MUSIC

After making hits for other Korean acts, hip-hop artist GRAY shines on his own

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One of Korea’s most sought-out producers illuminates his whimsical playground of music in his first studio album after nine years. Photo courtesy of AOMG

The astronomical rise of K-Pop throughout the years was headlined by agencies like SM Entertainment (SHINee, Girl’s Generation), YG Entertainment (BIGBANG, Blackpink), JYP Entertainment (2PM, Twice), and Big Hit Entertainment (BTS).

But at the forefront of Korean hip-hop and R&B is AOMG, a record label founded by hip-hop artist Jay Park. The label name stands for Above Ordinary Music Group, which translates to its tireless and creative approach to making music. Home to hip-hop veterans Simon Dominic and Loco, as well as soloists Yugyeom and LeeHi, AOMG’s mission is rooted in artistic freedom and producing captivating music. At the helm of Korea’s urban music scene, they are known for their chart-toppers like Jay Park’s “Mommae” and “Drive”, Simon Dominic’s self-named anthem “Simon Dominic,” and most recently Got7 Yugyeom’s album “Point of View:U.”

Beyond managing their own roster of artists, the hip-hop and R&B label often joins forces with other musical entertainers to spotlight Korean music as a whole. AOMG — through arranging music — has hinged its name on popular hits such as Hoody’s “Your Eyes,” BewhY, ONE and G2’s “Not The Same Person You Used to Know,” former SISTAR member Hyolyn’s “Dally,” and Girl’s Generation’s Tiffany Hwang’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” featuring Simon Dominic and Wanna One’s “11”.

And behind the distinct melodies and upbeat style composing some of Korea’s mega-hits is South Korean singer-producer Gray (stylized as 'GRAY') of AOMG.

South Korean singer-producer Gray has written, composed, produced, sang and rapped in over 250 songs since his debut in 2012. Photo courtesy of AOMG

“I’ve always had a thirst for an album,” says Gray, an all-around artist, who has written, composed, produced, sang and rapped in over 250 songs since his debut in 2012.

But in between filming popular television shows like “Show Me The Money” (Korea’s popular rap competition program) and producing songs for his co-label mates at AOMG and other artists, one of Korea’s most sought-out producers put any plans he had for his own album on hold.

For the past eight years, he has stayed focused on building and growing the company by focusing on helping other artists come out with new singles, EPs, and albums. While he fulfills both roles of AOMG’s main producer and solo artist, he sees each creative process as one and the same. “I don’t try to differentiate myself as a producer and as an artist because there is continuity in both roles,” says Gray. “When making other artist’s music, I’m responsible for the sound and vibes only and I adjust to artists’ ideas. However, I have to write my lyrics, choose a keyword, [and] create a message all by myself when making my [own] music.”

His silence ended in August this year, when he released his first full-length album “[grayground.]” which is a love letter to his fans. With social distancing protocols preventing him from performing in front of a live audience, he thought that the best way to reach his fans was to work on new music. “At a time like this, we can’t hold concerts, so I decided to connect with my fans by releasing an album so that I could release more video [content] for them,” says Gray.

He first teased fans with an initial release of the music video of “Baby Don’t Cry” featuring hip-hop artist Yumdda, where he sings about enduring your ambitions: Don’t you settle for reality / You gotta love yourself the most baby yeah / The heart’s still beating / The sun will rise tomorrow again.*

But even though the subtle whisper of his name — his iconic producer tag — has now made its way to chart-topping songs (like Woo Won Jae’s “We Are” which was a consecutive number one on the Korean Gaon Digital charts) and albums (such as Yugyeom’s “Point of View: U” which took the top spot at the worldwide album charts when it debuted in July 2021), Gray is familiar with the perils tied to the pursuit of a dream. “Back in the days when I was broke, I used to live in a tiny one-bedroom on the rooftop,” he shares. “It was a difficult time, but I was more confident then because the only way [was] to go up. I had nothing to lose and I was able to enjoy the process.”

Nine years after his first performance, Gray feels like he’s become more experienced and can express himself much more easily than before.

His album “[grayground.]” introduces fans to his playful and adventurous world of beats and tunes influenced by his everyday life and experiences. “Visual elements such as movies and Netflix series inspire me to make music,” he says.

Every sound is rhythmic, upbeat, and prefaces a catchy hook. There are songs about heartbreak and falling in love, and a song about being one-track minded with work. Entitled "Selfish,” Gray identifies this as his current favorite from the album. In an earlier interview, he explained that this song — inspired by parts of the movie “Soul” — details out his selfish ego that comes out when he’s working, in hopes that other artists can relate too: "Sometimes I push myself / Sometimes I’m too sensitive, saying I’m an artist / Don’t worry, don’t do anything / If you care about me, just don’t call me for a while."

“We are not usually supposed to be selfish but when we are doing our own works, especially for artists who are focused on creating their art, we become selfish,” he says. “When I’m not working, I try to take a rest and live in the moment. I’d rarely go to the studio when I’m not working, but I’d go to the studio almost every day of the month when I’m working on my album or other artists’ albums.”

With lockdowns ruling out any chance to share his energy with his fans face-to-face, Gray found himself with bouts of Corona Blues — a type of situational depression born out of the pandemic — which led him to take a step back from working last year. “Due to social distancing, we are unable to have performances with an audience,” he says. “Such change has altered the way I draw inspiration and it also motivated me to make this album.”

Inside Gray’s new album, he sings and raps enchantingly about love, loss, and a yearning for simpler times. The dreamy visuals of the music video for “Party For The Night” are paired with his trademark laidback sound as he raps: "Just do as your heart tells you to do / Time goes tic toc time flies by every time / So don’t waste it / We don’t even know where this ends / What’s important to us is 'now'."

His lyrics trace his emancipation from recurring feelings of the “Corona Blues” as he reminds listeners to let go of their worries and make the most out of the present. Together with sonic songstress LeeHi, Gray sings: "Leave your worries for tomorrow / What more do you need in this moment?"

Developing and formulating “[grayground.]” — which is currently #14 on Korea’s Gaon Charts — throughout the first half of the year consisted of revisiting old works-in-progress and producing new songs from scratch. “The interesting part is that some tracks were made eight years ago, and I added and changed some parts to fit the current trend,” he shares. And with the duality of Gray as an artist, he finds himself taking care of every single detail himself by also being responsible for his own album’s post-production.

A lot has changed since his first single “KKAMBBAK” (Blink) featuring Zion.T and Crucial Star in 2012. These days, his collaborations with other artists happen through back-and-forth texts or emails, without ever having to meet face-to-face. “I miss being stuck in the tiny studio with other AOMG artists back in the day, making music together and just having fun,” he says. And in spite of the new realities and challenges in forming musical alliances, Gray stays committed to collaboration — 10 out of 11 album tracks are infused with voices of other artists (pH-1, Loco, LeeHi, Woo Won Jae, DeVita, Coogie, meennoi, to name a few).

Coming together with other voices, sounds, and musical styles has always been a source of inspiration for Gray. These days, the multi-hyphenated musician is busy filming the 10th season of music variety show “Show Me The Money” as one of the judges alongside Winner's Mino where he will be building his own team of up-and-coming artists. The competitive audition program — offering a record deal as the grand prize — is famous for paving the way for some of the biggest names in Korean hip-hop, such as Loco and Woo Won Jae, who are now signed with AOMG. Other idol rappers from popular groups have also participated, including iKON’s Bobby, Seventeen's Vernon, Monsta X’s Jooheon, Astro's Jinjin, and Stray Kids’ Changbin.

Gray makes his return to “Show Me The Money” after being the coach of the fifth season winner back in 2016. “I’m excited to find out who will be joining my team and look forward to making music with them,” he shares. “Working with new artists always gets me hyped and inspires me to become better.”

Having cemented his place in this subculture of Korean music, Gray adheres to a carefree philosophy in his work. While he pays close attention to emerging trends in hip-hop and R&B, he also sticks to mixing, mastering, and writing lyrics that, to him, feel classic. And in that way, he believes he is able to make timeless songs that people will always want to listen to.

Another way to listen to" [grayground.]" is to just savor and relish in the interplay of ‘90s hip-hop-inspired beats and contemporary soul music underfoot while Gray’s voice pours over the mix. On one note, his musicality carves out collective human experiences. On another, it reminds you not to take them too seriously. It is a trip through Gray’s lyrical playground of life.

“For this year, I hope my fans enjoy ‘[grayground.]’ and the upcoming stages and music of ‘Show Me The Money 10’,” says Gray. “I don’t have a fixed plan for next year yet, but I’ll keep making music for sure.”

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*Lyrics are translated from Korean.