The Not-So-Secret, Secret World of GRAY
The South Korean hip-hop artist opens up about his production process, his perspectives on life and India’s vibrant hip-hop scene
Getting to know GRAY is a privilege. The producer, singer and rapper is one of the biggest names in Korean hip-hop, but when his fans talk about him, they often use words like ‘shy,’ ‘quiet’ and ‘introverted.’ It’s a little hard to believe if you’re an objective third party coming across his vibrant Instagram account, his swag-heavy music videos or his many TV show appearances. But when you look again, he’s a little bit of a mystery without really hiding much and… it’s pretty damn wonderful.
If you google GRAY, there aren’t really any recent in-depth conversations with the media, juicy gossip or details about his personal life floating around. Save for the odd dating rumor here and there, GRAY’s image is drama-free and fiercely guarded but also one that doesn’t sacrifice a strong relationship with his fans. It’s a testament to his talent and one can’t help but feel a massive wave of respect for him. Understanding where it all comes from is lot easer after you listen to his latest solo single, “TMI,” a deceptively bubbly ode to being an introvert. “Once someone becomes rich and famous, many people start to approach one for many different reasons,” he tells me when we finally connect over email. “It’s rare to see good people and dealing with it can be tiring and uncomfortable, so I often stayed home alone.” He’s frank about the sadness in the song and the toll of fame, and it’s pretty inspiring to see him want to open up to his fans about it. As with the usual pattern that falls around mystery, I immediately want to know more.
Born Lee Seonghwa in South Korea in 1986, GRAY first began writing songs when he was in high school. “I just loved music ever since I was young,” he says. “Collecting and listening to old school cassette tapes and CD’s of musicians that I liked was my hobby.” He started out as a rapper with a few small performances here and there, but left it all behind to finish his education and then complete his mandatory military service in 2012. Soon after discharge, he decided to take a chance and give music production and singing a shot. “Since I admired those musicians, I started to dream of becoming one unconsciously, which naturally caused me to get interested in the producers who produced those songs and made me start to compose songs I wanted to sing.” His talent led him to become the first artist to sign with and debut under hip-hop mogul Jay Park’s (then relatively unknown) powerhouse label AOMG in 2013 with a four-track EP titled Call Me Gray.
It received a moderate amount of success at the time, but did a lot to establish his talent among his peers. In the years since, GRAY’s fame and skills have both amplified with tremendous results; in 2019, AOMG is the leading hip-hop label in Korea and GRAY is its main producer and the force behind some of the artists’ most iconic tracks. Park’s infamous 2015 mega-hit “Mommae,” rapper Loco’s “Good,” AOMG’s collaborative projects “Upside Down” and “Metronome,” and rapper Simon Dominic’s 2015 self-titled solo anthem are just a few examples of his work. He’s often referred to as a ‘K-R&B genius’ and boasts a discography spanning projects with some of the biggest names in Korean pop, hip-hop and R&B. His producer tag is a whisper of his name recorded by R&B artist Zion.T, and hearing it drop before each and every one of his tracks never fails to incite a thrill of anticipation for what you’re about to hear. Looking back at where he first began with Call Me Gray to now, I ask him what about his artistry he is personally most proud of. Despite his numerous achievements and accolades, he stays modest, saying, “I wanted to try many different styles of music because I enjoy listening to varieties of music. I believe my music is still improving and believe that it will keep on improving.”Although he’s developed a distinct style and sound over the last few years, GRAY has refrained from dropping another EP or LP since, preferring to stick to producing or featuring on singles. “There’s no specific reason for it,” he assures me. “I’ve enjoyed producing beats for other artists so much that I did not have enough time to work on my own. However, I’m hungry for my own album and I believe my fans are on the same page as I. Please stay tuned.”
Outside of AOMG, some of the names GRAY has worked with include K-pop stars like Wanna One, Hyolyn, Tiffany Young and Shinhwa, hip-hop biggies BeWhy, Zion.T, Dok2, Crush and Jessi and many more. He’s definitely one of the most sought-after producers in his home country and a lot of artists consider it a life-goal work with him. But in this mad rush of offers, how does he go about choosing collaborators? Is the decision impulsive or does he have a set plan of who he wants to work with? “It really depends, because sometimes it just happens naturally and sometimes it’s well planned,” he reveals. “When I am alone at my studio making beats… I usually imagine the mood and the vibe, as if I’m drawing a picture. I don’t usually produce beats by thinking about someone specifically. However, if someone asks me for some beats, I usually ask them what style they’re looking for and try my best to meet their needs since I believe it’s my job to satisfy my clients by fulfilling their requests like a handmade suit while preserving my own color and style.” When I ask who his favorite collaborator is, he refuses to give me a definitive pick. “I honestly love all the outcomes resulting from different collaborations,” he insists. “All the artists were extremely talented and I would have never gotten the results I got without them. I want to take this opportunity to thank them all.”
If you take a look at GRAY’s schedule, it’s often jam-packed and his life is an endless stream of single releases (literally a day before this interview dropped, he unveiled a collaboration with R&B artist DinDin) live shows and television appearances. Currently he’s a judge on AOMG’s brand new hip-hop reality show Sign Here with Park, Simon Dominic, Woo Won Jae and Code Kunst–they’re on the hunt for a new artist to join the label’s roster–and GRAY’s intelligence and sweetly dorky demeanor are instant crowd-pleasers. But despite it all, he feels things are more settled now than they used to be. “If I have to pick one time [when it was really stressful] I guess it would be during Show Me The Money, as it was so busy and hectic,” he says. He was a mentor and judge on the fifth season of the infamous South Korea’s rap reality show in 2016 and shot to fame after his appearance on it, winning over audiences with his drive, knowledge and talent. He mentored rapper BeWhy on the show who went on the win the whole thing. “Having to produce numerous tracks within a week and competing against skilled producers and rappers was challenging,” he recalls of the experience. “I tried to stay focused and did my absolute best on every track that I made. I didn’t pre-make the tracks and custom made all them with different artists according to the different situation they were in within the limited time frame that [I had]. I was stressed at the moment, but when I look back, it was worth it as the results and the responses were great.”
At this point our conversation turns to “TMI,” perhaps one of his most personal singles. “Due to the bright mood and melody as well as the witty lyrics, ‘TMI’ may sound like a cheerful song, but it’s actually a song about the internal loneliness,” GRAY explains. “There are times where I want someone to hear me chat away, or accept the vulnerable side of me and ‘TMI’ is a compilation of these thoughts. I wanted people to know that there is this part of me.” On an even deeper level, it outlines an exhaustion with society’s frivolity as it says, “I used to go out every night (we party)/But I hardly even go outside these days/It’s dangerous outside, it’s dangerous outside of my blanket/Too many temptations and people make me exhausted.” It’s a very relatable topic (perhaps minus the part about fame)–the lack of desire to go outside and interact with the world is extremely familiar to many of us. But why are so many of us going through this same situation in the first place? “I think the world we live in today is becoming more and more individualized,” he says in answer to my query. “Focusing on one’s own life is important, but I feel like people care less about others. The power of anonymity online also makes it easy to attack someone online. Facebook and Instagram allow people to look into others’ lives with just a click of a finger and it feels like they’re always right beside you. However, the reality is that you never actually see them or talk to them in real life… I just hope the world becomes happier offline, as well not just online.”
A lot of fans seem to take solace in the lyrics, flooding GRAY’s social media and the YouTube comments with gratitude for voicing a lot of what they’re feeling—is it ever scary to have so many people relying on him for relatability and comfort? “Not at all,” he says, and it’s a relief to hear it. “I’m rather thankful that my music was able to provide comfort, and this is what encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing.” Turning it around, what is the best advice he has have ever gotten? “This might make less sense in English but (Korean R&B singer) Crush told me that while he was riding a taxi, the driver told him that the word ‘risk’ is actually a mixture of the word ‘danger’ and the word ‘opportunity’ in the Korean language which I thought was very impressive,” GRAY recalls. “So I wrote ‘if you want to take the ‘risk’ and turn it into an ‘opportunity’, take the ‘danger’ now’ in my lyrics for the song called ‘Dream Chaser’.” It’s one of his most powerful and uplifting tracks, featured all the way back on Call Me Gray, and it’s nice to learn a little bit more about where it came from.
Since being involved in the Korean music industry, I often hear about GRAY’s strong sense of professionalism and calm work ethic, so it takes me a minute to compute the fact that he’s opened up so much about his artistry with me. But what really makes it all that more special is the exchange of knowledge and culture between our music industries as I get my turn to show him a glimpse of India’s hip-hop scene. I tell him about our country’s current rap revolution and he agrees there’s no denying the universal appeal of hip-hop. “Hip-hop is a powerful genre as there are songs that are worthy just from being easy to listen and fun, and there are also ones that hold social or political messages in the lyrics,” he says. “There are also songs about one’s dream, purpose, and goal in life like my songs ‘Just Do It’ and ‘Dream Chaser’.” He adds that he particularly appreciates songs that hold positive messages, naming Nas’ “I Can,” Dok2’s “Good Vibes Only” (which he features on) and “Bad Vibes Lonely” (which features R&B artist Dean) as examples. I send over a list of Indian hip-hop artists he might be interested in and he checks them out, commenting later over email, “Divine is on fire and so is Raja Kumari. I looked at their music videos and thought that they’re dope. It will be dope to work with them.” It’s a pretty priceless sentence. I tell him he has plenty of fans who’d like to see him perform here and it comes as a surprise to him. “It’s really amazing to know that I have fans out there in India, and if I ever get the chance, I’d like to have the opportunity to perform, travel, and meet all of my fans. Your love and support are very much appreciated so please continue to do so. I love you all! Peace!”