Dean: ‘I Don’t Want to Settle for Less’
The South Korean R&B artist on why he took the risk of debuting in the U.S. first, the intricate details in his cinematic music and his brand new single ‘Limbo’
It’s pretty easy to understand the ever-growing global hype around Dean. With intricate storylines and effortlessly smooth vocals woven into his music, the South Korean artist comes across as the modern-day Romeo of R&B. With a chic ‘bad boy’ stage persona and a touch of romantic tragedy in his lyricism, Dean can make rebellion look good and doomed love worth dying for.
Born as Kwon Hyuk in Seoul, the young producer took his stage name from the late Hollywood actor James Dean and does an exemplary job of channeling the same rebellious streak the pop culture icon was famous for. His artistry disconnects him from the cartoonish brand of Korean pop Psy made globally famous with 2012’s “Gangnam Style” and instead offers a glimpse into the raw hip-hop and R&B that lurks in the underground music scene of South Korea.
Despite having worked with artists from some of the biggest labels in the South Korean music industry (rapper ZICO, R&B singer-songwriter Crush, hip-hop artist Heize, pop singer Taeyon to name a few,) Dean manages to remain true to himself with a core of R&B in each track and retain his long-term vision of bringing the underground to the fore. “I don’t think that I was influenced so much by the artists but I did want to express many new things through my music,” he says about his numerous collaborations. “You see, I would rather influence than be influenced.”
Having started out as a songwriter at the age of 16, Dean wrote tracks for several hugely successful artists including popular South Korean boy bands, EXO and VIXX. He finally made his own debut as a singer in 2015 with the track “I’m Not Sorry,” a collaboration with American singer-songwriter Eric Bellinger. Here, he stands out again from his peers as the first South Korean artist to debut in the U.S. rather than in his homeland, that too with a track completely in English. Now at 24, he still feels it was the right decision to make and a great way to learn more. “Since I was young, I was most influenced by music from various artists in the States and I thought it would be awesome to continue that kind of musical movement in my own way,” he says. “I believed that it would be a good experience when I first started out, and to this day, I don’t want to settle for less when it comes to music and getting my messages across.”
Sultry, dark and highly conceptualized, Dean’s music and visuals build nostalgia with every layer. Elements of Nineties R&B, old-school funk and jazz make themselves known all through his 2016 debut EP 130: mood TRBL, while several references to American films and pop culture appear in its accompanying music videos. “Bonnie and Clyde” is an encapsulation of his artistic style; it depicts the tragic story of the infamous villains of the same name, but is reimagined to take place sometime in the Eighties (the presence of VHS cassettes and old technology hint at the same.) While all the visual symbolism plays a key part in crafting his image, Dean says he hasn’t been as involved in the actual process of creating it as he would have liked. “I have participated in some of the work, not all of it,” he admits. “But from now on, I’m going to try to put as many of my thoughts and ideas as possible into the overall process of music making, be it the artwork, photo, styling, or the music video.”
Dean’s touch is prominent in the music. He prefers ‘listening’ to films rather than watching them, and his sound design for the tracks on 130: mood TRBL seeks to achieve a similar effect. “Since each of my songs tells a story, it’s my intention for you to be able to picture them in your head when you listen to my music,” he explains. The several sounds featured include police sirens, dial tones, tape recorders, his breathing, footsteps and more. The result of these things coming together is the creation of a grander picture, the story of a love found and then lost- perhaps drawn from his real life. “There is endless inspiration to get from our personal lives and so about 90 percent of the inspiration for 130 mood: TRBL came from my personal experiences,” Dean confirms, but is unwilling to reveal too much.
The highly conceptual EP begins with the outro, “And You?” and proceeds to reveal a chain of events that take place backwards; it starts with the end of the relationship and ends with the moment he first fell in love. “The initial idea about the outro, as you might have guessed from seeing my Instagram, came from the fact that I like to look at things upside down,” says Dean. “So when I was making this song, I thought why not start with an outro?” The conceptualization continues on his most recent work, Limbo. The two-track single, which released on February 16th, draws on concepts from Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece Inception. “This time around, I wanted to mix some not-so-common sounds and express what I feel about limbo, as in the concept of Inception which I understand as the process of transferring from reality to dreams,” he explains.
Although his songs are mostly in Korean, it doesn’t deter international fans from connecting to them. According to Dean, if the music is good, the urge to listen and learn more will always be present. “I want to continue to make good albums so that people who don’t speak Korean will want to translate my lyrics into their own languages to get to know my music better.” He reveals that he used to do the same thing with N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s hip-hop project.) “I translated the English lyrics to Korean because I liked the music so much.”
Currently working on a follow-up to the 130 mood series titled 130 mood: JNGL, Dean is determined to outdo himself this year. “It’s going to be more solid and specific in terms of storytelling,” he says about the upcoming album. “As always, I want to communicate through my music as a whole album and I want my fans in India and other parts of the world to be able to catch that.”
Watch the video for “Come Over” ft Yerin Baek from Dean’s new single ‘Limbo’: