Discover South Korea’s one and only black music cafe Back In The Day and read my interview with the owner DJ TomNig.
What is Back In The Day?
Back In The Day is the exclusive black music cafe located in Hongdae, Seoul, the only one of its kind in Korea. Recently mentioned by R&B artist Babylon in his Hiphopplaya commentary as well as by music critic Kim Bong-hyeon, the cafe has also been a site for multiple Korean hiphop artists like Babylon, TakeOne, Young Vinyls, Satbyeol, and most recently MC Meta and Choi Sam to film their music videos and have photoshoots.
Directions and Interior
Although located a bit far from the heart of Hongdae, the cafe is easily found outside of Exit 1 of the station. The moment you walk into the cafe, you can see the walls plastered with American rappers’ faces, quotes, concert tickets, and right in front is a DJ booth full of vinyl records. The speakers blast soul, funk, disco, R&B, and rap, putting the last piece into creating an exclusive hiphop dimension for anyone who enters.
Come along with rapper and producer Nodo, Back In The Day’s co-founder, who shows you how to get to the cafe from the station and what the interior looks like in detail.
However, the cafe is not just a place to enjoy hiphop music. The menu has several beverage choices of espresso, non-espresso, and beer (my personal favorite is the pistachio frappucino) while also offering several food items.
Interview with DJ TomNig
First off, please introduce yourself and the cafe.
When I was quite young, [I think] around the year 1988 … Anyways, when I was quite young I watched an AFN broadcast through which I encountered black music for the first time. After that, I wanted to become someone who makes beats and who raps. However, it didn’t turn out well like I had wished. Well, life has its hardships but as I got a bit older I tried out a lot of things and became a DJ later on. While working as a DJ, I got to know even real old soul funk. And even though I play that type of music, in the end I am a person who wants to make hiphop music. I am actually a DJ who makes beats. DJs such as DJ Premier are my role models. While he has his own unique way of DJing, he is a DJ who fundamentally makes beats. And that is who I am. However, since I am running this cafe, I haven’t had much time to make music. Even so, now I think that I absolutely have to take time [for making music] so that I can return to who I originally am.
To be honest it was never my goal in life to open a cafe. I lived in China for two years and returned to Korea in 2013. When I asked myself, “What should I do in Korea?” I thought that I should be able to do something with the 10,000 LP records and other such things at my place, and that something was this cafe. Naturally because I am a person who only listens to black music, I ended up opening a black music cafe. Recently, some customers and various people call it a hiphop cafe, but to be exact, it is a black music cafe. Because there are a lot of genres of black music [in the cafe] that customers can enjoy individualistically, so I think it is best to call and introduce it as a black music cafe. That’s what it is.
Just like the name Back in the Day implies, I nearly don’t have any recently released songs on the playlist. I basically play 1990s music, a lot of soul funk from the 1970s and R&B and hiphop from the 1990s. Because of this, when younger people, especially those born in the 1990s, come [to the cafe] and we don’t play the latest hiphop music, they may say things like “Ah, how is this a hiphop cafe?!” or “Isn’t this too old school?” But because this is the concept and identity of the cafe, it is all about old school music and I don’t think that will change in the future.
So that’s why you named it Back in the Day, I see. Who are some local or foreign artists you enjoy listening to?
I really like somewhat old-school New York-based hiphop. You can tell by looking at the posters in this cafe, I just really love New York-based artists. Apparently, I especially like those who passed away early on. I like artists such as Notorious B.I.G, Nas, and Mobb Deep. There are a lot I like so it’s a bit hard to list them out.
The interior design of the cafe is quite hiphop-esque, is the menu perhaps the same?
Yes, to be honest, I racked my brain to make the menu hiphop-esque. I also used word play with the rivalry of west side versus east side to create names for menu items. (Note: On the menu it says ‘wet side’ for the drinks and ‘eat side’ for the food.) There are items such as the ‘hiphop ice cubes latte featuring dutch’, I made a lot of phrases in that type of method. However, I think I still have to do a lot of research [to come up with more]. I ask myself, “how should I call this item?” For example, for a cappuccino, normally it is spelled with a ‘c’ but I come up with the term ‘kappuccino’ to hint at a somewhat slang-like feeling. Through this way I created a lot of names but it seems like I’ll need to continue researching for this part. That way, I hope that more customers will think, “Ah, this menu is really hiphop-esque.”
