K-Pop Masterminds DR & Ryan Jhun Reveal the Stories Behind Their Hits, from Red Velvet's 'Dumb Dumb' to Taeyeon's 'I'
Contained within the hit-producing machine that is the Korean pop industry are a number of mostly anonymous producers and songwriters from Stockholm and Seoul alike, who carefully draw influences from pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop to churn out tunes that fans around the world will put on repeat. Producers have risen in the ranks, with some gaining fans who seek out their specific sound and some segueing into their own music careers; onetime EXO and VIXX producer and songwriter Deanfluenza is now R&B soloist Dean.
Producers and songwriters DR and Ryan Jhun, however, seem content with living their lives off the well-lit stage; a cameo on Produce 101, a girl-group-focused reality competition in the vein of The X Factor or the short-lived Popstar, introduced them to viewers all over Korea. They were there to produce tracks for a number of the girl-group hopefuls, but in between the jokes and banter, it was all about making the tracks, which is their number one priority. "I get to wake up every day and write and produce music!" DR says. "Everyone has a dream, and that was mine."
DR and Ryan Jhun are best known for their work with K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment, the industry giant home to renowned acts such as BoA and Girls' Generation. DR and Ryan sat with Billboard to discuss how they ended up in the industry, what went into some of their most notable SM hits, what they have on their plates for the latter half of 2016 (hint: lots of MBK Entertainment tracks!), and where they see K-pop headed in the next few years.
DR, born Denzil Remedios, met Ryan Jhun in a hip-hop session about seven years ago while working on a track for Soulja Boy. Ryan asked if he could take some of DR's tracks to Korea, and Ryan came back with placements. DR studied jazz and classical music in college in Toronto, which he says comes in handy when it comes to arrangements and chord progressions. "I do find that K-pop music, it's not the regular turnaround pop that you'd hear on U.S. radio, meaning it's not just the two or three quick progressions that you can just loop over and over again -- that is not K-pop," he explains. "That's the opposite of K-pop. K-pop is a lot more complicated, a lot more changes, a lot more structural arrangements that have variation. [Ryan] will play a track for me sometimes and he's like, 'This is a great song. Now we need to put some variation in it so that it can become K-pop.' You gotta change it enough that the short attention span, if you will, of the listener is pleased by these quick [changes]."
Ryan Jhun was born in Korea and moved to New York at 10, which began his love affair with American pop. Ryan's always had a passion for music; as a teen, he tried to audition for K-pop boy band Shinhwa, but his parents insisted he pursue other dreams. In 2009, he went to Korea and tried to submit his music to all the labels, but according to Ryan, "No one accepted our record, no one accepted our demo. But SM, they're the [only] ones who [were] interested in our song." SM Entertainment's response came as a blessing after he faced numerous rejections in both America and Korea. "I wrote songs for American artists, but nobody really accepted me, 'cause like...'You're Asian and I don't know you. Where are you from? You have background [experience]?'"
That's all changed now. Below, the pair tell the stories behind their biggest hits.
"Lucifer" by SHINee (2010)
Ryan (producer and writer): That track is my very first record [where I was] really hands-on. [Lucifer] took about three months to finish. I wrote the song for a female, actually. The hook was "Soulectriontic, hippoponic, never heard this before." One of [SM Entertainment's] A&R heard the song. They were like, "This is it. We need this song." Again, that song only had a hook. We were struggling to write that song, to try to take it to the top. But one of the producers from SM -- his name is Yoo Young Jin -- he wrote lyrics, he wrote a melody, and he was supporting us to finalize the song. But I'm Christian, so I didn't like the concept of Lucifer. I didn't like the concept of Lucifer, the devil thing, but when they explained [it] to me, they just described the girl as a devil because she's temptation. I was like, "You know what? That's fine then!"
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" [by Lee Hyori] is my debut song, but right after that, "Lucifer" made me who I am now, because everybody recognized my song. And also, that song made SHINee [who they are] now. That is a signature song for SHINee.
"View" by SHINee (2015)
Ryan (writer): LDN Noise, Adrian [McKinnon], the four of us [said], "Why don't we deliver some UK pop, UK deep house in Korea?" [and] LDN Noise wrote that UK sound. We try to launch something new, [something] never heard before -- it's a part of our strategy. Deep house, no one did before here in [the K-pop scene], that's why we delivered that new sound. SM did a lot of European sounds before, but they never did the UK sound. SM was questioning it, like "What's [the] UK sound about?" But I told them, "Deep house, UK sound has a unique color to it, so let's just try it." They said, "Okay, let's give it a shot."
"Love Me Right" by EXO (2015)
DR (producer and writer): "Love Me Right" -- I started crafting that [while] I think I was listening to a Chris Brown album, actually, at that time. I was just playing with some chords and stuff, like, "Yo, this sounds kinda cool, this sounds kinda cool." It was turning out to be too much like a Chris Brown track, so I started switching it up with different instrumentation, different drums, different chord progressions, reversing it -- instead of it going this way or that way. And then [Ryan] came in and said, "Yo, live guitars would be great on this!" Okay, cool, so we put that in. "Live bass would be great on this!"
Ryan (producer and writer): Everything has to be live.
DR: So we mixed this hybrid of an electro, very manufactured sound, with live instrumentation, which gave it this whole new energy and identity, and that's kinda how that song came to life. The writers that we were working with at that time just came in and honestly, they just sang the song right away, like they just came up with the lyrics, came up with the melody, they didn't have to rewrite anything. It just came out of their heads and that's it -- it just sounded like a smash. The A&Rs at SM came in and they heard it; right away, they were like, "That's the single for EXO." Done. That's it. In probably 20 minutes, they just knew that was the single for them.
Ryan: It took about a month to write the song. DR created the opening, but when I closed it, I tried to do...I would say more friendly music. Everybody can sing [along.] I wanted [the] listener to sing. That was a part of [the] concept. Thankfully, a lot of people sing the song at karaoke.
"You Think" by Girls' Generation (2015)
DR (producer and writer): "You Think" is a really cool track because it's very unique, it's like a hybrid of writers and producers on the track, and that's kinda why it sounds that way. The main writer, SAARA, she's a YouTube personality, and [the track] kinda sorta sounds like her personality -- it's spunky, it's got variation, 'cause she's really good at going left, going right. Ryan and myself, we just came in and said, "Okay, let's take what she did and turn it into K-pop and turn it into a track for SM." We switched up stuff, wrote some new parts, and that's how it came together.
"Dumb Dumb" by Red Velvet (2015)
Ryan (writer): Purposely we wrote ["Dumb Dumb"] a little bit more complicated. We tried to deliver the storyline of the song. Like usually, when you listen to K-pop, there's a lot of love stories, right? But that, to me, to [DR], it's kinda boring.
DR: Played out. It's done.
Ryan: But we tried to deliver the idea on the record. I always wanna put the concept of the song. So the track maker was LDN Noise, but two writers [were] really hands on in the music: one main person is Taylor Parks, she's like a number one writer in [the] US right now, she did [stuff for] Ariana Grande, she did Fifth Harmony, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey, everybody! She's [a] big-time producer, big-time writer. Another [writer], she was a Disney writer, her name is Deanna Dellacioppa, both of them wrote the melody together. LDN Noise built up the track, but Taylor Parks and Deanna, they're the ones who created the melody and created the structure. But [as] soon as I heard it, I'm like, "Guys, this is not gonna work. Can you guys tweak [it]?" Again, variation! It's like a storyline, start at [the] beginning, then build up and build up, like [a] drama scene. I wanted to make [the] song more dramatic -- that's why it sounds complicated, but it's interesting. Keep on going, running, running.
That song put them on the map. [People] may not remember "One of These Nights" -- they still remember "Dumb Dumb." They may not remember "Ice Cream [Cake]" -- they remember "Dumb Dumb."
"I" by Taeyeon (2015)
Ryan (writer): Taeyeon's "I" was by [Bennett Armstrong and Justyn Armstrong of] My Crazy Girlfriend -- they're artists here -- and DQ [David Quinones], he's a vocal producer for Beyonce.
Once I heard the song, I'm like, "Okay, this is very catchy, very unique modern rock." Soon as I heard it, I'm like, "Guys, I want to fix it, like this, this, this, and that, and let's just pitch [it] to Girls' Generation." But SM took the song for Taeyeon, and once we presented the song to Taeyeon, she loved the song. When we wrote the song together, I was [saying] to the writers, "Hey guys, I want to make this sound like a girl's running in New Zealand. I wanna imagine fields and grass, sunshine, maybe a little bit of rain, and I wanna hear that type of inspiration on the song." Ironically, in the music video, they made it like that, even though we didn't tell them.
You two had an incredibly busy 2015. What's up ahead for you?
Ryan: I'm working on DIA, T-ara, Shannon [Williams] -- MBK acts.
DR: I'll be DJ'ing and performing a few more times this year. My personal music is more electro based, which you might hear hints of when I produce and write for K-Pop as well. I'll also be doing a lot more production and writing in the K-Pop and J-Pop worlds this year. I signed my publishing deal with Avex Music Publishing last year -- it's a Japanese publishing company -- so I've been going between Japan and Korea on a few projects for the past few months, working with labels and artists in both countries. I'm also working with Ryan on projects involving the I.O.I girls from Produce 101, continuing new songs with SM Entertainment, just co-wrote with JYP, and continuing writing and producing for MBK Entertainment after the successful album that we did with Hyomin. Also working with DIA from MBK as well, so it’s going to be a pretty busy rest of the year.
Trap had its moment in American pop, while tropical, dancehall, and house influences are appearing more frequently in pop these days. Which sound trends do you see rising in K-pop within the next year or two?
Ryan: We tried tropical house on I.O.I's "Crush." We put a little bit of a tropical vibe there.
DR: The nature of K-pop is really diverse; it could be trap, it could be bubblegum pop, it could be hip-hop, it could be acoustic, soul, R&B. To put it in a nutshell, it stays varied, it stays new, it stays fresh. Tomorrow when you hear K-pop, you just know it's not gonna be the exact same thing you heard yesterday because it's such a varied genre.
Ryan: As long as we're working! [Laughs]
Everybody's just focusing on making hits. But I think differently. Think about it, music is the same thing as cooking. When you cook, if you use really fresh ingredients [and] you put it together, that delivers really good food. You're gonna love it. If you put MSG, if you don't use fresh [ingredients], if you're thinking, "Okay, I'm just gonna sell this product no matter what," that's why you're putting lots of chemicals -- it tastes good, but it's gonna hurt your stomach. That's how I see it.
Our writers and producers, they always think carefully; before we write a song, we always talk; "How are we gonna write this song [and] make it nice?" We always have a good meeting. For example, Fiestar's "Apple Pie" -- it took almost a month to write that song. And sometimes writers and producers come out, "Yeah, I wrote this song in five minutes" -- I don't respect that, because they didn't put enough time, enough effort to make the song amazing.Us, we're like chefs. We always try to put it together properly and [it] doesn't matter how long the song takes, maybe a month or two months, maybe a year.
K-pop is the same as fashion. The fashion always [comes] full circle. Korean pop is always about a year behind American pop, so if you look at what's hot right now in U.S., they'll have it in a year. Right now in Korea, hip-hop is really popping off. You never know what's coming up -- house, maybe EDM again. [DR and I], we are working on bubblegum pop, 'cause no one's doing it right now, so we're [a] half step ahead. We're like trend-setters.