I’m forever grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a lover of and writer about Korean music. Of the many blessings this journey into Korean indie music has brought me the most exhilarating is the chance to meet and speak to people who are exceptionally passionate about what they do.
One of the most passionate artists, without a doubt, is Joe Lee, known more prominently by his stage name As If, the leader of independent hip-hop collective Odd Folks.
Fresh from a stint in New York, Joe took some time to chat with me about his triumphs, his tribulations, and his vision. It was probably one of the most intimate and enlightening conversations it’s ever been my privilege to have with another person.
In The Beginning…
We started our conversation casually, me asking about his time in New York.
“I was in New York meeting with an illustrator. I was working on two songs with one of the producers I’ve been working with called J-Luda. It was kind of like a vacation for me. Although I’m originally from New York — well, I’m originally from Korea, but we moved to New York first, then moved back to LA. So I got to see all of my friends now I’m back in school.”
Oh yes, Joe is also a full-time student at the University of California. He’s kind enough to post short Insta stories while he’s studying. Generous considering he’s majoring in Business Economics with a minor in Macro Econ. Quite the heavy load for someone who’s very dedicated to his craft.
“Yeah. It’s a tough major,” he admits with a chuckle. “I want to turn my team into a label,” he begins. “That’s my ultimate goal. Yeah, trying to be that young CEO.”
“On your Jay Park grind,” I say with enthusiasm.
“Yup. You already know,” he agrees with his own contagious energy.
The fact that his mind is geared toward building his own enterprise with this group instantly reminds me of another artist turned entrepreneur who too had a vision of creating a space for his brand of boom-bap vibes to flourish. “I remember when I watched you on stage a lot of the sounds I heard reminded me of a lot of stuff I’ve heard from Stones Throw. So when you say something like that, and you know Peanut Butter Wolf had a group himself when he started out.”
Joe wears honesty like a jacket, so his reaction (the kind of high-pitched sound you make when someone’s just blown your mind) I know is genuine. “The fact that you know that gave me chills,” he exclaims.
Of course! If I’m going to interview someone as passionate about the craft as he is, I’ve gotta be about my business, right?
“Wow, I’m impressed.”
But the comparison is apt. Mainly in terms of how PB Wolf built this empire, this movement to bring rare grooves and hip-hop under one roof. “That is sort of the direction he went into. He started with his music then said, ‘I need a place where all the music that I love can be in the same spot.’ Is that sort of the vibe you’re going for with Odd Folks?”
“With Odd Folks, what you said was right,” he says. “On top of that we’re trying to bring that lo-fi, punk-folk, jazz genre into our sound. We’re trying to come up with a new sound… trying to come up with a brand-new genre.” He takes a moment to consider his words, but as would soon become apparent, Joe isn’t one to mince words. He’ll think about taking the diplomatic approach, but at the end of the day he’s completely unafraid to say what he feels and with all the honesty one can muster up. “It feels like to us the Korean market is overly saturated with trap music. I don’t really mess with the trap sound. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the genre, I respect the culture, but for me I don’t really like the sound. We want to be the trendsetters bringing that new sound to the audience, especially in the Asian market.”
In all the excitement, something occurs to me: “We started talking and I completely forgot that you didn’t even introduce yourself!” We both have a chuckle about the order of things, but perhaps this was the perfect way to start our conversation. Natural, no frills, two people connecting with music on a cerebral plane. But I suppose it would behoove me to ask him to introduce himself to his audience, right?
“My name is Joe, Joe Lee. Simple Joe,” he says plainly. “I’m a full-time student, full-time worker, full-time music. I’ve been doing music for about three and a half, four years now. I used to be at a record label called Cycadelic Records in Korea. I recently came out with my own team. But before Cycadelic Records, I was on a label called 5A.” Yes, the same label as Justin Park.
“The moment I came out, a week later I got signed to Cycadelic Records.” As it turns out things weren’t completely copacetic between Joe and his former label. He would at first cite creative and visionary difference being the impetus for his exodus. “They were really great, but we weren’t really vibing very well in terms of music. They wanted to focus more on the trap and moombahton, but for me I wanted to bring something different to the industry, which I’m doing right now. But my boss wasn’t really feeling the vibe I was going for… the sound I was going for. So we clashed a lot.”
Our rapport prior to this point builds a mutual trust. I instantly felt a camaraderie in this artist whose ambitions are so wide. Still it surprises me when he says, “To open up to you”…. What follows truly takes me aback. “I had my first suicidal incident. My boss in the end said, ‘I don’t think you’re in a state right now to make music.’ So he told me to kinda leave in a way.”
