[Interview] – XXX (Part 1)

There’s nothing quite like getting a chance to have a meaningful conversation with an artist about their craft. It’s even more rewarding when you find yourself getting into an intellectual discourse about the ups, downs, good, bad, and ugly of the genre you love. In my first interview of South By Southwest 2017, I was given the chance to speak with hip-hop duo XXX, a group that has spent the past five years redefining hip-hop in South Korea, pushing and damn near breaking boundaries with Kim Ximya’s lyrical content and FRNK’s musical depth.

Admittedly, Mirella Nava (our intrepid and spirited new recruit) and I were running a little behind schedule. Traffic, as usual, was dense, but when one of the main roads to downtown is cut off for the afternoon and there’s construction blocking the direct route to the convention center, there are some things you just can’t plan for. Luckily for us, Ximya himself had wandered off.

After his return, we settled in for a nice (and long) conversation about their vision, their goals for the future, and most importantly hip-hop.


Introductions & Influences

We begin simply, with introductions. Ximya is first to speak, introducing the group, “We are XXX. We come from South Korea.”

XXX 1

Then FRNK introduces himself, a softness in his voice completely contradictory to the ferocity he puts in his music. “I’m the producer and DJ of XXX,” he says, then pauses as if allowing his title more room to assert itself. He says his name as a matter of course with much less fanfare.

As if suddenly remembering he’d forgotten to actually introduce himself, Ximya adds quickly, “And I do the rap.” I just have to smile. Shy isn’t a word that should share space in the same vocabulary as this man’s name. He immediately takes point, translating for FRNK and taking on the role of leader as if he invented it.

Standard procedure dictates my first question has to be what got them into music, particularly hip-hop. Common a question as it is, everyone’s story is different, and when dealing with rappers, we often get stories that are as surprising as they are endearing. FRNK’s first exposure was his uncle, a man who had eclectic tastes leaning more on the traditional tenets of the musical spectrum: “[My] uncle used to listen to hip-hop, jazz, rock bands, classical. He had a collection of CDs.” The less harsh tones of music’s history inform the softness in FRNK’s demeanor.

It’s also no surprise that when the question of the other genres of music he surrounds himself with comes up he expounds on his love of jazz music with some truly legendary figures: “John Coltrane and Robert Glasper.”

Of course at this point I want to marry him, because who just pulls Robert Glasper out of the sky as if it’s the most natural thing in the world? At this point it shouldn’t shock me, but inevitably it always catches me a bit off guard when artists from South Korea reach back in their minds and offer up artists that not even tons of people outside of the genre know in the States.

I come back with, “Oh yes! I love Robert Glasper. I love Miles Davis, cuz he’s crazy!” FRNK’s smile could power all of downtown Austin for the remainder of the festival.

However, Ximya, as it turns out, is a man of a different ilk. He’s forthcoming, indicative of every rapper I’ve ever met—holding nothing back, open, opinionated. Someone with that kind of personality was destined to create, bound for a path carved from the roughest angles of the South Bronx and nestled in the thick twang of Atlanta. So I’m not at all surprised that when I ask what first got him into rap, he goes straight for the throat: no pretense, all guts and honesty. “I started because I wanted to be attractive to women.”

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See what I mean? Some may find the answer crude, even superficial. But as with his lyrics, it’s unapologetic, honest, and raw. All qualities adding to the aura of rap artists since the artform found its way to New York in the late ’70s. Obviously his observations led him to believe hip-hop was the way for him to go. So I have to know who did it? Which artist did he see and think, “He gets all the girls; let me try that”?

“Well, he’s not the first artist I knew but, A$AP Rocky. He got all the girls. But I don’t think it’s because of his music. Music is a part of it, but his looks are really great.” Clearly this is a man who finds his soul’s connection with the splutter and spice of Southern rap. When I ask who really inspired his style of delivery, he was clear: “Before I met FRNK I got into Trap music, so I listen to a lot of Travis Scott… mostly Travis Scott….”

To which I can’t help but retort, “Oh, okay, so you like that real ratchet ghetto shit!” I know, I know. Bad form to curse in an interview. But at this point Ximya has revealed his penchant for saying what’s on his mind. It’s only fair I afford him the same courtesy, one he seems to appreciate because both he and FRNK begin to laugh like the four of us have known each other since high school and are catching up after a year-long absence.

However, as often happens with chance meetings with like-minded individuals, one’s passions tend to influence the other. FRNK’s expansive musical vocabulary touched something inside Ximya: “When I met him and I started to broaden my library, I thought Jay-Z is actually the king.”

One can’t, of course, mention Jay-Z without asking the obvious question: “You like Jay-Z more than Nas?”

And with an emphatic, “Yes! Takeover!” the lot of us erupt in “Aaays” and “Ooohs.” Then he drops the bomb. Pointing to FRNK he reveals, “He likes Nas.”

Unfortunately for Mir and me, FRNK stays staunchly behind the turntables, because this would’ve made for a highly entertaining turn of events if it happened that FRNK did take to the mic every once in a while.


Style & Process

As we become more comfortable around each other, I want to start getting to the heart of the matter. What makes their music what it truly is? That’s why we were having this conversation, after all: to find out exactly how XXX creates their aural aesthetic with such fearlessness.

First one must understand how two artists find themselves drifting together to create in the first place. “So did you guys always want to make music together? Or did you start separately?”

Ximya answers, “Yeah, we started separately, but he [FRNK] wanted to make an R&B album, a PBR&B type album, and there was a vocal also. So there was three of us, and then when we actually started creating music at BANA (Beasts and Natives Alike), our record company, we shifted to rap.”

This catches both Mir and me off guard. Sure, FRNK’s broad range of musical tastes almost dictated he’d go in that direction, but my first impression of the group was more along the lines of Tyler the Creator/Odd Future. “I used to listen to Tyler,” Ximya begins, “but as I made music I thought to make music more special, I had to listen to other genres of music to get influence.”

“To make your sound more mature, more different,” I elaborate. He nods his head in agreement. When it comes to hip-hop duos, however, the first step is the initial meeting.

“It’s been five years,” Ximya reveals. “We met at an online community, and then he wanted to make an R&B album. So he liked how I rap, and I liked how he made beats.” There’s a minute shift in Ximya’s demeanor, his back becomes straighter, and he tries to cover a grimace as a shy smile. But as I said, shy ain’t a trait that fits well around this man’s shoulders. He continues, “There’s a vocal, but he….” Ximya drifts off, hesitancy making his words seem heavier than they were just a few seconds ago. “It’s a sad story,” he finally gets out. Though not at all shy, it’s rather surprising, even refreshing, to meet a rapper with a king’s weight in self-confidence who’s so diplomatic about how he approaches difficult topics.

But we’re not here to pluck away at wounds newly scabbed over. So we skip any “sad stories” and move right along. These are clearly two men who are very conscious of who they are and the work they do. They take everything around them and apply it, their nest of creativity built from the fruits of various trees. Their music videos are testament to that.

I have a keen love for Ito Junji, and their videos seem ripped from the pages of some unfinished manga the mad genius left splayed out on his desk. Ximya tells us, “We send snippets of ideas. The first music video for ‘Flight Attendant,’ I had to translate my lyrics for the director so that he could make a story line. But mostly it’s all the director’s work. We really don’t put any thought into it.”

That being said, they both obviously have an eye for the spectacular. Their vision, both lyrically and musically, is radical. That’s got to stem from more than just a love of jazz and Jay-Z. “I know a lot of artists who look at art and look at comics and get inspiration for their music,” I say. “Do you guys ever draw inspiration from art or things like comics?”

“For the music part,” Ximya begins, “he”—he points to FRNK—”likes photography and movies.”

Mir asks, “What type of movies?”

FRNK breaks away from his silence, “Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s movies. My favorite director is Stanley Kubrick,” he says with all the exuberance of a true fan of the innovative director.

While not exactly expecting that answer, I’m certainly less shocked about the revelation than finding out about his love of Robert Glasper. Their music is abrasive, but there’s an intergalactic shape to the music. “You sort of see stars when you listen to the music,” I say.

Now that we’ve got an idea about the journey from influence to inception, what everyone really wants to know is their creative process. How do you take all of those influences and blend them together to conceive of lyrics that while disparate fit perfectly with the interstellar production?

Ximya only takes a moment to contemplate this question. Then he says, “It goes… he starts making beats, and I’m next to him writing lyrics based on just the bass, drum lines. And then we build on it. It’s simultaneous.”

xxx-2

This sounds very much like the traditional process of musical creation, particularly in hip-hop. “Sort of like in original hip-hop days. Where they would put a beat on, and the MC would be like….” I’m going to spare you all my horrendous attempt at rapping in front these children, because honestly it was a hot mess that no one, myself included, should ever have to relive. They are, of course, good sports about it, but the boom of laughter that erupts from Ximya rivals the incessant shrill of fire trucks that keep blasting down Congress. I quickly apologize for my failure, and he simply says, “No problem” (while laughing dead in my face).

But oddly enough that segues into my next question: “When you are making your music together, do you sometimes freestyle?”

“Not really,” Ximya says simply.

“You like to write your lyrics out more?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I like to structure the lyrics because… I mumble first, so if that’s freestyle, I guess I freestyle,” he continues with a wry smile. “But I start mumbling. Then I put words into it.

“To create the rhythm?” I ask, and he instantly nods. Though he purports to get most of his influence from the likes of Steve Lacey and A$AP Rocky, many liken his delivery to one of my favorite rappers, Schoolboy Q. On sheer aggression alone, the comparison is apt, though it’s one Ximya isn’t quite expecting, if his somewhat shocked expression and tentative giggle is any indication. “I hear a lot of, like, I don’t know if you’ve heard the new one, Blank Face?” He agrees emphatically. “So I sort of hear a lot of that. Really dark.”

“When Oxymoron came out, I heard the album and maybe I got influenced… I’m not sure,” he says, another chuckle at his throat.

“Subconsciously maybe?” Mir asks.

“Maybe,” he replies.

At this point I’m really interested in FRNK’s musical progression and how it influences his own music. Most producers and DJs I know are also very competent musicians. So it’s only natural I ask if the lover of Robert Glasper also plays an instrument. Again, not so unexpectedly he answers he plays piano. So how did he transition from jazz standards to DJing?

“[I] wrote music starting at 15, and made beats when [I] was 19.”

Moving from tickling the ivories to pounding out beats and space-age music using Ableton software is somewhat of a leap, but then again, music transcends. That also means the vehicle with which artists make it. But one doesn’t simply go from jazz and classical to the new-wave boom-bap FRNK dishes out.

“I know that you have a lot of influences like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Glasper,” I say. “But do you get influence or listen to a lot of different DJs? Because my favorite’s J Dilla.”

And at this point I know we’re destined to be best friends. He leans back, opens his jacket, and reveals his black shirt. In white, all-capped letters it reads, “J DILLA SAVED MY LIFE.” The world stands still for a few moments—long gone is the bustle of excited festivalgoers, the start and stop of sound checks, and the wailing of fire trucks. For about a second it’s dead silent. Then with the time it takes me to exhale, our entire table just erupts.

“Well that answered my question!” I say simply. The coincidence is just too much for me to think of much else past that point.

“All right!” FRNK says, a big smile on his face I’m sure would rival the oversized space baby’s shimmer at the conclusion of Space Odyssey. “J Dilla is the reason I started making beats,” he reveals.

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“That’s beautiful,” I say. I seriously can’t stop smiling. “That just made me really happy.”


There was just so much to uncover as our conversation continued, I had to split it up. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview!

In the meantime, get to know the members of XXX:

Soundcloud
iTunes
Instagram (FRNK, Ximya)
YouTube (XXX, BANA)
Facebook
Beats And Natives Alike website

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