Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Shin Hae-cheol, the K-Pop Icon

Fate can be cruelly ironic. Only a few days after TK covered him in this space, with hopes to cover him more going forward, Shin Hae-cheol passed away from cardiac arrest on October 27, 2014. He was only 46 years old.

As TK explained previously, Shin is K-pop’s greatest rock icon of the 1990s. Through his outspoken activism and direct communication with his loyal listeners, his influence extended well into the 2000s, and well beyond the consumers of pop culture. No one in the history of K-pop left a footprint quite like Shin’s. Though his life was tragically cut short, it deserves to be known to a wider audience who appreciates K-pop, and wishes to understand where it came from, where it has been.

*                *                *

K-pop nearly died in 1975. The Park Chung-hee dictatorship saw pop culture, especially rock music, as a threat to public order and ultimately its regime. When Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], the greatest rocker of the time, refused to write a song praising the dictatorship, the government banned his music and arrested him on trumped-up drug charges. Numerous K-pop artists met the same fate.

Korean pop music, which stood near the forefront of global pop music trends in the 1970s, took a massive step back. Only the inoffensive, melodramatic soft rock could survive for the next decade, as the next dictator Chun Doo-hwan--whose rule ended in 1987--was hardly a fan of rock music either.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that an upstart band, calling themselves the Infinite Track [무한궤도], came onto the stage as the last contestant of the MBC College Pop Music Festival in 1988, a year after Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship was toppled. The College Festival, which began in 1977, became the new path to stardom after the dictatorship decimated the existing pop music scene. But for a long time, the college bands that performed on the Festival mimicked the larger trend. Their music was soft and meek, tear-jerking without being daring.

That is, until the Infinite Track took the stage. The Infinite Track seemed to be an unlikely band to challenge the status quo--its members were the classic definition of elites, as they were students of Seoul National, Yonsei and Sogang. When the baby-faced lead singer and guitarist Shin Hae-cheol gave the pre-performance interview, few expected what was coming next.

Then the song began, with blaring fanfare. A rush of synthesizer followed. The drums crashed harder than they did all night. The lights of the freshly constructed Olympic stadium--which just finished serving its purpose in the Seoul Olympics--blinkered wildly to the beat. The song, called To You [그대에게], instantly owned the crowd. (It would continue to own the crowd for the next thirty years, as it is one of the favorite songs for Korea’s cheering sports fans today.) When the Infinite Track finished performing, there was no doubt about who won the 1988 College Pop Music Festival.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Having become an overnight star, Shin briefly dabbled in (gasp!) musical career as an idol. (For the rest of his life, Shin Hae-cheol would gag whenever someone showed him this ad that he appeared in.) But Shin Hae-cheol’s musical ambition went far beyond being a pretty face singing love songs. After two albums, Shin formed N.EX.T in 1992. N.EX.T, shorthand for “New Experiment Team,” would become K-pop’s preeminent rock band for the next decade.

The first album for N.EX.T set the tone for the band’s entire career. N.EX.T’s music was constantly sophisticated, layered and unconventional. It tended to be heavy on keyboard and synthesizer, reflecting Shin Hae-cheol’s lifelong love of electronic sound. The tunes were varied, though always organized around a particular theme for each album.

Through its lyrics, N.EX.T also distinguished on the more direct message that it imparted. The words for the songs flew over the existential heights, then sharply descend to a quick witted attacks on many iniquities of the Korean society. In this sense, N.EX.T became the true heir of the rock’n roll spirit of K-pop that was nearly killed in the 1970s.

The influence of N.EX.T over the 1990s K-pop fans cannot be overstated. For music fans aged 15 to 35 at the time, it was either Seo Taiji or N.EX.T. (Which is ironic, because Seo Taiji and Shin Hae-cheol are cousins, and considered each other best friends rather than rivals.) By then, Seo Taiji was already the “Cultural President,” revolutionizing the very foundation upon which K-pop had stood until that point. But N.EX.T, as the leader of the counter-culture, stood toe-to-toe with Seo Taiji although the band’s media appearance was no more than a fraction of Seo’s.

All good things must end, and so it was with N.EX.T. The band went into hiatus in 1997, and Shin studied music in England. Shin briefly partnered with Chris Tsangrides, producer for Judas Priest. Later, it was revealed that Tsangrides appropriated one of Shin Hae-cheol’s songs, titled Machine Messiah, to create a Judas Priest’s song, Metal Messiah. (Shin Hae-cheol publicly noted that Tsangrides was not allowed to take his music, but avoided any legal or other retaliatory action out of his respect for Tsangrides and Judas Priest.) Thus, Shin Hae-cheol became arguably the only K-pop artist whose music was plagiarized by a major Western rock band.

*                  *                  *

Parallel to his music career, Shin also maintained an active public life as a public intellectual, pundit and campaigner. He led the charge in the “Tomorrow is Too Late” album series, which collected the biggest names of K-pop of the time (including Seo Taiji, Kim Jong-seo and Lee Seung-hwan) to sing about protecting the environment. Through a song from N.EX.T’s 1995 album, Shin Hae-cheol led the campaign of abolishing the absurdly antiquated law that prohibited Koreans sharing the same last name from marrying. (The law was in fact abolished in 1997.)

When the creators of an indie movie called Jungle Story--a biopic of then-unknown indie rocker named Yoon Do-hyeon--asked Shin Hae-cheol to compose the soundtrack for the movie, Shin invested his own money to make the highest quality album possible, to the point that the movie’s soundtrack ended up earning much more money than the movie itself. For the 20 year anniversary of iconic poem anthology The Dawn of Labor [노동의 새벽], Shin took the initiative to come out with the commemorative album.

Shin Hae-cheol (left), on the 100 Minute Debate
Shin Hae-cheol did not apologize for his progressive politics. Shin holds the dubious distinction of a singer who most frequently appeared on the “100 Minutes Debate,” a respected TV political debate program. This was often because Shin Hae-cheol was the only public figure who was willing to get on television to make a case for such controversial issues as marijuana legalization and abolition of laws against adultery. He actively campaigned for progressive presidential candidates (including former president Roh Moo-hyun,) and was at the forefront of the anti-Iraq War protests and protests against conservative governments. The infamous concert in which PSY rapped about killing American soldiers was Shin Hae-cheol’s handiwork.

But arguably, Shin’s biggest non-music imprint is none of the above; it is the Ghost Station. Sometimes known as the Ghost Nation, Ghost Station was the late-late night radio show that Shin Hae-cheol DJ’ed from 2001 to 2012. And it was absolutely nothing like anything that existed on any Korean television or radio. Unlike most radio programs, Ghost Station rarely invited any guests and played few music. (When Shin received complaints that Ghost Station did not play enough music, he would sometimes play a 22-minute-long medley of ancient Korean pop songs just to mess with the listeners.) The entire program was essentially consisted of Shin Hae-cheol speaking for an hour or two, often reading off of the listeners’ stories submitted through the Ghost Station message board.

True to form, absolutely nothing was off limits on Ghost Station. Shin encouraged his listeners to drop the honorifics and address him in banmal. Ever the iconoclast, Shin favored stories from the socially marginalized. Ghost Station was likely Korea’s first broadcast program that featured regular discussion about homosexuality. When Ghost Station did play music, it favored up-and-coming indie music that did not receive regular media exposure. His adoring listeners eventually gave Shin Hae-cheol his favorite nickname: the Demon Lord [마왕].

*              *              *

Shin Hae-cheol's funeral arrangement.

Shin Hae-cheol’s death was sudden and unexpected. Shin had just released a new single, with a full album to come shortly. In September, Shin Hae-cheol also announced that N.EX.T. was re-forming with all new members. There is some chance that Shin’s death was due to medical malpractice. Regardless of the cause, the genius who defined Korean rock for a decade, and touched the lives of many for much longer, collapsed and never recovered.

When his passing was announced, Shin Hae-cheol’s personal favorite song, titled Freshwater Eel’s Dream, topped all charts in Korea. (The song is embedded in the beginning of this post. Shin used to say that this song would be played at his funeral.) More than 15,000 fans attended his funeral, as did his dear friend Seo Taiji, PSY, Yoon Do-hyeon and numerous other luminaries of K-pop history. All radio stations of Korea dedicated several hours to playing only Shin Hae-cheol's music, bidding farewell to one of the brightest, the most enduring stars of K-pop history.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I now realize why the people were so 'crazy' at Shin Hae-cheol. Frankly speaking, I haven't listened to any of the songs of N.E.X.T., No Dance, or Shin's solo work. Absolutely no. However, I tried to search for his songs after his death, and I was like, "why in the world didn't I know these wonderful songs?"

    Anyway, glad to read your post again, TK.

  2. Not sure if it's just the mood I'm in but I feel like this was one of your most moving posts. Salut.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...