Meeting up with a group of Korean vaporwave producers wasn’t something I’d planned to do on my holiday. I was leaving for vacation in Seoul in a matter of days, when I casually mentioned it to someone at Private Suite. In a flurry of ideas they suggested we get in contact with some producers over in Korea, since it might be a good opportunity for the magazine to reach out to vaporwave fans and creators internationally. For my own sake, the idea of meeting up with some of the people who actually make the music that fuels the scene was a great opportunity. It might sound odd to say, but it’s easy to forget that behind all the artwork, samples, loops and aesthetics, there’s real flesh-and-blood people. So, I decided to spend part of my holiday immersed in the Korean vaporwave scene.
1: Where I meet my guide and get introduced to vaporwave Seoul
During our planning, a name that seemed to come up almost immediately was Jeju Digital, the Seoul-based multimedia company and record label. I was planning on meeting their head honcho, Jeju (moving forward, I’ll refer to the man as Jeju, and the collective as Jeju Digital). Jeju was the guy who could help me connect all the dots in the Korean vaporwave scene.
Once I landed in Korea, Jeju reached out to me proactively to get planning. He offered to meet me and some friends near our hotel and show us around the city. Not just the generic tourist sites, but the areas that really inspire him and his collective in the music they make. We were staying in Myeong-dong, a huge luxury shopping district in the middle of Seoul, which reminded me of Shinjuku or Shibuya in Tokyo. This is the apex of Asian shopping culture: endless stores, packed streets, neon everywhere, crowds bustling. It’s the kind of scene which has inspired countless vaporwave artists over the years.
Jeju brought one of the artists he works closely with, Wave Area, to hang out on this introduction to vaporwave Seoul. Having arrived just a day or two before, knowing no Korean, and realizing winging it could only get us so far, it was great to see two friendly faces.
Jeju Digital is an ambitious project. Across Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Bandcamp, the organization puts out a diverse, and quality mix of Korean-influenced vaporwave. They work with underground and emerging artists like Legacy Prodx, JPEGSTRIPES and Clear State, run a buzzing Instagram account, and a YouTube channel dripping with artwork and photography. They also have a podcast showcasing up-and-coming Korean artists. The culture of South Korea is their main fuel, with samples often taken from ‘80s and ‘90s Korean pop. Hangul is used liberally, photos of Seoul adorn many of their releases, and many of their artists live in Korea. They really wear their heart on their sleeve and it’s a clear break from the traditional Japanese, American or Hong Kong influences on vaporwave.
“Jeju Digital is a record label that started with a few friends, we’re based all around the world and it’s a small collective of music and video producers,” Jeju told me. Nearly standard for the genre, anonymity is important. Jeju continued, “We use various names, aliases for whatever is going on. I don’t have a real production name, the people behind it aren’t important.” It’s much more about the concept with Jeju Digital, and concept is something they have in spades. Jeju Digital operates less like a traditional record label, and more like a multimedia project. It’s based on the idea of a mega-corporation in the far future—the titular Jeju Digital—which has totally taken over Korea. In order to solidify its power, the company alters current and past media to fit its own corporate tyranny. Jeju informed me, “It’s a Korean conglomerate, so like Samsung or Hyundai; in Korean it’s called chaebol. Jeju Digital fits into this timeline that starts in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ends in the far future. Jeju Digital is like a huge mega corporation which takes over everything. Government military, everything, just like the Tyrell corporation in Blade Runner.” Jeju Digital is simply sending this warped media out into the world. “You take away people’s ability to think outside of Jeju Digital, you look back at the past and you see the present and you’ve got nothing to refer back to,” Jeju said.
2: A record store far from the lights
The inspiration behind the concept might be drawn from our first rendezvous point: an underground (literally) record store beneath Myeong-dong station. There’s a weird mishmash of older Korean music, super-modern K-Pop, and imported western records on the shelves. Jeju explained that, for quite a number of decades, South Korea was isolated when it came to music. The authorities heavily dissuaded imported music, instead promoting Korean musical styles considered to be more wholesome and acceptable. This restriction started to break down in the ‘90s, as South Korea liberalized, leading to the unique diversity mentioned above.
One of the best legacies of this distinctive musical history is the huge variety of earnest, easy-listening Korean music available, most of which is completely unknown to a global audience, but provides fertile ground for sampling and remixing. You can see how this Galapagos Syndrome in Korea’s musical history would lend itself to the idea of a mega-corporation trying to return a future Korea to a more restricted, darkly wholesome past that half-existed.
3: Where Jeju and Wave Area tell their stories
Jeju is originally from the UK, with a long history in DJing, promoting and working with various producers, which became more evident as we chatted. This isn’t someone who has just hopped on a bandwagon looking for novelty; there’s a real appreciation for what vaporwave is doing, and the potential for what it can do here. Vaporwave can seem like a young or even immature genre: at its worst just hyped up teenagers in their bedrooms slamming their keyboards. Then you meet someone like Jeju and it puts the genre more into context. There are always people out there pushing the limits of electronic music, using it to freak people out and bring people together. If vaporwave can attract those old heads as well as bring in new blood, the genre can only get better for it.
Wave Area is a veteran hip-hop beatmaker; which led to an affinity for vapor trap. He released his first full-on vaporwave EP, Mind Collective, in 2017. Wave Area is a native of Seoul, and took quite an interesting path to the discovery of vaporwave. Like almost all South Korean males, Wave Area was drafted into the army at eighteen, and went through several years of mandatory service. He easily recounted the story: “When I was in the army, we had a system, you get to use the computer once a day for thirty minutes. So every day for thirty minutes I used to go on there and listen to music, mostly older music. Then one day I discovered this artist called Blank Banshee, I started listening to his music and became addicted to him. So every day I was listening to Blank Banshee in the army. Now I’m finished in the army I’m able to make hip-hop beats all day.”
