Jatnna Nunez for Fuse

It's been six years since Epik High graced U.S. shores with their wild live performances, and their absence has been felt. The trio, made up of MCs Tablo and Mithra Jin alongside DJ Tukutz, hold the title of biggest Korean hip hop act in the world, and they've earned it. Performing and making music on their own terms for more than a decade, Epik High are bigger now than ever before.

We sat down with the group at SXSW 2015 following their fiery set at the third annual K-Pop Night Out. The following answers come from Tablo, the de facto leader and founding member of the group.

What's the hip hop scene like in Korea?

It's amazing right now. When we started off 12 years ago—it's been a long time—it wasn't very big. People didn't really know what it was and there was no place for hip hop on TV or in bigger venues. Not to take all the credit for it, but us included, some of the acts that were around when we started worked together to broaden that. Now the scene is so diverse that you won't find two hip hop groups that are doing the same thing. Everyone's got their own sound, their own agendas, their own messages. I think it's good that it's that way. There's not one trend.

Where did you perform live in the beginning?

Some of our first performances were at amusement parks and sh*t. No joke! Next to animals, in front of 12 people and one of them was this really drunk old man and a guy in a parade suit. It's funny because our tour is called the Parade. Maybe we never got far away from that.

Your album Shoebox deals with some heavy stuff. Is it hard to perform those songs live?

What I find funny—and I mean this in the best way possible, I actually mentioned it yesterday—I find it interesting that people can dance and jam to really depressing content. I totally love it. I think that's actually when you need to jam out, is when you're depressed or dealing with heavy issues. Anybody can dance to a party song, anybody can have fun to an anthem, but you usually need a smile when you find it hard to have one. I think it's funny and interesting that our music does that. Our music lyrically is depressing but the beats and general vibe is something that you can just chill to. I think it works in that way.

Did you have that in mind while you were writing? 

I don't think it was a planned-out, thought-out move. We're just like that. We deal with heavy issues in our lives and when we do, we usually meet each other and have fun...while crying.

Sad fun, it's a real thing.

Isn't the dictionary definition of "sad fun" Drake? I think we could definitely hit off. He knows what's going on with the sad fun. He's having a good time with the sad fun.

Jatnna Nunez for Fuse

The other hip hop acts in Korea, do you think any of them are similarly "sad fun"?

I think we have the monopoly on depressing fun. Basically what's happened is that because we've being doing it so long and so deeply, a lot of the hip hop groups just veer away from it because they'd just basically be doing the same thing. We're friends with a lot of people—when we're together we're all on the same page, but when we're doing our music we have the funny guys, the hype guys, and then you have us.

Where do you see yourselves in the greater scheme of K-pop? People who are unfamiliar with the genre think of Psy or maybe Girls' Generation2NE1a lot of those younger acts.

We're definitely not young or female. Well, we're young but we're not female as far as I know. Within K-pop, we actually get this question a lot, we don't actually know what K-pop is and honestly we don't really care that much. If we're being put under the K-pop umbrella we're okay with that. It's not something we're not proud of or not happy about. I think K-pop is pretty cool. 

At SXSW, all the acts that were here, except for Crayon Pop, most of the acts are hard to put under any umbrella. There was Hitchhiker, who's got that crazy suit, EE doing performance art...I think K-pop itself could be a larger umbrella, the world just doesn't know it yet. In Korea, K-pop is very diverse. It's not just boy groups and girl groups. I don't think it's on fans all over the world or the foreign media to understand that big scope. I think it's basically on the acts themselves to try and branch out.

That's interesting. Even just the term, I think, is a good stepping stone for people to explore stuff. It's the same thing as calling yourself by any genre.

That's true. K-pop right now is great because these boy groups and girl groups, they're very good at what they do. A lot of people come into K-pop through them and then discover people like us and other groups. We're very grateful to them.

“I find it interesting that people can dance to really depressing content...that's when you need to jam out.”

Do you see Korean music growing in America in the next few years?

It would be fun, actually, maybe we could arrange it, to bring a lot of the Korean hip hop acts as a package to a festival here. People would be surprised. It's a very good scene right now.

What are the hip hop acts we should be playing attention to right now?

Definitely Dok2, this kid named Dok2. He used to be on our label. We used to own our own label and he was an artist on that label. Now he has his own label. They have not only him but this kid named Beenzino who's the like the Drake of Korea. I mean that in the best way. There's a crew called AOMG, Always On My Grind, they have musicians like Jay Park, Simon D, Loco. They're a very good crew. All of them are friends so if we come together at one point I think that could be really cool. But I'm not paying for that. It's too many people. I can't take care of them. I already helped them out right now [laughs]. This is enough.

Jatnna Nunez for Fuse

What's in store for the future?

We're working on new material, obviously, but no guarantee when that's coming out. I'm doing a lot of producing for YG acts, our label's acts. We're also developing a new label, a sub-label. I think we're going to be busy with that...just a lot of things going on. I'm publishing a new book. Busy!