Cover Story: pH-1 keeps it real on performing, musical versatility, and enjoying life

After making his debut at pop-culture festival ComplexCon in Hong Kong in March, the Korean-American rapper pH-1 talks to Stephenie Gee about keeping it real – no matter what

In the world of hip-hop, authenticity is gold. And it’s only right because, originating in the early 1970s in the Bronx, hip-hop was power to the people, the voice of the voiceless, the sound a generation of disadvantaged African-American and Caribbean youths had been waiting on. So, as proponents of the genre, your street cred and status revolve around your capacity and dedication to adhere to the edicts and demands of that ineffable code: “keeping it real”.

Brown velvet jacket _ Youth; Satin shirt and denim trousers _ Martine Rose; Mules _ Jordanluca; The Montblanc 1858 Iced Sea Automatic Date with Green Glacial Pattern Dial _ Montblanc

Everything from your social alliances to your delivery to your look, even, is sized up with an eye of scrutiny and picked over with a fine-tooth comb. Which is why, for Park Jun-won, aka Harry Park and more commonly known as pH-1, one of Korean hip-hop’s most in-demand rappers, the zeal to keep it real is, well, real. For starters, unlike his many counterparts, he has no off-stage on-stage persona. He tells me that Park Jun-won and Harry Park and pH-1 are one and the same (except maybe the latter is a tad more confident and outgoing because he performs on stage – “and gets paid for it!”) because he wants his music to be representative of his everyday lifestyle and the way he speaks and behaves.

And representative it is. His music, like him, is chill and laid-back, for those who “don’t want to listen to something too crazy, too experimental”. You’ll hear a good mixing of the English and Korean language because the Korean-born Park relocated to Long Island at age 12. He may have it all now, but he doesn’t rap about bling or cash or fame, nor does he boast the same way a lot of rappers do. His inspiration is found in life and living – “my interaction with people; the things that I go through relationship-wise, friends-wise, tourin.; And I don’t read, so movies, Netflix and stuff like that” – so each track is relatable and heartfelt.

There’s something for everyone. On good days, you have his feel-good, poppier cuts to groove to, like “Nerdy Love” featuring Baek Yerin, about embracing one’s true self and finding love; and “365&7” with Jamie, inspired by that special someone you think of “365&7 days a week”. On others, the groovy all-English track “Juliette”, joined by UMI, dives into his heartache; “Lately” is heart-breaking with lyrics like “Lately, I’ve been tripping up and acting crazy/ It’s all because you left”; while “DVD” draws us into his loneliness, opening with an outburst towards the world – “I hate you/ I hate him/ And I hate her guts too,” he raps.

Brown bomber jacket, t-shirt and trousers _ Juntae Kim; Shoes _ Batrachotoxin; The Montblanc 1858 Iced Sea Automatic Date with Grey Glacier Pattern Dial _ Montblanc

“I just want [my listeners] to feel good,” the 34-year-old says. “I mean, what else? Like what other feeling? You know what I mean? I want them to just enjoy my music and just be like, ‘Oh man, I love this tune. I just love it.’ Like they can just always come back to my music, you know? And I try to make songs that have different emotions in them. So if they’re angry, they can listen to one of my angry songs, you know? Just tapping into different emotions.”

For his latest release, the six-track EP Pop Off, Park enlisted South Korean DJ and producer Spray, who joined him on his “About Damn Time” 2023 world tour, to produce the album. Gone is Park’s signature melodic sing rap, and instead hard beats and even harder bars. “I just wanted to show people that I’m not just about sing rap and melodic stuff like that. But that I can rap and that I can do hard stuff too, you know? So we just had fun and we had a lot of amazing features like Milli, Oygli from Korea, P-Lo and Chika and DeVita,” he says.

Nowadays, Park is determined to set himself on a more global radar. Most recently, he took to the stage at the inaugural ComplexCon Hong Kong, which took place at AsiaWorld-Expo from March 22 to 24, where he headlined the closing night alongside Atlanta rapper 21 Savage. Growing his fandom was his number one goal, as was connecting with other artists and creatives. “Every time I do something outside of Korea, that’s my main goal – to have an influx of new fans and new listeners,” he tells me.

Brown bomber jacket, t-shirt and trousers _ Juntae Kim; Shoes _ Batrachotoxin

More than music, the event also hosted Complex Marketplace, a curated exhibit of innovative creations from an international portfolio of brands, crafters and creators, including Ego Fetch, Park’s urban clothing label founded in 2022 offering stylish, comfortable pieces for daily wear; and ComplexCon(versations), a series of stimulating and enlightening panel discussions. For his session, Park was joined by Ian Lim, co-founder of Savoir-Faire!, a new independent media platform dedicated to authentic visual and narrative representation. It wasn’t the first time the pair have worked together. Earlier this year, SAVOIR-FAIRE! chronicled Park’s inspirational rise in a documentary called Dr. Harry And Mr. Bad. “Safe Sex!” he jokes of the message of his panel. “No, I’m sorry. Always pursue your dream! That was also the main theme of my documentary that was recently released. It’s very cliché, but that is the message I want to spread as a panellist. Don’t give up because you don’t know how close you are to that dream.”

