After the release of what would become his career-defining hit “Gangnam Style,” PSY had big plans — he was going to retire.
The Korean rapper-singer wasn’t looking to tour the world, relocate to America or sign with a super-pop manager, but the then-34-year-old was planning to embark on an earlier dream in his career to “establish the biggest entertainment agency in Asia.” Yet it’s only now in 2019 that PSY feels with nearly 20 years in the business and higher-than-ever interest in K-pop, that he feels he can truly be a backbone to the company he envisioned years ago.
At the top of this year, PSY took to social media to announce the creation of P NATION, a new management agency and record label where the star acts as founder and CEO. The company will not only support PSY’s artistic career, which will include new music in 2019, but established K-pop acts Jessi, HyunA, E’Dawn, and a slew of new talent currently being trained. While most K-pop agencies are based in the posh Gangnam neighborhood in Seoul — the same one PSY’s breakout hit was named after — P NATION currently sits in a temporary location in the city’s Itaewon area known as a popular spot for foreign tourists and frequently visited by stationed U.S. military personnel. The company will move in the fall, but for now the international flavor of Itaewon feels aptly appropriate for the burgeoning company that PSY says will have hip-hop and performance-based styles at its core but looks to make major, mainstream musical impacts.
“As we’re talking, K-pop is really huge and it’s not domestic anymore,” PSY reflects inside his top-floor office that boasts not only his work desk and recording equipment, but a reminder of his accomplishments. Inside what feels like a cozy apartment complete with a couch, lounge chairs and balcony, PSY speaks calmly and cross-legged, explaining his plans for P NATION in a workspace that includes various award-show statues (his MTV EMA, his American Music Award), high-end art pieces (including a statue by French-born artist Mr. Brainwash that towers over his balcony) and not-so-subtle references to himself (like a throw pillow designed with a cartoon cat boasting his famous “Gangnam Style” look).
“Right now, a lot of young kids’ dreams about being a K-pop star,” he says. “When I sign young kids these days, I meet their parents and they’re really different from my parents. They’re so supportive. The world’s been changing: K-pop has done a great job — and big applause to BTS, of course — and that’s why so many parents are so supportive of their children pursuing being a K-pop star.”
The only son born into a family-owned semi-conductor business, PSY (born Park Jae-sang) recalls butting heads with his parents on his early career path (“My dad would even say, ‘Really? Is that my son?'”) and needing to manage himself as an artist early in his career (running his own business affairs from 2003-2007), so this next chapter is somewhat of a return home but also one he approaches with a keen business sense in hopes to help his artists establish themselves in the way he has after nearly two decades on the scene.
“Trying to be different is really dangerous, I think, I just want to concentrate on the basics — our basics are, of course, making good music and making appropriate music with great dancing and great videos,” he says of his vision. He centers that around the goal for creating careers where his artists have long-lasting success akin to the semi-annual stadium concerts he holds in Korea. “When I launched the company, I wrote on Instagram that I want to share the things I learned. Among the things that I learned was directing my concerts and shows myself for 19 years. I’m thinking of how to make that same great concert for Jessi, HyunA, E’Dawn, and a boy or girl group. If we are saying what the special essence of P NATION will be, it’s those big concerts, those big performances.”
In this exclusive, PSY opens up to Billboard for the first time about the plans for the P NATION artists, his crop of new talent, where his artistic inspirations lie today and more.
The New Jersey–raised Korean-American rapper, Jessi has more than a decade in the Korean music business with stints as a solo artist and part of hip-hop collectives. During her time under former home YMC Entertainment (a label that housed a few Korean singers, bands and actors), Jessi’s fame grew from reality TV shows and some success with her solo work — like her 2017 single “Gucci” that has more than 15 million views on YouTube. Jessi was announced as the first signee to P NATION when PSY initially revealed the company.
First Steps at P NATION: A big commercial hit that showcases not only her talents as a rapper, but her singing and dancing abilities. “She has a lot of hip-hop and urban elements, but still I want her to perform very commercial pop music,” PSY says. “Of course, it’s going to have some hip-hop elements — all pop has hip-hop and hip-hop is pop these days — but I want her to create a pop song. I’m convincing her hard to do some dance moves because she’s a really good dancer — really good!”
Jessi’s Future: Songs in English focused on the U.S. market. “In Korea though mostly, Jessi’s been known from a lot of TV shows, but we see her Instagram or her perform overseas, and she has a powerful, organic fanbase. I thought, ‘She has such good hardware, if I could get her an appropriate song, that will be my first and last job.’ It’s that easy. I won’t have anything to do, she already has everything. She’s ready. Besides, she raps in English very well. Not right now, but in the near future, I’m thinking of making some good U.S. songs as well.”
PSY on Jessi’s Business Acumen: “She’s been in this industry for so many years, she’s from the States and has a lot of global ideas. From time to time, I tell her ‘Hey Jess, you should work as A&R, I want to pay you.’ The songs she listens to and the videos she watches, they’re really good and she finds them when they only have a thousand views on YouTube. She has so many ideas and she has good taste. My job is choosing and concentrating Jessi’s big ideas into the best they can be. She’s a good person.”
One of K-pop’s most famous faces, HyunA spent a short time as a member of Wonder Girls, debuting in 2007, before making her mark on the scene with her longtime girl group 4Minute and as a solo artist under Cube Entertainment. The singer-rapper co-starred in PSY’s “Gangnam Style” video in 2012, which brought her international star to a new level, and continued successfully even after 4Minute’s 2016 disbandment.
In 2018, HyunA left her longtime home in Cube after revealing a relationship with E’Dawn, a member of Cube Entertainment boy band Pentagon. Both she and E’Dawn were announced to be dismissed from the label, only to have the decision reconsidered by the company, with eventually both artists leaving and later signing with P NATION.
First Steps at P NATION: The solo K-pop star is writing songs and PSY envisions new music that focuses on her strong performance style. “We are doing the right thing,” he says with a humble confidence. “After ‘Gangnam Style’ we were close friends and I have a habit that if I team up a friend, I imagine, ‘How would I work with them?’ I thought of a lot of projects for HyunA just by myself. HyunA’s a great performer, a great performer.”
How She Helped E’Dawn: HyunA and boyfriend E’Dawn signed separate, solo contracts and it was only after meeting with the starlet that PSY even considered signing the former boy-band member. “When I first met E’Dawn, I didn’t think about making a contract but then I heard what HyunA had to say. We came together, we talked, and then when I talked with him, I thought, ‘Wow. Separately, he’s good.’ They’re not a team. They’re dating, but that’s it.”
Her Competitive Relationship: “I’ve never seen lovers like that,” PSY says through a fit of laughs. “When we date someone, we go out to fancy places, go to restaurants. But those two? They dance together, they write songs together, and they compete with each other. That’s a really funny thing! I’m like, ‘You two are so strange.’ And when they make a good song separately — they don’t share it with each other! Individually, they’ll send me songs. They’re very competitive. I love them, I love their way of love — it’s very creative.”
After debuting on the K-pop scene only in 2016 as a member of Pentagon, E’Dawn became known for helping shape the band’s musical identity, co-writing and co-producing several of the band’s singles including their breakout hit “Shine.” E’Dawn became entangled in the aforementioned conflict over dating his label mate HyunA and both departed the company by the end of 2018.
First Steps at P NATION: A mainstream-focused hit that can showcases his talent for trendy, melodic hip-hop. “These days, a lot of young artists in the U.S. are doing melodic rap — it’s rap but it has melodies and stuff like that. E’Dawn’s really good at it and I’m a big fan of him doing that. But he’s also going to do some pop music, I don’t want anyone going so obscure, you know what I mean? We got to do pop music to be popular at first…I respect E’Dawn a lot as a solo artist. He has great dance moves, he can rap great, he can sing great, he dresses great and he can really write a song.”
How He Feels About E’Dawn’s Relationship: PSY takes a practical approach when considering the relationship that saw them dismissed from their former record label. “They were in love before meeting me so…” he trails off before laughing and becoming serious again. “That’s a really delicate thing. They are very good looking — I mean, every idol is very good looking. They are young, they are so talented and, you know, it’s human nature. If you’re good looking, talented men and women, you’re inevitably going to feel good feelings about each other.”
P NATION TRAINEES
P NATION is also the home to twenty-something male and female trainees who are preparing to debut in a girl group or boy band. It’s not clear which, if either, will come first, but he says that like Jessi, HyunA, E’Dawn and himself, hip-hop will be a main component to these future group’s musical identities.
The Importance He Places on Himself as CEO: “As a human being, I have a very heavy feeling about touching others’ lives,” he says when observing the young talent in his company. “I don’t want to set their expectations too high or too low. I really have to be careful about my decisions because these aren’t tiny decisions — it’s someone’s life. I’m just watching them being trained. I don’t say anything to them because I don’t have any comment at the moment on that. They have a lot to learn still, but I see some good performers among them.”
On Letting His Artists Date: “I will tell everyone that, if you’re going to do something, please let me know first,” he diplomatically explains of his policy on dating. “If you let me know first, then I’m going to have some suggestions, like, ‘Hey, I think you better focus on work right now and you can do the romantic things later?’ It’s more about fans. They are getting some rights, support and love as an artist, and at the same time earning duties as an artist. If my idols can maintain the vibe that they’re focused on music, if it is possible, I do believe that’s the best thing.”
What If a “Dating Scandal” Hits P NATION? “For me, I don’t like the word ‘scandal’ because if some men and women are dating, that’s just dating. That’s not a scandal, if they talk with me. To me, the scandal is when I didn’t know about it before then…in the entire species and in the entire universe, love is the strongest thing. Someone who is older or the CEO of a company, they can give advice, but if they’re in love, well, they’ve got to do it.”
The viral-sensation-turned-CEO says he’s creating a path to retirement with plans to release at least two more full-length albums.
First Steps at P NATION: At least one single in 2019, but he’s not sure if it will be accompanied by more music. “I’m going to release a new song this year,” he explains. “My dilemma is whether it’s a single, EP or full-length album. Personally, I prefer a full-length album. But before I retire, I want at least 10 full-length albums. My last one [4X2=8 released in 2017], was my eighth, so I have two more to go! So, if I want to accomplish that I got to release a full-length. But these days, LPs are too long. If we do an album, there might be one big single, three or four songs that are popular, and the other six or seven other songs just go away, and I feel really sorry about that.”
He Reads the Comments: “When I revealed [the news] about my company and my artists, a lot of K-pop fans were supportive, I was really surprised,” he says back to January of this year. “So many K-pop fans all over the word were so supportive and they are showing me high expectations and stuff, so I really appreciate that.” But that doesn’t mean he’s out to snatch every artist from their agency, adding “I only needed four or three artists to show the color of our company and I think it’s really enough for now,” while shutting down rumors that he was planning to sign his former “Daddy” collaborator CL.
The Future of PSY: He’s focused on consistency and high-quality releases until he eventually does decide to retire. “Next year is my 20th anniversary. When I debuted in 2000, at first people were laughing, secondly, they were watching, and then third they were participating…Every first of January, I’m thinking about announcing my retirement because the word I really like is ‘Good bye.’ Not just ‘bye,’ but ‘good bye.'” I made my appearances as a singer very happily, very energetically and with laughter. I want to leave in the same way. I want to make a ‘good bye’ eventually, and if I want to make a good bye, then I really got to be good until I say bye. That’s my goal — that’s the only goal. I want to be good until I say bye.”