“Rapper, singer-songwriter, composer, or performing artist, people can call me what they want. Because no matter what they call me, my music will not change […].”
Read SCV’s fifth interview with rapper NiiHWA who talks about the great lengths he went to for the sake of making music.
Note by SCV: saying he enjoys second-hand smoking, NiiHWA waited until my smoke-snack-time was over, sat down and said quite awkwardly, “Thank. You. For. In.vi.ting. Me.” That reminded me of a hyung I knew from my neighborhood ten years ago and somehow made me feel at ease.
SCV: Thanks for readily coming here on such short notice. Please introduce yourself.
Niihwa: My artist name is NiiHWA and my real name Kim Jihoon. I am 28 years old and I have a younger brother. My mother’s name is Seo..
SCV (taken aback): Until here is fine.
Niihwa: Anyway, nice to meet you.
SCV: Niihwa. An easy-to-use nickname and well-sounding. How did you end up with that name?
I made this name in high school. In high school, I decided to find myself a name and checked out the names of people who were active in the scene at the time. Nearly all of them were English names. I thought it would be boring if I’d do the same, so I decided to use Chinese characters for my name. The name NiiHWA is made up of the characters 泥 (ni, meaning mud) and 花 (hwa, meaning flower).
SCV: The flower blooming in the mud .. that reminds me of The Quiett.
I like that song. I was influenced by The Quiett-hyungnim.
SCV: When you made that name in high school, when did you start making music?
I first started writing songs at the age of 20, but I have been listening to music, singing, and dancing since I was a child. I think I enjoyed standing on stage since back then.
SCV: You even danced, that is amazing. Aren’t you also rapping, singing R&B, and even composing? When did you start making rap and music?
To be exact, at the age of eleven when my mother bought me a tape titled ‘New Generation of X Songs’ (X가요 신세대). It was an ordinary tape which you could buy anywhere in the street, but there’s this thing they called ‘Streetboard Charts’ [in Korean: Gilboard charts; reference to the Billboard Charts], I think. My mother liked black music and music itself, and as I have always been a child who had trouble paying attention, my mother thought it would get better if I listened to music. I remember that on the tape were songs like Lee Hyundo’s ‘폭풍’ [Storm] or ‘숨은 그림 찾기’ [Picture Puzzle]. The eighth track was 1TYM’s ‘1TYM’, and in those days I had no idea that it was hiphop, I just liked the music so much that I rapped along to the whole song. I think I naturally approached music that way and started making it myself. Now to how I started dancing. Back then there was a famous cartoon called ‘Hiphop’. Reading it, I decided, “Ah, I have to do b-boying,” and went to school with the boombox from home.
When I meet classmates from elementary school these days, they say, “Jihoon, you carried that thing around in school, so you are still making music.”
I’d say that the first time I properly rapped was in middle school. I bought Drunken Tiger’s third album and enjoyed JK-hyungnim’s flow a lot. I copied his rap until I knew Drunken Tiger’s first, second, and third album by heart. I got into R&B thanks to the last track off Wheesung’s first album, ‘Incomplete’. I liked it a lot, so I found the original track, Sisqo’s ‘Incomplete’. Since then, whenever I listened to rap, I thought, “Ah, rap is my thing.” Whenever I listened to R&B, I thought, “I think singing is my thing after all.” This is how I argued with myself. Around the time I had these worries, I found a solution: “I just have to write my own songs!” After spending my school days that way, at the age of twenty I entered university where I went to the Composition Department to express my own music, and I officially started composing.
SCV: It seems like you are someone who has to do what they want. Your mother who likes black music must have been happy when you told her that you were going to make music. Were you inspired by or did you receive help from your mother?
I think you got that right about my personality. However, my mother and my father were against me making music. And the more they did, the more I went astray. (laughs) Probably because I wasn’t a good child, I wanted to do it even more when they forbade it. (laughs)
SCV: However, didn’t your mother buy you that boombox? In those days, it wasn’t anything an elementary schooler could buy with his own money.
No, we just had that boombox at home. As my mother likes that kind of music, we also had a record player at home. When I wanted to dance, my mother was against it for a long time, but now she is learning Korean dance herself.
SCV: Was your family more on the laid-back side then? It seems like they are more tolerant towards arts.
My father is conservative, when I was a child he hit me a lot. Of course, I did do lots of bad things that deserved beating. (laughs) Until the age of twenty I did well in school like my parents wanted. But then, when I was twenty and told them about what I wanted to study in university, I remember that I said: “I have been telling you since elementary school that I am going to make music. Why do I have to listen to my parents even after becoming an adult?”
SCV: Anyway, it’s good as long as everything turned out well. Haven’t you actually proved yourself? You got first place at the Super Rookie Challenge before, please do brag about this a bit.
It’s no bragging, but looking at the performances there, most people pursue original hiphop as basis, but as I represent a mix of several genres, I think I had an advantage. I think everybody enjoyed it [my performance] since it was unusual.
SCV: Be a bit prouder!
I did f*cking well. No, I worked hard.
SCV: I can imagine that the surroundings in which you make music must have turned for the better after the Super Rookie Challenge. If that is the case, please tell me about the before and after.
Rather than my surroundings in which I make music improving, I got to know a lot of fellow musicians from the underground and had a good time. In my opinion, when the Movement was mainstream, labels like AOMG or Illionaire were in the underground. Now they have become mainstream and I think that the people who are in the underground now will become mainstream later. You can say that my current address is the present underground scene. As I tend to work by myself a lot, I got to know a lot of hyungs, dongsaengs, and friends [at the Super Rookie Challenge]. I think that being able to ask them how they are when we coincidentally meet at concerts is a big change somehow.
SCV: How did you end up working with Yoo Seyoon?
Among my acquaintances is a person who is employed at ‘Ad100’ [광고100] where Yoo Seyoon works. When I was working on the album, I wanted to make the skit funny, so I asked that person to contact Yoo Seyoon [and we ended up working together]. I wrote the script and it came out as well as expected. Due to that [collaboration], Yoo Seyoon contacted me and asked if I wanted to collaborate with him [again] on ‘Monthly Yoo Seyoon’ (월세 유세윤). I agreed since I like any fun work, and I believe that everyone enjoyed it [the result].
SCV: I somehow think that it musn’t have taken you a long time to prepare. What kind of lifestyle did you have before you officially started musical activities?
If I told you the whole story, it would take two to three hours. First of all, the reason why it had to take me a long time to prepare was that I had to write the songs, so I learned composing. I also had to study both singing and rapping, so of course I needed lots of time. Since I am basically a composer, it first took me a lot of time to compose. Since I composed all my albums myself, it took me the longest to learn composition.
And now on to my lifestyle. Before I officially started making music, I had it slightly hard. I lived in Ulsan in Kyeongsang Province until the age of twenty, then came to Seoul, but of course I had no house or place to sleep. I had no money either so no place to go to either … I tried contacting people here and there, but it didn’t work out and soon I slept at Seoul Station. Then one day, a friend contacted me and said that a friend of him who he is indebted to has a place and I should go there. So I went there, unpacked my things and had my first meeting with my friend’s friend, the place’s owner. I asked him: “I am sorry, but could you please let me live here until I have earned enough money to find myself a place to live?” Luckily he consented and I was indebted to him as well.
SCV: I believe that is a good example for Kyeongsang Province’s loyalty. You should earn a lot of money later and treat that guy to a lot of good food. Please tell me about your lifestyle at that time in more detail. From where did you get things like food?
A lot of the stories concerning food are very sad. This happened when I was drafted, six months before I entered the army. Since it would become difficult for me to make music in the army, I decided to learn an instrument. I went to a place called Evans Academy and asked them to teach me the guitar, I would pay by doing cleaning or other miscellaneous work. They suggested me the job of a teaching assistant, so I was able to learn the guitar. As a teaching assistant, I had to make schedules for the students, clean, or be ready for other jobs, I could also learn the guitar for free and I even received a pay of 80,000 won a month.
To take lessons, I needed a guitar first, so I left the studio apartment I had been living in and bought a guitar with the deposit money. After that, I worked at a coffee shop in Shinchon while taking lessons, but I felt like I was only concentrated on work and thus took extreme measures. I decided to stop spending money. To test it out first, I went to a convenience store and bought three packages of Sahmyook soy milk. As I have never been an excessive eater, I was able to survive on one package a day, thus the three packages lasted me three days. It was manageable. I immediately ordered a whole box [of soy milk] from GMarket. I put the cheap soy milk, which even seemed to be healthy too, in the fridge, and drank one package each morning. As I kept living that way, I got very hungry at night. So I divided one package of soy milk of about 200ml (actually 190ml) into 100ml in the morning and 100ml in the evening. I endured that for two months, but later my excretory system didn’t function anymore and I had lost 9kg of weight. Without any physical strength, I obviously didn’t get any inspiration for music. I realized that I had to eat. I was especially craving for the chicken mayo sold at hansot lunchboxes. However, I had to get through the month on 80,000 won, so I realized that it would be an unnecessary luxury and bought the rice box for about 900 won as well as chicken mayo sauce for about 200 won from hansot lunchboxes, and mixed both. As I went there several times to eat that, the lady working there must have felt pity for me and gave me kimchi and chicken for free. As I entered the army after living that way, life in the army made me so happy. I got food and could sleep. Of course, I didn’t feel that way for longer than six months though. (laughs)
Anyway, since that time I don’t drink soy milk even if I don’t have [a lot of] money.
SCV (touched): Shouldn’t you have asked for help from your family to at least be able to eat …?
Of course that way would have been better, but I left home to do what I want to do, so I didn’t want to worry my parents. When my parents called to ask how I was, I replied “I’m eating and sleeping well.”
Right, please don’t include the chicken mayo in the interview. Because if other people eat it that way, hansot might raise the price.
SCV: … Such a thing will probably not happen. I’ll just include it. Do you still eat it that way now and then?
Sometimes I enjoy it for its special taste, but when I go to hansot these days I eat the ‘Young Master Lunchbox’.
YG: We’re going to go eat pork belly later, it seems like you have to join us.
SCV: NiiHWA said the restaurant he frequents is hansot lunchboxes, our readers shall keep that in mind. So, compared to when you first started making music, what kind of difficulties are you experiencing nowadays?
What kind of difficulties I am experiencing? As for music, there are none. If I had to find a difficulty, then it would be that there are less and less people who I can simply meet. I think that when I was a bit younger, I just had fun with others, even if we worked on music. Even if it wasn’t for any kind of profit. It has become more difficult to find people without hidden intentions and it will probably become even more difficult from now on. In my opinion it has become more difficult for me to get to know really good people with who I can go to the bathhouse, eat a meal at hansot lunchboxes, and talk about music while watching the riverside.
SCV: If you find that difficult, then that probably is the case. Does that difficulty influence your musical work as well? I think that was an unexpected reply.
It is difficult. If you ask me what connection there is between interhuman relationships and music, I’d say that the role of music is to move people and gain their sympathy, so shouldn’t there be people above the music? Also, when you work together with someone, it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. At least that is what I think. If I didn’t care for interhuman relationships and did music by myself, I would be producing selfish music.
SCV: I enjoyed your recent album ‘Make Me Crazy’. How long did you work on it? There even is a skit in it, a rare thing these days.
You could say that it took me long to work on it since I also searched through my old songs for candidates to include in the album. It is different for each song, some are new ones I made, and I also included those which I doubted they would fit in the album’s atmosphere. When I made the album, I wanted it to become a mini album that is like a full-length album. So that people would ask, “Why is this a mini album?” I thought it’d be good if it was substantial. And I absolutely wanted to include a skit. I find it very amusing when musicians are funny and through a skit you can also find out how they normally speak. When I listened to CDs as a child, one of the best things about it were the skits, but these days albums rarely contain skits. Therefore, I had decided that I absolutely needed to include one or two skits when making an album.
SCV: So that is why you bought Drunken Tiger albums before. [TN: because of the skits.]
Right. Aren’t things like that fun? I wanted to have those emotions [in my music] too.
SCV: How did you end up working with KYEBUM-ZU? Have you known him before?
When I was at my former company, KYEBUM-ZU visited and we ended up working together. During the time I had been learning the guitar at Evans, KYEBUM-ZU had been one of the students there. He was surprised when he saw me [at the company]. He asked me if I was doing hiphop. When he had seen me before, I had been playing the guitar and had matching long hair, so of course he was surprised since he only knew me that way. That is how we reunited and decided to work together once. I let him listen to the [album’s] first track ‘Make Me Crazy’ and to ‘Jazzy Lady’. He said he wanted to feature on ‘Make Me Crazy’ so we worked together. Later, he said that he also liked ‘Jazzy Lady’, so I made ‘Give It 2 U’. I thought it would be nice if ‘Jazzy Lady’ had a guitar sound, so I looked for someone to help with that. I knew many people who play the guitar but … somehow I wanted to have a collaboration between teacher and student, so I asked the teacher who taught me the guitar at Evans who kindly agreed. Thank you, teacher Lee Soojin.
SCV: How did the people you know react to the release of your album?
Before its release, I worried a lot about their reactions. First of all, because the genre wasn’t really clear. However, as the album came out, people’s reactions were actually not bad. Many had the opinion that it was fresh. Some even said it reminded them of Zion.T, others that my voiced sounded a bit like MC Meta’s. The reaction which satisfied me the most was,” Nobody but NiiHWA could have made an album like this.”
SCV: Making music of several genres is no smooth ride. Do you have a role model?
If I had decided on one role model, it would feel like I’m trying to become that person, so I haven’t really decided on anyone. There are only artists who influenced me. Many musicians I like are people who produce and sing, like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. In South Korea there is Park Jinyoung, he influenced me a lot. I don’t think I exactly have a role model.
SCV: I saw that music portals list you as a singer-songwriter. If you could give yourself a title, what would it be? Rapper?
Rapper, singer-songwriter, composer, or performing artist, people can call me what they want. Because no matter what they call me, my music will not change, so I don’t really care. If I had to think of a title, I’d say producer, because I am designing my music and raising myself [as an artist].
SCV: You even compose songs. You can really be called an allrounder.
I have always been producing most of the time. I think I did spend the most time making songs. When I first started composing, I wanted to write songs for myself and not for anyone else, so I think that anything had to be possible.
SCV: You compose, rap, and sing. That must really have taken a lot of time.
That is why I debuted very late. Had I just rapped, I would probably have debuted a bit earlier.
SCV: Have you ever written a track for someone?
Of course. I have also written songs on request before. I like Korean producers a lot, for example Teddy, Brave Brothers, or Shinsadong Tiger. I also like producing songs for someone. At the age of 24 I made a CD with my songs and gave them to the people I just mentioned. I had to wait for eight hours to give Teddy my CD, but no matter the result, having the person who made me start music listening to my songs remains as a very good memory (for me too).
SCV: You released an album this year, do you have any plans of performing at a concert?
I really want to perform at concerts, but unfortunately nobody asks for me. I have a guest performance at the Super Rookie Challenge planned and another guest performance in October at KYEBUM-ZU’s solo concert. Call me anytime, I will put off my pants and shirt so just call me. Call me right now. [TN: this sentence is originally in English.]
SCV: Do you have a goal these days?
Even though few, I have fans who like me. I would like to make them proud. I want them to be proud of being NiiHwa’s fans so that they can say that liking my music was a good thing to do.
SCV: So what are your upcoming plans to realize that goal?
I guess I have to become cooler? I don’t mean my looks though. Composing, rapping, and singing, all these actions originate from a person’s vibe. Therefore, I think that I have to become cooler first to be able to compose cool songs and rap coolly. As my songs originate from my thoughts, I am making efforts to actually become cooler.
SCV: In case you are preparing a new single or album, please tell us a bit about it.
I have nearly finished the next track which will be a single. It is the kind of music that doesn’t seem to be popular in Korea right now. I enjoy not going with the flow. “I really liked this back in the day, why aren’t people doing this nowadays anymore?” I think this explains the track. This is going to be my next song.
SCV: Won’t there be any featurings?
I am in the midst of contacting people, but if I fail then I will have to do it myself. For my track ‘옥상 [Rooftop] (All Night Long)’, I didn’t find anyone who would feature until exactly one day before its release, so I sang the guide myself.
SCV: Please introduce the tracks you are into lately.
Do I have to put on airs?
SCV: No, please be natural.
These days, I have all of Drunken Tiger’s albums on replay, especially the third album. Ah, I also have one sophisticated track: Alessia Cara’s ‘Here’.
SCV: Please introduce your label.
It is a small company of the name ‘Vlue Vibe Records’. Delicate feelings are often expressed with the color blue, which I think fits me a bit, and that is where the name comes from. Vlue Vibe Records are four people, all of them are mainly working as producers. We don’t have enough people for the non-musical processes, but it is very pleasant to work together with them and due to that I think it is a great choice to join them even though there is no sort of profit I can gain from that.
SCV: I think you could say that you successfully entered the scene. What kind of advice would you give amateurs who are experiencing the same situation you were once in?
I think that I too am in the process of turning from an amateur into a pro, but if ROKHipHop sees me that way, then I would like to reply like this: you must have been having many worries, if there is one thing I’d like to say to you, that is: don’t mind the flow [trend] too much. After sufficiently considering if that [the flow/trend] matches your style, find your very own characteristic style. With your own style and your own vibe you make your own music and finally get your own fans. I hope that you invest most of your time into finding your own style.
Last but not least, please say a few words to ROKHipHop’s readers.
Video: Hello, my name is NiiHWA. ROKHipHop called me and here I am doing SCV’s Mineral Excavation Interview. I thought that it would be very interesting since I can tell of the things that occupy me in every-day life. I also follow ROKHipHop on Facebook and enjoy reading their articles. Just like you, I am reading them. After taking a shower, I lie on my bed and read the articles. It is an honor that they invited me here. Many people asked when my next album will be released. My next single is nearly finished, so it will come out soon.
Interview by SCV
Translator’s note: a big shout-out to SCV for not only allowing me to translate his interviews, but also especially creating the English version of the banner which you see above, and even checking the finished translation! Also many thanks to ROKHIPHOP’s head who made all of this possible.