PLT: The Next Big Thing in Korean R&B
Meet the dynamic collective of rappers, singers and producers out to change the way you listen to R&B
When I first come across PLT’s single “Blind,” it’s a bit of a shock to the system. The music video looks like something right out of a Netflix series set in the Eighties– five sharply dressed young men seem to be on a mysterious mission, wordless and poker-faced. The cinematography is sharp, sleek and doused in tones of gray. Each step they take is complemented by generous doses of thrumming synthwave, impeccable vocal harmonies and soaring falsettos over echoing background adlibs. A comment on YouTube accurately describes it as ‘the Weeknd meets Nine Inch Nails’ and going on a binge of their discography after that is frighteningly easy.
A mini-marathon of music videos and a little digging inform me that what I initially assumed to be an R&B group is a collective comprising six solo R&B artists and producers; the name ‘PLT’ refers to their label Planetarium Records. The concept is fascinating, but there really isn’t a plethora of information about the label out there–in fact it’s surprising they haven’t blown up all over the Internet yet–so the only way to get to know them better… is to talk to them.
Five out of six of Planetarium Records’ impressive roster join me for a Skype call from Seoul a few weeks later: vocalists Jung Jin Woo (22), June (22) and Gaho (20) and rappers Moti (22) and Villain (20). These are, of course, the mysterious young men from “Blind” and it’s slightly surreal to see them all waving at me from the screen. Producer and vocalist Kei.G (36) is the only one absent but it’s not unusual– he usually chooses to remain out of the limelight, even in his own solo music videos. Villain, who grew up between Dubai and Canada and is the most fluent in English, takes charge of the conversation. There’s lots of laughter, jokes in Korean and it takes no time at all to break the ice. They’re all quirky, intelligent and creative but very different from one another, so the first question on the agenda is: how did PLT come to be?
“It started out with me, Jinwoo and Kei.G,” says Villain. “We knew each other for a while and used to give each other feedback on our music.” Kei.G is signed to Santa Music–now a big brother label to Planetarium Records. “They asked him if he wanted to make a label that does hip-hop, R&B, pop… trendy, younger music and he called us.” The rest of the members joined the project through their association with Jin Woo and Villain; Gaho went to high school with the latter, while Moti and June met in high school as well. All five went on to become members of prominent hip-hop crew AlphaDict with rapper Rikeal, DJ Svcky, producer Ownr and art director Robb Roy before being recruited by Planetarium in 2016.
So far, Planetarium Records has had three major releases: January’s Case#1 and February’s Case#2, LPs that feature a collection of solo and collaborative tracks from each of the artists in their roster, followed by the collaborative single “Hocus Pocus” in May. Within these tracks there are dashes of alt-rock, soul, orchestral ballads, funk, trap and hip-hop. “The only reason we released these compilation albums is because we had a lot of art to give and we wanted to do that in a very short amount of time,” says Villain. The intention was for the albums to act as introductions to these new solo artists. “We have these great people at our label and if you like our music, you should keep the support up.” On the flipside, the name ‘PLT’ becoming their identifier often automatically labels them as a group before they can be identified for their individual artistry. “It could be a downside factor of our careers,” Villain says, contemplative. “A lot of people mistake us for a boy group, band or idol group– no hate to them, I respect what they do and they work very hard–but that’s not us.”
There’s tons to explore within PLT’s solo artistry once you know what you’re looking for. Moti’s got a taste for sleek, tropical hip-hop, evident on his July single “Blue”, while Gaho’s powerhouse ballad “Stay Here” is a celebration of his tremendous OST-style vocals. June gained a spike in attention for his songwriting skills earlier this year when it came to light that he used to be a trainee under BigHit Entertainment, the label behind K-pop superstars BTS, and has helped write two songs for the group (“Lost” and “Not Today”) as well as R&B singer Suran’s “Wine.” When it comes to his own artistry, his rippling, bright single “Sérénade” makes a fantastic first impression. Jin Woo initially gained popularity after appearing on season five of the reality show K-Pop Star in 2015, but the vocalist’s recent darker, smoother artistry disconnects him from that narrative and gives him a new playing field; 2018’s “Noise” is a perfect example. Kei.G, a respected producer and vocalist in the underground R&B game, keeps it elegant and light with funk-infused ballads like “Vanilla” and “Planetarium.” (Fun fact: Kei.G’s vocals during the chorus of “Planetarium” double-up as the intro to all of Planetarium Records’ music videos.)
As for Villain, our conversation happens the day after the release of his solo debut EP Bank Robber. It’s a polarizing mix of dark hip-hop, R&B and piano ballads, gliding across themes of brotherhood to outlining the antihero sentiment behind his name and music. “I started thinking… when I search my name on music platforms there were only four songs,” he says. “So whenever people started to get more in to me or want to know more about me, there was no more music to listen to. I was like, ‘Damn, I gotta have more songs!’” With no portfolio other than “Rainy Night” and “Fairy” (the two singles he debuted with in 2016) and his work on PLT’s showcase albums, Bank Robber was going to be his big introduction to the world and he wasn’t about to skimp. “It felt like homework I hadn’t done for so long.”
He reveals the overall the production period was three months, but the songs in the album are from different periods in his life. “Some of them are from middle school years and some of them are from like… one or two months ago. It’s very dark and aggressive music-wise, but the meaning behind all the songs is very warm, thoughtful.” Indeed, the lead single “Manitto” (the word for ‘secret friend’ in Korean) is a saucy, trap number which talks about how villains can sometimes be the hero when seen in another light while “A Piece Of Work” takes a step into emotional turmoil. He cuts a rather Robin Hood-type figure and looks to Will Smith’s 2008 superhero flick Hancock for inspiration. He may be just 20 years old, but has vision for his artistry most musicians double his age struggle to find.
It’s a similar story for all of PLT: everyone’s personal goals about who they want to be as artists were clear to them early on. Gaho wants to be known for his distinct tone of voice (or be ‘a tone killer’ he elaborates, with a determined thumbs up) while June hopes to be seen as a phenomenal all-round entertainer. For Moti, it’s more about what he wants to mean to his audience. “‘Moti’ stands for ‘motivator’ so I want to give [people] motive to listen to my music,” he says.
Jin Woo’s answer about what he wants for the future is perhaps the most powerful: “I have an aka called ‘p.odd’ when I publish music on Soundcloud,” he says. “It means ‘perfectly odd.’ So I want to be a character that is perfectly odd. Like… with my music there’s something odd [that stays with you.]” While he is referring to just himself, the statement does a great job of rounding up PLT’s vibe as a whole: their music–individually and as a unit–doesn’t quite fit in with anything anyone else in South Korea is doing and it’s probably because they are part of a small label.
“They don’t touch our art,” says Villain. “They trust us. The marketing, money and management is all done by the label, so basically they help us to just worry about the music.” PLT’s involvement in every step of the process has ensured tight production and powerful cinematography with every Planetarium Records release. Gaho’s video for “Stay Here” is a stunning one-take shot done in a desert while “Blah” and “Blind” (both filmed in Hong Kong) look like scenes from a high-budget crime/thriller series. It’s also ensured every release is a true representation of each artist. “The most important thing wasn’t how we were going to shoot… it was how we were going to portray our characteristics and introduce ourselves to you guys.” Each video beckons audiences to dig further into who PLT are, both as a collective and as solo artists.
“That’s what I respect most about foreign fans,” Villain says when I mention a lot of fans are not just listening to their soundscape under PLT, but are also diving into past solo releases in an effort to get to know the members better. “They dig very deep into our previous work and they’re always trying to promote us any way they can through YouTube, Twitter, blogs… We see that stuff and we really appreciate it.”
For now, however, there’s still a lot of work to be done on the solo front to create a balance. “We need to release solo stuff as much as the collaborative stuff,” Villain says. “That’s why I made a mini-album.” Jin Woo reveals he has a mammoth 14-track LP in the works, due later this year, while Gaho, June and Moti each have EPs coming.
Do they plan to expand as a crew, maybe sign more artists next year? “We are still a work in progress,” Villain clarifies quickly when the conversation turns to Planetarium Records’ (undoubtedly bright) future. “We still need a lot of support, people that are looking out for our sake.”
“We’re babies,” Jin Woo interjects and they all laugh in agreement.
Babies or not, there is a steady fan base emerging globally and PLT are, unsurprisingly, stumped by the notion of fans from India. “When I look at the comments and notifications that show up on my phone… It feels surreal,” Villain says. “It’s crazy you guys are interested in us, you want to get to know us. Foreign people definitely have a different vibe from Korea and they are crazy about our music even if they’ve never seen us in real life. They support us no matter what… just because of our music.”
Watch PLT’s video for “Hocus Pocus” below: