than 20 years later, the rapper has delivered a sequel to that hit album, titled Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. True to form, it’s an ambitious release — Busta says he whittled the final track list down from over 850 songs. The artist spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish about music-making as a daily habit and the growing pains between each generation of hip-hop. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Audie Cornish: I heard you go into the studio every day — that it’s part of your daily routine. What does that process look like?

Busta Rhymes: I go to the studio, I put beats on, I listen to it and I just wait until it comes to me. There really is no formula. Sometimes you go into the studio and don’t come up with nothing. The one thing I don’t do is force it. If it don’t feel like it’s coming to me, then I don’t record it.

I know the songs on this album come from different points over the last few years, so forgive me if you can’t remember, but is there a song here that was one of those moments where it did come to you — where you come to the studio, you have a good day and it flows?

The song with me and Anderson .Paak [“YUUUU“] was one of those moments. The song “Deep Thought,” that was another one of those moments.

Can we talk about “Deep Thought?” That one stands out because there’s no one else on it — it’s just you.

It was just a good session. I went in there and heard the beat, I produced the track, and it just spoke to me in the way that I spoke to it. I just needed to communicate some personal things that I wanted to share.

YouTube

It’s clear you’re in this to make a full album experience: There are musical interludes, skits. This is not about just streaming one or two singles that people might like.

That’s what I come from. That’s what I miss. And I think that’s something that this generation needs to experience in the right way now: the experience and the importance of understanding what it is to treat yourself to a incredible, cohesive body of work.

You’ve lived through so many evolutions of the genre. How do you feel about what you’re hearing in this new generation?

I embrace everything with grace, because when I was trying to get on in the beginning, you know, we took from the influences and the elder statesmen before us. We took from it and tried to make it our own. But of course, in the process of trying to make it your own, you do certain things different, in a way that some of the elder statesmen might not be willing to accept.

Did you experience that?

Yeah! Everybody didn’t like me. It’s fine. In fact, I’m driven by that, because I like to show people that may not know what you talkin’ about right now, ’cause you just don’t get it. You ain’t gotta like me right now. I know how to make you change the way you think though.

Yeah, I feel like you got the last laugh here.

Yeah, man. I’m very grateful of being able to be in a space where you get the gift and opportunity to show people better than you can tell ’em.

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KEM: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert

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KEM: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert

Credit: Courtesy of the Artist

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music’s Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It’s the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.


Recorded in his hometown of Detroit, KEM‘s Tiny Desk performance is light, welcoming and beautifully decorated. So is his music. After almost 20 years of recording R&B hits like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Love Calls,” he still comforts my soul with his sultry voice and simple, yet satisfying melodies.

Fans have been waiting since 2014 for a new album and it finally dropped earlier this year. Love Always Wins is filled with his signature romantic style. With accompaniments by veteran musicians, Michael “Nomad” Ripoll on guitar and David McMurray on saxophone, we get to hear three songs from the album in this lovely set.

The first, “Friend Today,” poignantly articulates a love for our fellow humans: “There’s a roll like thunder / They killing our babies, Lord / They headed straight for the border / And we can no longer ignore it.” KEM wrote “Not Before You,” a classic romantic love song, as a dedication to his wife, Erica. “Lonely” ends the set with an upbeat, hopeful vibe: “There’s a life waiting for you / In your brokenness.” It’s an affirmation that personal struggles can end in true happiness.

SET LIST

  • “Friend Today”
  • “Not Before You”
  • “Lonely”

MUSICIANS

  • KEM: vocals, keys
  • Michael “Nomad” Ripoll: guitar
  • David McMurray: saxophone

CREDITS

  • Video: Herman Jenkins
  • Audio: Kristofer Truzzi

TINY DESK TEAM

  • Producer: Suraya Mohamed
  • Video Producer: Morgan Noelle Smith
  • Audio Mastering: Josh Rogosin
  • Associate Producer: Bobby Carter
  • Tiny Production Team: Bob Boilen, Kara Frame, Maia Stern
  • Executive Producer: Lauren Onkey
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann

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‘The Last Shall Be First’: A Lost Chapter Of Gospel, Saved From Extinction

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‘The Last Shall Be First’: A Lost Chapter Of Gospel, Saved From Extinction

Pastor Juan D. Shipp is the radio personality responsible for The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1, a new collection of old gospel songs.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

This fall brings a new collection of some old spirituals and gospel music, first recorded back in the 1970s. The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1 aims to give a second life to some memorable performances that almost disappeared forever. It’s a story that really begins with a close cousin of gospel music: the blues.

In the late 1940s and into the ’50s, radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Ark., featured live broadcasts of future legends like B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Howlin’ Wolf. Eventually the station changed its call letters to KWAM, moved across the river to Memphis, Tenn. and started tilting in a more heavenly direction.

In 1970, the station hired Pastor Juan D. Shipp, a clergyman from a local church that was known for its music. “Always wanted to be a DJ,” Shipp now recalls. ” I do have a music background: I was in the band in my high school and I sang in the choir. Music was just a part of my life.”

Shipp had a daily show on KWAM — 2 p.m. until sunset — and depending on the vagaries of the atmosphere, The Gospel Train could sometimes be heard as far away as Detroit and New York. “Gospel quartets” is the name of the style Shipp like to play — though the groups weren’t limited to just four people. The style features close harmonies, similar to doo wop.

At some point, Shipp, known on air as Juan D, noticed a disparity in the recordings he was playing: He realized that local bands were being shortchanged. The audio quality of those records — groups like The Spiritual Harmonizers, The Silver Wings and The Calvary Nightingales — didn’t match that of the national acts.

So he went hunting for a good studio, where he could record area artists. One day, while picking someone up at the Greyhound bus station in Memphis, Shipp saw a hand-painted sign for Tempo Studios, owned by rockabilly drummer Clyde Leoppard.

