By now you would have probably heard of K-pop artists Blackpink and BTS who are currently the biggest South Korean export acts in the world. Collaborations with chart-topping players in the mainstream pop and rap game, appearances on major US networks and awards shows, and performances in front of record crowds at Coachella are just the tip of the iceberg of the current alliance between K-pop and the global entertainment world as we know it.

While you may have had an introduction to K-pop either through spots on major networks and music award programming or, more likely, through the most unsolicited viral video the internet blessed us with this decade (we’re looking at you, wet Psy), K-pop, in reality, is the fastest-growing cultural phenomenon we have seen in modern pop culture – and it isn’t fading away anytime soon.

The Korean Wave, known as Hallyu, surfaced back in the late ‘90s, and refers to the global growth and popularity of South Korea’s cultural export of music, movies, TV dramas, games and popular culture and entertainment as a whole. To define K-pop simply as a genre of music is a great understatement – it includes not just the multi-layered genre, but encompasses the entire audio-visual experience, from choreography and special effects to the designer wardrobes, hair and make-up.

With an industry this enormous, it's no easy feat for new talent trying to advance through the ranks and make their mark. After having conquered the US and Europe with sold out shows, Complex AU caught up with rising stars ATEEZ during their first visit down under on their The Expedition world tour. The octet, made up of rappers Hong Joong and Min Gi and vocalists Jong Ho, San, Seong Hwa, Yeo Sang, Yun Ho and Woo Young, have released a trio of albums and a staggering ten music and performance videos – all since debuting in October of last year.

Despite the constant, machine-like, performing and creating, the ATEEZ story goes against the usual manufactured K-pop narrative – kill an audition, train for years, formation by a mega music conglomerate and conquer the world. Prior to their debut as ATEEZ, the members were formed under the moniker KQ Fellaz and received recognition for sharp choreographed performances over tracks by the likes of Famous Dex, Desiigner and Cardi B. 

Since then, they have debuted in the Billboard Social 50 charts with their albums gaining Top 10 entries on Billboard’s World Albums charts. They also recently gained recognition locally with their summer smash hit ‘WAVE’ receiving the top award from MNet (think South Korea’s answer to MTV). Despite their success, the members remain humbled as Seong Hwa reflects “it was a very emotional win. We all cried. We were just happy to be nominated, we had no idea we were going to win, and it was such an honour for us to win the M Countdown award for WAVE. That one was because of the fans.”

While the K-pop industry is currently dominated by the same major record labels (SM, YG, JYP), ATEEZ’s breakthrough comes via the relatively small newcomer label KQ Entertainment. They have endured the necessary motions of K-pop machine, with participation on reality survival shows and training in LA, but being on a smaller label grants ATEEZ unrestrained freedom of creative control over their art, which is something Hong Joong, their leader and primary songwriter and producer, takes seriously, “we usually have very little time before and after the shows to do things, and the free time we have does not last long, so we cherish that. Every one of us is different in the way we enjoy our time. I especially like to stay in the hotel room and compose songs and write lyrics.”

Korean Pop act ATEEZ
Image via Sony

While the K-pop industry has traditionally seen artists emerge from the big players, there is undoubtedly a trend of popular artists launching into the limelight from the smaller labels with lesser promotional power. ATEEZ have managed to stand out in a crowded market with their energy and killer aesthetic (until recently, Hong Joong sported a mullet as famous as him). Main vocalist Jong Ho adds “we all have our own personalities and are all individually talented. We hope that comes across when the fans see us live”. Hong Joong briefly laments “before the debut I had many difficult responsibilities in my role as the leader of ATEEZ, there was pressure to debut successfully and do things the right way. But these days, our members have each of their own unique talents and positions. They are doing well, and owning it, so now my main focus is really to ensure continued communication, improvement, and teamwork”.

This hard-working nature and individual talent in particular is a source of pride for ATEEZ’s fans, known as ATINY. With their sights firmly set on what’s next, vocalist San explains that it won’t be the same as what they’ve done before, “we have already released three albums with three very different concepts. The new album will be entirely different and something the fans can look forward to.” Dancer, vocalist and visual Woo Young adds with a smile, “one thing that is for certain is that ATINY will love it”.

ATEEZ are still considered small-time, despite the fact that they have over a million followers on Instagram, collectively over 80 million views across their official music videos on YouTube and are just shy of 1 billion likes on their content across VLIVE, a service that allows artists to live stream and chat directly with fans. The influence of K-pop fandom is a force to be reckoned with as Hong Joong confesses “every single performance, every single song, every single lyric, every part of choreography. ATINY influences it all. All the inspiration comes from them.” In fact, the inception of The Expedition Tour in Australia was all in credit to votes via the MyMusicTaste platform where fans can campaign in the hopes of getting their favourite artists to tour a particular region.

When asked what ATEEZ’s biggest dream and ambition currently is, rapper Min Gi exclaims without hesitation “Super Bowl stage!” to the intrigued expressions and applause of his bandmates. Hong Joong adds with a sense of nonchalant confidence “we don’t have a deadline for all of the goals we want to achieve, we just want to keep enjoying what we’re doing and follow our journey, that’s our destiny”. There is a relaxed attitude amongst the members that things will fall into place for ATEEZ while they ride their wave of success into the future.