Inside The Genius of Bang Yongguk
Why one of South Korea’s most powerful artists isn’t afraid to get vulnerable
This cover story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here. (Bang Yongguk’s cover included inside the issue)
Bang Yongguk is the most honest artist I’ve ever come across. There are a lot of names in the Korean music industry who have shifted the way we perceive K-pop stars, but this rapper, songwriter and producer brought in a human aspect to the scene, which at the time of his debut, wasn’t something that people sought from idols. The weight of the respect his name carries sat heavy on my shoulders as I began to draft my questions for this interview, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
First off, there was a lot to absorb, because his thirst for creation is endless. This was music I was already familiar with, but if you ever decide – like me – to go through all of Bang’s previous interviews, his 2020 self-made documentary Something To Talk About and every single track in his repertoire all at once, you’ll find yourself breaking at several points. The intensity of the lyrics and the detail in the production will catch you off-guard, because there’s a depth to it all that won’t ever leave you. It’s a depth that I later realized was resilience.
“I sometimes think of myself as a monster when I look back,” Bang says when we finally connect for the conversation I’ve been waiting nearly a decade to have. “Because I have a lot of ego. I guess I’m thinking that way, seeing myself change from moment to moment, while making music.” He’s in the last leg of the promotions for his big comeback EP 2, and the world is still reeling from the powerful punch the record packs combined with the thrill of his return. It’s his first album release since his debut LP BANGYONGGUK in 2019, and a lot has happened since then, but Bang has reforged himself to deliver a message that the world needed and still isn’t afraid to dig deep into what other artists usually keep at bay. “The ego I showed on the studio album was the one deep in my inner side, but through this EP, I wanted to say that I am back in the world as a monster.”
Most fans will know Bang Yongguk as the enigmatic leader of the pioneering K-pop group B.A.P. Right from their debut with the anthemic, hip-hop heavy “Warrior” in 2012, the septet made a name for themselves as one of the most outspoken and brave artists in K-pop. During their seven years as a group, they tackled taboo topics like depression, anxiety, societal pressure and politics with their lyricism – often with Bang at the forefront as songwriter and producer. It was rare at the time for idols to be so involved in their music, and he quickly became known as one of the earliest K-pop stars to fight for the right to produce and write. He joined the ranks of artists that included Big Bang’s G-Dragon and SHINee’s Jonghyun, musicians who strived for artistic freedom and control, and Bang became a mirror to society, laying out humanity’s flaws for all to see via B.A.P’s fiery, driven work. All of their activities, however, came to a screeching halt in 2014 when B.A.P filed a lawsuit against their label at the time for ‘unfair conditions and profit distribution.’ It was a long, drawn-out case and the details are murky, but it shut down the septet’s opportunity to make music as a group for over a year.
During this time, Bang refused to be silenced. He was the picture of grace and dignity throughout the period the case was ongoing, but still managed to express the grief and anger he felt about the situation via the powerful 2015 solo single, “AM 4:44.” As the leader of B.A.P, his burdens were many and the battle to keep fighting was taking a toll. “The heavy weight carried on two shoulders/ Nobody would know how scary the mask I wear is/ I don’t even know what I traded my passion for in place of everyone’s cheers/ For what am I insisting on trying so hard for to keep on running.” It was staggering, almost unheard of for an idol to open up this much on a song, and it was most definitely a slap in the face of anyone who didn’t believe idols could be artists. “AM 4:44” cemented Bang’s place as an icon of honesty and opened up a new avenue to understand the pain of an individual whose creative drive has been crushed by forces out of their control: “They shamelessly worry for you/ Values are surrounded with money their broken compasses/ Don’t try to hug me until the end, I’d rather leave than become that kind of person.” His frustration was understandable, his vulnerability inspiring. He didn’t care about the money, he didn’t care about the fame; he just wanted to make music. What’s more honest than that?
