Photo Credit: Nicole Voon
G-Dragon: The Idol Who Became An Icon
Kwon Ji-Yong, better known as G-Dragon, is a K-Pop phenomenon who has transcended the synchronised, bubble-gum pop confines of conventional idol stance to carve out his own sound. He has become not only a musical icon who regularly breaks records with each new release, but a style trendsetter, frequently seen frontline at fashion shows, his ever-changing hairstyles and looks catalogued by tastemakers and emulated by his legions of fans from Seoul to San Francisco.
A fitting comparison could be that GD is to South Korea what Michael Jackson was to America in the thriller-era. A consummate all-round entertainer whose singles are ever-changing, mixing influences from hip hop to punk-rock. His music videos are known for being as vivid as they are viral, chaotic kaleidoscopes in which the imagery is as, if not more important than the soundtrack. Yet his career path echoes that of Justin Timberlake. G-Dragon began his career in show business at just five years-old, when he was recruited for the kiddie pop-band Little Roo’ra, who recorded an album together before disbanding. A few years on, he was scouted at a local dance competition by music mogul Lee Soo-Man, the founder and owner of SM Entertainment, the most powerful record label in Seoul. The young G-Dragon trained as a dancer at SM, until a friend introduced him to the Wu-Tang Clan.
Listening to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), G-Dragon was captivated. He began writing lyrics and teaching himself to rap. At 13 years-old, tutored by People’s Crew, he scored a feature on the YG Family Flex album, becoming South Korea’s youngest rapper. The track caught the eye of Yang Hyun-Suk, CEO of SM’s biggest rival, YG Entertainment, known for producing commercialised hip hop music to counterpoint SM’s wholesome pop. G-Dragon signed with YG. There he met Taeyang, a talented young dancer with an affinity for R&B music. The two became a team, with G-Dragon as a rapper and Taeyang singing. Three more trainees joined YG: T.O.P, Daesung and Seungri. Together the five formed Big Bang, and debuted in 2006, becoming the first idol band in South Korea to make hip hop and R&B music.
G-Dragon was the group’s leader, and took responsibility for writing and producing many of Big Bang’s songs, including their breakout hit Lies and follow-up Haru Haru. Big Bang rapidly grew in popularity. In South Korea’s music scene, overflowing with cookie-cutter pop bands, Big Bang stood out in their continued determination to defy convention. They began with old-skool hip hop, and deviated to explore EDM, taking influences from R&B and trap. Their music is a jumbled concoction of genres, at times chaotic, but always innovative, setting Big Bang apart from the pack.
As the leader of one of South Korea’s most successful bands, it was only a matter of time before G-Dragon went solo. Three years after Big Bang’s debut, he released his first album Heartbreaker, led by the number one single of the same name, which became one of the best-selling albums of 2009, winning the MNET Asian Music Award for Album of the Year. G-Dragon followed Heartbreaker with the EP One of a Kind in 2012, which included hit singles Crayon and That XX. It became the highest selling album in South Korea since Heartbreaker. His latest solo release in 2013, Coup D’Etat, featured an all-star list of collaborators including Missy Elliott, Diplo, Baauer, Boys Noize and Zion.T. The album was a critical and commercial success, and G-Dragon was accoladed as Artist of the Year at the MNET Asian Music Awards. Yet rather than leaving his bandmates behind, alongside his solo success G-Dragon continued to make music and tour with Big Bang, in addition to releasing several singles with long-time collaborator and bandmate Taeyang, and forming a hit-making duo with fellow rapper T.O.P. In the soundscape of Seoul, he is inescapable. Unsurprising then, that Forbes Asia shortlisted him in their 2016 30 Under 30: Entertainment and Sports.
In the often regimented, scripted world of South Korea’s music scene, G-Dragon has differentiated himself by refusing to play by the rules. His controversies – an unsubstantiated marijuana charge, criticism for the use of obscenities and accusations of plagiarism – have given him an edge that appeals to a global audience. Collaborator Diplo praises him for being bigger than the K-Pop scene, a statement perhaps exemplified by his performance with Missy Elliott at K-Con LA. The two rappers came together for Niliria, a track which draws on Korean folklore, paying homage both to G-Dragon’s roots and the influence he owes to old-skool hip hop. Their performance was a collaboration of not just artists, but cultures, in a move that illustrates G-Dragon’s popularity overseas. Beyond South Korea’s borders he is known not only as a musician, but a trendsetter. Driven by Instagram snaps and high-end fashion blogs, his status as a style icon has been recognised by global brands. He’s a front-row regular at Chanel shows and has been seen rocking head-to-toe Dior. His slender frame and androgynous looks enable him to experiment with style more freely than most guys might, and his ever-shifting hairstyles are known to inspire mass trends in his home city of Seoul.
A decade since their inception, Big Bang continues to top charts and sell out arenas with their latest album MADE, and second world tour of the same name, which was attended by 1.5 million fans, making it the most popular tour of any South Korean act. At the helm, G-Dragon has been a prominent influence in shaping their success, and pushing the boundaries of what defines K-Pop music.