Last year, rapper Junoflo showed up in Austin at SXSW as part of the larger Feel Ghood label contingent as a featured artist during sets by iconic Korean hip-hop artists Yoonmirae and Tiger JK. But this year the 25-year-old took to the stage on his own at The Belmont the Korea Spotlight showcase on March 16, just three days after he released his first EP since signing to a Korean label. It preceded another set the next day at the H1GHR Music showcase, and a solo showcase in New York on Friday, March 30.
A Cali boy, Junoflo (Sam Juno Park) grew up in Los Angeles and went to college in San Diego, where he worked as a photographer at hip-hop concerts. “I got to see so many hip-hop artists come up like Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Tyler, the Creator, like ScHoolboy Q, like Logic,” Junoflo told Billboard ahead of his SXSW set. “I went to every one of the shows and I just absorbed.”
Hip-hop had called to the rapper since he was young, and he cites the genre’s roots in jazz as one of the reasons he began to write music: “What really made me love hip-hop was when I discovered A Tribe Called Quest. The way that they used jazz, they sampled jazz to create this entirely new feel, that’s what I fell into. I fell down that rabbit hole. That made me want to write too.”
After working in fashion for a few years, he decided to save up and take a year off from everything else to pursue music. And one day Tiger JK, also known as Drunken Tiger, hit him up, resulting in Junoflo heading over to Korea. “He’s essentially the founder of Korean hip-hop — he’s that guy,” the rapper explains. “I didn’t know he wanted to sign me. It was more like he reached out, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you.’ He flew to LA just to meet me. There was no, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to Korea and do Korean music.’ It was just the right artists linked together; he happened to be living in Korea, doing music in Korea, so I was like, ‘I’ll just take this chance.’”
The Only Human EP came out on March 13, laying forth Junoflo’s expressive musicality. “We all go through our own struggles, our own feelings of victory and failure, and everything in between,” says the rapper. “It’s just about embracing all of my flaws… It was my human experience throughout this year. I feel that [for] my growth as an artist, and just as a human being, this project was kind of like the culmination of all my feelings.”
The EP is collab-heavy, and only features two solo tracks, “Way2gone” and “Real Ones.” But that’s just fine with Junoflo. “Working alone all the time and now having all these talented artists around me, to not only give me their opinion, but to actually play a part in the creation of that art, to me, it was amazing,” he explains.
The single “Grapevine” features Jay Park and reflects Junoflo’s experience with the rumors that spread around him after becoming a public persona. “It’s not necessarily about bad energy,” he says. ”People are going to talk. Everybody talks. Everybody listens. It’s what you do with that information that makes you the type of person that you are. To me, it’s about whatever you hear alright. Take what you need from me and live your life because that’s what I’m going to do.”
As one of Korean hip-hop’s rising stars — he appeared during the fifth and sixth seasons of the popular rap series Show Me The Money — Junoflo isn’t just working within the K-hip-hop scene: he recently featured on BoA’s “Your Song,’ off of last month’s One Shot, Two Shot EP. “I was like, ‘What?”” recalls Junoflo of getting the call to appear on the track. “’BoA? The BoA? You’re not talking about no zoos or nothing, right?’ When that came in, I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ She’s iconic. She’s legendary. I’m just shocked that she thought of me to be on this song. That’s just crazy to me. I still see myself like this kid who is rapping in his dorm room in San Diego. The fact that I could be part of such a major project with such a major artist, that’s just amazing to me.”
Being raised bilingual — “Korean in the house but English outside” — Junoflo recognizes the immensity of Korean music’s rise to prominence on the global scene over the past few years. “This is definitely a moment in music history,” he said. “But not just music, culturally. I think this really shows that music is the universal language and something that unifies everything and everybody. The fact that I can be part of this movement right now, this progression, I just want to play my part, I just want to do my best to push it in a positive way, to create dope stuff.”
Fresh off of Only Human, Junoflo is already thinking about what he wants to do next. “Hopefully I can put out another project by the end of this year, that’s the goal. In both Korean and global markets. I just wanna reach every part of the world with my music.“