One of the most intriguing things about media is how it must feel as a native person to see artists from other countries reinterpreting your national culture. So much of vaporwave samples Japanese, Hong-Kong, or (in the case of my hosts) Korean music from the past. But most of the people doing this have no idea who the original artists really are, and most can’t even speak the language. Wave Area, when asked what it feels like to see huge artists like 식료품groceries using Korean Hangul to decorate and title their releases, responded, “I think it’s cool they’re using Korean words honestly. Even if they’re using the letters, just thinking about the shape, the form, that’s not a bad thing.”
This cross-cultural mix goes both ways, as exemplified by our old friend Floral Shoppe. Wave Area said, “When I was listening to Floral Shoppe, that music reminded me of when I was young. My parents played that kind of music on our LP player. I actually played Floral Shoppe to my parents and they said ‘oh this is that old music we used to listen to’, they couldn’t even tell it was remixed.”
“So your parents like vaporwave?” I asked.
“My parents like vaporwave,” he responded with a laugh.
As I said to Wave Area at the time, that’s an all-time quote.
4: Where a new friend comes along
We then met up, ironically, at Starbucks, with a vaporwave artist who recently arrived in Seoul: Phreddy M. Phreddy grew up in Mexico, and came to Seoul to study at university. He’s been making music for a number of years, and like Wave Area recently moved into a vaporwave style with his 2017 release D e c e p c i ó n.
When asked how he started, Phreddy explained: “I started making techno music, minimal, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be stuck in the same place. I always like to be moving. I don’t like to be static, depending on my emotion, because last year was difficult for me. I decided to come to Korea. It was a big decision since it’s the first time I was far away from home. I really felt like my future was uncertain.” As someone who lived in Tokyo for a year, I can relate to Phreddy. It’s not easy uprooting yourself to somewhere totally new, and unless you become fluent in the language and culture over a number of years, like Jeju, it can remain a challenging (yet ultimately rewarding) experience.
But at the same time, you have to keep moving, be it from one genre to another, or one city to another. In fact, part of the reason Phreddy started to work more within the vaporwave style was to reflect his emotions at the time. He told me, “I needed to do something emotional, I’m emotional, I need something to stress this emotion. D e c e p c i ó n was when I decided to come to Korea, also I was going through some personal stuff. So it’s a kind of history, it’s like a story.”
One of the unspoken tenets of vaporwave is that it often attracts people who are feeling dissociated, lost, people who want to see that listless, dreamy emotion reflected back at them. Phreddy said, “I just want to express emotions I have, and do the songs for me so that in the future, when I listen to this music, I will remember the bad time I had, and the good thing is you know, being depressed, do something good with the feeling.”
So as much as the music can be sad, it can have an uplifting impact. And if that’s true for the listeners, it follows that it should be true for the artists themselves.
5: The living marketplace of nostalgia
Jeju then took us to an older, more rustic area of Seoul. Seoul is a modern city, with many of the gleaming buildings, modern transportation and conveniences you’d expect of a high-tech Asian city, but it also has its rough edges. You’ll find parts of the city which look just like they must have in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s. There’s some grit in these blocks, they feel lived in.
One of these areas was around Dongdaemun and Dongmyo. An old market district, even more densely crowded than the rest of the city. The main area of the market serves traditional Korean food, but numerous shops and smaller markets are dotted around the area, packed full of old vinyl, CDs, laserdiscs, cassette tapes and more. A whole history of defunct recording media stacked under their roofs. As we walked the streets and halls, Jeju talked me through his love for Korean ‘trot’ music. The name derives from the foxtrot dance, and the genre was the main style of music promoted by the state following the Second World War. It’s jaunty and upbeat, full of vocal inflections, and with a repetitive rhythm that makes it easy to dance to. Crates and crates of trot tapes, CDs and vinyls are everywhere, and many of the shops in the streets around Dongdaemun make their entire living selling trot music.
We stopped and had a beer near some of the shops selling old TVs. Those massive old black CRTs, encased in plastic. I was amazed there’s anyone still looking to buy these things; I even remarked on it to Jeju. But the market and streets around it were buzzing with life and energy, people were really excited about these old boxes from the 90s. It was here, among these relics from a near-forgotten past, that Jeju shared with me some key inspiration for what he does:
“When I listen to old Korean music, I get nostalgia, I get nostalgia for an old Korea that I never experienced, like this real old style of Korean music, the foxtrot music, it makes me feel nostalgia. For me as an outsider in Korea, that’s really fascinating. And going back to Jeju Digital, I deliberately wanted Jeju Digital to have a Korean flavor, because I knew that I could, to an extent, represent Korea authentically. I can read Korean, I can speak Korean, I can find Korean music authentically.
“But vaporwave, the only thing that really holds it together is nostalgia, kind of that lost feeling. That’s vaporwave. You know that looking through the rainy window, that’s vaporwave. That lost feeling of nostalgia.”
6: Time to say goodbye
It’s a compelling speech, and one that really connects to the longing a lot of vaporwave artists and fans feel. Whether it’s the South Korean soldier spending his precious internet time listening to Blank Banshee, the Mexican student using FL Studio to escape depression, the British expat submerging himself in Korean granny music, or me, on holiday just trying to scrape some meaning out of my travels, we’re all trying to find something deeper through the sound. I find so much enjoyment in that. Vaporwave revels in irony and cynicism, a genre built on rolling your eyes and sticking your tongue out at the world. But it’s also a deeply sad, longing genre, a genre which just wants to find a slither of meaning and belonging in a world which seems bereft of it. So if my little fact-finding mission around Seoul has taught me anything, it’s that we’re all feeling that way.
At least we’re all searching together.