This isn’t a subject I take lightly. Mental health bears heavy stigma in South Korea, still comes with side glances and the shuffling of feet when spoken about out loud in some communities in the States. The fact Joe is comfortable enough with me to divulge this bit of his past at first startles me, then sets me at ease. It’s not often that one can relate so personally with someone they’ve never formally met. But as I said, Joe is generous, both with his time and his emotions. He doesn’t hold anything back, and he doesn’t shy away from what may make people uneasy.
It’s a brash attitude, one he takes with his music as fervently as his everyday life. I’m thankful for his candor, his openness, his willingness to be vulnerable in the presence of a complete stranger. In the end, though, his departure from Cycadelic was certainly for the best. The label fell under hard times and ultimately went bankrupt. Just goes to show, karma’s a vindictive bitch, and she gets even if you come at her sideways.
“So I’m kinda glad that I left,” he says with a rueful chuckle.
I must say, that’s one hell of an introduction. But as one human being relating to another, I’m compelled to wonder if he’s truly in a better place spiritually and emotionally. His music would suggest so, but you can never truly know someone’s heart unless they tell you.
“I’m in an amazing place right now,” he says emphatically. “We have a whole team supporting Odd Folks. And we have all the individual artists, producers, even illustrators helping us, seeing our massive potential. It’s just a great feeling that we’re finally getting that spotlight and acknowledgment from different people.”
Meeting of Like Minds
Joe’s is a career that’s more akin to a journey, a story with many chapters and multiple layers. In a recent interview, he mentioned that his stage name, “As If” is like the beginning of a sentence. I liken it to the first line in a story. So if this is the story of his life, I wonder, what chapter would he say this is?
“I would say chapter 1. It’s the beginning of my music career. Like my name, As If, it’s an introduction of a sentence. I want to be that innovator. A trendsetter. Being the first one to do something new. I don’t wanna be a follower. I wanna be a leader. That’s my goal in life.” The man speaks in declarative sentences, as if passing edicts to his listening masses. It’s refreshing to talk to someone so demonstrative in his ambitions. “Our team, especially Dr. Mumen, believes in the same vision as I do. He wants to be a visionary, innovator. He wants to be a leader not a follower.”
If there ever was a time to lead a revolution, particularly in Korea’s hip-hop scene, now would be it. Though not exactly the prevalent musical landscape, there is a move (with the likes of Jjang-you and Hippy Was Gipsy) for something smoother, music steeped in jazz and ’90s hip-hop, meant to keep an audience wavy and intoxicated. Odd Folks is certainly in good company, in a good position to really bring the sound to the forefront. It does beg the question: how did these two like minds just so happen to find each other?
“Dr. Mumen actually reached out to me through Instagram. He slid in the DMs,” he says offhand, a snicker in his throat. However, this is a meeting that almost didn’t even happen. “I was in the process of ending the contract with Cycadelic. It was a hectic month. I recently checked my DMs. So Enoch (Dr. Mumen’s real name) messaged me saying, ‘I liked your trap music’…. I used to do trap music when I was with Cycadelic. So he saw some of my trap music and he said, ‘I liked your flow. I liked your lyrics. I wanna work with you.’ I said, ‘Okay. Let me listen to some of your stuff.’ I listened to his stuff and thought, ‘Wow. This dude has mad potential.’ I was kind of caught off guard because he told me he’d only been rapping for three months.”
This obviously blows my mind. I’ve seen these cats perform live. Their synergy is uncanny. Mumen’s flow is easy, effortless. To learn he’d only actually been flexing his lyrical muscle in the last year completely baffles me.
“He’s that great,” Joe says. “He has that musical background. He listens to a lot of music. He’s like an MP3 player, like a music library. I just knew that if I work with this guy I’m sure I’m gonna gain a lot of knowledge from him about music. ‘Let’s work on a track,’ he said. ‘I’m at UC Berkeley, and I’m coming down in two weeks. Let’s meet up.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, and I’ll introduce you to one of the producers that I’m working with. We’ll work on a song together.’ When he came out to LA, that’s when we released a song called ‘Don’t Play.’
“That was our first introduction to our group Odd Folks. We were expecting like 400, 500 views. But both of us combined we got I think 9000 views. So we were caught off guard. People are actually messing with our sound, that we’re trying to fuck with. So he said, ‘Why don’t we turn this into a team, a collective?’ And I was like that sounds like a good idea. So ever since then, this summer, actually, July, he said let’s form a team. And so here we are today.”
Again, I’m shocked. This is a group who’s truly only been together for six months. Yet their energy, the way they perform on stage, their musicality suggests they’ve been together for years. What’s even more impressive is they’ve started to build their roster of artists, including an artist who’s had a brush with notoriety as a contestant on the most recent season of Show Me The Money.
“Slez is a new guy that wanted to join our team. The reason why we asked him to join was I think for us we need a person like him. He’s very versatile. If you put on a track, he’ll murder it. He has that kind of flow. He’s very versatile. So I think it’s good for us to have that kind of person on our team who can rap on a lo-fi beat, who can rap on a trap beat, anything pretty much. He’s pretty well educated in terms of music.”
I believe it. During their performance at this year’s KCON, Sleze shocked the hell out of me with an impromptu freestyle that neither Joe nor Mumen were even expecting.
“We didn’t plan that actually,” he says. I can hear the smile in his voice as he relishes in the praise of one of his teammates. “He killed it, I think.”
“I was really impressed. It was unexpected,” I add, a bit of awe still coloring my impression of the young rapper.
Journey to Self-Discovery
Joe’s journey to this desire to create a revolution in South Korea’s hip-hop scene comes from unexpected circumstances. Both his parents are classically trained musicians. As one would expect, he was indoctrinated into the regiment part-in-parcel with a classical upbringing. So how on earth did he come to hip-hop?
“I first got into hip-hop culture, like that style. That dirty style, the New York, the long, baggy jeans with the jersey…. Then after a while I got into the scene after I got into the fashion. My background is classical music, but I wanted to do something else. I was interested in something. Always looking for something. My parents forced me to do piano, which I did. My parents forced me to do cello, which I did. My parents forced me to do flute, which I did. And doing all that stuff, it didn’t really make me happy. I was musically trained, but it didn’t really make me happy. My outlet was having hip-hop culture next to me in Korea. I started digging for music, started listening to a lot of English rap, Korean rap. Then, yeah, fell in love with the scene.”
Obviously the entire aesthetic of hip-hop attracted him, as it does so many young Korean artists. So as a student of music, I had to know which artist cemented in his mind that hip-hop was the genre that he needed to explore.
“Bow Wow, Jermaine Dupri, Diddy, A Tribe Called Quest….” He gets lost in a memory then, paying a little homage to the late Fife Dawg. “Just got chills,” he says. Really, his candor is so endearing. He continues, “Jurassic 5, Kurtis Blow.” Of course, when he mentions Kurtis Blow, one of the godfathers of hip-hop, I almost had to stop the interview.
“What you know about Kurtis Blow!”
“I know a few, I know a few,” he says, then humors me as he starts going into a couple lines of classic “The Breaks.” But he begins again in earnest, expressing his immense love for A Tribe Called Quest.
It’s obvious to see the inspiration, the integration of jazz and elements of old-school funk are pervasive in the Odd Folks sound. However, I liken them more closely to Slum Village, a group initially started by J Dilla that grew into a movment including John Legend, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu. “Is that something you’d be interested in? Slum Village is huge now. Is that what you’re trying to do, make your collective big?”
“Yeah. At the moment we have six people and we’re trying to turn it into more people like A$AP Mob, Slum Village. What we wanna do is try to get to different markets in Korea. When you think of the Korean market, it’s basically all companies that control their artists. But for us there’s no leader. Everyone is doing their part. For me I’m doing the business, rapping, and composing. Mumen is a composer, rapper, and a writer. Everyone has their individual parts, and we’re trying to bring all those together to have that one solid team. Not a company where somebody’s controlling all of us.”
This is an aspect of hip-hop that’s always fascinated me, the idea of the collective. It takes it further back beyond hip-hop’s roots in the South Bronx, back to the hundreds of thousands of villages and cultures of the African continent. So much history, so many stories, building a society based on call and response, storytelling. It’s so intriguing to me. As with the likes of Dilla, then later 9th Wonder, this idea of building artists from the ground up within a community of like minds has infiltrated parts of Korea. Most prominent in my mind is Deepflow and his Vismajor Crew. They go beyond making music, taking the Motown approach of cultivating and nurturing new and raw talent, and taking it a step further with directing, fashion, etc. His ambition suggests this is exactly the path on which he’s trying to take Odd Folks.
“We have different departments. We have a visual department, production department. At the moment, the visual departments are not part of Odd Folks. We’re just working with them. But they help us with our visuals. We do all the photography and merchandising. We’re not just focusing on music. We do wanna branch out into the fashion industry, and the cafe industry as well.”
“So you’re just trying to take over South Korea, huh?” I say.
“Yep,” he agrees, not an ounce of irony or hesitancy in his confirmation. “We’re trying to do that right now.”
Stay tuned for the second part of my interview with As If. In the meantime, check out Joe and Odd Folks: