Sobered by Pain, Drunken Tiger Still Burns Bright

      September 10, 2007 10:30

      Tiger JK

      The godfather of Korean hip-hop, Drunken Tiger JK, whose real name is Seo Jeong-gwon, was there at its beginning and at its peak. Diagnosed with myelitis last February, the 32-year-old rapper was devastated when his doctor told him a full recovery was impossible. But instead of giving up, Tiger embraced the world and his music even more fiercely than ever, managing to release his seventh album in more than two years: "Sky Is the Limit."

      "I felt I was being increasingly tied down within the gigantic premise of hip-hop. I didn’t want to be restricted by the conventional framework, I just wanted to be honest and talk about my story from beginning till end. And this album is the fruit of all the suffering and pain I went though. Of course, such difficulties can be a 'gift' for musicians."

      Contrary to today’s hip-hop that mixes rapid-fire raps with powerful refrains, Tiger JK completely immerses the listener with candid confessions that are deep and far reaching. There is not a whiff of pretense or disguise. His lyrics are utterly honest, revealing every inch of his brittle life: "Looking at myself sick, old, and dying, I thought the bone-wrenching pain’d never go away, I didn't want to be alive again. I had to hold back my cries, my tears; I clenched my jaws, my fist all because I'm a man."

      At first he was reluctant to mention his illness. "I don't want to be misperceived as cashing in on people's sympathies," he said. But as he talked about his songs, his suffering and pain came forward only too naturally. "Suddenly the bottom half of my body was paralyzed. When I was taking a shower in hot water, it felt cold. The myelitis was playing with my nerves. Sometimes I was sure I was walking but I was on the ground, fallen." The cane he now always carries is a minimal safety measure for unpredictable emergencies that might arise.

      His doctors prescribed steroids though a full recovery was highly unlikely. He had no other choice but to be careful and pray that the condition wouldn't get any worse. But perhaps because of the side-effects of the steroids, he started to swell up to almost 100 kg, becoming unrecognizable even to his mother, and he was constantly light-headed. Barely able even to stand that way, he went against his doctor's instructions and devoted himself completely to exercise.

      In just ten days of running and weight-lifting, he returned to his usual weight. "I figured it was the same in the end whether I die this way or the other.” He is not completely healed but now leads almost a normal life. "More than anything, it's the mental power that's most important," JK said. "Ever since I started to live with the disease, I was able to see myself objectively, from a short distance away. That has made me more relaxed about my life."

      On stage, JK becomes the howling tiger his name suggests. In real life, however, he is an introvert. "Music is the only way for me to communicate with the world," he said. He wants to experiment in other musical genres, too, like reggae and folk. To JK, hip-hop is a modern version of pansori, a narrative music form unique to Korea. "When you play pansori to famous musicians in the States, they are really surprised. It’s because both hip-hop and pansori share similar sentiments. Pansori’s Han, roughly translating to 'resentment' in English, is what moves people. In this vein, I think I can say Korean people are naturally drawn to hip-hop."

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