Korean Hip-Hop Icons Yoonmirae & Tiger JK Reflect on Their Music, Careers and Parenthood at SXSW

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW
Drunken Tiger perform at KPop Night Out during 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals at The Belmont on March 17, 2017 in Austin, Texas.

“You can actually take him with you,” Yoonmirae (Natasha "Tasha" Reid) told Billboard after an interview filled with laughter, facepalming and eyerolls. The target of her teasing? Her husband, Tiger JK (Seo Jung Kwon). “Drop him off at 10:40. That’s when we go on.”

The ringleaders of Feel GHood Music, an independent Korean music agency that they set up in 2013, Tiger JK and Yoonmirae are two of Korea’s most influential hip-hop artists. Though the genre is now an integral part of mainstream Korean music nowadays -- most K-pop singles feature at the very least one rap verse -- that wasn’t always the case.

“Cops harassed us. People booed us,” Tiger JK recalled hours before taking the stage at The Belmont on Friday night (March 17), referring to the beginning of his career with the Drunken Tiger crew, a '90s act that propelled the genre into Korea’s musical consciousness. (He has since become synonymous with the name.) “Now, I can just rap 60 bars and people know that’s hip-hop."

Cheers, not boos, greeted Tiger JK as he strolled out in front of the government-funded K-Pop Night Out’s audience later that night. Decked out in sweats with a traditional Korean overcoat, Tiger JK burst onto the stage with the entire roster of FeelGhood Music: Yoonmirae, rapper Bizzy, soulful songstress Ann One, and the newly signed Korean-American rapper Junoflo (“He’s going to carry the torch,” Tiger JK proclaimed while introducing the younger artist during the interview). Though advertised as a Drunken Tiger set followed by a Yoonmirae solo set, the pair asked and were approved to include their labelmates. “Name-wise, yeah, it’s under Drunken Tiger and Yoonmirae, but it’ll just be a Feel GHood vibe,” said Tiger JK.

And that's exactly what it was, with the quintet hyping up the crowd through their old and new hits, despite Tiger JK admitting that he was concerned that K-Pop Night Out’s main audience -- fans primarily there to see girl group Red Velvet and soloist Hyolyn -- would hate Feel GHood for daring to show up with their rugged, freewheeling approach to music. But the rhymes flowed and the crowd got into it, even if the hip-hop performance was the antithesis of K-pop’s typical, perfectly coifed coyishness; Tiger JK even taught the Austin audience off-color Korean phrases while the rest of the crew looked on with bemused expressions. “We’re an awkward bunch,” Texas-born Yoonmirae admitted. “We just work better together. When we’re all together with just one look we know, ‘Oh, she’s about to mess up’ so we’re like each other’s crutch.”

Known in South Korea both for her dynamic hip-hop songs -- the Austin crowd erupted in a roar of support when she performed her 2007 hit “Black Happiness,” which touches on her experience of being biracial in South Korea -- and her soaring, poignant love songs, Yoonmirae is one of Korea's most renowned vocalists. But she doesn't really get why people think that she is. “I do music, obviously, because I love it. It’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only thing that makes me happy. I know it sounds stupid, and I’m sure everybody is gonna wanna puke and whatever, but I really don’t get when fans come out and they’re like ‘ah, I really love you!’ I do [music] because I love it and I appreciate it. And I’m humbled by it at the same time.”

Despite her modesty, Yoonmirae is one of Korea's most established female emcees and a favorite for television soundtracks, many of which have topped Korean music charts. Her popularity has enabled her to become an advocate for multiracial families in South Korea, based on her own experience as the daughter of a Korean mother and African-American father. “We should all mix it up,” she said with a laugh.

Mixing it up is what Feel Ghood does really well, pulling other genres into their hip-hop sound; Tiger JK, Yoonmirae, and Bizzy even promote as the trio known as MFBTY, an acronym that stands for “My Fans are Better Than Yours” or, as Tiger proudly proclaimed during their two-set performance, “Motherf---ing Bizzy Tiger Yoonmirae.” The group saw multiple successes since their start in 2013, and their 2015 album WondaLand was an upbeat free-for-all that garnered a lot of acclaim.

“MFBTY has got to be clever, genre-blending, expanding,” explained Tiger JK. “That’s our outlet to be different. Because when we all get together, we jam a lot. A lot of our songs come from improvising and freestyling.” As a creative outlet for the trio, the side project has taken on a life of its own. “We need MFBTY otherwise we’d go crazy. You can’t always do hip-hop, you know? When we run out of things to say. Like when [Yoonmirae] hates me, you know? When I need to relieve myself. I do that through music.”

While working with Feel Ghood’s other acts, all of whom plan to release new music this year, including a sequel to Yoonmirae’s 2002 Gemini album, Tiger JK is planning to say farewell to his Drunken Tiger moniker for now. It’ll be his first album since 2013’s The Cure, which was inspired by his music journalist father, Suh Byung Hoo. Suh, who passed away in 2014, was one of Korea’s first pop music writers and the first Billboard correspondent in Korea.

"Life happened,” reflected Tiger JK on his four-year break between albums. “It’s crazy. We all go through life, birth, death, like crazy stuff happening. I kinda wanted to quit music for a while but finally I’m reborn. I didn’t wanna be that old dude that kept coming out with the same shit that I used to do and trying to force feed [listeners].” But after taking some time off from his solo work, it’s now the right moment. “I think it’s coming back. My sound is finally coming back. I think, after this year, maybe it’ll take another 50 years for that sound to come back so this is that moment. The only moment for me to come out as Drunken Tiger and then I gotta move on. Drop something classic, you know?”

It doesn’t get much more classic Korean hip-hop than Drunken Tiger and Yoonmirae, but Tiger JK just laughed off his impact on the industry in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. “I’m like, ‘why did I do it? It’s my fault!” Tiger JK joked, before admitting that sometimes he feels the modern state of hip-hop in Korea is “more of a fashion statement nowadays. [It’s] something different. I’m not knocking it back though.” To keep with the latest trends, Tiger JK pointed to Junoflo, who he relies on to keep up with burgeoning music acts from around the world, and Ann One, who he claimed is the Feel Ghood crew’s “super vocalist.” (She proved the claim later that night with a smooth cover of Lil Kim’s “Crush On You.”) 

But the most impressive, critical member of Feel GHood’s family wasn’t on stage at SXSW, which made sense considering the 10:40 p.m. start time may be too late for the nine-year-old son of Yoonmirae and Tiger JK to be out. According to them, Jordan --who had a track featured on WondaLand -- is the real decision maker behind the K-hip-hop power couple. “[Tiger JK] runs the songs past Jordan before we put them on an album,” said Yoonmirae. “And he’ll be like, ‘Nah, I don’t really like this one’ or, ‘Mom, you’re a little off on this.’ So we get into fights with Jordan because we both hate to lose.” According to Tiger JK, he trusts Jordan because “kids are honest. It’s a new culture. They know what they want. Jordan tells me what’s hip and what’s not.”

Though the likes of Yoonmirae and Tiger JK don’t really need affirmation from young people (except Jordan) to prove their musical relevance, the venue was filled with cries of support for the pair and their crew from the youthful crowd at K-Pop Night Out. Tiger JK and Yoonmirae may not have been the headlining act, but with the two combined sets overflowing with classic Drunken Tiger, newer MFBTY, and a whole lot in between, it's doubtful anyone even noticed.