Park is one to know. Before all this, he majored in biology at Boston College and worked post-grad as a dental assistant and later as a web developer. Music was always his biggest passion, though. Inspired by John Mayer, he learned to sing and play the guitar and piano, followed by the drums and the saxophone. Growing up in its birthplace, New York, hip-hop was something that was just kind of ever-present for him, though it took an introduction to Korean hip-hop from the likes of Drunken Tiger and Joosuc to spark an interest in writing and recording his own.

His big break came in 2017 when Jay Park, the multi-talented Korean-American artist and former 2PM leader,came across his work on SoundCloud. Living in Korea as a founding member of Jay Park’s H1GHR Music with a debut EP The Island Kid, Park’s early days were hardly easy – spent navigating the cultural nuances of life in the East after years in the West, and tagging along to the shows of his more established labelmates Sik-K and Woodie Gochild trying to get his name out. Things took a sharp turn for the better in 2018 after his run in the long-running hip-hop reality competition series, Show Me the Money. Captivating with his sing rap and orange accents (because “red is too strong, too passionate, too excessive in my books” and “yellow is too cute” and “orange is a perfect balance between being stylish and chill and having your own power and strength”), he finished just shy of the top three.

White shirt and black trousers _ Jacquemus; Black Chelsea boots _ Batrachotoxin; The Montblanc 1858 Geosphere 0 Oxygen The 8000 _ Montblanc

It’s been a fairly meteoric rise for Park since. In 2021, he was tapped as a mentor in the reality competition programme High School Rapper 4, and again in 2023 for Boy’s Planet (“Mentoring is much easier because you just sit there and judge people. That’s all I do anyways off TV!”). He’s steadily racked up awards and nominations like Best Rap/Hip Hop Award at the 2020 Melon Music Awards and 2021 Korean Hip-hop Awards’ Hip Hop Track of the Year. Known as the king of K-pop collabs, Park has featured – and lent his sound to – a diverse line-up of local and foreign talents, including Jakarta-born RamenGvrl and Japanese rock band indigo la End, and K-pop juggernauts the likes of Jay Park, TXT, Epik High, Chung Ha and Mamamoo’s Whee In.

“[Show Me the Money] was because I was kind of frustrated with myself and my career because I felt like I had the ability and the potential, but the world is not ideal, you know? People don’t recognise your talent unless you prove it. So I felt like I needed more exposure and in Korea especially, the biggest exposure is definitely on TV. And back then, Show Me the Money was one of the hottest shows in Korea. And it was good for me, but I hated it,” he recalls.

An INFP through and through, Park detests competition. “I hate competing and being under those made-up situations where they make you compete, make you fight, make you battle, you know? I feel like I’m more genuine and I prefer the natural process. I don’t like making up stories. I don’t like pretending to be somebody I’m not, which seems to be prevalent nowadays. I always try to just stay true to myself, which sounds very cliché, but I think that’s very important in hip-hop especially. So that’s something that I always try to stick to.”

White shirt and black trousers _ Jacquemus; Black Chelsea boots _ Batrachotoxin

Musically, that’s really his only constant. Though his genre sits within the realm of hip-hop, he isn’t afraid of steering away. Across his discography, you’ll hear elements of jazz, pop, R&B and gospel, even (“Jesus” is his #legend, as is Jay Park). There’s no predicting what genre he’ll take on next but he’s looking into amapiano, meaning “the pianos” in Zulu, a subgenre adapted from house music that emerged in South Africa in the mid-2010s. “I feel like versatility is a double-edged sword because you can do everything, and you can fit any style. So that’s a big pro. But a con I would say is that if you do all these things, people might see you as this person without any one specific style, you know what I mean?” he says. “But I like being versatile and I always try to be because I like working with a lot of different people. And I can, you know? So why not do different genres if you can?”

It’s a battle he still grapples with, just not as much anymore. Eight years since his debut, Park doesn’t feel as pressured to push out content that doesn’t resonate with him. He now also understands that good music is not the only measure of success for an artist. “As a musician, making good music doesn’t always lead to success,” he tells me. That, for Park, means money – enough to support himself and his family – and to be happy and content in what he does and who he is to look himself in the mirror and say, “I like you!”.

He continues, “You have to have other attributes. Like, you have to look appealing, you have to have charisma, you have to have stage presence, you have to know how to use social media very wisely, you know what I mean? All these things are a whole package. Back then, I was naive to think that if I just make good music, I’ll be successful. I was wrong. There are a lot of different layers to this music business.”

Printed denim jacket _ Casablanca; Denim jeans _ Adererror; Shoes _ Batrachotoxin

These days, Park has it all figured out and he’s thriving. On days off, he watches movies (he recommends Mother, the “crazy ass” 2009 neo-noir thriller directed by Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho), takes walks with his toy poodle Holly (or @gangsterholly on Instagram), grabs a drink with friends or rides a bike by the Han River. Just days ago, he issued Pop Off on vinyl in limited quantities. I ask him what’s next. “Definitely more music. Better music. And I want to go on another tour, even if it’s smaller than my world tour. I just want to do a lot of performances outside of Korea more often. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this music thing, to be honest. Hopefully as long as I can, but I don’t know when my time will end so I want to reach all my fans as much as possible. And enjoy life.”

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