Evolution of K-pop Series – 1990’s (Rise of Modern K-pop)

In my previous blog posts in this Evolution of K-pop Series (which you may read by clicking the links under the “Related Blog Posts” section in this post), I talked about the evolution of K-pop music from its birth in 1885 to the 1980’s and the K-pop developed up to that period did not sound very similar to the present-day K-pop.  In the 1990’s, Seo Taiji & Boys started a K-pop revolution by introducing a new form of K-pop which paved the way for the modern K-pop and K-pop idol groups.  This period also saw the establishment of entertainment agencies which played a key role in the development of K-pop even today.

Rise of Modern K-pop and First Generation Idol Groups

Seo Taiji & Boys (formed by Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno) is a hip-hop group heavily influenced by New Jack Swing but also embraced other forms of Western music like rap music, rock and heavy metal.  In 1992, the group debuted with the song, “Nan Arayo” (난 알아요 – “I Know”), which featured rap, plaintive lyrics and heavy metal sounds and was performed with energetic break-dance moves by the group.  Although many older Koreans found their music strange, the song became very popular among the younger generation – it spent most of the year on the top of music charts and sold 1.7 million copies.  The group’s fashion style of oversized jeans and T-shirts with labels attached was copied by many teenagers.  In 1993, Seo Taiji & Boys came back with a song, “Hayeoga” (하여가) which incorporated a melody performed on the Korean traditional conical oboe with beatboxing.  Starting from Seo Taiji & Boys, rap and well-designed dance moves became key components of K-pop music.

You can listen to the following songs of Seo Taiji & Boys by clicking the links below:

“Nan Arayo” (난 알아요 – “I Know”)

“Hayeoga” (하여가)

The huge popularity of Seo Taiji & Boys among teenagers shifted the focus of the Korean music industry to teen-centred pop music and paved the way for the formation of young boys and girls idol groups in this period.  Lee Soo-man, who was educated in the U.S. and was exposed to the trends in American music (especially MTV), established SM Entertainment and created a male idol quintet group called H.O.T. (short form of “Hi-Five Of Teenagers”) with a rigorous training system including not only singing and dancing skills but also other skills such as etiquette, attitude, language and the ability to deal with the media. This model became the basis of the star-making models of entertainment agencies which created many other K-pop idol groups.  Other entertainment agencies were also established during this period, for example, YG Entertainment by Yang Hyun-suk (one of the members of Seo Taiji & Boys) and JYP Entertainment by Park Jin-young (a popular singer).

The song, “Candy” (캔디) sung by H.O.T. was representative of the bubblegum pop which presented a softer and gentler form of pop music with upbeat and cheerful melodies accompanied by energetic dance steps – a formula adopted by many subsequent idol groups. The group was a huge success and the youngsters copied the group’s hairstyle (which was long in front and short at the back) and the B-boy style of oversized shirts and slacks. Merchandise affiliated with the group ranging from candy to perfume sold well.  Following the success of H.O.T., entertainment agencies created other young boys and girls idol groups like Sechs Kies, S.E.S., Fin,K.L., Shinhwa and g.o.d. which also became popular among the youngsters.

You can listen to the songs of the following idol groups of the 1990’s by clicking the links below – you may find many similarities between these idol groups and the present-day K-pop idol groups:

“Candy” (캔디) sung by H.O.T.

“Com’ Back” sung by Sechs Kies

“I’m Your Girl” sung by S.E.S.

“To My Boyfriend” (내 남자친구에게) sung by Fin.K.L,

 “Eusha Eusha” (으쌰으쌰) sung by Shinhwa

“To Mother” (어머님께) sung by g.o.d.

Rise of Indie Music

In the neighbourhood of Seoul’s Hongik University which was popularly known as “Hongdae”, there were a number of indie bands playing punk, hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, blues and techno in live clubs and some did attract a relatively high level of popularity, for example, Crying Nut and Pipi Band. Nevertheless, overall speaking, indie music’s popularity remained confined to the Hongdae area.

You may listen to Pipi Band’s “Annyeonghaseyo” (안녕하세요 – “Hello”) and “Ttalgi” (딸기 – “Strawberry”) which showed off its rebellious singing style and Crying Nut’s “Mal Dallija” (말달리자 – Let’s Ride a Horse”) which became a karaoke staple by clicking the links below:

“Annyeonghaseyo” (안녕하세요 – “Hello”) sung by Pipi Band

“Ttalgi” (딸기 – “Strawberry”) sung by Pipi Band

“Mal Dallija” (말달리자 – Let’s Ride a Horse”) sung by Crying Nut

In the next blog post, I will cover the 2000’s in which K-pop started to expand overseas on a large scale and became an important component of the Korean Wave which swept across many countries over the world.

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 11 March 2015. Watch this space! 


Related Blog Posts:

“Evolution of K-pop Series – An overview” dated 25 February 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – Birth of K-pop to 1940’s” dated 27 February 2015

Evolution of K-pop Series – 1950’s and 1960’s” dated 4 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1970’s and 1980’s” dated 6 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 2000’s and beyond” dated 11 March 2015



John Lie, K-pop: popular music, cultural amnesia and economic innovation in South Korea, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015

Mark James Russell, K-pop Now!: the Korean Music Revolution, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2014

Daniel Tudor著, 胡菀如譯,《韓國: 撼動世界的嗆泡菜》,台北市: 聯經出版事業股份有限公司,2013年版, 271-276頁

John Lie, “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry and National Identity”, Korea Observer, Vol. 43, No.3, Autumn 2012, pp.339-363

Korean Culture and Information Service, K-pop: A new force in pop music, Republic of Korea, 2011




15 thoughts on “Evolution of K-pop Series – 1990’s (Rise of Modern K-pop)

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