Of the three companies that dominate Korean pop—SM, JYP, and YG—it is the music of YG Entertainment that is most likely to sound familiar to American ears. Founded in 1996 by Yang Hyun-suk, former member of seminal pop group Seo Taiji and Boys, YG has always emphasized hip-hop and R&B as its musical foundation. From the start, the company enlisted Korean-American musicians, like early hitmaker Perry, to produce tracks that were in line with stateside trends, thus staying ahead of the curve in the domestic market.
It was the flashy music videos and aggressive rap singles of the late ’90s and early aughts by YG artists like Jinusean and 1TYM that initially attracted a young G-Dragon to the label. In 2006, YG further evolved as a K-pop powerhouse when GD debuted as the leader of influential boy band Big Bang, followed three years later by girl group 2NE1. And, of course, longtime YG artist PSY brought his label international recognition last summer with the explosion of “Gangnam Style.”
All of these international hits are no accident—YG is known for granting more freedom to its artists than rival K-pop powerhouses, creating space for a unique talent like GD to grow. So, to get a window into G-Dragon’s musical upbringing and the history of his label, here are G-Dragon’s Favorite Songs from YG Entertainment.
As told to Jaeki Cho (@jaekicho)
1.Jinusean “Gasoline” (1997)
Producer: Yang Hyun-suk [CEO of YG Entertainment]
G-Dragon: “[Sings the melody.] I really like this record. The music video, I watch it now and it's still great visually. There's an old vibe to it that I like a lot. Now, everything's too HD. Everything's so clean and crisp. Also, when you watch videos that are shot overseas like this one, I'm sure the sunlight is different so the colors stand out. Overall, I really think ‘Gasoline’ is an amazing record. I love the album as well.”
2.YG Family “Famillienium (We Are YG Family)” (1999)
G-Dragon: “I first found out about the song because of the music video. It's one of those videos that just made me say, ‘How can they make this in Korea?’ When I saw it, I told myself, ‘Okay, I have to go to YG.’ I would go to the karaoke rooms and sing that song so many times. I would point at the security camera to imitate scenes out of the video. That video's pretty insane. It's quite awesome, actually.
“I never asked my boss [YG Entertainment CEO Yang Hyun-suk] why he's sitting in a room alone when a helicopter's spraying the office with bullets in the video. [Laughs.] But one thing I always do to make fun of him is when he says the line, [imitates Yang Hyun-suk's voice in Korean] ‘What time is it?’
“In the lyrics, they just bash on society, and they even talk about white powder. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This place is thugged out.’ As a young kid, I was pretty mesmerized.”
3.1TYM “One Love” (2000)
Producer: Teddy Park & Kim Jong-seo
Album: 2nd Round
G-Dragon: “I like most 1TYM [four-member hip-hop group formerly under YG Entertainment] records. But ‘One Love’ is a classic to me. I really like the rap on that record. It's almost like a course you need to take when you join our company. It's a song almost all trainees have to sing. They all sing 'One Love' at one point or another. [Fellow Big Bang members] Taeyang did it, T.O.P. did it, and I did it, too. I think the trainees now do it as well.
"The group's not together anymore, but they're actively pursuing their own careers. Baekyung is in the food business. Danny's doing a show [on Mnet America] in L.A. called Danny from L.A. I see Teddy everyday in the studio."
4.Jinusean “A-Yo” (2001)
Producer: Teddy Park
Album: The Reign
G-Dragon: “Along with ‘Famillienium,’ both the record and video for ‘A-Yo’ were really influential to me. The song pretty much caught two birds with one stone. It's very hip-hop, but also very accessible for the masses to sing along to. And at the time, I didn't even know what ‘A-Yo’ meant. It was just something that was easy to sing along to. And in the music video, you see lowriders, sneakers, and cars; it was really fresh for me at the time. Like, ‘Wow, this kind of music and video can actually be made in Korea.’
“I remember going to the record shop, and writing down my name to purchase [The Reign] album, because the pre-order was all sold out. So I went a few days prior to the actual release and wrote down my name and phone number. I had to wait several weeks before I finally got my copy of the album. Even back then, the music market in Korea was pretty healthy. And CDs were actually pushing units. Now, you can't find a single CD store anywhere in Seoul [Laughs.]—unless you head to COEX [a trendy mall located in the Gangnam district of Seoul].”
5.Perry f/ G-Dragon, Sean & Masta Wu “Storm” (2001)
Album: Perry by Storm
[1:19 G-Dragon cuteness]
G-Dragon: “I really liked Perry's album, too. Personally, I think his case is a bit unfortunate. He didn't come out at the right time. I think he's a real genius. He had an incredible talent for creating melody lines, he also made amazing beats, and he used to be a b-boy so he was great at dancing. His raps were pretty much the best, too. He would murder everybody on the track. He knew how to do pretty much everything.
“Maybe he was a little too ahead of his time. I mean, after a certain point, it felt like he was a bit frustrated. When I was young, I just thought he was very striking. [Perry by Storm] had a lot of gems. In addition to ‘Storm,’ there were many great records on there.
“Perry's not too good speaking Korean, and I thought that was a setback for him, but his songs were overall great.
“‘Storm’ was the first song I did as a member of YG. The record gave me a lot of pressure. I didn't think I was prepared at the time. And I had to be on TV shows to promote the record with Masta Wu, who was very scary. [Laughs.] Just imagine, I was really young, and these guys were all at least 10 years older than me. I was just so nervous, and no matter what, I couldn't mess up. But of course, when we first performed on television I tripped on stage. It was really nerve-wracking. And whenever I screwed up, Masta Wu would scold me.
"The other hyungs [older-brother figures] really didn't say much, because I was so young, and they just thought of me as a cute little brother. But Masta Wu at the time was around my current age, or even younger. He's already kind of a scary dude. Now imagine him in his young and wild days. If I were wearing a hat, he'd smack the brim. And I would just stay silent and think, ‘Oh, man. I'm fucked.’ [Laughs.] It was really scary, man. Getting onstage every day to promote that record was very stressful.”
6.Swi.T f/ Jinu “Everybody Get Down (Part 2)” (2002)
Producer: Song Baek-kyoung
Album: 97-YG-02 (Why Be Normal?)
G-Dragon: “I like ‘Everybody Get Down’ with Jinu on it. There isn't much mention of whether or not Jinusean's a good rap duo. But I think Jinu's a great rapper, I like his style. When I listen to it, it reminds of L.A. He has this vibe that's reminiscent of Snoop. It's very easygoing—he has a slur, but it sounds very good.”
7.G-Dragon & Taekwon, “Jeo Nopeungose Pyeolcheo” (2002)
Album: 97-YG-02 (Why Be Normal?)
G-Dragon: “Not a lot of people know the song ‘Jeo Nopeungose Pyeolcheo’ [‘On a Higher Plane’], track nine on the second YG Family album. It's the first song Taeyang [then known as ‘Taekwon’] and I did together. You can hear him rapping. When I listen to it now it's so unbearably corny. But there's this weird sense of griminess. I was so bad at rapping then, but it kind of brings back memories from that era, so I go back to listen to it a lot. I also like the lead single from this album, ‘Hip-Hop Gentlemen,’ because I did it. But it's not a record I go back to now. Even the music video, when I watch it, it's a little cringe-inducing. [Laughs.] "