It’s a story that has captivated the international world of Korean pop with a potent mix of youth, celebrity, and scandal. In four years, Jay Park went from being a regular American teenager to one of Asia’s most famous singers as part of K-pop group 2PM. Then, at the peak of his popularity, a media controversy precipitated his sudden exile from Korea. After briefly disappearing into obscurity back in the U.S., Jay is preparing for a second foray into the spotlight, both here and in Asia—this time as a solo artist, and on his own terms. How did he do it?
First, a primer: In 2004, Jay was a typical high school kid in Seattle when he auditioned for Korean entertainment mogul Park Jin-young (JYP), who was in the U.S. to scout for new talent. Impressed by the 17-year-old’s potential, JYP sent Jay to Korea to begin a “trainee” program. (Korea’s major entertainment companies operate rigorous youth academies that churn out K-pop’s never-ending supply of new artists.) Having never lived in Korea, and without his family, Jay struggled to adjust to the culture shock and the demands of his new environment. But, in the fall of 2008, after nearly four years in JYP’s talent factory, the hard work paid off: Jay (now called Park Jae-beom) emerged as the leader of a new group called 2PM. By the summer of 2009, with the success of their hit “Again & Again,” 2PM was Korea’s most popular male group, and Jae-beom became a pop idol across Asia.
Then, it all came crashing down. On September 4, 2009, the Korean blogosphere caught wind of several private messages written by Jay to a friend in 2005, leaked by a “netizen” who hacked Jay’s MySpace account. The damning words, typed by a then 17-year-old Jay just months after arriving in Korea: “korea is gay….i hate koreans.” The public furor was immediate and relentless, and Jay quickly issued an apology. But the media scrutiny and blogger hate only intensified. Less than a week after the story broke, Jay abruptly left 2PM to return to Seattle.
In the months following Jay’s exit from Korea, rumors constantly circulated about his possible return to the group. But in February of 2010, JYP announced the permanent termination of Jay’s contract, cryptically alluding to an additional, unnamed controversy that supposedly trumped the MySpace incident. Thus, with his 2PM career officially over, Jay began the process of rebuilding his career as a solo artist. Jay spent much of 2010 touring with his b-boy crew, Art of Movement, while also putting plans in motion for a comeback in Korea. Now, with the controversy behind him and on the cusp of releasing his new Korean mini-album, Jay granted us his first in-depth interview about 2PM, Korea, and his plan to tackle the U.S. market.
Complex: First, the latest news: Last week you posted a new public apology to JYP and 2PM. Why now?
Jay Park: Well, it’s kind of hard to explain why now, but it’s for a lot of different reasons that will become clear as time goes on. I just want to move forward with my career in a positive way.
Complex: Does this leave the door open for future collaborations with 2PM?
Jay Park: Just give me the word and I’m down. I don’t know how they feel, but as for me, we all struggled together, came up together, and that’s something I’ll never forget. So, as for me, those dudes are still my boys. I’m down whenever.
Complex: How closely have you followed the K-pop scene as of late?
Jay Park: I don’t follow the K-pop scene very closely to be honest, ’cause I’m busy doing my own stuff. I look at the charts every now and then to see who’s on top, but that’s about it. As for songs, I like 2NE1’s stuff, and I think Secret’s “Shy Boy” song is hella cute. [Laughs.]
Complex: Your latest K-pop appearance is a cameo in the video for the new group 5Dolls. How did that come about?
Jay Park: I did that right before I came back to Seattle the last time. My company set it up—my company is close with their company. We shot it for three days straight without any sleep. Right when I got finished, I went to go pack, and then I went on a plane and came back.
Complex: We last met almost a year ago, when you were performing with your crew at Rutgers. Back then, it seemed like you were still readjusting to your post-2PM life. Since then, how have things been going?
Jay Park: As of right now, things are going good. Basically, I have more freedom to do what I want as an artist. I can work with the people I want to work with, I write my own songs, and I can bring my crew along to shows and have them be my dancers. So, it’s good.
Complex: Even though your home base is in Seattle, I know you’ve been traveling quite a bit to Asia. How has day-to-day life been for you?
Jay Park: It’s kind of hard because I go back and forth a lot, so the jet lag is kind of hard. But, I went to two battles—we just won Mighty 4 in Portland. We actually just flew out my choreographer Andrew Baterina, and we’re about to get ready to shoot this music video at the end of the month.
Complex: Is that for “Demon”?
Jay Park: No, it’s for my Korean album that’s coming out in April.
Complex: Tell me about how that project came together.
