Primary and Suran Just Became South Korea's Catchiest Social Critics
Credit debt, plastic surgery, and the Gangnam lifestyle come under fresh R&B fire. We sat down with Primary and Suran to discuss their hit song and Primary's new album.
Primary, photo courtesy of Primary
While its youth culture becomes the object of international adulation and envy, South Korea isn’t the easiest place to be young. In addition to nationwide pressure-cookers like the slavish education system and a desolate job market, young urbanites in places like Seoul and Busan have to face Korea’s rampant lookism, compulsory spending culture, and a plastic surgery renaissance that’s as much the product of parental coercion or career pragmatism as it is vanity. Koreans frequently complain about the social forces that help accelerate these trends in a kind of conformist feedback loop, but those depressed by the way things are only risk further alienation for considering something like therapy.
K-pop isn’t necessarily the first place one might turn for social critique—which is why it’s remarkable that the underground producer Primary managed to get such a strong one on the domestic charts. “Mannequin” is a summery R&B hip-shaker par Elle Varner excellence, brought to life by co-writer and rising singer Suran (whose one solo song to date, the self-composed/produced “I Feel,” is—real talk—some of the best abstract R&B in recent memory). That’d be rare enough in Korea, but it’s especially distinguished by a lyric sheet and video that vibrantly address many of the social stressors weighing on Koreans today. “Mannequin” is a fascinating window into an relentlessly future-forward world, like a “Gangnam Style” that replaces all the rote EDM and LMFAOisms with breezily swinging soul, perhaps the realest voice going in Korea nowadays, and one of the best verses (courtesy of Beenzino) out of the country’s hip-hop scene since it began trending worldwide.
Better yet, it turns out “Mannequin” is just one of many fresh looks on Primary’s kaleidoscopic new album, 2, which is out today in Korea. I converged with him and Suran over cheesecake and coffee in the popular Seoul cafe Good Night & Good Luck to get the good word on their unexpected smash and all the other diamonds they’ve been cutting lately. Taking place in the middle of the posh Garosu-gil streets where “Mannequin” is set—in, yes, the broader Gangnam district—our conversation maybe hit a bit close to home at times. (Amid discussion about a song that interrogates conspicuous consumption and trend-chasing, jokes were made about the smart Gucci bag Suran cradled in her lap). But the dynamic duo had plenty of light to shine on why Korea’s wound up like the place described in their music, as well as their creative process and the bright horizons ahead.
Noisey: How did you each get into music?
Primary: At first, I started a band for fun in middle school, like everyone else. I was just young—my first love was music that sounded very technical. I played the guitar, so I liked Steve Vai. Then I went to high school and started getting into jazz. I eventually became ambitious and wanted to try music professionally—when I was 21, I think, in my sophomore year of college. That’s when I started to contribute to Korean hip-hop musicians’ albums.
Suran: I never did music before – I was actually a computer science major in college. But when I hit my early 20s, I wanted to sing, so I just started. These days I do anything and everything.
And how did you meet?
Primary: I wanted to work with new artists, and somebody introduced her to me. I checked her songs on Soundcloud and thought her voice had something novel—something that wasn’t really Korean. Now we work on a lot of stuff together.
“Mannequin” is a great summer jam, but it’s centered around a kind of social criticism you don’t often hear in hit Korean songs. How did that come about?
Primary: We met and worked on it from the get-go. I always start making a song without a particular concept: I just sketch the main musical idea and arrange it a bit. Once we had that much down for “Mannequin,” we talked about the images that popped into our minds, and the word “fashionable” came up.
Suran: Yeah, that was our first song. When we were brainstorming to the music, we were like, “shopping”…
Suran: “Fashionistas”… The track just had a trendy sound, so we thought it’d be cool to build a message around that. People here follow trends without much thought, and we wanted to portray that ironically. The music itself felt fashionable, but it could still have a social conscience. That’s where we got the idea for the “mannequin” hook.
Primary: That said, I think that the music on the charts here is a very small portion of Korean pop. I think that most of the songs here do have messages, but the songs on charts are often made without much thought. I wanted to make something different, songs that are different from that type of music. Always have, and always will. But I do think most of the songs [being made in Korea] have a message behind them. They just don’t end up on the charts.
Suran, photo courtesy of Suran
Meanwhile, “Mannequin” did exceptionally well, and it addresses subjects like lookism, spending culture, and plastic surgery in Korea. What made you want to address some of those topics in song?
Suran: We noticed how people generally like to follow the same thing. And some others might criticize them for that—but when they do, they still wind up following the trend themselves. For instance, when people here complain about all the plastic surgery they say, “This girl looks exactly like that girl,” or “Everyone looks the same now.” But deep down, they still want to get plastic surgery at some point themselves. The song’s about something like that.
In the video there’s a newspaper headline that reads, “Government to frontload spending to boost economy,” which is a real Korea Herald headline. A lot of countries use tactics like that, of course, but the Korean government seems pretty unusual in the kind of support they give to something like K-pop.
Primary: I think there are pros and cons to that. It’s more for show. You might notice there’s less and less diversity in the music here now. The charts are very influential [whether among the public or among government agencies], and the system itself is almost entirely based around streaming. So if you’re not on the streaming charts, your album will inevitably fail and never be heard at all. [MelOn, the local equivalent to Spotify, has been around since 2004. – Ed.] While the music here is getting better and better, there’s a lack of diversity. Korean musicians are so much better than in the old days, but everybody wants to do the same thing. You just can’t do stuff that’s not on the charts and have any leverage here. So the system’s been changed that way.
Photo courtesy of Primary
Beenzino features on the song, and you’ve always worked a lot with underground rappers in Korea. This year, there’s been a bit more attention towards that scene internationally, with the Korean Migos and Keith Ape phenomena. Why do you think that’s happening now?
Primary: It’s all about timing, I think. K-pop became the center of the Korean music market, and people [around the world] care more and more about K-pop, so they begin to notice, “Oh, there’s something else here.” So now they know us as well. At this point, the biggest music consumers [in Korea] are middle school students, high school students, and twentysomethings, and they all stream music. That’s the main reason. In the old days, people needed to buy CDs or LPs, and most of the consumers were quite older. [The type of mass youth market for music that opened in the West with Elvis didn’t reach Korea until 1992, with the massive popularity of Seo Taiji. – Ed.] Older people really don’t care about hip-hop music, but the youth do, and they are the biggest consumers, so that’s how our music ended up on the charts, where foreigners could find it. I think this trend will last a while, but I still worry about the overall lack of diversity.
Speaking of international attention, is that something that interests you? Do you make music with that possibility in mind?
Primary: These days, there are talented musicians here who really don’t care about nationality at all. They only pursue music because they want to. I’m that way. But on the other hand, the world is focused on K-pop, so I guess it’s inevitable that more and more Korean artists will go overseas. Not just the pop idols. For instance, Suran is now working with the bassist Stuart Zender, a [former] member of Jamiroquai. Cross-cultural collaborations are going to become much more common.
Lim Kim’s “Awoo,” which you two wrote and produced, went viral on Reddit and has seen some love in the western press. How’d that one come about?
Primary: [The head of Lim Kim’s label] Yoon Jongshin wanted a song, so I sent him an email. But I attached the wrong file, sending a song we’d made for my album, called “Goldfinger.” Just a complete accident. But Yoon liked it, so when he figured out what happened, he said, “Make me something like that.” So we wrote something similar, and that became “Awoo.” [“Goldfinger”] is more intense, kind of a new vibe. We thought we’d found something new, [but turns out] we were able to make something similar.
Speaking of beauty standards, “Awoo” is a song where the female narrator taunts a guy who’s obsessed with appearances, including his own. “Mannequin” discusses that tendency for women in Korea; do you think it’s an issue for men here, too?
Suran: Isn’t everyone like that? I guess there are people who are like that, and there are people who aren’t.
Primary: Personally, I think Korea might be the most trend-conscious country in the world. In Japan, they value individuality so much. There are so many “manias” in many different fields, all over the place. But for Korea, it’s more like, if there’s a trend, everybody follows it. It’s the worst of all countries, in that regard.
Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
Primary: Well, Korea isn’t really tolerant of manias. [Being a big fan of something] makes you seem like a bit of an outsider.
Suran: As though people think you’re lacking a national identity?
Primary: Yeah, something like that. Korea’s just too fast—the fastest country there is. Bballi bbali. [A Korean expression that pervades many aspects of society, translating to “Quickly, quickly,” or “Hurry up.” – Ed.]
Speaking of appearances, I’ve noticed that in your videos and press images you’ve always worn a cardboard box for a mask. Why is that?
Primary: Actually, there’s an artist who made this artwork here. [He points to a framed piece on the wall next to him in the Good Night & Good Luck cafe.] In 2006…
Suran: What a coincidence!
Primary: That guy, Yoon Hyup, is an artist based in New York. When I made [my first] album in 2006, I thought I needed a character for the cover. I worried that years from now, when I look back at my old albums, they might look too tacky and outdated. So I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t look cheesy ten years later, and I reached out to him. He was a junk artist, you know—the type of artist that collects materials and uses them to make something new. We talked and came up with this idea with the cardboard box. At first, I never intended to wear it, I just considered it a character. But now, if I wear it, I gain some sort of confidence. [Suran laughs]
I was also curious about “Island,” a song from your collaboration EP with Oh Hyuk earlier this year. What inspired that one?
Primary: Oh Hyuk had a very gloomy vibe, and we completed the song really quickly in the studio. It took maybe two hours. I found a new depressing feeling myself, and this song was likre—that whole album was like projecting a lot of our shared depressed emotions. Those songs were a lot less like the songs you find in the Korean mainstream. When I work with these types of people, I tap into something innate, something I’ve always wanted to express, but couldn’t. I can express those emotions more easily with them. I do believe that there’s some sort of formula that makes a song climb the charts: Rules exist, and if you roughly follow those rules, you’ll succeed. That album totally disobeyed all that. I think it met success because we tried to do something that no one else here does.
There are occasionally stories in the western media about how things like depression aren’t really addressed much in Korea. Do you think that impression is accurate?
Primary: About depression? Maybe in other countries it’s okay to seek psychological therapy, but in Korea, you can easily be discriminated against as some kind of dangerous person for that. That’s probably why.
A lot of your earlier material is neo-soul, retro swing, and related styles, whereas everything you’ve released this year has sounded really wide-ranging and fresh. What changed?
Primary: It’s a matter of taste. I like to work fast, finish fast, and release the songs that I like most at the moment, so I really don’t like to delay releasing music. Because eventually, I’ll get sick of those songs. That’s why many songs end up canned. After a few months, the songs just don’t sound good to me anymore. Back then, I liked those sounds, so I did it. Now I like something else, so I do it. I’m sure my later albums will be different, as well. Taste changes.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
Primary: Recently new wave, and some other genres, too. Usually electro music – I listen to lots of synth pop. I’ve been wanting to start a band, so I’m preparing that too. But I try not to think about genres, I don’t like caging a song in just one style. I’d like to mix it up more. Not so much on my new album, but my future albums will be more complex that way.
Photo courtesy of Suran
You’ve contributed so much to the album yourself, Suran. How about you?
Suran: It’s a secret. [Laughs] So many different things, but personally I’ve felt I’m running out of ideas lately. So to help get inspired again, I’ve been listening to a lot of future bass.
More broadly, who are some of the artists that are most important to you?
Primary: Philosophy matters, mentality matters. I respect someone who constantly does new things, rather than sticking to just one style. Someone like Miles Davis.
Suran: Soul, like Amy Winehouse or Kimbra. Someone who has their own philosophy and lives by it. Somebody who doesn’t care about others, and goes on their on way. Those musicians inspire me. I’d like to live a life like them.
Primary: So you want to live like Amy?
Suran: Minus the drugs! Kimbra.
Primary: I listen to her a lot, too.
Miles Davis is about as progressive as it gets, and your first solo album had a titular reference to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. But at the same time, your music is always made to fit a contemporary pop format. Do you ever feel compelled to make something that’s completely distinct from pop music?
Primary: I’m always thinking about it. Previously, not only there were demands from the label, but for many reasons I also just avoided doing underground music. But now I’m working on plans to do something interesting like that.
For your new album, what’s something people can look forward to?
Primary: I want to do something that’s stylistically all my own. I still don’t have that, because I haven’t started pursuing it. This album is made out to be more like an introduction. I wanted to “introduce” the public to a bit of this and that. I wanted to bring attention to how there are these other kinds of music out there, other musicians doing different things. That’s why I looked for new artists [like Suran] in the first place. And I let familiar artists get out of their comfort zone and try something completely new, so that the audience could find a whole new side to them. This album was conceptualized from that perspective.
What’s something you look forward to yourself?
Primary: I’m most hopeful and energetic when I’m working on something completely new. Now, I have high hopes for my next project. How I should prepare the next album, what work needs to be done…Those thoughts keep me on my toes. I don’t look too far out, but I’ve got high hopes for the near future.
Suran: This might sound odd, but right now, music is my life—at least 80 or 90 percent of it. I wish I had more hobbies, but I can’t compartmentalize well. So I feel like I just began to start another life again. Things are looking good for me now, and I’m having so much fun these days, so I’m just enjoying the moment and trying not to think about the distant future. I just wanna live this way.