It takes a lot of strength to bare your soul to the unforgiving public at that level, but Bang had a lot more to give. After a few more years of activities together, B.A.P formally disbanded in 2019 and each member went on to unveil their solo brands of artistry. Bang remained the most emotional writer of them all, dropping intricate pieces of lyricism and production like 2019’s “Hikikomori”– a work of genius where he rhymes ‘meoli,’ the Korean word for ‘head,’ with ‘hikikomori’, a Japanese term for extreme social isolation to outline his battle with depression and social anxiety. The track led BANGYONGGUK, which served as an unfiltered dive into his mental state, his hopes, his dreams, his fears and his losses.
The LP featured a total of 15 tracks including “Hikikomori” and “AM 4:44,” and saw the rapper explore slow funk (“Diary”), alternative R&B (“I Need To Talk,” “Holiday”), blues-drenched dream pop (“Ya”), melancholic jazz-led piano pieces (“Portrait”), angst-fueled, orchestral hip-hop (“Codex Gigas”) and much, much more. He navigates listeners through lyrics that explore existentialism, crippling anxiety, broken relationships, loneliness, anger and terror, all inspired by snippets of his musings in his journal. “Humans want to be god but are too weak/ They want to hide the reality so they kill chosen lives/ Standards of dignity, destruction and slaughter/ Are never fair to god/ Philosophical thinking and essence become fairy tales, which are violently holy/ Slaves and discrimination, cursed nature/ Who is this war really for?” asks “Codex Gigas,” while “Diary” ponders, “The words I want to say/ The music I want to do/ All the things I want to do/ If I throw it up/ Then would I really/ be satisfied?” The search to outline the self cruises through the entire record before Bang decides to settle on a deceptively positive outlook with the future-bass drenched closer “See You Later” which serves as a letter to his fans: “You and me/ Please smile for me/ Come let us have a drink/ I’ll remember you forever/ Thank you and see you later.” Why ‘deceptively happy’? It was from a draft of a will he’d written in his diary.
Bang incorporated a lot of emotions that many in their twenties and thirties experience, and for many people, myself included, the album was a sign we weren’t alone. I ask if putting these emotions into music is easier than talking about them, and if it brings him comfort as well to share it with us, and he answers, “Yes, it does. There’s no bigger compliment and comfort than hearing that someone is getting consoled and encouraged by your music. Me, I don’t really talk with people very much, so I usually put what I want to say into music.” His self-produced documentary Something To Talk About lays out the creation process of BANGYONGGUK and there’s a moment in the film where he says that after creating “Hikikomori,” he challenged himself to produce “I Need To Talk” because he realized he needed to change. “I made this song all by myself, not meeting anyone,” he had stated then about “Hikikomori.” “I thought this life is going to kill me.” It’s a familiar battle, the temptation to remain the hikikomori versus realizing that human interaction is a necessity in our lives. Since the release of BANGYONGGUK, has he been able to better balance these two sides of himself? “I always practice,” he says, contemplatively. “Time has flown by, I am now in my thirties, but I still think I am somehow stuck. There should be a driving force to recognize me and to move forward. I try to meet people when my condition is good. Usually, my head makes me think I would like to be alone, but I give myself the will to go out. This is the balance, I think.”
Finding balance also reminds me of how he often draws a line between Yongguk the artist and Yongguk the human being. He’s extremely particular about this, and it makes more and more sense why as we wade further into the topic. “I think it is related to how I deal with music,” he ventures about why he wants to separate these two aspects of himself. “When working on the music, I am very sensitive, and you might feel uncomfortable. Bringing this aspect of me to life, I know how I make people feel inconvenienced in private. When meeting people as well, I always try to distinguish between work and life. I agree that this is hard, I am just making an effort to do it.”
With 2, we’re hearing an artist who has grasped this balance firmly to deliver an antithesis to the grief on BANGYONGGUK. Today’s Bang is victorious, ready to jump head-first into the throes of the industry and carve out a space for the ‘monster’ he’s proud he’s become. The emotions aren’t gone, of course; they’ve just evolved. The lyrics on the pre-release single “Race” sum up the mood of this EP perfectly: “This a fate/ I can feel it, that’s a fact/ Don’t give up/ That’s it, just like me/ Shout my voice to the world/ Wake up, jump in the fire…It will be a new beginning, a dark sun blooming.” It heralded the return of the ‘monster’ Bang hadn’t unleashed since his days with B.A.P, and marked the importance of 2 serving as a new chapter. “BANGYONGGUK was an album full of my personal stories. On the other hand, 2 is more about the story of how I live in the world. I think I have taken a step out of the world with this EP, departing from the last studio album. During a pretty long period of inactivity, I thought about making more colorful music regarding genres and sounds. It’s always exciting to release a new album after a long time. I was happy to meet my fans, too. This EP was a start signal for my future albums, so I look forward to it.”
The beginning of his creative process for each album is a topic I’m keen on learning more about and he’s happy to give me a glimpse into it all. “The most significant factor for me when making the music is the theme,” Bang explains. “The theme of lyrics usually becomes the base of the music I make. So when I think about lyrics, then the sources, sounds, and genres come out in my head little by little.” 2 opens with the rock-trap number “G.M.T” before cruising into the dark, alternative hip-hop track “Up” and then the Nineties R&B-inspired “Screwed Up.” The playful piano-led trap “Shut Up” comes next, followed by the vicious bass and trap-heavy “Off” and the anthemic closer, “Race.” Sonically, it’s much more vibrant than BANGYONGGUK, and the rapper chooses confidence, anger and drive as the key emotions that build the soundscape. It’s still heavy thanks to the dominance of rock, bass, trap and heavy synths, and reminds me slightly of the vibe we glimpsed in his 2019 single, “Yamazaki.” “I think of lyrics along with themes and the album’s concept, and then the genre falls into place like a puzzle,” he shares. “It goes the same with the top line and arranging drum sources.” Each of the tracks on 2 are rooted in the same core themes, which branch out.
We move on to discussing the various tracks on 2, and I tell him my personal favorite is “Screwed Up” because it was refreshing to hear him dive into that rich R&B – it’s a little different from the rest of the EP in that respect, especially with the addition of female back-up vocals and ad-libs, and he’s pleased to hear my feedback. “‘Screwed Up’ is the track I like, too,” he says, much to my delight. “I like hip-hop music based on Nineties R&B factors and I tried to reflect those factors. For me, I prefer the rough music with rock factors since B.A.P, so I think ‘G.M.T’ matched me well in this album.” He explains that the pre-release single “Race” was the true starting point of the record, and the entire thing serves as a story about the journey to how he got where he is today. “‘Race’ was the music of my aspiration to start the race again,” he recalls. “Through it, 2 came out into the world.”
Bang pays attention to every single aspect of a release; from conception to music videos and album packaging, there isn’t one detail he isn’t involved in, and 2 was especially challenging since it was his big comeback. He decides to tell me a little about the process of making the music video for the lead single “Up.” “While working on the MV, I tried to express unrealistic sexualism in the video art in contrast to the explicit lyrics,” he says, and I’m immediately intimidated by just how much this man can accomplish with sheer willpower and talent. “I wanted to show a human desire when studying the inner side. So rather than expressing the characters in the MV as human beings, they were cells or the inner world of men who are caught in the desire.” It’s a lot of work for one person to handle, but he feels a need to ensure everything is as perfect as it can get. “I have to check everything very carefully, so I feel overloaded mentally and physically,” he says, admitting that working on 2 did take a toll on him. “I tend to enjoy stress and tiredness from work, but I was more exhausted this time compared to the last album. So I just thought lightly, ‘Maybe I should get back to exercising,’ because my body was hard-pressed to enjoy the stress simply,” he half-jokes.
Discussing production with Bang Yongguk, however, is in contrast a massively relaxing experience for us both, and he doesn’t shy away from a single question. “When I was young, I used to get influenced by other artists a lot,” he shares when we talk about sounds that inspire his work. “My favorite artist at the time, their color, used to be applied to my music. But now, rather than finding an artist for inspiration, their music becomes the stimulus for me. Just like when you listen to some great artists’ music, you want to go to the studio right away only to work on music.” He’s also known for tinkering with his tracks for ages, a process that delivers some of the most beautiful details in the final product; whether it’s the sound of the closing door that heralds the start of “Hikikomori,” the soothing cello that builds the bones of “Portrait” or the distorted background ad-libs on 2’s lead single “Up” – there’s so much embedded that I wonder if it gets difficult to decide when a track is ‘complete.’ “People working with me usually describe me as ‘byeontae’ [oddball] because I tenaciously focus on details,” Bang agrees. “I like artists who can see the big picture, so I work with that kind of artist a lot. With them, I can make better music than doing it alone. So I focus on detailed and musical factors in reverse. I am responsible for everything from mixing to mastering, so I tweak and check a track a lot while working. I don’t say it is exactly what I want, but I tweak and check until I am satisfied.”
This also applies when he produces music for other musicians and he admits the details probably get even more complex in those circumstances. “It has to match their color,” he insists. “[Making music for myself] is way easier since I know myself the most.” Something To Talk About gave us an insight into the process of what it’s like to work with Bang Yongguk. His collaborators (like producer duo Ye-Yo Sound) and his friends (including prominent Korean artists Sleepy and Dindin) all seemed to understand that for the rapper, creating music was staying true to being Bang Yongguk rather than focusing on a particular genre. Is this something that still applies to him today? “In collaborations, I don’t value the career of my partner,” he says. It may sound dismissive, but it’s just about how well he knows himself. “I don’t like to work with people I don’t really know, either. The time to talk about each of our feelings and themes is essential. But it’s hard to have those times in this K-pop system. However, I still think I have to keep my routines, so I spend a long time on them.”
With this, we arrive at the age-old conversation of ‘are idol-producers true artists’ and as a veteran musician who has been at the forefront of the movement for artistic freedom, Bang’s input on the evolution of the K-pop system is eye-opening. “It’s a difficult question, but I want to be honest,” he replies when I ask if he’s seen some positive changes over time. “It’s hard to find a difference between then and now and is also hard to compare, because the trends and backgrounds are quite different. Music moves with the times. Finding affirmatives and negatives may control the freedom of art. We have to respect the era we live in and its generation. That is art.” The clearest difference, according to the rapper, is that younger idols today have a stronger understanding of what making music means in the grand scale of things – they begin their journeys with more artistic control. “It became free,” he clarifies. “Nowadays, the range of making music is way more comprehensive. However, I realize again that making their own music by themselves is difficult.”
He looks back at his own start in music in 2008, as a teen underground rapper, and it backs up his statement of respecting the era and generation a particular piece of art is from. The evolution and learning curve over the years is what leads to eventual excellence, and Bang’s own career trajectory is proof of this. He’s proud of his own growth, particularly the musical spectrum that spans his work. “I had a moment of ignoring other genres except for hip-hop when young,” he says. “Those were really immature thoughts. Now I like every music genre, and I want to try those genres. This is the most grown part of me, and I am most proud of it.” It’s a natural path that any young artist will walk as they learn more during their time in the industry. He also offers a pretty fascinating idea about how to build one’s unique identity and color as an aspiring producer: “A producer should live in the imaginary,” he says. “I think unrealistic thoughts usually reflect the inner side. Of course, this is what I think. I don’t like to be assimilated into the world. But I do try to find a way to be assimilated, because there’s no diversity if you stick to only one side. I think this is something that producers should possess.”
Many producers tell me about the challenge they face when it comes to creating something more commercial that they know will be a hit, compared to something more deep and personal that might not be as mass-marketable. Bang’s work clearly fits into the latter category, so staying true to his own complex identity as a musician in a world that wants things more simple is often a challenge. “We need balance,” he says firmly. “I am making music with many worries and choices. But I don’t have worries about what’s harder to make. Musicians should have their identity [out] rather than protect it. It doesn’t matter if it looks stubborn to others. Musicians with identity are special, whichever genre they do, because that is what they did.” As he mentioned right at the beginning with “AM 4:44,” to him, music has never been about mainstream recognition – whatever that may mean. “Chart success and monetary gain are important issues in the music industry, but I never wished to gain wealth by music, so I am trying to keep myself out of those restraints,” he explains. “I haven’t made a lot of money doing music since I was young, and I am not obsessed with it. I just make music with what I have. I think this is the position given to me. People ask, ‘Why did you spend the whole money you earned through the last album on this album?’ and I answer the same: ‘Because I can die tomorrow.’ That’s all.”
“Music moves with the times. Finding affirmatives and negatives may control the freedom of art. We have to respect the era we live in and its generation. That is art.”
Considering how much he’s been through right from his debut with B.A.P to now, how would he define the meaning of success today? “I am still looking for it,” he answers, turning the question back to me as he says, “So I want to ask you: What is success? I am not sure what it is. Many people live life to the fullest because of that word, and I just want to tell them you are living a successful life. ‘You are living a successful life, thank you,’ like this.” The automatic assumption would be that success means creating what you love, and making money out of it, but Bang disagrees. Establishing his own label (Consent) in 2021 was just the first step towards understanding ‘success’ and merely the route to creative liberty – not the answer. “To be honest, I haven’t [gotten to] a better creative space yet,” he admits. “It is a small company just established. To imagine the future of our label, I imagine myself being together with some great artists. I just try every moment to make my imagination a reality.”
We have never met in person but it feels like I’ve known Bang for a very long time – partly because of how much I relate to his lyrics, and partly because of this conversation. With him, it often feels like a friend is speaking to me, and a lot of fans share this same sentiment about his work and how it makes them feel less lonely in this chaotic, confusing, cruel world because he doesn’t shy away from expressing raw, unfiltered emotion. “It is really special that someone has the same feeling as me,” he says, happy that I’ve shared this with him. “It means that we share loneliness without meeting in person. If I actually meet those people, I want to hug them. All of us are weak beings in the vast universe. Making music is like talking with the world. I don’t know how my music will sound like to whom and where, but the sharing of feelings you talked about is very special to me. Thank you.”
“Hikikomori,” “I Need To Talk,” his 2019 single “Orange Drive,” and, more recently, “Screwed Up,” are on repeat on my playlist at the moment because they seesaw between emotions the world is collectively experiencing right now. We circle back to his honesty as a lyricist, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s difficult to bare so much of his soul out for us to hear – does he feel stronger once they’re released, or more vulnerable? “I do not know,” he says after taking a moment to think about it. “It seems that I am rather thinking about whether it is possible to reveal my inner self without music. When I express my story to the world, I think I get more joy and a sense of accomplishment rather than weakening. I don’t want to feel weak, so I’m still making music. It’s difficult.”
Regardless of how difficult it may be, he’s determined to push on and make a difference. If there’s one thing he’d like his listeners to remember about him, it’s the fact that he’s always here for them, no matter how dark things might get. He’s been through hell and back, so there’s probably no one who understands the bitterness of grief and sweetness of victory better. “Recently the ‘energy’ was excluded in my music,” he says in reference to BANGYONGGUK. He hopes 2 can communicate more of his determination and strength as an individual. “I guess I didn’t have the energy and it may have been reflected in the music. However, I think I am slowly finding my favorite days of music through this EP. I want to be a musician who can encourage people who love my songs and stage. I want to be an artist who can give energy to fans who share the feelings of music made by my personal stories.” His words indicate that he feels he has yet to embark on this journey, but I think this is one bit of success that Bang Yongguk has already more than accomplished.
Stream Bang Yongguk’s latest EP ‘2’ below: