An artist referring to songs they’ve worked on as their “babies” can be a somewhat cliché answer when describing their work—but few can speak so affectionately and vividly recall the tiniest details about the song like BUMZU. That attention is the tangible result of the Korean singer-songwriter-producer’s personal and positive approach to becoming one of K-pop’s most influential creatives.
The 31-year-old has spent more than a decade in Korea’s music industry and BUMZU’s tight relationship with chart-topping acts like SEVENTEEN (he co-wrote and composed the group’s 2015 peppy debut single “Adore U” and worked on every track from this year’s Sector 17, their first top 5 album on the Billboard 200) allow him to observe how songs he worked on click with audiences overseas.
“I got the chance to see how the American fans digest SEVENTEEN’s music and the connection points between the fans and artists,” the humble-but-eloquent BUMZU tells Billboard a week after attending the group’s Be the Sun concert in Los Angeles earlier this year. “The moments that I saw allow for those connections were what I hoped they would be and that was huge for me.”
Despite jetlag and expending their energy at The Kia Forum concert, BUMZU and his A&R team went straight into the studio that night. While the singer-producer is tight-lipped about the “great, really interesting project” from the post-concert midnight session, he says the experience left him “re-energized” in his latest creative step navigating and juggling multiple parts of the K-pop industry.
Raised in a musical home in Seoul, BUMZU (full name Kye Bumjoo) played violin since childhood but dabbled in everything from rock bands to rapping and beatmaking in his youth. The prodigy’s first mainstream plug came around age 19-20 when he composed for Woo Hyuk Jang of pioneering ’90s K-pop boy band H.O.T. in the early ’10s. By 2012, BUMZU was a finalist in the popular singing competition show Superstar K (which included PSY as a judge in post-“Gangnam Style” fame), igniting his solo career and landing the first connections to his future label home of PLEDIS Entertainment.
While he landed some cuts with then-PLEDIS artists like After School and NU’EST, BUMZU had begun vocal coaching the label’s young trainees who later formed SEVENTEEN. He scored more song placements (with heavyweights like SM and JYP Entertainment) and became co-CEO of publishing and production company Prismfilter Music Group (which represents names like ANCHOR, Kitae Park and Poptime). Simultaneously, BUMZU was becoming a primary name behind much of NU’EST and SEVENTEEN’s hit discographies to help lift PLEDIS into a major industry player and become one of the jewels in the HYBE LABELS system after the corporation acquired the agency in 2020.
BUMZU says his fast-paced passion worked well in large part due to the less formal work culture between artists, creatives and executives at PLEDIS.
“We aren’t very business-minded or strict,” he explains. “The artists are my friends. They can contact me and the A&R on the phone. We talk about where they want us to go; they send messages on [Korean text service] KakaoTalk, sometimes we just do it on Zoom.”
Dressed in a cozy long-sleeve, sweatpants with a slight five-o’clock stubble showing for this sitdown, BUMZU is embracing the slower pace of the West Coast compared to his more chaotic day-to-day in Seoul. “I don’t really have a set sleeping time; sometimes I’ll be awake for 36-48 hours on end,” he says. “I love my job but I have so many things to do. Sometimes I need to be awake or wait for the artists, but when I’m writing songs or I’m toiling over my own artistic dilemmas—as a solo artist and as a member of Prismfilter—and thinking about which direction I should take this team in or which way we should collectively head in as a group…it’s a lot of work but, again, I love the job. It’s not like anyone went up to me and was like, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re not going to make it.’ I put it on myself.”
In fact, he had a life-affirming moment when COVID forced him to put a hold on his solo career.
“I held a concert in [early February] 2020 and after we went to meet about preparing for my solo album, and that is right when COVID hit,” he shares of his first planned comeback since last releasing an EP in 2017. “The plans had to change right in the middle of my solo album prep, but, surprisingly, it felt good.”
PLEDIS shares that BUMZU is still preparing an upcoming solo album, but the musical mastermind isn’t slowing down in any aspect of his work. As much as he wants to craft hits for massive audiences, the prodigy-turned-producer wants to open people’s minds to respecting all the ways K-pop stars operate.
“As a person that communicates with artists on a daily basis all the time, I think that artists have a job to express themselves very much in any shape, form or way,” he explains. “Some show their art maybe through inspiring the staff or through the producers. I respect that aspect of it and I just don’t understand why there’s criticism [of K-pop acts’ lack of involvement].”
While BUMZU can’t pick a favorite moment from SEVENTEEN’s concert (“I participated in almost all the songs so all of them are like my babies”), he can say that he’s proud that his songs have an underlying string of uplifting and positive mantras.
“We’re living in a world where things are changing every day and I consider myself one of the people that keeps pace through the changes,” he shares of his musical philosophy. “No matter the fact that everything’s changing in this hectic society we live in, the most important thing you have to realize is that we’re all just living life. Because of that, I’m trying to focus all the songs and artists I work with on having great messages. Even in this constantly changing world, I want to create an unchanging set of values through these artists and my songs’ messages. I will try my best to reach that goal and ask everyone for their support.”
Next, read on for some of BUMZU’s personal reflections on significant works from his career.
Jin, “Super Tuna” (2021): The main point of that song was, “Let’s not make it serious.” We wanted people to just have pure joy from listening to it, almost childlike happiness, and not think too hard. Of course, Jin is such a big artist, but he felt that, time to time, we need to have that childhood-like brightness back.
The story behind the song is actually legendary. [Laughs] We were out fishing in an area where professional fishermen fish and they were all telling us, “You’re not going to catch anything, it’s not going to happen.” I went up to Jin and said, “Yo. You got [a] Billboard Number One. You’re the man. Since you are the man, you’re going to be able to catch a tuna.” He threw his line, first time, caught a tuna when we played “Super Tuna” instrumental!
After that, the fishermen were like, “Some things are just meant to be, but we’re going to challenge you again.” So, I repeated that line, “You’re Billboard Number One. You’re the man and since you’re the man, you’re going to be able to catch a shark.” He threw it in again and, as soon as he threw it in, a baby shark started circling. He could have caught it but we thought, “Dude, that’s freaky” so we just pulled the bait.
NU’EST, “Bet Bet” (2019): One “TMI” about this one is the lyrics for “Bet Bet” were excruciatingly hard. It took almost a full month just to get the lyrics out. So many thoughts went into it: “Should we use the word ‘bet’ or not?” That was a huge point of discussion with [NU’EST member] Baekho. That word was discussed a lot and especially for that album since it’s the album where the members got back together after the Produce 101 series. They wanted it to portray that feeling of “We’re back together now, we’re going to give it our all, we’re going to put everything out there.” Some words that we came up with were like, when you watch a movie, casino movies with gambling when they all just shove “all in.” That was one of the better ideas discussed; taking the bet together.
Other than the lyrics, the track and the topline were so quick and cool. It was a very fun thing to work on, but the lyrics came from hell. [Laughs]
fromis_9, “Glass Shoes” (2017): It always cracks me up when I think back on this song. In my life, it was one of the three most fun lyrical processes I ever participated in. I was so full of ideas that some of them were like going to Mars and back, I had to trim it down and make it neat. We were trying to get a cherished feeling across to the audience. We were also trying to fit the Cinderella story into fromis_9 and because of that, I was using words like “binggeureu binggeureu,” which is spinning around, and that kind of stuff. As I was working, I would just be laying on the sofa, write my lyrics and I’d just crack up by himself. That’s definitely one of my most fun works.
If you were to ask me to do a girl group now, I might probably not be so willing at this point in my career. And that’s not forever, like an ultimatum. If a great opportunity pops up, I’d be willing to do it and hop on. But for now, with everything that’s going on with me and my projects like SEVENTEEN, I want to focus more on what I already have on my shoulders.
It’s not like I hate girl groups! If I get the chance later in time, I’ll do it but just right now, I got so many things to focus on. And one thing about my songs are that I don’t really use “he,” “she,” “her” pronouns very much. I focus on lyrics, the message or the point that we’re trying to get across in the song. Instead of worrying about, “Oh, because they’re a girl group, I have to do this thing and since they’re a boy group, I have to do this a certain way.” I don’t do that. I’m much more focused on, “Does this song fit this artist? Does this track fit with this lyric? Does the topline fit with this lyric?” That’s really what I’m worried about, not the gender of the groups.
NCT 127, “Back 2 U (AM 01:27)” (2017): It was for a songwriting camp with SM [Entertainment] that I participated in and that session was with The Stereotypes [the production team who’s won Grammys for their work with Bruno Mars and Chris Brown], who are very famous, and August Rigo [BTS, Chris Brown, One Direction]. The three of us were just cooking so well. It was such a good, happy session. The topline [melody] only took us three takes. We just used different parts of that to complete the song on the spot. That was a wonderful experience and, also, August recently participated in SEVENTEEN’s “Hot.” So, working with him again was wonderful.
2PM, “How Is It?” (2016): It’s still surreal. Growing up, 2PM was a huge artist. Once my song became a number in their album, I was like, “Oh my god. My song is in 2PM’s album.” But the biggest thing was meeting 2PM.
When I went to JYP [Entertainment] to vocal direct that song—I can’t remember which exact member it was, it might have been Wooyoung or Junho—but they took really good care of me. They would just buy me coffee, anything. I was a baby in the industry at the time and for me to see them be so nice and be so caring toward all their staff, I was like, “Oh, that’s how successful K-pop artists should be.” They really felt like the model standard for me so that’s an experience that I will never forget.
SEVENTEEN, “Very Nice” (2016): I had a feeling this was going to be a hit because I literally locked myself in my room for two days to make it. I was just drinking coffee and reading music. I told myself that I wasn’t going to leave the room until I finished something good. Through that arduous process, I got to a point like, “Oh, this is going to be a hit.” Once that hit me, I was just partying by myself; just screaming and going crazy. For those two days, the only person I would talk to was Woozi. He was on his own schedules, but being updated on everything and how the process is going. Literally, he was the only one I spoke to during those 48 hours.
Once the lyric work started going, Woozi, S.Coups and I were all in a room and talking about how we wanted to incorporate “nice” as one of the key words. S.Coups was the one who came up with the idea of “Very Nice” and, from that, the lyrics started just coming together. The idea of nice came from the same idea of “nice shot,” like when golfers go golfing, someone has a nice shot, you say, “Nice shot!” Then that’s where the “nice” and “very nice” developed from. These days, I’m a maniac for golf but back then, I wasn’t playing. But S.Coups pitched in wonderful ideas that helped in the creation of that song and to this day, it’s been decorating SEVENTEEN’s encore stages.
SHINee, “Hold You” (2015): I participated along with a producer named Deez [Red Velvet, VIVIZ, SuperM] in another song camp, he’s one of my favorite senior hyungs. When you listen to this song, it doesn’t sound complex but if you open up the actual files and you break it down, the vocal harmony techniques that are in there are extremely complex.
There are two songs in my career that I have put the most effort into the vocal production: one is “Thank You (Evening by Evening)” by NU’EST, and then “Hold You.” In both of them, I wanted to use their vocal harmonies almost as an instrument in the song composition instead of just harmony.
After School, “Make-Up & Tears” (2013): Interesting story about that one is, that was the first song that I participated in after joining PLEDIS. I’m still putting my everything into music, but since this was the first one, I was literally sacrificing everything in my body to get it done and get it to that satisfactory level.
So, the lyrics talk about a breakup, right? I went around and wanted to get stories that happened from normal people. After you cry, your eyes are puffy, right? Sometimes you might freeze a spoon and put it on your eyes to reduce the swelling, that kind of stuff. I was calling all of my friends and asking because, since it’s a girl group song and I’m a man, I didn’t really have that perspective or an experience to look at where it could relate to a lot of people. I was just on my phone going through everyone in my contacts! I didn’t know what was right or what was wrong because I didn’t have that same track record to look back on like I do now.