Jay Park: Basically, my fans wanted me to put out a full album in Korean. Like, even at my concerts, I only have a few Korean songs of my own, and then I sing a bunch of cover songs, like Chris Brown and Usher. There isn’t a full Korean album from me, so I was like, Alright, I gotta do this. One of my homies from my crew produces, so I got a couple beats from him. I got a couple beats from these underground rappers in Korea. And then I just wrote to them, I did vocal arrangements, or rap, or whatever. I recorded the songs that I thought were classic songs already, and we’re gonna put out a mini-album in April.
Complex: Was the bulk of that recorded here or overseas?
Jay Park: Most of it was in Korea. It basically got done in like a month. I was out there getting ready for concerts when I recorded all of it.
Complex: I know that you’ve made it a goal to bring Art of Movement more visibility and to continue breakdancing. Have you found it difficult to balance your solo career with promoting your crew?
Jay Park: Nah. Me and my crew toured the whole world last year. We went to the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea—we went to a lot of places last year. And then this year, we’re going to Japan. And, after my album comes out, it’s about to get even more crazy.
Complex: You’re known for singing and dancing, but your recent YouTube videos have mostly been of you rapping—the 6’7” freestyle and the one you did over Lupe’s “I’m Beaming.” Was rap something you’ve always wanted to do?
Jay Park: I mean, I’ve always liked hip-hop and rap, ever since I was in the second grade.
Complex: What was your first exposure to it, do you remember?
Jay Park: Yeah, actually I remember it like it was yesterday. My cousin, he’s like six years older than me, he let me listen to Warren G “Regulate”—that’s the first hip-hop track I ever heard.
Complex: That’s a good one.
Jay Park: Ever since then, I’ve been listening to rap and hip-hop.
Complex: It was sort of a natural move for you, then.
Jay Park: I started out doing rap ever since I was in middle school. I never used to sing. Once I got into JYP, I got vocal lessons. That’s when I started to sing. I used to be a horrible singer. And, I mean, I’m not the best right now. But I’ve always liked to rap. I used to be really big on lyricism—I listened to Eminem, Canibus, Nas, 2Pac. And then, I couldn’t really write lyrics, but as of late, I’ve just been kind of getting back into it. And I was like, 6’7” sounds dope, I should just…’cause I had all these raps saved up to spit over four minutes, and that’s just what I did.
Complex: As far as the collaborations you’ve been doing here with Asian-American rappers—with Dumbfoundead, J.Reyez, and Decipher, to name three—how do these collabos come about? Do they reach out to you? Or are these relationships you had in the past?
Jay Park: Dumbfoundead kind of happened really organically. We were just like, “Alright, let’s do a song.” Decipher, I met at Rutgers, actually. And then J.Reyez reached out to me. I’m always down to help a fellow Korean rapper. They have to be dope, they have to be nice, but I’m always down to help someone who has talent.
Complex: The song that you did with Dumbfoundead and Clara C, “Clouds,” blew up on YouTube. Since this collaboration and others came about organically, as you said, do you see any profit from them? Like “Clouds” wasn’t available on iTunes, was it?
Jay Park: Nah, it was for free download—same with the one for J.Reyez. I just do it because I respect them as artists and we’re just homies, and I try to help them out. It’s not for my own benefit.
Complex: How about “Count On Me,” your Korean version of B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You”? That’s your biggest solo song thus far. How did that all come about?
Jay Park: When [the original song] first came out, when it wasn’t even a hit, I thought, I should do a cover of this. I’ve always seen people do YouTube covers and I’ve always wanted to do it, but I didn’t. And then I finally had the freedom to do it, so I did.
Complex: Was that the first actual cover that you did?
Jay Park: Yeah, the first actual cover I put up on YouTube. And then I actually got contacted by Warner Brothers Asia saying they wanted me to cover it and do a remix of it to drop it in Asia, ’cause they have the rights to the song. We did it, and it turned out to be a success, so it was good.
Complex: Did you get to talk to B.o.B about it?
Jay Park: Nah, I was hoping that we could perform it at least once. Because in Korea, he actually went platinum, by Korean standards.
Complex: He definitely got some legs in Asia on that from you.
Jay Park: Yeah. There’s a track that, instead of Bruno Mars, I’m singing on the hook. So, yeah, he basically sold over 10,000 units over there, which is really hard to do in Korea because everybody illegally downloads. Especially if you’re a foreign artist that just comes out. So, I was hoping I’d get to see him, get to perform with him, but I never got the chance to.
Complex: I’m sure that opportunity could arise in the future. Unlike the other organic collabos we’ve discussed, “Count On Me” was released for sale and charted. Have you been able to cash checks from it?
