Storytelling school

Epik High’s Tablo on the band’s longevity and storytelling

A graphic featuring Tablo from Epik High

Tablo by Epik High
Photo: BEAR Co, Chart: Natalie Peeples

Tablo is a writer and lyricist, and it often feels like the music comes out of him as naturally as the breath. But the lifelong musician says it’s not an innate talent, but rather one he’s diligently honed, a craft meticulously watered and cultivated from experience.

His education began when he was just a kid buying his first hip-hop album, fascinated by a new form of musical world-building and art. Then later, he continued as a student at Stanford, where he studied simultaneously for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in creative writing. And for twenty years, as one-third of pioneering Korean hip-hop group Epik High, Tablo has blended the two worlds that came before it.

In February, the band dropped Epik High is here 下, pt. 2, sequel to last year acclaimed Epik High is here 上, pt. 1. And just last week, he completed his first North American tour in three years.

Tablo has also partnered with Vice Studios for the Authentic: tablo story. The podcast details the Tajinyo scandal, an online smear campaign where trolls claimed Tablo lied about his prestigious credentials and launched targeted attacks in an attempt to “expose” him.

This weekend (and next), Epik High will be performing at Coachella (the band worked with Azuki to create special art for his sets.) Tablo spoke with The audiovisual club about her podcast, what it’s like to get back on the road and learn TikTok dances with her daughter, Haru.

The AV Club: First of all, I wanted to talk about the tour. How did it finally manage to happen?

Board : This is the first time in nearly three years that we’ve come together in front of real people. I had forgotten what it felt like. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s like we’re restarting our careers. I’m so happy to be here.

AVC: Is there anything unexpected you missed in your performance?

Board : At the end of last year, we were allowed to do a show in Korea, but people couldn’t sing or shout because of [COVID] regulations, so there was dead silence after each song. With the shows we’re doing right now, we’re going to have people in the crowd yelling at us, especially on American shows. I missed talking to my fans. Making music is great and fun, but it’s not complete until you meet the people you’re doing it for.

AVC: Compared to 20 years ago, now that you’re older and have more life experiences, is writing harder or easier?

Board : In fact, sitting down to write is much more difficult. Before, I had nothing else to do but create. Now I’m a dad; Mithra is dad; Tukutz is dad. We all have responsibilities. We need to get our children back. We have a lot to do. Getting to that point is a lot harder, but once I get there, finishing a song feels a lot easier. I have a greater palette of life experiences to draw from. It helps me paint very well.

AVC: How do you three maintain a fruitful career relationship after so long?

Board : I would compare Epik High to a startup. It’s a 20-year-old startup, and despite the fact that we hate each other most of the time and shit each other every chance we get, our visions are still aligned. The three people are ready to work hard. It makes up for the things we lack. We are not naturally talented. I had to work to be the rapper/writer that I am. Mithra wasn’t a designer, but he learned to do it because he felt the team needed it. Tukutz works as a COO, he pretty much manages our daily lives. We work really hard, and I think that’s what kept us together.

Stroke: I went to Head in the clouds last year and saw MFBTY, and at one point Tiger JK made a joke where he said, “Oh, you probably don’t know who I am, we’re old!” Have you ever felt the same? Are you afraid of aging?

Board : Here’s the thing, I’ve been feeling this since I was, like, 27. In Korea, we have 10,000 idol groups coming out, and they’re like middle school. So at 27, you’re already old as hell. Every year I’m surprised we’re still relevant and new people are coming into the fandom. I think “fear” maybe drives some people to do things they wouldn’t normally do to try to keep up. But because I have a good sense of humor, [Mithra, Tukutz, and] I am able to laugh and joke about it. I think we are mentally okay with that. For example: we have a concert in Las Vegas, and on the same day, a band that we are friends with, you may not know them, but some do; they are called BTS.

HOW ARE YOU : [Laughs] I think I heard of them.

Board : Yes, I think they are quite popular. There is a big overlap in our fandoms, so many fans have already bought tickets for our show. Then they DMed me apologizing because they had to cancel and go to BTS. Some people might be devastated and think, “Oh my god. I am old, they will abandon me. But as soon as I saw these DMs, I showed them to my members and we laughed about it. We were like, “Damn, I I want to cancel the show so I can go see BTS!”

AVC: In “Super Rare”, you bring up TikTok in a cheeky way. Have you ever thought about creating “TikTokable” content while making music, especially since K-pop dance challenges are so popular now?

Board : Oh yeah. People have to realize that my daughter is going to be 12, so my best friend is 11 right now. Even though I’ve lived a full life – the world in which I Actually live in also involves YouTube, TikTok and fortnite. I am interested in everything that interests my daughter. I spend at least 30 minutes a day watching insane TikTok videos and dance challenges. She taught me the Aespa “Next Level” choreography. I was doing it in the bedroom and then my wife comes in; she sees me, and she says “No, this that’s how you do it,” and she corrects me. This is the world I live in. So it’s going to seep into my lyrics.

AVC: It’s a good transition to podcasting. This comes at a time when online misinformation is worse and where the culture re-examines how we treated celebrities in the beginning. Is that why you decided to do it now?

Board : When [the Tajinyo scandal] happened, I hoped that my case would change things. I didn’t want anyone else to go through this. Honestly, I don’t know how I survived. I lost my father and it was irreversible. I hoped that because [my situation] was so big that less would happen. This was not the case.

Every day someone else on Twitter gets canceled for the right reason, sometimes the wrong reason – there’s no way to really tell. For others it might be fun, but for me it’s something else. As the situation got worse, I thought to myself, “This is the world my daughter is going to end up living in, a world she already lives in. I have to tell this story now so maybe I can convince people not to do things like this.” And if anyone goes through something similar, [the podcast] could help them cope.

AVC: How could you be so vulnerable publicly through your music/lyrics after going through something so traumatic?

Board : With my solo album [Fever’s End], it poured out of me. It was kind of the only way for me to stay sane. I didn’t think it would become something I released. Other songs like “Family Portrait” on this album, it’s about my father, but it’s 10 years after those events. It took a long time to digest my thoughts and get to the point where I could even do a song like that. Some songs take me a long time to get comfortable with.

But it is very important that people, whether in public or in private, record their emotions and thoughts. It might be useful to someone one day.

AVC: Another thing that struck me while listening is how voracious a student of hip-hop you are. What artists and bands do you think you learned the most from?

Board : I think the rapper who influenced me the most was Nas. Illmatic happened to be the first album I bought with my own money – which is crazy, considering it’s literally the greatest hip-hop album ever made. I was lucky. It’s poetry. The way he can describe scenes, a life and a state of mind, all in words, was fascinating. It not only made me love hip-hop, it made me want to be a writer.

Also A Tribe Called Quest. Listening to lives that I didn’t fully understand, but they managed to make me feel like I understood just with their words. I thought it was beautiful.

AVC: For the younger generation of K-hip hop and K-pop artists, you have kind of become a “teacher”. Is this your way of carrying on the hip-hop tradition of learning and teaching?

Board : I don’t know… but between the ages of 20 and 23, when I started Epik High, I learned from everyone before me. I was a history student [of hip hop] and I paid attention to detail. It wasn’t something I watched and tried to emulate. I spent time learning to appreciate it before I started doing it myself. It’s the right way to do anything.

AVC: How does it feel when young artists cite Epik High as one of their formative influences? Want to receive your roses?

Board : As for the roses, I think we got more than we deserved. We appreciate all that, but if you stop there, it’s nothing, right? What I’d like to do now for young musicians is show them that you can have a career in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s – and teach them to live with their light a little dimmer than before. I know younger musicians who are constantly worried because popularity is [fleeting], and they don’t know how to go about it. They worry about what they can do after music because they have devoted almost their entire existence to it. I want to show that it’s possible to be 20 and still be invited to Coachella. You can continue and the fans will be there.

AVC: I know breaks are nothing new to Epik High. Have you imagined what another break would look like?

Board : We start to. But I definitely don’t want to go down that road where you’re a successful musician and become the CEO of a label. It’s noble, but currently it’s not what I want. That’s not why I’m here on Earth. I have other aspirations. I want to affect people in other ways.

I have the podcast, but I’m also working on a scripted project with Amazon Studios. Hopefully it will be in front of people’s eyes at some point. Creation and writing are in the foreground. This is the most important thing. I think I was born to be a storyteller.