So your aim is to make it a place with a complete hiphop atmosphere through and through?
There are a lot of difficulties in running a cafe, right? Kim Bonghyeon and Babylon both mentioned financial difficulties. What do you think are the reasons behind this? Is it because it’s a black music cafe or are there other reasons?
The reason for it .. Ah, this is a bit of a sensitive topic. To be honest, the location is the biggest problem at the moment. Although the cafe is close to Hongdae, the ‘Mecca’ of Korean underground hiphop and a place with a lot of clubbers, this here is not a neighborhood a lot of people go to. So I am thinking of moving to another neighborhood. Anyway, the biggest handicap is the location and I am planning to look into that problem from now on. If I am having any financial difficulties at the moment, then I would like to say that it is mainly because of the location.
After reading this, foreigners might come to your cafe. How good is your English?
My English?! My English .. Actually .. In high school, I liked English a lot. I liked everything from the US a lot. Just like the cafe here, it makes people think I’ve been to New York before, exactly what I wanted it to look like. I grew up with American hiphop and that is why I have always liked English very much and in high school I actually studied the most for English class. So my English grade at the university exam was rather good too. I also read quite a lot of grammar books … To be honest though, I can’t speak it really well. Because I just listened to music a lot and did not have any intention of tackling speaking. So all in all, I like English the best and my English skills are .. well, incomplete.
Looking at your social network accounts, it seems like Korean hiphop artists often come to the cafe. You must be close to a lot of people.
I would not say that I am close to them … I think we just have a relationship of mutual respect. Or at least that’s what I hope it becomes. For me personally, it’s hard to say that I’m especially close to a specific person. As the owner of this cafe, I have a rule that says: even if I was close to a lot of people, I don’t want to use them to promote my cafe. That’s because I want to stay neutral. Thus, I don’t want to advertise the cafe to customers by showing off that I’m close to someone. So in every human relationship or in everything related to this, I contemplate a lot. I want to continue upholding my policy of not promoting that “I’m close to whoever” or anything specific. That’s right.
I see. Lastly, I just want to tell you ‘congratulations.’ Congratulations on your 1-year anniversary.
I often hear people say that it is very hard for someone to run a cafe for one year, that is to say not a franchise cafe but an independent cafe like mine. It has to have a clear concept, it is also not easy to hire part-time workers, there are several things and I have to care for each and every single one of them .. I have to go buy groceries and walk around here and there … Anyway, just like people often say, “If you hung in there for one year, you can hang in there for two.” I am very proud of myself for pushing through with this for one year. Besides, tomorrow at the 1-year anniversary party, there will be many musicians who did the ‘3355’ party with us in May. I am bursting with happiness. It is extremely difficult and a lot of work to prepare for the party tomorrow, but many musicians will be there and of course a lot of our customers. So I think it will be a very hectic and busy day. Again, I am proud of myself and of my female co-owner, she has worked very hard too. So I would like to congratulate her too and although you might have to go out of your way, please visit our black music cafe Back in the Day more often from now on!
Happy belated birthday to DJ TomNig and a shoutout to him for taking time for the interview!
Back In The Day 1-Year Anniversary Party
On June 20th, the cafe hosted their 1-year anniversary party from 3 p.m. till midnight. With an impressive guest artist list of Kirin, Ugly Duck, Psycoban, Paloalto, Nosdawn, DJ Wegun, and a flea market with pop-up stores of gold chains, graffiti stickers, caricature drawings, and hiphop clothing (courtesy of Jerry.k), the cafe drew in a full house with customers waiting in the patio even though it was a rainy day. With a slightly altered menu, the popular refreshment was the coconut latte (in a pouch with jellies) and packs of hiphop cookies shaped like a boombox offered solely for the event.
Although I was only able to be there for a few hours, I experienced the DJing of Kirin and Ugly Duck and even then the party was already turnt up as hoards of AOMG and Hi-Lite fans filled up the cafe, waiting for a chance to speak to their favorite artists.
About The Author
Dusk discovered Korean hiphop during her freshman year in college. She has been translating mainly lyrics and interviews as a member of tKh2. Now, during her graduate studies in Korea, she is active as a freelancer for Hiphop Korea.