Jay Park: My actual profit from the song isn’t financially huge, because of the deal we did. But it’s cool, I just wanted to get a chance to be on the same album as B.o.B, which is dope. The song did really well, actually. It was on top of the charts over there in Asia, it sold a lot…surprisingly. It’s not even my official first single or anything, it’s a cover, but it sold like 60,000 units.
Complex: You opened with that song when you performed at the Beach Festival in Naksan in Korea last August. I wasn’t there, but people were telling me that you had the biggest reaction at the event, which included Kanye West. What do you remember about the show, and did you get a chance to meet ’Ye?
Jay Park: I actually performed the same day as Lupe. Kanye was the first day, Lupe was the next day. That was my first performance in like a year. I thought I did really well, but after I looked back at the footage, I was way too excited about the performance, way too energetic, and it kind of came off sloppy. But the energy was good, the vibe was good, and everyone was having a good time. It was kind of sad that I didn’t have any songs of my own to do back then, and I had to do “Nothin’ On You” and some other songs. I wish my set would’ve been longer. But I got to meet Lupe, and I actually interviewed him for SBS—I don’t know if it aired or not—and I asked him if he’d ever do a collaboration with an Asian artist, and he said he’s actually working with Teriyaki Boyz.
Complex: If any American artist would do it, it’d definitely be Lupe.
Jay Park: Yeah, he’s a real humble dude. He’s cool.
Complex: Last April, there was an allhiphop.com story about your forthcoming American album, reportedly with help from Teddy Riley, Snoop, and T-Pain. The story came out and it kind of went away. Was there truth to that, or were those just rumors?
Jay Park: That was rumors. I did a song with Teddy Riley, “Demon,” and I spit on a couple of tracks over some T-Pain and some Snoop Dogg, but I don’t know if it’s gonna come out or anything like that. It was just rumors. As of right now, I’m definitely trying to do the U.S. stuff, too, but I’m trying to establish my place on top for sure in Asia, and then move on to the U.S. and do all that stuff maybe next year, 2012.
Complex: To that point, you’ve obviously experienced superstardom in Korea and Asia, and you’re looking at next year to jump out in the U.S. From your vantage point, do you think there’s a difference between what makes a star in Asia and what makes a star here? Or is it similar?
Jay Park: I mean, it’s really different. But I think if you have the skills, you’re talented and, you stay humble and cool—if you stay real—people will see that anywhere in the world. When you do interviews, when you do TV, when you do radio, even in your songs, your music videos, if you stay real and you’re talented, people will see that. And you’ll blow up, regardless.
Complex: You’ve done several interviews in Korea over the last year, but you haven’t really done any English-language interviews yet. Do you foresee doing more U.S. press next year?
Jay Park: The reason why is because if I do press stuff here, it’s like: “Oh yeah, he does a bunch of stuff in Asia.” People won’t really know here. They won’t really hear about me, they don’t really know who I am. So, after I come out with something in the U.S., then I’ll do a bunch of stuff here and be like, “You can catch me, I’m doing a show in New York.” Then I think it’s more relevant.
Complex: Right. Because, although you have a sizable fan base in the States, I’m sure you want to reach everybody.
Jay Park: Yeah, I wanna reach everyone. Not just people who like K-pop, but people who like music, and pop music, and all that.
Complex: When you first came back, you were a total free agent. Since then, you’ve signed with managers in the U.S., and last summer you signed with Sidus in Korea. What qualities were you looking for from your new management team?
Jay Park: I mean, even back then, I didn’t really think about all that. It’s not like I was like, Oh, I need to do an album in Korea, and do this and do that. I was just going wherever life was taking me. I was just chillin’, as you saw. Ned [Sherman of Digital Media Wire] and his wife, Tinzar, actually reached out to me. She saw my story and she felt really bad about what happened. They set me up with a bunch of meetings with managers, and then we met Seth [Friedman], and his background is crazy, and he was the coolest guy of all, the most laidback and chill, which is kind of like how I am. I thought it was a good fit. For Sidus, they’re a really established company in Korea, and they really made efforts to reach out to me, so I appreciated that. And then, when we did our contract, I had the freedom to do what I want creatively, which I wanted. So, that’s why I chose to work with them.
Complex: You filmed your first movie, Hype Nation, over the summer. Did you see the finished product yet, and in your mind, was the experience a success?
Jay Park: I haven’t seen the finished product. There’s not really much word about Hype Nation right now. Even back then—again, I didn’t do it because I thought it was a good career move for myself, like, Ooh, if I do this movie, it’s gonna blow up. It didn’t really seem like it was gonna be like that, to be honest. I just did it because I asked if my crew can be it. [The producers] said they could be in it, so basically I split my share that I’m getting paid with my crew. And they flew us all out—me, my crew, my family. First time ever that my whole family, my whole crew, was all going somewhere together. So I did it.