“Up on the second floor, there was the most fantastic studio that I had ever seen,” Shipp says. “The way he had it laid out, each individual had [their] own cubicle. And the padding of it was so tight you had to just about holler in order for a person to hear you inside of it. It was just that good.”

Shipp already knew how to run a mixing board and produce, so he got busy. He says he pushed his artists: “They considered me a pretty hard taskmaster when I was in the studio. I was very nice outside the studio; they said I was the perfect person. But inside the studio I became a monster.”

But Shipp was a monster who created a unique sound. “My signature thing was to put something in there that others didn’t have, so we went into the ‘wah wah’ sound,” he says. That distinctive effect, a bit controversial for church music at the time, became a signature of Wendell “Music Man” Moore, a guitar player Shipp met when the artist was around 16.

“It was just a different sound, and the people was loving it — me being a young kid, doing my thing,” says Moore, now in his early 60s. “You know, you would have the older people — “What are you bringing up all that noise in here like that?” — but once they caught on, they loved it.”

Shipp eventually developed a first and second team of artists to split between two record labels: The best groups ended up on the D-Vine Spirituals label, while the the second string appeared on the JCR label. The collection released this September, The Last Shall Be First, features just second stringers.

Music historian Michael Hurt, who wrote the liner notes for The Last Shall Be First, says the album almost didn’t happen, and these old recordings came within weeks of disappearing forever. “I feel like the whole thing was D-Vine intervention, as Pastor Shipp likes to say,” he says.

Hurt tracked Shipp down after stumbling upon some old D-Vine 45’s and loving what he heard. In 2011, the two of them set out to find the original master tapes. Eventually they did, in an old shack behind a house in Olive Branch, Miss. “The roof was caving in and it was just a real mess — you know, when nature starts to take back over,” Hurt says. “But somehow or another, those tapes were in incredible shape.”

The shack had been a studio for Leoppard, Shipp’s old collaborator — and along with Leoppard’s former house, it was about to be foreclosed upon. Had Hurt and Shipp arrived just two weeks later, the tapes would have been lost for good, chucked out in the trash. Instead, there are now plans for many more releases of JCR and D-Vine artists.

As for Shipp, at 81 years old, he is back on the radio for the first time in more than 30 years, on WYXR in Memphis. “After all these years going back into radio, it’s fantastic, he says, “I’m really excited about it.”

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Musicians Turn To New Software To Play Together Online

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Musicians Turn To New Software To Play Together Online

The members of New York-based brass quartet The Westerlies are rehearsing together thousands of miles apart, thanks to Audio Movers.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

Whether for work, school or doctor’s appointments, almost everyone has used Zoom. But for musicians who want to play together online during the pandemic, the popular conference call platform doesn’t cut it. Musicians and scientists on opposite coasts have been trying to find solutions. The eclectic brass quartet The Westerlies shares its experiences with Audio Movers and Jack Trip software.

Hear the radio version at the audio link.

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Rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s Year In Music

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Rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s Year In Music

NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with pop culture and music writer Taylor Crumpton about the artist’s year in music and her debut album Good News.


AILSA CHANG, HOST:

2020 has been a lot. And among the many things it has been, it has also been the year of the Stallion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SAVAGE”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Singing) I’m a savage, yeah – classy, bougie, ratchet, yeah.

CHANG: That is Megan Thee Stallion, the rapper from Houston. Her hit “Savage” attracted a remix featuring Beyonce, and it was followed by her appearance on an even bigger song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WAP”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) Now get your boots and your coat for this wet, wet, wet. He bought a phone just for pictures of this wet, wet, wet.

CHANG: That is her on the gloriously explicit song “WAP” from Cardi B. Megan Thee Stallion has been pretty hard to miss lately. She started the year on the cover of Rolling Stone, and she was just named GQ’s rapper of the year. And now her debut album is out today. It’s called “Good News.” Pop culture and music writer Taylor Crumpton has had a listen and joins us now to talk about it. Hey, Taylor.

TAYLOR CRUMPTON, BYLINE: Hello. How are you doing?

CHANG: Good. So, I mean, Megan is only 25. She’s made it to the top of the rap scene so quickly. Tell me, like, what sets her apart, do you think? What is it about her that fans have locked into so quickly?

CRUMPTON: Megan Thee Stallion bewitches millions of people through her genuine authenticity and confidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GIRLS IN THE HOOD”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) I’m a hot girl. I do hot – spend his income on my outfit.

CRUMPTON: I think from her earliest fans who fell in love with her via YouTube and saw her iconic freestyles to even her newly developing mainstream audience with the two singles – you mentioned both “WAP” and the “Savage Remix” and the original track that took over TikTok – she shows up in every single venue as herself. And I think that inspires people to be drawn to her, to call her a friend, an auntie, a family member, because I think we all see a little bit of ourselves in Megan.

CHANG: So when you think about that artist that Megan is, this authentic auntie, if you will…

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: …How would you say this debut album captures that piece of her?

CRUMPTON: I think this debut album really allowed me to see Megan through her eyes as a 25-year-old. You know, so much of the 17-track album is very poppy – and poppy, meaning, you know, happy and joyous. And I can only imagine the amount of Instagram captions and TikTok dance challenges we’re going to see from these multiple tracks.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CRUMPTON: I need to work on my knees right now because they’re not as young as they used to be.

CHANG: (Laughter) Love it.

CRUMPTON: But I feel that we got a good look at Megan Thee Stallion the pop star.

CHANG: And what track in this album speaks to that, that pop star that you hear?

CRUMPTON: I think “Body.” She released the visual for it last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BODY”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Singing) I’m not the one to play with, like a touch-me-not. Body-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody (ph), ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody…

CRUMPTON: It speaks to Megan always wanting to have this lively and fun, this body-positive, like, moment with her girlfriends or her sister-friends. And I love seeing, you know, Megan the pop star, someone who can give a good anthem but also can just dance. And I think that’s one thing Megan loves to do. She’s always been a dancer. And it’s good to see her, after such a hard year, to be able to have fun with her girlfriends and dance and be allowed to do so.

CHANG: I mean, yeah. It was a really hard year for her. I mean, she got shot. And the very first song on this album actually addresses that head-on. Tell us what she’s saying on that track.

CRUMPTON: “Shots Fired” is an interpolation of a classic Notorious B.I.G. song, “Who Shot Ya?”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SHOTS FIRED”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) Imagine lying, lying about shooting a real, real…

CRUMPTON: So for Megan to intentionally interpolate that sample to address her shooting, allegedly at the hands of Canadian singer Tory Lanez, is not only reflective of her understanding of the historical genre of hip-hop but also her place in it.

And further than that, within the song, she also addresses, you know, Black women across the United States. We never got justice for Breonna Taylor. So what a powerful opening track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SHOTS FIRED”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) Now y’all in cahoots. You a puss in boots. You shot a 5’10” with a .22. Talking about bones and tendons like them bullets wasn’t pellets.

CRUMPTON: “Shots Fired” is her correcting the false livelihoods and mythologies and ideologies surrounding about her. And I think it is a good stance for her as someone who is going to be heavily regarded as a titan in the hip-hop industry as she further develops.

CHANG: Critic Taylor Crumpton on Megan Thee Stallion’s new album “Good News.” Thank you so much for being with us today.

CRUMPTON: Thank you so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SAVAGE REMIX”)

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) I’m a savage, attitude nasty. Talk big, big, but my bank account…

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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The Thistle & Shamrock: Harvest

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The Thistle & Shamrock: Harvest

Instrumental acoustic ensemble, Hawktail, is featured on this week’s episode.

Tilt at Windmills Photography/Courtesy of the artist

Tilt at Windmills Photography/Courtesy of the artist

During these difficult times for the performing arts, the creative spark of artists remains undimmed. New releases from musicians are a bright reminder that they will sing and play and record their music even through tough times. Featured artists include Judy Fairbairns, Stephen Clark, and Hawktail.

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Play It Forward: Thundercat Eases Loneliness With Trippy Music

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Play It Forward: Thundercat Eases Loneliness With Trippy Music

“It’s something that I’ve always thought that was important, ever since I was a kid, to laugh,” Thundercat says. “Being able to laugh is one of the best feelings ever.”

Carlos Gonzalez / The1point8/Courtesy of the artist

Carlos Gonzalez / The1point8/Courtesy of the artist

On the last edition of Play It Forward, All Things Considered‘s chain of musical gratitude, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd spoke about Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist Thundercat.

“Bass frequencies, they move the heart and the core, so I just love the bass. Thundercat is a genius bass player — super lyrical, like Jaco Pastorius,” she said, before addressing the artist directly. “Hi Thundercat, it’s Mia. I hope you’re well these days. I put on your records and I don’t feel lonely. Even in these crazy times, I feel like everything’s going to be okay.”

Thundercat says he found Todd’s message overwhelming. “I think that was a little slightly overwhelming. I appreciate it beyond reason. It made me feel better about everything right now. That was very sweet of her to do that.”

The artist spoke to NPR’s Ari Shapiro about the humor in his music, building his confidence as a vocalist and an artist he’s grateful for: Louis Cole. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On he title of his latest album, It Is What It Is

It means up and downs and strikes and gutters. It’s the good and the bad, it goes hand-in-hand. It tends to be a bit funny for me now: When there is no answer, it’s just, “It is what it is. What are you gonna do?” It feels a bit more comedic for me at this point for sure.

On the importance of humor in his songs

It’s very heavily entangled in there, to be honest, the comedy. It’s something that I’ve always thought that was important, ever since I was a kid, to laugh. Being able to laugh is one of the best feelings ever.

YouTube

On the song “Dragonball Durag”

It has a pretty funny story behind it. There was a person I was dating a while ago, and I remember — sometimes you don’t know the things that attract the other person to you. I was lounging in the house in my durag, and the person I was with, I remember the look in their eyes. And I was like, why is she — what’s going on here? And she said she liked how I looked in my durag. It was a game-changing moment for me. I was writing music as I was getting this look, so it kind of translated literally.

On an artist he’s thankful for, Louis Cole

Louis Cole is, I think, one of Los Angeles’s greatest musicians. It’s one of those things where he is 100% in control of what he’s doing, he knows what’s going on, and he’s very well-versed in many instruments. There’s a specific tune from a group he has called Knower; I think the title of the song is “F*** the Makeup, Skip the Shower.” That was one of the first moments I got a chance to really fall in love with Louis Cole’s music. It’s one of those things where the progression’s happening, the way it’s moving, the speed it’s moving at — it feels very simple, but it’s extremely complicated. I would like to say, I love you man. I’m excited to see where you’re going, where you’ll take things, all the time. Keep creating, man. What you’re doing is definitely changing the world. Just keep going.

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Code Switch Staffers Pick Their Favorite Tiny Desk Concerts

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Code Switch Staffers Pick Their Favorite Tiny Desk Concerts

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For Tiny Desk Playlists, we ask musicians, creators and folks we admire to choose the Tiny Desk concerts they’ve come to love. For this edition, the team of Code Switch joins us.

• I absolutely love Raphael Saadiq and have since his Tony! Toni! Tone! days. The man does not get the credit he deserves, imho. So, of course, I’m going to shout out his very first Tiny Desk appearance where he shows up dressed-to-impress in a vintage-inspired black suit and matching horn-rimmed glasses. With help from Rob Bacon on acoustic guitar, Saadiq regales the audience with hits from his retro-soul album, The Way I See It. This is my go-to Tiny Desk concert when I’m feeling blue, which has been happening more often during the pandemic. By the end of the video I’m singing along to “Sure Hope You Mean It” and doing those “yeah, yeahs” at the top of my lungs. —Shereen Marisol Meraji, host/senior producer

Sudan Archives: This is just a gorgeous, gorgeous performance and I can’t believe how lush it sounds – the string quartet arrangement is fully sublime. I missed seeing it live in the office, which I was sad about, but then I really regretted it when we packed up to start working from home like, the very next day. —Jess Kung, production assistant

• The one that springs to mind immediately is Lizzo, last August. I am normally very happy to be based at NPR West, but I did have a pang of envy watching this. From her infectious good cheer (“this is a tiny damn desk — I can barely get one of my thighs under here!”) to her rapport with the audience — who she got to sing backup — Lizzo turned it up. Whenever I have a blah day, I get her on my screen and watch her sing, joke and charm a baby (the youngest audience member) — and all if a sudden, I’m feeling good as hell. —Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent

• My favorite Tiny Desk was Natalia Lafourcade. She came in the fall, but her concert sounded like pure summer. And, in a moment both charming and humiliating, she encouraged the NPR audience to sing along as if we were “very in love with somebody.” (Her assessment of how we did: “…Más o menos así.”) —Leah Donnella, editor

• My favorite Tiny Desk concert ever was T-Pain in 2014. It was the first time I’ve heard him without Auto-Tune and man he is soooo talented without Auto-Tune. —Alyssa Jeong Perry, producer

• As a kid I was a religious fan of Making the Band 3, and I followed the Danity Kane from their conception to their deterioration. So I was pumped for to watch DAWN‘s Tiny Desk concert in person. She was hanging around the Tiny Desk area before the concert began, and I almost didn’t realize it was her because she was acting super casual and personable with her surroundings. I definitely had a “OMG that’s her!” moment. I knew she was a great singer from MTB, but watching her sing her own stuff, it sounded like shooting the s*** with my friends and plotting to end the patriarchy put into beautiful melodies. Her back up singers were also absolute stars, and the way they interacted with each other made me feel light and hopeful. It’s the little things that make the big difference! —Kumari Devarajan, production assistant

Dan Deacon stands out in my mind because of how interconnected I felt with everyone there. He started out with a simple meditation to bring us all into the present moment. Then, before we knew it, we were all dancing and moving together as one organism. We left our professional shells and became spiritual beings, intertwined and aware of just how similar we all are. I really miss that feeling, especially now with the pandemic and having to work from home. I was also nerding out real hard when I noticed he rigged up our upright piano to some wires and controlled it digitally like an animatronic! —LA Johnson, art director

Jamila Woods is one of my favorite artists, hands down, so it’s no surprise that I cried while watching her Tiny Desk. I got to attend the live recording back in 2017, thanks to an intern friend who brought me along as a guest, and I will never forget her incredible stage presence: both serene and commanding, smiling yet serious. Her voice was — and still is — a balm for every ailment, and I’m grateful she exists in the world. —Natalie Escobar, assistant editor

Tiny Desks In This Playlist

• Raphael Saadiq (read more)
• Sudan Archives (read more)
• Lizzo (read more)
• Natalia Lafourcade (read more)
• T-Pain (read more)
• DAWN (read more)
• Dan Deacon (read more)
• Jamila Woods (read more)

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The ‘Sonic Genius’ Behind Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Has Died

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The ‘Sonic Genius’ Behind Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Has Died

Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones onstage together, speaking at the Pensado Awards for audio engineering in Culver City, Calif. in 2015.

Maury Phillips/Getty Images

Maury Phillips/Getty Images

One of the people most responsible for the unique sound of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album has died. Bruce Swedien was 86 years old when he died Monday. His daughter, Roberta Swedien, announced his death on Facebook, saying that her father “passed away peacefully.” No cause of death was given.

Over a career that spanned some seven decades, Swedien (pronounced “swi-DEEN”) helped shape recordings by everyone from Count Basie to Barbra Streisand — as well as working closely with Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones. Along with Thriller, the trio’s work together included Dangerous, and Bad — all netting Swedien Grammy Awards for engineering. (Swedien’s other Grammy Awards came courtesy of other Quincy Jones projects: 1989’s Back on the Block and 1995’s Q’s Jook Joint.)

On Tuesday, Quincy Jones paid tribute to his close friend and colleague on Instagram. In part, Jones wrote: “There are not enough words to express how much Bruce meant to me … He was without question the absolute best engineer in the business, and for more than 70 years I wouldn’t even think about going into a recording session unless I knew Bruce was behind the board.”

Swedien is best known for recording, mixing, and assisting in producing Thriller — one of the best-selling albums of all time. But his career extended far before and past that era. When he was only 21, the Minneapolis-born Swedien was recording the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor.

He soon moved to working for Universal Recording Studios in Chicago, where he worked with many great jazz artists, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn. His first big pop hit came in 1962 — with Frankie Valli and the Four Season’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” It was also during that period that he first met Quincy Jones, with whom he soon worked on The Wiz — where he met Michael Jackson.

The long list of marquee artists with whom Swedien collaborated includes Roberta Flack, B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Jennifer Lopez.

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‘Hitman’ Bang Si-hyuk, The Brand-New Billionaire Behind BTS

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‘Hitman’ Bang Si-hyuk, The Brand-New Billionaire Behind BTS

Chairman and CEO Bang Si-hyuk, center, photographed Oct. 15, 2020, the day his company, Big Hit Entertainment, debuted on the Korea Exchange in Seoul. To his left, Jiwon Park, Big Hit CEO of HQ & Management; right, Lenzo Yoon Big CEO of Global & Business.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BTS is Bang Si-hyuk’s greatest strength and biggest vulnerability.

The seven-member group from South Korea has succeeded to a historic degree, far beyond anyone’s imagination – even Bang’s. His company, Big Hit Entertainment, recently went public on the stock market, making chairman Bang, its largest shareholder, a billionaire. When BTS recently became the first Korean act to top Billboard’s Hot 100, with the single “Dynamite,” the Korean president congratulated the band. “BTS wrote a new K-pop history,” President Moon Jae-in tweeted. “It is a splendid achievement, elevating the pride of K-pop. This will be a great comfort to our people, suffering from the COVID-19 national crisis.” Together with his team, Bang Si-hyuk, a short, bespectacled man nearing his fifties, has made “K-pop” a global household name, particularly in the U.S. But now, they are faced with having to recreate the BTS “miracle.”

“He will go down in music history, and not just in South Korean music history,” says Dr. Colette Balmain, a BTS fan and a senior lecturer in film and media at Kingston University in London, of Bang.

“He is bold, confident and has a vision,” says Mark Mulligan, a music-business analyst and managing director of MIDiA Research.

Big Hit’s achievements are numerous, and often groundbreaking: from a debut single that peaked at 124th in the Korean charts, BTS became the first Korean artist to win at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017, released the first Korean album to go gold in the U.S., and holds the world record for the most Twitter engagements ever, along with numerous other achievements. Thanks to BTS, Big Hit grew astronomically in parallel, and was named the fourth-most innovative company in the world in 2020 by Fast Company.

In South Korea, BTS isn’t just a music group. For many here, BTS’s success in the West is the premiere expression and culmination of Korean soft power, or the “Korean Wave” – the global export of Korean culture generates billions of dollars in revenue annually. Its most profitable player is the gaming industry, followed (far behind, it must be said) by music – predominantly, K-pop idol music.

When BTS first debuted in 2013, very few in Korea predicted them to be the next big thing. “Nobody paid attention to BTS or Big Hit,” remembers Kim Youngdae, a music critic since the late 1990s and author of BTS The Review. In 2013, Big Hit was a small fish in a music market dominated by three companies: SM, YG and JYP (each an acronym for the name of its founder – Lee Soo-man, Yang Hyun-suk and Park Jin-young, respectively). Countless idol acts came and went. Although Bang himself was a respected producer for JYP, his own company hadn’t produced any memorable hits since its creation in 2005. Failure was the norm.

Notable, though, was Glam, the first girl group Bang ever produced, which debuted a year before BTS. Already, Bang was fascinated by the intersection of music and technology: Glam performed with a computer-generated vocaloid, which generated some buzz in Korean media. “That was an interesting attempt,” says Kim. “Bang was ahead of his time.” Unfortunately, what gave Glam more mainstream fame was a blackmailing scandal involving a member and a prominent actor, leading the group to disband in 2015.

The K-pop idol group GLAM, photographed on Dec. 29, 2012 in Seoul.

Han Myung-gu/WireImage

Han Myung-gu/WireImage

Before BTS, Bang was renowned as a producer and composer, but not much is known about his private life. Bang has said he is a huge fan of Duran Duran, reads anime every night, and cries easily during corny movie scenes. “I’d bawl my eyes out, this forty-something man in only his underwear. I felt more ashamed when I was eating jajangmyeon at the same time,” he said in a 2011 interview.

Bang was born in Seoul in 1972, in the midst of a military dictatorship that censored free expression, including music. But American culture seeped in through channels like AFKN (American Forces Korean Network), in a country that still hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops. “He read books all day as a child,” Bang’s father remembered. “He had an incredible ability to focus. He read Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans before he entered elementary school… Unfortunately, this reading habit has made him gain too much weight.”

Bang was raised by elite, educated parents: his father, Bang Geuk-yoon, was the chairman of a government organization on labor rights. His mother, Choi Myeong-ja, received a degree in English lit at Seoul National University (SNU) — a rare feat for a woman of that generation. Bang followed in her footsteps to SNU, a dream school to many Koreans. But, much to his parents’ disappointment, he majored in aesthetics, not law.

“I was kind of a prick,” he remembered jokingly of his youth. “My friends from middle and high schools can attest to that. I’d say, ‘Isn’t studying something you just breeze through and get top grades for?’ “

By the time Bang started his music career in the mid-to-late 1990s, Korea had transformed into a young democracy. Popular music was changing quickly, led by the likes of Kim Wan-sun and Seo Taiji and Boys, setting the foundation for the modern K-pop idol industry, which would eventually cultivate studio-trained stars and organized fandoms.

“When I started, I didn’t have much talent in music,” Bang said humbly. “Of course, I had enough talent to do something. But I was surrounded by the best, like Park Jin-young, Shin Seung-hun … I cried a lot back then. I had to work really, really hard.” He taught himself to play the piano, and said he’d practice until his thighs broke out in a heat rash.

“Si-hyuk is a genius,” said singer Baek Jiyoung, who worked with Bang in the 2000s. “But he rejects the label. I think he is an extreme perfectionist.”

A collection of songs produced by Bang Si-hyuk in chronological order, beginning in 1999.

YouTube

“There was no critical moment at which I decided to do music,” Bang said at an SNU graduation ceremony in 2019. “I kept floating on, and found myself doing it … I’m not an ambitious man painting big pictures and grand dreams.”

More recently, Bang presents himself as precisely that man: “We will become the best entertainment and lifestyle platform company in the world,” he declared on Oct. 15 this year, when Big Hit debuted on the stock market at double its initial price, South Korea’s largest debut in three years.

Bang founded Big Hit, serendipitously in hindsight, the same year that YouTube, which would later be so central to BTS’ success, was launched. “At the time [2005] that I started my company, physical album sales were abruptly going down and digital sales were not coming up to compensate,” Bang told Time in 2019. But he saw opportunity in K-pop idols, who, armed with passionate fans, seemed to have more diverse revenue streams, especially online.

BTS took a long time to take shape: Originally, the group was conceived as a hip-hop crew, scheduled to debut in 2011. A year prior, in 2010, Bang had signed RM (Rap Monster) as the putative leader of the group. “But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense,” Bang said of the pivot. After much reshuffling, the group’s lineup was finalized in 2012: RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook. At the time of BTS’ debut in 2013, K-pop’s idol music was already popular in many non-Western markets, particularly Asia. But sustained success in the U.S. music market, the world’s largest and most influential, was still elusive.

Bang was intimately familiar with K-pop’s aspirations in the U.S., particularly as a close friend of JYP Entertainment founder and CEO Park Jin-young, whose company is widely seen as a pioneer of the industry’s initial ventures, and failures, in the U.S. “Because of the name, everyone thinks JYP was created by Park alone. But musically, the company was a collaboration between Park and Bang,” says critic Kim.

JYP’s first artist was singer Jinju. She debuted in 1997, when the term “K-pop” had yet to be fully defined, or much used. “JYP didn’t even have a company sign at the time. I worked in Si-hyuk’s studio. It was just a rectangular office in an alleyway. We’d practice for hours and order jajangmyeon for lunch,” she tells NPR. “He was much skinnier back then.” They met at least twice a week to work on Jinju’s first album, on which Bang helped create eight of its 10 songs.

The singer Jinju worked with Bang Si-hyuk early in both of their careers, she a singer and he a producer, at a time when the meaning of K-pop had yet to calcify.

YouTube

“Music production wasn’t like today, where each part of a [pop] song is written by different specialists. Today, there are different people for the melody top line, the hook, the verse; another specialist for arrangement and sampling,” Jinju says. “Back then, Si-hyuk had to do everything. He composed, arranged, recorded and even acted as the sound supervisor.”

Bang is infamous for being strict with his artists. He himself admitted in a 2011 interview, “I don’t normally raise my voice and speak harshly. But when I’m working with artists at the company, I speak more strongly than on television. I’ve shouted angrily, ‘And you call yourself a singer?’ Every singer I’ve worked with must’ve heard this.”

“He listens very closely,” says Jinju. “If you make a tiny squeak, he would call you out.”

Then-19-year-old Jinju’s output marked the beginning of JYP’s string of K-pop hits, which would include “first-generation idol” g.o.d. (“groove overdose”), ballad group 2AM, the seminal Wonder Girls and, more recently, globally successful idols like TWICE and ITZY. Bang was often at the heart of these projects, producing with Park. In the 2000s, Bang would gain the nickname he still uses today, “Hitman Bang,” for his successes in the Korean market.

From very early on the two, like many K-pop players, shared a dream of spreading Korean music to the U.S., well beyond Bang’s former office in Gangnam. The U.S. mainstream was a big part of Bang’s childhood: “I used to memorize Billboard’s top 100. I even looked up all the producers, who they were, their background, etc. Billboard was the barometer of popular music,” Bang said in 2011.

As early as 2003, Bang and Park were trying to break into the U.S. – Park recalled how difficult it had been. “We didn’t have money and [we] were sharing a room in a friend’s house. After a whole year in the U.S., we hadn’t sold a single song. We were lonely and missing Korea.”

One day, after another round of rejections, a fight erupted over laundry, which Bang was in charge of. Park had, once again, crumpled up his socks. Bang Si-hyuk had had enough.

“Seriously, the socks again?” Bang yelled, according to Park’s recollection. “What the hell is that tone? I’m older than you!” Park yelled back.

Jinju remembers these fights (although none about socks). “They’d be friendly one moment, and sharply critical to each other the next. At the time I was young, and thought, how could they say that? I got scared. But now, I see they knew how to draw boundaries. People think producing is about musical skills and sensibilities, but it’s so much more than that. You need to manage all these relationships, be critical, say no. They were so good at that.”

Bang and Park’s collaborative efforts continued with Wonder Girls, arguably the biggest idol girl group of the mid-to-late 2000s. (Wonder Girls failed to make an impression in the U.S., although they briefly made it onto Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2009.)

There were other one-off hits from elsewhere in the industry: Girls Generation (produced by SM) performed on Late Night with David Letterman in 2012. The same year, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (released on YG) went viral on YouTube, leading many prominent U.S. publications to write about K-pop seriously for the first time. “K-pop was becoming increasingly popular on YouTube since the late 2000s. Something was brewing in the atmosphere, for K-pop to explode outside of Korea,” says music critic Kim of the U.S. market.

Then came BTS.

BTS, photographed during a presentation on Aug. 10 at KCON 2014 in Los Angeles, one year after the seven made their group debut.

Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Valerie Macon/Getty Images

There are numerous theories as to how BTS became what it has become. Bang himself has repeatedly expressed surprise, attributing the success to luck. “It wasn’t my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market,” he told Time. “It was rather that their message resonated with a certain demand, and through digital media it spread quickly.”

“What BTS revolutionized is precisely understanding and using social media,” says Kim. Social media marketing came partly out of necessity. Especially in early days, Big Hit couldn’t compete in mainstream media like SM, YG and JYP. But Big Hit also showed a savvy — and looseness — that other labels seemed to lack.

Even before debuting, BTS members were uploading vlogs and personal posts on social media, which are still key to their relationships with fans. Over the years, the boys would build an impressive archive of mundane moments: petting a dog (for four minutes), painting (for 36 minutes), talking about insecurities, resolving conflicts, or just staring at the camera while eating an apple. A seeming lack of editing heightened the sense of authenticity.

“Most other K-pop idols’ social media accounts were managed by the labels,” says Lee Jiyoung, professor at Sejong University, ARMY and author of BTS, Art Revolution. “BTS members had their own accounts, in which they talked freely with fans.”

차에타서 pic.twitter.com/X5ri2Bl452

— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) September 18, 2014

One memorable moment was a barrage of drunk Twitter posts from V and Jungkook in 2014, when V was finally of legal drinking age. “BTS’s tweets were hilarious,” recalls Kim. “Big Hit knew how to show BTS members’ personalities, and make people become fans of the people, before their music.”

“In our company, we invest a lot of time educating trainees about life as an artist, including social media,” Bang told Time. “They speak out when they want to and I don’t say what they should or shouldn’t do.”

Fans say it’s not just about personality marketing, which isn’t unique to BTS. Plenty of pop stars worldwide, though perhaps not as effectively as BTS, appear on variety shows, documentaries, social media, etc., creating an image of intimacy and accessibility.

Music, fans say, is what distinguishes BTS. “Every good content has a good statement,” says Kim Youngmi, a veteran marketer, ARMY and organizer of the BTS Insight Forum. “BTS’s statement is about growing up together and asking questions about the self.”

The evolution of BTS’s albums, in which members actively contribute to most songs, reflects the nuances of growing up. Suga raps about the “gray hairs of greed and ambition” during his three years as a trainee. J-Hope sings about his mother, who had to work overseas to support his music. There are love letters to a piano, each other, even their first dormitory, where “the wallpaper, bathroom and veranda were all blue,” and where the boys would fight, even physically. “This place smells like us. Let’s not forget this scent, wherever we are.”

“When I think about BTS, I think about the fact that they share so much of their life with us, as a choice,” one fan told NBC. “Their interactions with us never feel forced, and they continue over time. That’s why they feel so human to us.”

Over the years, Bang has emphasized repeatedly that BTS’s personal storytelling is at the heart of the group. “I think the most important part of being a singer is the will to communicate something,” he said. BTS may have that will, but people wouldn’t have heard them — at least, not to this scale — without Bang’s attitude toward the fandom and his talent for capitalizing on it.

Bang is deeply aware of the fandom’s powers. “It’s not an exaggeration to say, whereas fans of the past were passive recipients, the fans of today are active collaborators, helping the artist’s growth,” he said during a 2018 presentation, “BTS and the Future of K-pop.”

“Big Hit monetizes fandom,” says Mark Mulligan. “In some ways, it’s not even the artist that is the product; it’s the fan which is the product. It’s almost like a crop: you keep harvesting and put in more fertilizer to see how much more you can grow.”

Indeed, BTS ARMYs, or “Adorable Representative MC for Youth,” have been essential. Millions of fans mobilize worldwide to vote during awards seasons, or to raise $1 million for Black Lives Matter. As a tiny tip of the social-media iceberg, BTS’s official YouTube account has nearly 40 million subscribers and over 6 billion views. BTS was the most-tweeted-about musical act in the U.S during the first 6 months of quarantine this year.

Even before BTS was BTS, fans were campaigning as volunteer marketers. Notable is BTSx50States, a 2017 campaign in the U.S. to “educate” local radio stations, introduce BTS to the market and, eventually, reach Billboard’s Hot 100.

“Fans called stations like telemarketers,” remembers professor Lee. “They’d hear things like, ‘Request a real song. Who’d listen to Korean music?’ So fans created manuals to prevent callers from responding angrily.” When San Francisco’s KYLD WiLD 94.9 played “Not Today” for the first time, fans sent the station flowers, donuts and handwritten letters. Fans are the “core and goal” of the “Big Hit winning formula,” says global CEO Lenzo Yoon, who has been instrumental in the company’s business developments since 2010.

“BTS has a continuous story, which creates a universe,” says critic Kim. “Fans have fun exploring that world. Big Hit is declaring to them, ‘You are all a part of this world.’ ”

The BTS universe is intricate and vast: it’s not just the albums, whose stories are connected. There are multiple channels, including games, animated characters, novels and “Easter eggs” (hidden clues) in music videos, that emphasize intertextuality and encourage fan participation.

Big Hit’s fandom-building strategies, though, are not unique. “They’ve built upon what was already happening for years before,” says Mulligan, particularly in gaming fandoms. “But it feels to me there’s a more consistent approach and methodology to how you build a K-pop fanbase.”

“I think Bang Si-hyuk perceives the ARMY as a partner in intellectual amusement,” says professor Lee. “For example, there are all these literary, philosophical, artistic symbols in music videos. He’d plan meticulously for years, planting seeds one by one. When fans eventually connect the dots, they feel electrified. They also imagine how much fun this middle-aged man is having, creating these riddles.”

Lumpens, a longtime music video director for BTS, says Bang uses references from his own life to inform BTS content. For example, he’d read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a sci-fi novel about a seemingly idyllic city that sustains its prosperity by abusing a child. The name “Omelas” became a central motif in BTS’s “Spring Day.” Since the video was published, numerous devoted fans have created spin-off content analyzing the connection.

YouTube

Not all of Big Hit’s engagement ventures are immediately popular with BTS fans. Recently, a group of fans have threatened Big Hit with legal action, protesting against a BTS television series currently in the works. Fans say the plot is sensational and unrelated to the actual lives of BTS members. Over 97% of 14,000 objected to the characters being named after the boys, according to a fan survey. True to ARMY fashion, some have started a social media campaign urging Big Hit to stop production.”

The richest land in the BTS world, though, is Weverse, a “one-stop service for Big Hit’s music business,” according to Steve Seo, CEO of beNX, the Big Hit subsidiary which developed the online social networking platform.

