Although notorious for its flawlessly polished and overtly clean cut pop artists as its biggest export, when one searches for long enough in the right places there exists a bountiful treasure trove of talented indie artists in South Korea. Its totalitarian Northern neighbour has long demanded the attention of the world’s media, so much so that Korea often gets overshadowed in the saturation of propagandist news the Western world receives regarding this part of the world.
Yet somewhere deep within the winding alleyways of Seoul’s premier artistic hub Hongdae, there exists a tiny independent record shop called Gimbap Records. Far from selling the Korean version of sushi that the name might suggest, this small haven is a mecca for the discerning vinyl collector and hip hop lover.
If one searches for long enough, it is possible to find Otakhee Kim seated behind the counter – but don’t be fooled: this unassuming Korean (dressed in obligatory snapback and hip-hop shirt) may man the fort of Gimbap Records by day, but by night he sits in a basement tirelessly creating genre-defying art and quietly collaborating with international artists to satiate his artistic needs.
Undoubtedly, others can empathise with this story – under-appreciated creative individuals interminably working to financially sustain themselves and their families who continuously sacrifice sleep and an ordinary social existence in order to gratify their creative passion are by no means few and far between in the current world. Nevertheless, it is all the more exciting and fulfilling for the rest of the world when these individuals manage to produce innovative pieces of art, such as the latest release Psychedelic Weather by Otakhee (Greater Fools Records) in conjunction with M.E.D (Stones Throw Records).
Insular Creative Journey
Born and raised in the small resort town of Danyang, South Korea, Otakhee Kim initially moved to Seoul to pursue a law career. After failing his finals, Kim decided a career change was evidently needed and chose to try his hand at music. Growing up on a diet of hip hop, soul and funk, it seemed a natural progression to try his hand at rapping. Otakhee defines this as a wholly unsuccessful attempt in his musical journey and subsequently decided to pursue a path in music production.
Having had no prior background in music while growing up, he was inspired by the success story of underground extraordinaire Madlib who, although raised in a family of astute musicians, was never trained but nevertheless has come to be one of the most accomplished and well-respected hip hop producers to date. Thus, in 2008 Otakhee embarked on a painful insular journey inside his bedroom to teach himself the drums and pursue self-directed studies in music production. Spurred on by an interest in electric jazz and jazz fusion, especially the hallmark album from Miles Davis’ The Departure from traditional jazz In A Silent Way, and also the latter Bitches Brew; Otakhee attempted to embody this in a more electronically-oriented way. This re-invention and reinterpretation using the tools he possessed (a laptop and a few key pieces of analog gear) resulted in his debut full-length album.
Fast-forward four years to his debut full-length offering, Smoked Jazz (2012) and one can see his endeavour to embody this ethos of fluidity and constant change: “I wanted to just question everything … it was kind of a postmodern attitude towards creation”. Smoked Jazz astutely reflects this departure from a more conventional career path into an exploration of the creative realm of one’s mind – the title track, ‘Incorrectness’ is a stitched-together collage of samples that represents the struggle within the creative mind to “achieve beauty through rhythm without having the tools to do so”, in Otakhee’s words.
This ethos is reflected more broadly in Smoked Jazz, with a culmination of elements of the jazz idiom being merged with more contemporary styles influenced by hip hop, EDM and rap music. The fourth track, entitled ‘Chal Ra’ is an ode to the free jazz maestro and self-proclaimed ‘space alien’ afro-futurist Sun Ra: a Buddhist expression that roughly translates to an infinitely small moment in time, this track is about representing a broader mentality than cannot always be imparted upon first glance. There is somehow a sense of calmness and meditation within the rhythmic chaos and harmonic discordance of ‘Chal Ra’ that reflects Otakhee’s efforts to ‘seize the moment’.
Harmony Versus Melody
There is something innately impressive about Otakhee’s dedication towards his craft, and the man exudes an effortlessly tranquil attitude that is somewhat infectious and perhaps belies the intrinsic struggle that has occurred in order to produce this art. Not knowing the harmonic conventions of traditional jazz language was perhaps the biggest challenge in developing his style – he began with what he knew; the rhythm, and then slowly integrated harmony in a constructive format.
Indeed, that was evidently the goal of Smoked Jazz: “I tried to achieve both unfamiliarity and difference at the same time … if something is only unique, it generally won’t retain its emotion [to the average listener]. Familiarity is necessary in order to retain empathy within the music”. Take the track ‘Baramibunda’ for example – far away Shakuhachi collides with a neo-soul funk beat that sits neatly underneath chunky, grungy basslines that ooze nostalgia of 80s analog synths – this is the stuff that a vintage synthesizer-enthusiast’s dreams are made of. In actuality it is most likely that it is this organic approach towards creation that has eventuated in the uniqueness of his style.
Psychedelic Weather And M.E.D Collaboration
Following a slew of unsuccessful collaborations with Korean rappers, Otakhee decided to raise the bar with his next release and pursue collaborations with international hip hop artists. His love of Madlib’s underground hip hop label Stones Throw Records led him to reach out to West Coast emcee Medaphoar (also known as M.E.D).
With low expectations to hear back from the rapper (whose long list of accolades include collaborations with Madvillainy, Quasimoto’s The Unseen, hallmark album by Madlib Shades Of Blue, Cut Chemist, not to mention the almighty J Dilla), Otakhee was conceivably surprised when M.E.D responded within 24 hours to his reply. “Initially the goal was to collaborate on one track and release it as a co-production credit, but M.E.D liked the track I sent him so much that it ended up turning into a full-length album”. The result is 2015’s Psychedelic Weather – an unashamedly raw offering from the Korean producer and his West Coast counterpart that champions space and sparseness in its every eccentricity.
It seems another of Otakhee’s many creative powers lies in his ability to maintain a transient style of production. Indeed, his varied list of musical influences has undoubtedly contributed to the broad frame of reference that has resulted in his individual style: ‘I love everything from Trent Reznor’s Pretty Hate Machine (1989) to Kanye West’s Yeezus’. Although to some these two albums may seem at first completely at odds, somehow Otakhee manages to seamlessly take heed from both schools of thought and thus successfully meld together minimalist synth styles and industrial music with hard rap and EDM.
“I tried to utterly understand every component of every track on that album [Yeezus] and apply that on Psychedelic Weather”. Beginning with the unapologetically brash debut track ‘Mass Hysteria’, the tone for the rest of the album is swiftly set. This is dark; post-industrial, and post-hip hop, quickly slashing any expectations or premise the listener might have towards this album.
Featuring cuts by Stones Throw royalty DJ Romes, the listener is promptly cast into a lightless, grimy basement filled with chainsaws, metal grinders and the auditory sensation that one is in a ruthless battle with all manner of heavy machinery. Yet somehow, throughout all of the chaos M.E.D’s relentless flow manages to sail over the top. The second track ‘Through The Air’ provides no such release or breath of fresh air; laden with synthesized sounds utilized by the enigmatic DSI Tempest drum machine and sequencer, this track acts as a channel into the title track ‘Psychedelic Weather’.
It is easy to initially judge Psychedelic Weather as under-produced by today’s standards of overburdened textural production that seems to be common – I myself made this particular mistake upon the first listening of this album, before coming to both understand and accept the concept of Psychedelic Weather – the point is space. It’s a risky area to exist in as a producer and one that is not widely accepted as of 2015, when overly-produced vocals, wobbly synth pads and relentlessly undeviating beats seem to be the mechanisms of choice from indie to pop in order to tow the line of listeners’ expectations.
But upon subsequent listens, the freedom of Otakhee’s sparse production style becomes apparent, as well as the realization that this is intelligent music – it’s made to make you think and keep guessing, not satiate the desire for passivity.
Psychedelic Weather is out today on vinyl and is available in digital format, as well as on CD and vinyl LP all of which can be purchased via bandcamp or Greater Fools Records.