Complex: On the Internet, you’ve turned into somewhat of a social-networking beast. How do you feel about connecting with your fans on Twitter (@JAYBUMAOM) and the like?
Jay Park: Back when I was in the group, I was really lazy. I didn’t do any of that stuff. Even though my company told me to do it, I didn’t do it.
Complex: Oh, so the 2PM guys all had Twitter accounts back then?
Jay Park: They set up a Twitter for us, but I’m the one who never used it. I’m the one who used our café [fan site for K-pop groups] the least, and never put up any comments or anything like that. So, I was really lazy. But ever since all that stuff happened—the scandal, the controversy—my fans have been there by my side through everything. So, I can’t help but to be like this, ’cause I’m thankful. I use Twitter, I use Facebook, I use YouTube, and I just try to update them on what’s going on, because they’ve been waiting on my album for so long. For like a year and a half. So, I just keep giving them updates and stuff like that.
Complex: I noticed that the recent chatter among your fans is about the tattoos you’ve been getting recently. I think they’re scared you’re gonna start looking like Weezy or Wiz Khalifa.
Jay Park: [Laughs.] Well, basically, I got a couple little ones. And then I started looking into the mirror, and my body started looking empty. [Laughs.] So I went tattoo crazy for a little bit, for like a month or a month and a half. You know, if you get a whole bunch of tattoos, it’s not really good for your image, and you can’t come out on TV. But for me, I don’t really care if it’s bad for my image. If you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re a good person. I stopped for now, but you never know what’s gonna happen. I plan on getting more throughout the years.
Complex: Big entertainment groups from Korea are still recruiting in the U.S. to search for, basically, new versions of you. As someone who’s gone through the entire “trainee” experience, what advice might you give to a teenager who is in the position you were when you were 17 and getting sent to Korea?
Jay Park: Back then, I didn’t have any friends, I was really new. The food, the language—couldn’t speak the language. It was like culture shock. They did things way different than the way I did it. So, I was really not open to all that, and I was really negative. I’d say, just to make your experience more enjoyable and to get better: Be open to anything. And just enjoy your experience. In anything. Even if you don’t like it, enjoy it. You’ll learn from it somehow. You’ll better yourself somehow. That’s all I can say.
Complex: Given all that’s happened, do you have regrets? Or do you think all of this happened for a reason?
Jay Park: Definitely, everything happens for a reason. All the controversy after I came here, I started working at a tire shop. You know…I saw my friends and my crew and my family two weeks out of the year before. Even when I was doing all that, what I really wanted to do was be with my crew and see my family a lot. And finally, I can. I’m traveling places with my crew—it’s like a dream come true, basically.
Complex: With some recent talk-show comments by JYP and then your latest public apology, there is still media curiosity about exactly what led to the break from 2PM. In the future, do you foresee a time when you will want to really explain your side of the story, like write a tell-all book or something? Or, do you feel that this chapter should be closed forever?
Jay Park: I mean, I feel like people [write tell-all books] because they’re falling off and they want to get a buzz. Why would you want to stir up a whole bunch of controversy when things are going well? Nothing good can come out of it. For me, I’m just doing my thing. I’m just trying to get my skills up to par, please my fans, be with my crew and my family, and bring us all up.
Complex: What’s next for you? How would you want Complex readers who aren’t familiar with you to get to know you?
Jay Park: I worked with a whole bunch of producers when I was in L.A. I worked with Greg Ogan [Britney Spears, Rihanna], Stereotypes [Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber, Far East Movement], Dre from Dre & Vidal [Chris Brown, Usher], so I have a whole bunch of tracks that are pretty dope. I have a couple R&B tracks, a hip-hop track, some electro-dance stuff. Once all that comes out, they’ll see what I’m about. As of right now, I just want them to think that, even though I do all the K-pop stuff, I’m still a b-boy, I’m still a rapper, I’m still an entertainer. I’m just a cool dude that chills with his friends and goes around doing shows all over the world.
Complex: Finally—with your Korean album coming out soon, are you at all still concerned about what the public perception of you is in Korea right now?
Jay Park: Not really, because I’ve just been trying to be a nice guy, trying to please my fans, trying to take care of everybody around me. And if they think that’s horrible, what can I do. I’m just trying to make good music. Hopefully, they’ll see that. Hopefully, when my [Korean] album comes out, they’ll be like, oh, this guy is really talented, he wrote his own songs, he can dance, he can sing, he can rap, he can do it all. And he did it with all his close friends. So, if it blows up, hopefully they’ll see I’m trying to help everyone around me and that I’m a nice guy.