On Weverse, fans pay membership fees to talk directly with artists, watch Guinness-record-breaking concerts during COVID, learn Korean with BTS and open their wallets at the Weverse Shop, which sells every conceivable type of merchandise, including overpriced drinking water. As of March 2020, Weverse had 1.4 million daily users. Today, the platform includes A-list K-pop artists outside the Big Hit label.

“I would say they’ve industrialized fandom,” says Mulligan, referring to how systematically Big Hit builds and monetizes its army — a trend visible not just in K-pop, but also Japan and China’s pop industries. “Western record labels aren’t even starting the race of monetizing fandom yet, because they are so obsessed with building streaming numbers.”

“Bang knows how fans feel, because he’s been a maniacal fan himself,” says Kim Youngmi, marketer and ARMY. “That’s what makes him a good marketer. But you can’t just attribute BTS’s success to media strategies, messaging, etc. BTS is about people doing things, not machines. I don’t think we can simplistically judge their success; lots of different things somehow fitted miraculously together.”

Today, Big Hit is worth more than SM, YG and JYP combined. It comprises four music labels, seven family companies, and around 1,000 employees. Its most recent hires include power players like CEO Park Jiwon, a key figure in the Korean IT industry, and Chief Brand Officer Min Heejin, formerly the creative director at SM Entertainment.

“Big Hit’s competition isn’t SM. It’s Naver,” Korea Economic Daily commented, referring to Korea’s largest search engine, often called the “Google of Korea.” According to industry sources cited in that article, over 100 employees in various IT companies have transferred to Big Hit, including talents from Naver and Kakao.

Not everyone is so optimistic. “Having a fanbase predominantly around one artist and saying that is a foundation for becoming the next Google — there is a massive leap between saying that and getting there,” says Mulligan.

It’s true: BTS makes up the overwhelming majority of Big Hit’s revenue. In 2019, the boy band, all of whom are due for Korea’s mandatory military conscription in the next few years, generated 97% of the company’s sales in 2019.

“The lifecycle of successful pop groups averages about 5-7 years, with peak earnings averaging a period of no more than five years,” tweeted Nathan Hubbard, formerly of Ticketmaster and Twitter and now CEO of Rival, a tech platform for live events. “That means you’d be highly speculative as an investor to value a pop group at an earnings multiple of more than five times. The BTS IPO values them at fifty times!”

Already, that value seems to be deflating. Since Oct. 15, the company’s stocks have dropped toward their original price of 135,000 won, or around $115, per share. Big Hit is hurrying to diversify its artist pool but, so far, no other acts have come even close to BTS’s success.

“It must be very difficult to be BTS; to be these role models, to have to be so careful about what you do, and to have this huge responsibility,” says Dr. Balmain. “It’s kind of like living in a fishbowl, like The Truman Show. How do you do that? I just don’t know. But they do. I think they accept this is the price they pay.”

At least publicly, Bang and BTS seem mindful of that price. BTS members have been relatively open about their mental health and the strains of success. Suga raps in the 2020 album Map of the Soul: 7, “I’m afraid; flying high is terrifying. No one told me how lonely it is up here. Now I know, my flight can be a fall…. People say, there’s splendor in that bright light. But my growing shadow swallows me and becomes a monster.”

In one documentary, Bang asks the boys, after their Billboard win in 2017, “Shouldn’t you look for ways to be happy? I’m worried that if you continue living like this, you will be unhappy. And you started all this, because music made you happy.”

Is Bang Si-hyuk happy?

On the one hand, Bang stresses, “Music is not the Olympics. Let’s not obsess about the results and breaking records.” Yet, he finds himself stuck in a hamster wheel of recreating an unbelievable success into a ‘winning formula.’ At a recent corporate briefing, generally seen as an important platform for investors, he said, “We must be able to reproduce success.”

Is Bang Si-hyuk trapped in his own success story?

“I firmly believe that a second and third BTS must and can come into being,” he said after receiving a presidential award in 2017.

“The risk would be, you don’t want to make another BTS,” says Mulligan. “You want to make another artist that is as successful as BTS, but is different. Do they have enough institutional expertise and experience to be able to say, how can we do what we’ve done but do it completely differently? The temptation would be, let’s just do it again.”

“Big Hit’s strength and weakness are clear. Its strength is BTS; its weakness is BTS,” says music critic Kim.

It’s not clear how Bang would answer these questions; Big Hit declined NPR’s interview requests, citing scheduling difficulties.

Big Hit is at the forefront of new music, changing the way artists are produced, and more importantly, how they communicate with their audience. In the years to come, the way BTS uses social media and platform technology to engage with fans will have far-reaching effects beyond K-pop. “Music won’t survive on its own,” says Dr. Balmain. “People pirate and stream music. So there has to be added value for fans to engage with one group over the other.”

BTS is now officially seven years old, making the group one of the older boy bands around. With another album coming out on Friday, Bang and BTS are still on top of the world. Although Bang has publicly professed his faith that BTS will remain together for a long time — their contract ends in 2024 — nobody can predict how the band will evolve. The company is under intense pressure to succeed. Can Bang stay as open-minded and flexible toward other Big Hit artists, as he claims to have been toward BTS?

“These days I often think, what makes a person’s mind close?” Bang said at his alma mater’s graduation ceremony last year; nearly three decades after his own. “I see it close in many people, after a certain age. I am at that age now, so I view myself with incredible fear … I want to stay self-aware.”

Bang says that music is still at the heart of Big Hit. “Never forget the love you have for music, and the gratitude you feel for your fans,” he told BTS in 2017. At a corporate briefing a few years later, he reiterated, “No matter how the market changes, our core values remain ‘content’ and ‘fans.’ We focus on the fundamentals.” But his business empire is unrecognizably more complex than when he started in 2005. It’s not always easy to focus on the fundamentals, when there are so many more people, so much more noise. Perhaps that’s Bang’s biggest challenge in the long run: to keep his feet on the ground, and remember what sounds good.

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