Max Pearl profiles one of dance music's most distinctive new voices.
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On a Friday night in April, a friend invited me to a basement party in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was shoulder-to-shoulder in there, with no air circulation, such that you could feel the rise in humidity when you took the first step down the stairs. The capacity must have been 100 or so, and the ceiling was low enough that you could touch it from the dance floor. The other details from that night are fuzzy, but I remember Yaeji playing jungle and breakbeat tracks while I waded through a sea of recent college graduates.
The second time I saw Yaeji was six months later, and by then everybody had swapped their tank tops and bike shorts for sweaters and beanies. She was billed to play opening week at a new venue called Elsewhere, not far from that little Bushwick bar, though maybe ten times the size of it. I arrived early to avoid a hassle at the door, but as I walked up to the entrance I could see the line already wrapped around the block.
The wide concrete hall had hit capacity, and Yaeji was a couple songs into her show. She was hunched behind a pair of CDJs and a mixer, with a microphone in her hand, rapping along with her track "Guap," an infectious bit of modern hip-house that references a Mall Grab song of the same name. The chorus starts like this: "All black / from head to toe / you can't see me / inside the club." It's got a thick, no-bullshit beat, with lyrics that will follow you for days afterwards, doing donuts in your brain while you're trying to focus on something else. There's something willfully playful about it—this shy, five-foot nerd with wire-frame glasses whispering about champagne, cars and clubs.
Real name Kathy Lee, the 24-year-old Korean-American has only released two EPs over the course of a year. In that time, she's gone from DJing on busted speakers in basement bars to selling out a 700-capacity music venue at 20 dollars a ticket. She recently started touring with her live show, where she sings and raps in Korean and English, interspersing her own tracks with short stretches of DJing. The crowds know all of the words to fan favorites like "Feel It Out" and "Raingurl," anthems that have delighted fun-loving house heads while earning her a huge fanbase outside of dance music. It's not every day you see the same person get rave reviews in Resident Advisor and The New Yorker.
"I live in this weird in-between world of not-pop and not-quite-dance," Lee tells me, sitting in the small painting studio she rents for when she's not working on music. She's not quite enough of an extrovert to fully occupy the pop star role—at least not yet. But her music has more personality than most anything else in the relatively anonymous world of house music. She has great taste in records but she's not really a technical DJ, nor is she a full-on performer with choreography and a stage show. "It really reminds me of growing up," she says, "how in Korea I was an American, but in America I was Korean."
Lee's life story is a circuitous journey that eventually winds its way back to New York. "My parents came here for their honeymoon and decided to stay," she says, "so it was a temporary plan that ended up lasting longer." Lee was born in Queens, the vast outer borough where 50% of residents are foreign-born, and her family soon relocated to suburban Long Island, then to Manhattan. When she was five or six, just as she was about to enter school, her father got a job 900 miles away in Atlanta, Georgia—a drastically different world from the lively city of immigrants they left behind.
"I went to a public school where there were no Asians," Lee tells me. "It was a very isolating time, just in terms of being able to relate to anyone, because this was the suburbs and I didn't have friends." At school there was bullying and racism to contend with, and she wasn't adjusting well to life in the American South, so her parents began to consider their options. On top of that, she tells me, they were becoming concerned because she wasn't speaking Korean at home, so they decided to pack up and head back to Seoul in the late '90s. It wasn't much easier there.
"At the international school I went to they went by an American educational system," she explains. "I felt like, you know, I had found this group of people I could relate to, but at the same time I was very much aware of how different I was from them." As if that wasn't enough to send her into a kind of cultural vertigo, her family decamped to Japan for a year, where she attended a Korean school.
"I didn't belong there either," she says, "because I was learning Korean at school, but in Korea my classes were in English." On top of that, she explains, Korean kids hadn't yet developed a taste for imported pop culture, like the American rap and EDM that would later fuel K-pop's global takeover. "The culture was very xenophobic at the time," she says, "so me speaking in English was weird for the older generation."
This is classic third culture kid stuff, the kind of story that anybody with a rootless, international upbringing can identify with to some extent. People often describe it as a kind of cultural jet lag, which leads to a passable understanding of multiple cultural codes, and a fluency in none of them. "Even within that category," she says with a reflective pause, "I think I'm a weird case. But at this point I'm almost comfortable with that, so it's fine."
Being isolated can make you a great artist. That's the upside at least—you have to learn how to stay entertained, so you throw yourself head first into some kind of creative pursuit. "I'm an only child and my parents were always working," Lee says, "which nurtured my weird obsessions with, like, web design and video games. It probably accounts for my work habits now with music, and how I wanna teach myself everything. I think it came in handy."
In the late 2000s she wound up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, studying art at Carnegie Mellon, a university known for science and technology. Her studies centered around East Asian visual culture and fine arts, but when she downloaded a copy of Ableton Live in junior year her priorities started to shift. She was dropped into techno's deep end when some friends took her to Hot Mass, a Pittsburgh afterhours club inside a gay men's bathhouse. As American clubs go, that's about as close as you'll get to a world-class European experience like Berghain or De School. She was hooked. After graduating she beelined back to New York City to throw herself into the action.
"Back then," she says, "we would have, like, one good show a month in Pittsburgh—or at least that I knew about. So I'd wait a whole month to go out, then wait again, and I felt kind of deprived. So when I moved to New York I was going out like four times a week, at least for the first year that I was here."
Diving into New York's scene was a culture shock that she alludes to on the track "Feel It Out," from her first EP, when in her sing-song whisper she says, "Other countries they are having more than coffee / shit is crazy / shit is Yaeji." I asked her about that "coffee" line because I couldn't figure it out, though I liked the cryptic poetry in it.
"In Korea," she explains, "it's super illegal to have drugs. Like, there's a blacklist, and some of my friends are on it because they're international. It's very scary. So pretty much my whole life—up until junior year of college even—I was never exposed to anything like that. It was all a total shock in the beginning, even just weed. So those lyrics are a reference to that: for my whole life I was just sipping on coffee and being like, 'Wow I'm wired.'"
In New York she started saying yes to everything. She rented her shared studio to keep painting and screen-printing. She began throwing parties at her apartment, where she would cook and invite her friends to DJ. She got serious about her own music, and began directing videos for her tracks, taking gigs and collaborating with people she met at parties. It was around this time that she met Nick Sylvester, cofounder of Godmode Records, an indie label with a sweet spot somewhere between adventurous pop and quirky electronics. This meeting would take each of them to the next level of their artistry.
"The first thing I heard were these tossed-off demos on SoundCloud," Sylvester tells me over the phone from the Godmode studio in Los Angeles. The thing that got him was her voice—raw and untreated, even off-key at times, totally unlike the overproduced vocals you hear on a lot dance music. "There's something almost voyeuristic about it," he says. "And I love her cadences, the way she uses English and Korean lyrics to hide meaning, or obscure it, or create a different meaning. I mean, it was just immediate."
They began collaborating. Sylvester, who's a professional studio musician and engineer, offered his technical know-how to juice up some of the ideas Lee had started in Ableton. When it comes to dance music, the role of an A&R person tends to be limited: they'll tell you which tracks they like, then assemble the individual releases and send them out for mixing and mastering. Sylvester, however, takes a hands-on approach that more closely resembles something you'd see on a big-budget pop record.
"What that means," he says, "is that Kathy often starts with the idea. She'll record something in her room, then shoot the stems over to me. Maybe I'll replace certain parts or rearrange them, or I'll send it back to her and be like, 'I think this could be better.'"
They recorded both of her EPs—Yaeji and EP2—this way. Lee jots down her production ideas along with her lyrics. Then they head to the studio together to reinterpret the whole thing using top-shelf equipment. "Drink I'm Sippin On," the big single from EP2, is actually a beat that Sylvester worked on during a trip to Atlanta, which accounts for its low-slung Southern rap sound. He wrote parts of "Feel It Out" for a song he originally pitched to Beyoncé. When her creative team passed on the instrumental, Lee wrote a whole new arrangement and made it the most memorable track on her first record.
Ideas tend to come to Lee while she's in transit, on subways and buses headed to work, home, gigs and the studio. It's made her an arduous note-taker, not just with a notebook but with a Novation smartphone app that she bought for ten bucks. "I tend to make simple voice notes or loops on the fly," she explains. "That's where the beginning stages form." With a label manager and—essentially—bandmate who takes care of the technical stuff, she can stick to the more zoomed-out aspects of songwriting. She tends to prefer big-picture ideas over the nitty-gritty, which is, I think, the thing that her listeners connect with most deeply.
"I try to capture these temporary or fleeting experiences, like memories and feelings," she says, when I ask about the lyrics. A lot of what she sings, raps or whispers is abstract, with lots of free-wheeling poetic allusions. Often it's just a string of words or images that fit with the kind of impressionistic mood palette she's got in mind for the music. "Since my approach is already so abstract," she explains, "I can focus on the phonetics and the textures of the words, the way the repetition gets a certain feeling across, rather than trying to tell some kind of story."
I've found myself singing along phonetically to her Korean lyrics, having no clue what they mean. Apparently I'm not the only person who's told her this. "I had no idea this would happen," she laughs, "but I love it."
As it turns out, she was just as surprised when her music started drawing a die-hard fanbase of Asian-Americans. Many of them encountered her through 88rising, the nascent California media company aimed at millennial Americans of Asian descent. Along with artists like Rich Chigga and Keith Ape, she's gotten a viral boost from the platform, which has directed millions of views to her videos.
"They started putting out my music," she says, "and I didn't think too much of it until I realized that it translated to Asian fans. That it's reaching Asian girls who are thinking, 'Wow, I can make music, too. I don't have to be some K-pop idol; I can just be a normal-ass person.'"
It's not just the diaspora—Lee's music is gaining traction with the cool kids back in Korea. "Until last year I mostly played gigs there that my friends booked," she explains, "but this winter it'll be pretty different." Now she's playing major venues booked by international talent agents. So what's it like to go viral? She isn't too rattled about it: "I mean, there are a lot of eyes and ears on me right now, but for whatever reason that isn't my number-one source of stress."
Sylvester has a similar attitude. "A few million plays on a song is exciting," he says, "but what I find really special is the fact that so many people have found someone they can relate to." I asked him what would happen if, one day, Lee decides to go solo and do her own thing. "What's special about her isn't the sounds on the record," he says, "it's her voice and what she has to say. And regardless of whatever music is getting her to that place, I think that's always the most important thing. The fact is, the second she opens her mouth you know it's a Yaeji song."