Kulture Kolumn: Appreciating the Genius of Code Kunst
This producer is a pillar of the Korean R&B scene, redefining the art with his unique vision–here’s why you should pay attention
I first found Code Kunst in 2017 via the track “Fire Water.” It featured one of my most favorite South Korean vocalists of all time, G.Soul (now known as Golden), and legendary rapper Tablo of Epik High, so when it popped up on my recommended tabs on YouTube, there was no way I wasn’t clicking on it. I didn’t expect to be addicted so soon–of course Golden’s voice was as angelic as ever and Tablo’s swag is unparalleled–but there was a touch of melancholy to the track that was wholly new to me, yet somehow familiar. The thrumming percussion pulled me in first but it was the delicate flute refrain–scattered all through the track–which made me stay. There was a desperation to the entire thing that just broke my heart and it lived in the instrumentals and composition, the subtle guitar riffs and the achingly tense loops they made around the lyrics. It was unforgettable. I looked Code Kunst up and found out the track was part of his first comeback in two years with an LP titled Muggle’s Mansion. Over the next month, that record parked itself on all my playlists as I sifted through it layer by layer and grew more astounded at the genius packed into every moment.
Born Jo Sungwoo, Code Kunst first debuted independently in 2013, establishing himself quickly with his first two records, Novel (2014) and Crumple (2015.) From what I have experienced in the past couple of years of being a fan, his production has always been intricate, his arsenal of collaborators unmatched–even early albums included rappers C Jamm, Owen Ovadoz and Ugly Duck–which made me wonder just what was it about this man that led so many artists to put their trust in him. Of course his collaborators on Muggle’s Mansion were no joke and was definitely one of the factors that got me hooked–in addition to Tablo and Golden, R&B crooners Lee Hi, Colde, Car, the garden and Suran, hip-hop icons YDG, Dok2, Nucksal, Loopy, Punchnello, rocker Oh Hyuk, plus (then up-and-comers) MINO and BeWhy were among the few who lent their voices to the record. While every track showed off each artist’s distinctive style and strengths, what I loved most about it was that it remained a Code Kunst record. He has this way of making you look at your favorite artists from a new angle as they tackle blends of genres and collaborators they haven’t before. He takes deep dives into old-school blues, rock, soul and hip-hop, tying it all neatly together with his signature vocal chopping techniques and flawless loops of instrumentals. He gave us fascinating match-ups of collaborators–I never thought I’d see Oh Hyuk and Dok2 on a track together, much less Suran and YDG, but Code Kunst seems to have a knack for seeing things that aren’t quite obvious to the rest of us.
Code Kunst’s journey through the Korean music industry hasn’t been without its bumps. In 2016 he became part of the now-defunct YG Entertainment sub-label HIGHGRND–the division was founded by Tablo to recruit independent indie, alternative and R&B artists who were otherwise overlooked by major labels. Some of his labelmates included producers Millic and offonoff, rapper Punchnello, rock bands The Black Skirts and Idiotape, and for a while, everything seemed great. He’d just dropped Muggle’s Mansion and was blowing up all over the scene, but things came to a screeching halt by the second half of the year. Epik High decided not to renew their contracts with YG Entertainment, and Tablo resigned as CEO of HIGHGRND. The label announced it was shutting its doors in April 2018 and all we’d heard from Code Kunst was silence. We knew most artists were seeking other labels, but when it’s an artist you adore… it’s a little tough to keep waiting. In June however, Code Kunst decided to drop a bit of a bomb on us–he revealed he’d signed to hip-hop mega-star Jay Park’s AOMG–South Korea’s leading hip-hop label. The announcement came with no warning and via the release of a gritty, powerful new single titled “Rain Bird” (featuring Tablo and Colde) on AOMG’s online platforms, sending shockwaves through the South Korean hip-hop scene. Fans celebrated the AOMG x Code Kunst pairing, as the label featured plenty of the producer’s previous collaborators and provided freedom from YG Entertainment’s crumbling image.
Post “Rain Bird,” Code Kunst delivered a variety of collaborative singles and projects, my favorite of which was his track “XI” featuring Lee Hi. It’s a follow-up to the duo’s Muggle’s Mansion collaboration on “X,” and brings back the intoxicating, dangerous Hi that we usually only see on a Code Kunst track. He highlights the darkness that lurks in the depths of Hi’s expansive range and helps us all see her in a new light every time. My perception of her as a pop artist melted away and I saw the R&B mega-star within and it’s truly their collaborative work that made me fall head-over-heels for Hi’s powerhouse vocals. I’d seen a glimpse of the style when she teased us with a sultry one-minute cover of WINNER’s “Baby Baby” in 2016, but it was “X” that really knocked my socks off and led me to check out all of her work–and eventually become an ardent fan.
Since signing with AOMG, Code Kunst has been a lot more active, appearing on reality shows like Show Me The Money and AOMG’s Sign Here and just generally a lot more on everyone’s radar. For me, it’s been really nice to see people getting to know him and his art, especially on social media and television–he’s still quiet a lot of the time, seemingly preferring to listen rather than chime in, but there’s a definite difference, a lightness in his evolution that has been quite lovely to map as a fan. Perhaps that’s what fuelled his latest record People, another whopping 17-track LP that saw a familiar slew of incredible collaborators–including new labelmates Jay Park, Simon Dominic, GRAY and Woo. There’s a sweetness that runs through this record that I found incredibly endearing–you’ll hear it in the abundance of acoustic riffs sprinkled across the album, the soft rock influence that ripples through and surprisingly gentle lead single “Flower” (a pastel-fueled soft rock, feel-good track that I didn’t expect to see Giriboy, Jay Park and Woo take on together. Classic Code Kunst.) Of course he never abandons his affinity for the blues–you’ll hear plenty of it blended in with sharp relays of trap, especially on “Joke!” and “Set Me Free.”
I might do an in-depth piece on People once I listen to it a couple more times, but as of now, I still consider Muggle’s Mansion to be Code Kunst’s magnum opus; its raw format of honest storytelling and smooth, versatile R&B does a brilliant job of highlighting the genius of this young, dynamic producer. The album served as an introduction for a lot of us into his glimmering but slightly melancholic world, building the foundation of a fandom that is still growing and hungry for ‘music that becomes art’–as his stage name insinuates. As of now, I think the best way to sum-up my (and every other fan’s) feelings about this producer is the top comment on his music video for “Fire Water,” which reads: “When has Code Kunst ever disappointed?” And honestly… when indeed?
Listen to Code Kunst’s new album ‘People’ below: