The post Tablo on 20 Years of Epik High’s Map of the Human Soul, New EP Strawberry, and Working with BTS’s RM appeared first on Consequence.
With Dusting ‘Em Off, Consequence looks back at classic albums, films, and television series and reassess their legacies years later. Today, Tablo of Epik High sits down for an interview about Map of the Human Soul 20 years after its release on October 21st, 2003.
Tablo is ready to set the record straight. Part of this story might be familiar already — the talkative and charismatic frontman of seminal South Korean hip-hop trio Epik High seems to love sharing it, and understandably so. When RM of BTS reached out about a track on his stellar solo album, Indigo, Tablo said yes before hearing any of the song. “I told him I didn’t need to,” he recalls, chatting with Consequence over Zoom from his home in Seoul. “Of course it was good.”
He received a cut of the in-progress track moments before boarding a flight and spent the entire plane ride wondering how it might sound. “I was imagining something dark or hard-hitting and emotional,” he says. “I get to Singapore and hear the song and it’s an energetic and feel-good vibe. It’s exactly the energy I needed at the time.”
He sent back a voice memo of his verse from the bathroom. The resulting song, “All Day,” is one of many highlights on the final version of the album: Tablo makes a nod to BTS’s discography — “We’ve got dynamite in our DNA” — and RM pays homage to Epik High’s “Fly” in the lyrics of his last verse.
Here’s what people don’t know. “I’m singing with him at the end,” Tablo explains emphatically. “You can’t tell that I’m singing with him! I told him, ‘Dude, I can’t hear me at all. I sang the part you told me to sing.'” He shakes his head, laughing. “Nobody knows I’m singing with him!” Don’t worry, Tablo. The people know now.
RM is only one of the many, many artists out of South Korea who would point to Tablo and Epik High (rounded out by co-lyricist Mithra Jin and co-producer DJ Tukutz) as deeply formative figures in their respective artistic journeys. RM’s own bandmate, Suga, has been similarly vocal on that point, alongside Epik High collaborators like CL, Wonstein, pH-1, Colde, and Younha. This year, 2023, sees the group releasing a new EP, Strawberry. It also marks 20 years since the trio’s debut album, Map of the Human Soul.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” Tablo says of the milestone. “One of my daughter’s friends heard that I’ve been doing this for 20 years and asked, ‘You started when you were 10?’ I’m not that young, kid.”
Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s a bit too easy to look back and see Map of the Human Soul as the kind of album that would launch a scrappy trio to the big leagues. It’s infectiously energetic and self-assured; although Tablo was only age 22 the year the album dropped, “Lesson One (Tablo’s Word)” serves as a capsule of many of the reasons his flow has stayed beloved.
There’s the trademark existentialism, a cry to the universe to be heard, and a sharp eye at the state of things around him. “Why do we learn history? To fix stories for the guilty?/ Make angels look filthy and the devils look milky?/ If the victor writes the books then what have we won?” he asks. Stay patient, and a few moments later in the album, the trio leaves room for humor and tongue-in-cheek observations.
The ripple effects of this album, and of Epik High’s story as a whole, continue to this day. Notably, the audio sample that opens the album on “Go” — “We are now going to progress to some steps which are a bit more difficult. Ready, set, and begin” — also opened BTS’s very first song on their very first album, a decade later when the group debuted with 2 Cool 4 Skool in 2013. Epik High are credited for the heavy lifting when it came to localizing hip-hop in the South Korean mainstream; in the ’90s, boy band Seo Taiji and Boys had carried the torch. When Epik High picked it up, they started running.
“I think first of all, we’re grateful that we’re still able to do it. I don’t think there’s many groups that have lasted 20 years, especially intact,” Tablo says of those early days. “The exact same members that started this are still the members, and the fact that we still have things to say is maybe why we can’t we’re not fully aware that it’s been 20 years.”
Epik High were planning to continue as a group and keep touring, but didn’t necessarily see a path for releasing new music past ten studio albums. They liked how ten sounded; their 2022 release, Epik High Is Here 下 (Part 2), had a bit of an air of finality to it. After continuing to write together, though, they realized how many stories they still had to tell, and decided not to limit themselves when it came to EP releases. With that, Strawberry began to bloom.
“On a technical level, it’s very easy for us to create music now. We just know exactly what to do. But that’s also the hurdle,” Tablo observes. “We can walk into any studio room and walk out of there with a song within an hour, because when you do something every day for 20 years, it’s like it’s nothing. But because it’s so easy, and we know exactly what melodies will hit, we know exactly what lyrics will hook people in, so it’s a double-edged sword.”
Strawberry is relatively slight at five tracks. The introduction is mainly instrumental. Tracks two and three enlist soloist Jackson Wang and Mamamoo‘s Hwa Sa, respectively. When it came to finding the right feature for “Catch,” Mamamoo’s luminous singer and rapper came to mind quickly. “We needed someone who is capable of giving the double middle finger to all her doubters, but doing it very elegantly at the same time. It was a very short list,” Tablo explains.
Tablo is no stranger to having to communicate authentically, memorably having to navigate a vicious and very public defamation campaign over a decade ago. When it comes to collaborating, Tablo is highly, highly intentional, and speaks of the process thoughtfully. “A lot of people, musicians and fans, and industry people, immediately see categories before they actually see the person. Boyband, idol, indie musician, artist, lyricist. They immediately see these categories. As soon as you see people as labels and categories, you’re already not able to work with them in the way that I do,” he reveals.
“I will look at someone and ask, ‘What is this person going through? What has this person embodied? And what is this person able to communicate just by being that person?’ And if it matches what I’m trying to communicate with my song, there is nobody else that can do it better.”
True to Epik High’s quintessential style, Strawberry has moments of heart and humor in spades, sometimes within the same song. The tracks feel like they slot nicely into the set list the trio are presumably working on locking down ahead of a tour (tickets for which can be secured here). Promotional strategies also aren’t what they used to be over the decades; Tablo has immersed himself in memes as his primary form of communication around this album cycle.
Plenty has changed for Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz since Map of the Human Soul dropped in 2003, but the sentiment found in a project like Strawberry 20 years later still aligns: “My MBTI is IDGAF/ You stopped mе when I ran/ So thank you very much, and fuck you.”
Catch Epik High on tour in 2023; tickets are available here.
Map of the Human Soul Artwork: