In January 2016, SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-Man announced the formation of Neo Culture Technology (NCT), the globalized band with an unlimited number of members divided into units, tasked with bringing K-pop beyond Korea’s borders. Months later came NCT U, the foundational alpha unit to which members from any of NCT’s local units can be added. Later in 2016, two more units made their debut: NCT Dream, the delightfully poppy unit featuring the bright-faced youngest members of NCT and KCON NY 2017 performers NCT 127. The nine members of NCT 127 sat down with Billboard before their Saturday night performance to discuss the possibility of smaller units, the boundary-defying nature of their concept and the potential for more shows in America.
Though NCT 127’s base is Seoul — the 127 represents Seoul’s longitudinal coordinate — the unit has enraptured American K-pop fans without so much as a concert in the States thanks to their Western-leaning sounds. They take direct cues from trap, drum ‘n bass and the latest chart-topping hip-hop, and have worked alongside producers The Stereotypes (Bruno Mars) and Dem Jointz (Janet Jackson, Anderson .Paak). They’ve even garnered support from Apple Music as the first K-Pop act featured on Ebro’s Beats 1 show with their debut song “Firetruck.”
The unit made their debut last year with Haechan, Taeil, Mark, Yuta, Taeyong, Jaehyun and Winwin; this year, they made two additions with Johnny and NCT U’s Doyoung. With the nine current members of NCT 127, each member possesses different talents, from traditional Chinese dance to DJing. As such, the possibilities for duos and subunits are endless, as the members explained. “There’s a limitless amount of units that could come out just with nine people,” Johnny says. “One day, maybe if I DJ and some people come out to sing, some people come out to rap — there’s a lot of things we could try out.”
“I don’t think you can expect which unit will come out next in the NCT team, it’s so unexpected,” Mark adds. “It’s just something we all have to look forward to.”
As part of the global initiative at the heart of NCT, NCT 127’s members are a mini United Nations, where Japan (Yuta), China (Winwin), Canada (Mark), South Korea (Doyoung, Jaehyun, Taeil, Haechan, Taeyong) and the U.S. (Johnny) are represented. NCT 127 stars alongside other unit members in NCT Life, a reality show where they travel and explore various cities, from NCT U member Ten’s hometown of Bangkok to Yuta’s hometown of Osaka. “We do come from various cultures, so we do have some times where we conflict with each other,” Yuta says. “But I feel like we go in with the mindset of trying to understand each [member] and respect each other.”
“The more we don’t understand each other, the more we try to understand each other and try to help each other out in navigating different things,” 127 unit leader Taeyong adds.
The language barriers and cultural differences have led to some sitcom-worthy situations in the dorms. “This guy here, Winwin, the way we talk to him, he picks [it] up really quickly,” Johnny says. “In Korean, there’s a way to raise your formality [based on age]. What happens is if we talk to him with formality, which the younger kids usually do, he’ll speak back to them with formality, because that’s what he hears. When the older guys [use informal speech, or banmal], he’ll speak back to us like that.”
One thing that manages to transcend linguistic barriers is their complex and powerful performances. They’ve worked with noted choreographers Kevin Maher and Tony Testa on “Limitless” and “Cherry Bomb,” respectively. The members have gone on record to note how exhausting their choreography is and how much effort the moves require — six members ripped their pants while doing the memorable split leg choreography from “Cherry Bomb.” “Because we’re singing in Korean, our fans abroad may not understand what we’re saying, but our strength is in performance,” Doyoung says. “I feel the way we see a performance is universal. If fans worldwide would see our performance, they would immediately catch what the essence of NCT is.”
NCT 127 flew in late Friday and had an Apple Store performance in Williamsburg the next morning at 10 a.m., giving them little time to explore New York City. Beyond their short and simple to-do list (Times Square, pizza and hot dogs — the members seem to love fast food), Johnny wanted his bandmates to get something more important out of the experience. “What I really want everyone to experience is the energy that New Yorkers can give us,” the Chicago native says. “We already can feel everyone looking at us with bright eyes. I wish everyone could get that energy and go back to Korea like, ‘Whoa, we just came back from New York with good vibes.'”
When asked if there will be more American shows in the unit’s future, they didn’t hesitate to keep the possibility open. “If there’s an opportunity, yes!” Johnny says. “We really think this is the beginning.”
And if the lines of fans camped outside the Apple Store at 1 a.m. post-KCON were any indication, this is only the beginning of something huge.