[Weekender] ‘What’s your flashing green light?’

By Hong Dam-young

Korean-American rapper PH-1 talks about Gatsby-inspired album and faith

  • Published : Feb 23, 2018 - 17:21
  • Updated : Feb 23, 2018 - 17:21
“Gatsby and I, it was such a perfect coincidence. I just immediately related to him.”

When PH-1, a 25-year-old rapper from the US, finished recording two tracks for his latest EP -- both of which take critical aim at society -- he couldn’t find an overarching theme for the album. And while flipping through Netflix, he stumbled upon “The Great Gatsby” film based on F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s 1925 novel. And a light bulb switched on.

“I thought of Gatsby as a person who has everything but at the same time, nothing. Feeling lonely, he looks out the window every day, waiting for something, and I could relate to him. Ever since I came to Korea and became a musician, I‘ve been feeling very blessed, but lonely as if I were on an island here alone,” Park said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. 

PH-1 (H1GHR Music)

And that’s how his latest EP, released in January, got its title “Gatsby.”

Both Gatsby and PH-1, whose real name is Park Jun-won, hail from Long Island, New York. But what struck Park the most was the flashing green light in the movie, the symbol of Gatsby’s unattainable hope and desire. Gatsby stretches his arms out toward a small green light on Daisy’s dock from his house across the water.

In a short documentary film for the album, Park narrates in a toned-down voice, “What is happiness? I’ve been searching for the answer, but I haven’t (found it). In many ways we‘re all like Gatsby, gazing at the green flashing light with the hopes of finding the purpose of all the struggles.”

Park said he wanted to talk about what happened after music became his job in his “Gatsby” album, the gap between an ideal fantasy and harsh reality.

At the end of the video, he poses a question. “So let me ask you a question. What is your green flashing light?”

Park knew his answer. God.

The Christian rapper called himself blessed and lucky, as his hip-hop career has been proceeding seemingly without a hitch. When Park was a student majoring in biology at Boston College, music was just something he fiddled with in his room as a hobby. Having grown up with strict parents who had quit their jobs in Korea to follow the American Dream, Park had originally thought of becoming a dentist, at his parents’ suggestion. But he just couldn’t resist his blazing passion for music.

And in the summer of 2016, God opened the door for him, said Park. While working in a web development company in the US, he was invited to perform as a guest at a concert held by a musician friend in Korea. Through pure coincidence, one of the companies he was working for shut down, allowing Park to make the short trip to Korea and perform. After his small gig, he was contacted by major music labels such as AOMG, HIGHGRND and The Black Label. Three months later, he was living in Korea, signed under H1GHR Music, a global hip-hop label founded by rapper Jay Park, who also heads AOMG.

The rookie hip-hop musician, however, still felt something was missing. Music became his job, as he had dreamed of, but he was homesick, as he struggled with relationships, loneliness and cultural differences.

“My green light, my ultimate purpose is God, and I know in my head that I shouldn’t need anything in moments I have Jesus. But it’s not easy. I still worry about when my paychecks are coming and what’s going on with my next project,” Park said.

He plans to keep expressing and sharing his feelings honestly through his music. Park said he hopes to use his God-given talent to make music that is positive, reflective and observant of life, which people can relate to, instead of bragging about his talent and fame.

“I don’t want to talk about sex or money like many Korean hip-hop musicians do. That’s such a narrow topic. Why would you make a 10-track album and only talk about how you are the best, while there are so many things to talk about in our lives? I think making people relate to my music is more valuable, that’s the power I have,” he said.

Often referred to as the “hidden card” of H1GHR Music, Park plans to collaborate with many foreign musicians for his next album, which will embrace a more experimental sound. He also hopes to expand to the US.

Asked if he would be appearing on popular hip-hop competition “Show Me the Money,” considered a shortcut to fame for rising rappers, he shook his head.

“I’m always trying to look at the bigger picture. I would rather be a person outside that ‘Show Me the Money’ circle and constantly go in my own name even if that takes more time,” he said.

By Hong Dam-young (lotus@heraldcorp.com)