NCT 127's American Appeal Bodes Well For Future of K-Pop Act

NCT 127 perform at KCON 2017 Day 2 at Prudential Center on June 24, 2017 in Newark, N.J.
Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

NCT 127 perform at KCON 2017 Day 2 at Prudential Center on June 24, 2017 in Newark, N.J. 

On June 25, more than 100 K-pop fans stood outside Williamsburg’s Apple Store. The first in line arrived at 1 a.m., coming straight from KCON 2017 NY the night before at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. When the doors opened, the rush to get to the front of the store would have made many a gym teacher proud. But rather than early morning calisthenics, the crowd was there to see NCT 127’s second performance of the weekend.

Part of SM Entertainment’s lofty multi-group NCT Project, NCT 127 is a Seoul-based team -- 127 refers to the city’s longitudinal coordinate -- that is resonating with K-poppers in the States. One year after they debuted with the riotous “Fire Truck," the boy band is growing in popularity amongst K-pop’s global audience, but already feeling full-force amongst U.S fans.

Last month, the nine-member band was named the Best New Artist of the Week by Apple Music after releasing their Cherry Bomb EP and the synth and bass-driven single of the same name. Days later, they were greeted with roars of approval at KCON NY that rivaled, and exceeded, the response to some of the older, more recognized K-pop groups. After that came a short, three-song performance with a Q&A session in Brooklyn, and they’ll be back for KCON LA in August.

The group’s popularity doesn’t only draw out crowds; all three of NCT 127’s albums have appeared on the Heatseekers Albums chart, with their second EP, Limitless, peaking at No. 4 last January.

NCT 127 has worked frequently with American producers to create a sound that has hit home with U.S. fans. “Cherry Bomb” was crafted by Dem Jointz (Dwayne Abernathy Jr.), who has teamed with major artists including Dr. Dre, Christina Aguilera, and Janet Jackson. The band’s singles overflow with atypical sound effects -- the distorted “what what” of “Fire Truck,” the nursery rhyme chant of “Cherry Bomb” -- laced into melodies that draw on hip-hop and drum & bass elements blended with trap and dancehall. Their B-sides are equally explorative, emphasized on the recent EP with each of Cherry Bomb’s tracks offering up a new Top 40-ready song.  

“We’re always looking for something new to present to our fans,” Chicago-born member Johnny told Billboard after their Apple Store performance. Just minutes later, the group jumped in a van, crowded by fans, to head to the airport for their return to Korea where they'll continue to promote “Cherry Bomb”.

Produced by K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment, NCT 127’s international success isn’t unexpected: EXO, the label’s most recent male group prior to the NCT project is one of the most popular boy bands K-pop’s seen in the past decade. Other acts from the company include Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, BoA, Super Junior, SHINee, f(x), and Red Velvet, all household names in the K-pop world.

But the pace of NCT 127’s growing presence in the U.S is impressive even compared to their senior labelmates, and it's reflective of how what was once a niche genre is now a full-blown fan sub-culture. Prior to NCT 127's Brooklyn performance, only EXO, SHINee, BoA, Girls’ Generation, and TVXQ have held solo concerts and/or fan meetings in the U.S. from SM’s roster.

“We didn’t know what the energy would be like [in New York] because it’s our first time here,” said Johnny, still winded moments after NCT 127’s final song at the Apple Store performance. “But we definitely felt it [from fans]. We’re going to remember how great it was when we go back to Korea.”  

Coming to the States and gaining a following has been a lofty dream for many K-pop artists for years. Only a handful of acts have even resonated with the mainstream music industry, and many of K-pop’s biggest names failed to gain momentum after extensive attempts to break into the elusive U.S market.

And, even without dedicated attempts, it used to be that most K-pop acts took their time and had little impact in the U.S in their first year, gaining popularity in Asia first and then heading to the U.S in their later years. But that’s changing rapidly and more new acts are coming to the U.S for performances and tours earlier in their career. Including NCT 127, there were three boy bands out of KCON NY's nine acts that weren’t yet two years old, and KCON 2017 LA will host two acts that haven’t even debuted yet.

With the success of acts like BTS and GOT7, who toured the U.S early in their careers and gained American fans before garnering popularity in Korea, the States is no longer the end-goal for many K-pop acts. Instead it’s a starting point for acts who hope not to be popular only in Korea but amongst the global K-pop fanbase. And NCT 127, still relatively under the radar in Korea -- as under the radar as SM Entertainment acts are in their early days -- is the rookie act of the moment Stateside.

SM’s overall aim with its multi-tiered NCT project  is to appeal to as many fans around the world as they possibly can. With two English-speaking members (Johnny and Canadian member Mark), a Chinese member (WinWin), and a Japanese one (Yuta), NCT 127 is an act made in the era of globalization, and in their inaugural year they’ve proved to be an act that can attract fans from around the world.

“We could see K-pop moving forward and we’re very proud to be a part of it with our fans,” said Johnny.

Grasping the attention of both American K-pop fans and industry applause, NCT 127’s done what only a handful of other K-pop acts have. And though they may not be the most popular Korean act in the U.S in 2017, the explosive warm welcome that they received in the east coast promises a bright future is ahead of NCT 127. 


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