J.Y. Park says his rival is LeBron James. After a decade of Park continuing his streak of crafting No. 1 hits both as an artist and producer while leading his namesake JYP Entertainment to become the biggest K-pop label in the world, the comparison as a pop music MVP isn’t far off.
“I always study what LeBron is doing and I try to beat him,” the 47-year-old singer-songwriter, producer and record executive says with a laugh. “Before it was Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, but now it’s LeBron. Let’s see who survives longer! He’s in his 17th year in the NBA, he’s 35, I’m fighting with him. He’s my rival.”
With more than 25 years in his field, J.Y. Park has consistently been an valuable player in an increasingly global music industry with 2019 alone demonstrating his continued ability to craft chart-topping and crossover hits, mold attention-demanding groups while still slaying the stage as an entertainer himself. As a definitive voice in the Korean-entertainment world, every word he shares about his company, his artists or himself is swiftly covered in the local press making less of a need for proper interviews. But the year-end release of a new single and a concert series celebrating his legacy has inspired this exclusive conversation with Billboard — his first proper chat with a reporter in years.
But even when given the opportunity to boast about himself, the great year his artists like GOT7, TWICE, DAY6, Stray Kids, ITZY and more have had, or about his new song “Fever”, Mr. JYP would rather talk about what gets him burning up on the inside, which takes him all the way back to his earliest inspirations.
While K-pop is considered a relatively modern-day music scene — with most pointing to early ’90s artists like Seo Taiji and Boys’ boundary-breaking pop/hip-hop mashups as the genre’s genesis — Park’s musical inspirations are classic. He names Harlem’s famous Cotton Club as his “ultimate bias in entertainment” and two of its regular performers as his all-time favorite artists.
“Sammy Davis Jr. could dance, he could sing, his showmanship, his jokes, his comedy, he’s just an entertainer — he blows my mind,” Park says. “And the only people I can say are on the same level as, or better than, Michael Jackson are the Nicholas Brothers. Watching them perform, sing and dance, it just makes my blood boil — in a good way — like, ‘I have to do something! I have to dance, I have to sing, I have to go on stage.'”
In addition to being a classically trained pianist and studying music theory since childhood, the Cotton Club’s vaudeville-era glamour marks the “foundation of his art” while he watches fellow genre-spanning producers like Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin (“From Beastie Boys to Jay-Z to metal jams, Rick Rubin is sick”) as musical rivals.
While some K-pop labels are known for embracing certain genres or aesthetics, JYPE’s roster is more varied with fans often grouping its artists together based on their personalities or character above aspects like raw skills or visual beauty. Park has echoed this sentiment in the past as his label weaved its way through being a top 5 Korean entertainment through the years until overtaking the competition in 2018. As the company’s founder, Park chalks that up to sticking to a core message.
“I’m so thankful that as [the] decades have passed by, the general public has started to believe in the motivation of our company and what we stand for,” he says. “The fans and the public truly believe what we say. I’m so happy that they believe what we see. They don’t think we’re cheating. Because why? We did it right.”
Park is adamant that all parts of a successful company should be held accountable and scrutinized by the public — even its owner.
“That trust is everything,” he adds. “Success is like having a bigger microphone. Even if you have a huge speaker that can amplify what you say, but your life doesn’t back it up, they’re not going to listen. No matter what type of beautiful message you say in that speaker, if they think your life doesn’t back it up then you’re just a hypocrite. The whole point of being successful becomes in vain. It has to be a clean, righteous, respected journey. Even if you become No. 1 in the world, your journey needs to be respected or they won’t listen to your message.”
Park published a book JYP Ways that details his company’s vision, values and mindset, which is required reading for all employees.
“I founded my company as a group of people sharing the same values and the same goal,” he says. “I was always curious about the definition of a successful company. What makes a company? A bunch of people on a payroll? If that’s a company, then if anybody gives one of your members a little bit more money they’ll leave, right? If the whole purpose was money and success, then your employer was a thief.”
Park picks JYPE’s recent partnership with Make-a-Wish Foundation — and with a newly created joint project of Every Dreams Matters! (EDM) — as his highlight of 2019 and talks excitedly about the company’s plans to expand the collaboration. In addition to a percentage of JYPE profits going into the program, a new credit card will soon be introduced for fans to have a percentage of their spending go towards granting the dreams of kids facing critical illnesses. Park sees this type of company initiative speaking not just for the business, but for its young artists too.
“Kids who get their wish come true, the ratio of possibility of their chance to be cured goes up dramatically,” Park says. “[Something like this] can also help all of the mental problems that all these young celebrities and entertainers go through, you know? American, Korean entertainers when they achieve fame, money and stardom when they’re young and they just lose focus and meaning of their life. Having them be part of these programs that are helping unfortunate people, that’s when they can find a true goal of life instead of ‘I want to be a star’ or ‘I want to be No. 1.’ That can never be a true dream, that can never make you happy or be a motivation for the rest of your life. This is an education for our artists.”
Described as his vision of “21st-century vaudeville,” J.Y. Park’s latest single “Fever” combines his love of brassy beats with modern-day bass drops.
“I had to reinterpret the Cotton Club and drop that 808 in there,” he explains of the track that transitions from his Gene Kelly–like singing to sparse rap sections from featured artists Superbee and BIBI. “The bass is playing and suddenly, when they rap, an 808 plays the same notes. That’s when I got goosebumps while making it: when I heard the 808s hit the same notes as the upright bass, I was like ‘Damn.’ That’s when it became not just vaudeville, not just Cotton Club, but 21st-century Cotton Club.”
Watching old clips of performances from his favorite club brought the itch to get back on stage.
“Musically, I was feeling like I was burning,” he says. “There was a passion inside. When I go on stage, it is like a fever I have to let out … when I was a judge on [the South Korean singing competition show] K-pop Star, I always wanted to be a participant instead of a judge. I didn’t want to sit there and judge people. My comments can maybe help other kids who want to be artists, but judging doesn’t make me lose my mind. When I’m on stage, I can’t remember anything until I come back down.”
The chills Park felt while crafting “Fever” pop up occasionally in his work, most recently when he worked on TWICE’s latest single that hit No. 1 both in Korea and on the Billboard charts with “Feel Special.”
“When I first wrote ‘Feel Special,’ it was a different type of chill,” he says slowly, with a tenderness in his speech heard when talking about the nine-member girl group. “Especially this year, there have been some hardships through a couple members of TWICE. When they have problems, they come to my room and they talk about it. A lot of times they cry. But when they told me it was the members who are right next to them who help them stand back up, I thought it was so beautiful; how much they really truly love each other and how they really, truly rely on each other. When they left, I just wrote the song right away at that moment. I was moved because the lyric and the melody were just so touching because it was based on a true story. I just sang it as a piano ballad.”
Park feels that those personal stories will be the differentiating factors in music when trends can be spread and hitched to so quickly.
“It’s very funny, if you look at the Billboard [Hot] 100, it’s less diverse than 20, 30 years ago,” he explains. “Why is that? The information travels so fast globally that if something’s cool it affects all the other creators and they end up becoming similar. The fashion, the music, the dance, it’s going to become more and more similar. What elements will make it different? It’s the true stories.”
J.Y. adds that “Feel Special” marked a turning point for TWICE where people were not as focused on the group’s looks, clothes or dance moves like past releases, but were instead moved by the music. “It’s a little bit sad, but I would have never written a song like that if they hadn’t actually gone through those hardships. Why would I?” he says, noting that the group was actually crying while recording in the studio which he feels was transferred into the final product. “The word I saw most from listeners was that they were ‘touched.’ It’s still dance music, the girls are still dancing their asses off, but if you can touch inside people’s hearts; well, that’s a huge hit.”
Park gets excited about how he can guide other artists under the roster who have become known for their writing and producing their own material like boy band Stray Kids (“I’m trying to make them be themselves, but I just try to share a different angle and my experiences”) and JYPE’s first rock band DAY6 (“They’re kind of underneath the radar but selling out every single show in an hour; they’re going to have a solid career”).
But as an artist, songwriter and producer himself, Park has more than 55 singles that have topped charts domestically or abroad. He’s honoring that legacy with his No. 1 X 50 concert series that wraps its Korean run on the final day of 2019.
The concert features his chart-topping hits as well as two that he holds dear to his heart that didn’t quite snag the top spot in his solo 2012 release “You’re the One” (where he needed to cancel planned promotions over hurt vocal chords) and Sunmi‘s debut solo single “24 Hours” (“One of my favorites that I’ve done,” Park says of the 2013 cut). The one track he performs that he isn’t his own is the one he describes as “perfectly written”: Monica‘s early single “Before You Walk Out of My Life,” from her debut album, Miss Thang. He says the No. 1 Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop hit from 1996 “was my ultimate role model as songwriting: a song with a strong beat that was good enough as a ballad.”
In the No. 1 X 50 show Park performs “Before You Walk Out of My Life” right before his ballad version of TWICE’s “Feel Special” — aka the song with a strong beat but good enough to be a ballad. It shows that, more than two decades later, J.Y. Park hasn’t forgotten, and is still completing, goals he set out to do way early in his career. Next year, No. 1 X 50 will make its way to California for a special U.S. show all continuing the unprecedented career trajectory of an industry and artistic visionary who refuses to define himself as anything other than a “leader.”
“Underneath the JYP Entertainment logo, there’s always a slogan: ‘Leader in Entertainment,’ and that slogan was there since the day we started,” he emphasizes. “We have to define, ‘What is a leader?'”
Mr. JYP never actually answers his question, but if a rare hour on the phone with him reveals anything, it’s that a genuine appreciation for music, goal-oriented business that goes beyond money, and songs that truly give someone a (good kind of) fever, all lead to the creation of a true leader.