“I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re big.”
This is what Jon Koon, the 30-year-old owner of downtown Manhattan boutique Private Stock, says to the slight, 5'8" blonde-haired Asian man browsing his store on a sweltering Sunday in July.
What is it about the stranger that signifies he’s kind of a big deal? It could be his boyishly handsome—dare we say “pretty”—face. Or perhaps it’s because he’s rolling with a seven-deep entourage that includes, loudly, the celebrity jeweler Ben Baller. Possibly, maybe. But to Koon, a luxury menswear designer, it is his guest’s outfit that stands out most: a custom black Givenchy-inspired snapback, Lennon-style shades, sleeveless Jil Sander striped T-shirt, tattered Saint-Laurent jeans, Chrome Hearts necklace, crispy Air Jordan XIs, and an oversized red Hermes HAC bag.
The mystery visitor is 25-year-old Kwon Ji-yong, better known as G-Dragon, and he is wildly famous in his native South Korea. In fact, he is the biggest Asian pop star in the world—if we pretend that “Gangnam Style” never happened. But unlike labelmate Psy, G-Dragon isn’t making a name in the U.S. off of a gimmicky song, or, for that matter, any music at all. Instead, it is the uniqueness of G-Dragon’s personal style that has piqued the curiosity of American tastemakers.
Koon is just the latest to join G-Dragon’s growing list of U.S.-based admirers, which includes the “in” crowd of influencers. Kanye West consigliere Don C is a fan, as is Virgil Abloh of Pyrex Vision, who saw his brand’s popularity skyrocket in Asia when G-Dragon rocked a PV flannel on Instagram. (Amazing what 1.2 million rabid followers can do.) GD has also become a fast favorite of all-leather-everything label En Noir. “I always saw G-Dragon on Tumblr but never knew who he was,” says brand director CurT@!n$. “People would post pictures of him and I’d be like, ‘Who is this kid?’ He’d be so loyal to a certain brand: Balmain head to toe, or Givenchy head to toe, or Dior. He’s like a rock star, so he pulls off a lot of outfits.”
So much so that G-Dragon is in many ways the perfect menswear muse: He’s slender enough to make everything look cool and his Asian “otherness” allows for risks that would scare off most dudes, from androgynous hairstyles and makeup to unisex outfits that the A$AP Mob wouldn’t dare touch. American streetwear types might only now be catching on, but high-end fashion brands around the world have long been jockeying for GD’s lucrative co-sign.
Of course, none of this would be possible if G-Dragon wasn’t already a Korean pop juggernaut adored by tens of millions of fans in Asia for his music, both as a solo artist and with his group Big Bang. “Just to put it real simply, [American tastemakers] are taking notice because I’m doing well,” says GD in Korean, smiling. “If I didn’t do well, they wouldn’t even have noticed me or cared. So I don’t put too much meaning behind it.”
G-Dragon, as he will tell you, is a musician first, but his crossover to the U.S. is being propelled by Tumblr tags, Instagram pics, and fashion blogs. Last summer’s obsession with “Gangnam Style” quickly reduced Psy to a caricature; could the fascination with G-Dragon’s wardrobe threaten to overshadow his talent?
“The music is nothing I would sit in my house and play,” admits CurT@!n$. “But I just said the word ‘G-Dragon’ around some Korean girls and the reaction was…maybe I should be listening to it.”
Though his dominant influence on fashion and music in Asia inspires comparisons to Mr. West—“I wouldn’t say we’re alike, but I completely understand him,” says GD of ’Ye—the K-pop giant’s early career more closely resembles Justin Timberlake’s.
“I’m not sure if they do this in the States, but in Korea, until high school, on your graduation diploma there’s a line that states your future goal,” says G-Dragon. “Kids write ‘president’ or ‘astronaut,’ or whatever. I always wrote: ‘singer.’”
The journey toward that goal began at age 5, when the Seoul native appeared on a children’s TV show that caught the attention of record label bigwigs who recruited him for the kiddie version of a K-pop group. That spinoff act, Little Roo’ra, recorded one album before disbanding. (Search for them on YouTube for a cuteness overload.)
A few years later, a new opportunity arose after G-Dragon won a local dance competition. Among the judges was Lee Soo-man, founder of K-pop’s most powerful label, SM Entertainment (current home of mega-group Girl’s Generation). Lee brought GD to his then emerging imprint as an unsigned trainee—i.e., a potential K-pop star-to-be. “When I was at SM, I wasn’t trained daily, more so like once or twice a month,“ recalls GD. “They didn’t really have an idea of what to do with me.”
At that point, GD wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do with himself, either. That is, until he discovered what he now calls a “biblical, holy piece of music”—Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan. “I started rapping because of that album,” he says. “I’m not fluent in English now, but back then I didn’t know anything. I would write down the lyrics to ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ in Korean—not translating it, but phonetically writing out each word.”
Emboldened by his hip-hop discovery, G-Dragon became Korea’s youngest rap prodigy when his song “My Age Is 13” was featured on an indie compilation alongside much older MCs. Soon after, YG Entertainment founder Yang Hyun-suk came calling to officially sign GD to his label.
It was then that G-Dragon began his K-pop indoctrination in earnest. Much has been written about the unforgiving training regimen endured by aspiring Korean pop idols, and GD’s experience was no different. “I was a trainee for about seven years. Those were really difficult times,” he says. “I was stressed out a lot. I have a lot of dark and painful memories. But for some reason, those days were the most fun, because we didn’t have anything.”
G-Dragon finally graduated from his K-pop education in 2006, debuting alongside four other members—T.O.P., Taeyang, Seungri, and Daesung—in a boy band called Big Bang. The group’s cultural impact was immediate and widespread. “At the time of our debut, we were the only ‘idol group’ who produced and wrote our own music,” says GD, who raps and sings with equal aplomb. “It wasn’t like someone gave us songs and told us exactly what to do.”
Emerging as Big Bang’s leader, G-Dragon was instrumental in crafting the group’s chart-topping singles (“Haru Haru” and “Lies,” to name two) as well as its fashionably loud, oft-imitated image. After rocketing past its boy-band peers in Korea, Big Bang went on to conquer Japan, which has since become YG Entertainment’s most profitable market. In 2009, GD released his solo debut, Heartbreaker, racking up nearly 5 million downloads. On last year’s follow-up, the acclaimed One of a Kind EP, GD announced himself—in Korean and improving English—as a transcendent global star.
Along the way, there have been a few controversies—accusations of plagiarism, criticism from the Korean government for using obscenities, and a marijuana charge that never stuck—all of which have served to further differentiate G-Dragon from the typical squeaky-clean K-pop idol. This edginess has, in turn, attracted like-minded musicians in America.
“GD is a phenom, bigger than the K-pop scene,” says frequent collaborator Diplo. “He is fearless and punk.” Skrillex, a trailblazer in his own right, adds: “What I respect most about GD is that he and his crew cultivated their own mega-niche within the music scene; they just do their thing.”
Which leads us to the release of G-Dragon’s second full-length project, Coup D’Etat, the one that arrives as GD’s style bona fides are cresting in the U.S. “If anyone had a chance to pop here, it’d be G-Dragon, but most Americans who don’t have an Asian culture or background don’t understand it,” says Ben Baller. “You got to have an open mind.”
Hours before his tour of Private Stock, G-Dragon fiddles with his iPhone in a midtown Manhattan recording studio. He is about to debut tracks from his yet-unreleased album for a small audience of crew and friends.
“I’ve never done something like this before, playing music for a group of people,” he says with a nervous chuckle. “It’s like, ‘Oh, shit!’ I feel like I’m getting my homework checked.”
Coup D’Etat, like GD’s previous solo efforts, has its fair share of super-slick, catchy K-pop, the kind that naturally accompanies hypervisual videos and outlandish costume changes. “Overall, Korean pop serves as the foundation of my musical upbringing. As a result, the melodies that I create just exude that type of vibe,” explains G-Dragon. “That’s why Korean folks like certain type of songs. There’s a certain code that Korean people relate to, and I’m able to deliver that.”
What’s different about the new project, however, are a handful of songs that one could imagine crossing over to American playlists—and not in an ironic horse-galloping way. Among them are collaborations with Diplo and Baauer, as well as appearances from hipster faves Sky Ferreira and Boys Noize. These are tracks that fit G-Dragon as naturally as his much-blogged-about outfits, which in his case is less of a metaphor and more of a defining principle.
“When I create a song, I immediately think about what I’m going to wear when I perform that song,” he says. “I think about the music video treatment and about how I’m going to look on stage when I perform the record. The connection is so obvious that it’s a single package. An outfit to me is almost a tool to express the music.” Meaning: If you like what he wears, then hopefully his music will resonate with you, too.
Even if he is diversifying his collaborations, G-Dragon is not making a calculated effort to win English-speaking fans, a ploy that has been attempted, with little success, by K-pop acts in the recent past. “Unfortunately, in Korea, I feel like some people are just seeing the dollar signs and sending out artists into the foreign markets who aren’t fully prepared,” he says. “This is my personal opinion, but there are some acts that I’m a little embarrassed to look at. Since the people here don’t know much about Korea, their perceptions about its music will be restricted to those acts.”
How to win those skeptics over? Staying true to himself, for starters. The album’s standout is a bass-heavy rap track called “Niliria” that samples a traditional Korean folk song. “I thought about who I’d want on this record,” says GD, “and it was like, ’How about we get a foreign artist on a completely Korean song?’ Then I thought, okay, it’d be dope to have an A$AP Rocky or a Kendrick Lamar. But instead of getting someone that’s popping right now, I thought it’d be more fun to have someone I liked in the past.” The result: an inspired duet with Missy Elliott on a song that nods to GD’s Korean roots while also mixing in his Western influences—past, present, and future.
On the same August night that Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV VMAs provoked screams of “cultural appropriation,” GD and Missy world-premiered “Niliria” at the annual KCON K-pop concert in L.A—in contrast, a shining example of cultural cooperation. “It was nerve-wracking,” says GD. “But being up on stage with Missy as a peer, and the fact that she was adding doubles to my verse…it was a fucking honor. Unbelievable.” Although Missy is far from the first American artist to appear on a Korean song—even Kanye has a K-pop collab to his name—she is probably the first one that makes sense beyond an easy paycheck. “I think our chemistry meshed as if we had known each other for years,” she says. “He is a talented, cool guy and very fun to be on stage with.”
Will an aggressive rap song like “Niliria” alienate the K-pop faithful? Coup D’Etat, as the title suggests, isn’t meant to appease G-Dragon’s core fans. “This time I just made music that I want to, so it ended up becoming more of a hip-hop-driven record,” he says. “In a way, I think the public in Korea might not like it.”
But, just maybe, the American public will.