Kevin, a.k.a. N:elo, was born and raised on a small island Guam, in the Western Pacific Ocean (USA). From an early age, he showed talent in taekwondo, which later led him to pursue his professional career in martial arts in South Korea. After leaving Guam for his motherland, Kevin found that his passion for music kept growing; for that reason, he started to record and write his own music.
He doesn’t define his music style as one particular genre, yet you can hear that hip-hop and R&B have their own places in his musical creations. Adding his own flavour to what he produces, Kevin has a bright future ahead of him. It has never been easy for emerging artists to make it big in South Korea or anywhere else in the world, but with the dedicated fan bases, who eagerly promote their favourite artists’ music, the dreams of becoming well-known singers/rappers, is not as unattainable as it might seem. With Kevin’s bubbly personality and his genuine care for others, including his fans, we can expect to see him on a big stage, rocking the audience’s socks off to his tunes, in no time.
We are delighted that Kevin found the time to talk to us about his journey into music, his life in South Korea and his musical inspirations.
Photo © N:elo
You were born and raised on Guam; you later decided to move to South Korea where you pursued a career in taekwondo. That was when you also started to make your own music. How did you get involved in the music industry – how did it all start?
Yes, I was born and raised on a tiny island called Guam. After graduating High School, I wanted to continue my taekwondo journey professionally – I was a part of the National Team for about 4 years and I loved it. I wanted to be more serious with the sport, so I wondered, where shall I go or what shall I do? I thought of the motherland of taekwondo: South Korea. While studying and practicing taekwondo in Korea, I started to realize that South Korean athletes use music in their daily exercises. However, that wasn’t where my passion for music started. It all started when I had a close friend who is a talented pianist and who’s also a huge hip-hop head. Whenever I was with him, there was always hip-hop on the speakers. I listened to hip-hop before and while I was growing up, but never to the point where I would listen to it day and night; but since then, my interest in making music or recording my own voice started to grow.
I LOVE KARAOKE. Karaoke in Korea became a ritual. But back then, I would just rap and fool around while doing karaoke, nothing serious, but then I realized that I started to like rapping and putting my own flavour of style to the songs. So thatʼs when I decided to invest and start recording my music. Soundcloud was my Facebook. I couldnʼt stop recording and posting and checking out the outcomes from the audience. I would even broadcast live using an app called “Periscope” – thatʼs how I actually started my fan base; through that app. If it wasnʼt for it, I don’t think I would be here. People listen to my music and send me DMʼs saying that they love it and I should continue and never give up. That in itself made me want to continue to make music. My main motivation comes from my fans; I love them to death.
Photo © Choi Rang
How would you describe your musical style?
Hmm. I’m not sure how to categorize my music but to say that it’s very mainstream. Most of my music is inspired by other artists. Usually, an artist who Iʼve been listening to a lot, over and over again. But to be very vague, my style would be like R&B, Lo-Fi, mainstream type of music. I donʼt like to stick to one type of music style; to be honest, Iʼm still trying to figure out which style is the best for me and for my fans out there in the world. So it’s a bit of experimenting, which is better for all of us.
What kind of approach do you use to write your lyrics?
I approach my lyrics by just listening to the beat itself first. Then I figure out what kind of emotion/memories I get while just listening to the beat. I think thatʼs why a lot of my fans say that they can relate to my music while listening. To be honest, that is my main point of writing lyrics. Just something that I and my fans can connect by. I just listen to that beat over and over, till my fingers start typing away.
How does your creative process differ when you create rap sections from the one you use to write vocal parts?
Usually, I use my vocal parts for the main chorus or the hook of the song, thatʼs if Iʼm doing a rap/singing type of music. The vocal part, to be honest, is much easier for me when it comes to writing down lyrics. I donʼt know why, but it flows and goes so smoothly while I process it in my head. But handwriting lyrics for rap sections is a bit of a slower process. Iʼm the type of a person who canʼt freestyle but can make something better while taking the time and trying to make a story for the audience to listen to.
Photo © N:elo
Let’s talk about your first mini-album – your lyrics tell the story of love, desire for love and relationships. What made you choose that subject matter? Where do you usually find your artistic inspiration?
The album is called MINE. I wanted to make an album related to a real-life relationship. For example, BROKEN: you fall for a girl, Cause I Do: thereʼs complications that lead to arguments, One Time: a person asks for another chance. Iʼm All About Her: now you donʼt want to make that mistake again, therefore, youʼre all in for her. Too Deep: after a couple of arguments, you finally realize that you truly do love the other person. Vibe: now you just want to keep that “vibe “ going till the very end.
Most of my inspiration comes from my love of music. If an artist or song is easy to listen and gets my head to bop, then it’s an automatic save to my playlist. But I guess mainly it has to boil down to the people who I hang out with. I usually hang out with a lot of older people than I am; whenever I’m with them, I get so much information on life. Sometimes I act more than my age, to be honest. (Laughs)
South Korea has been producing good quality rappers who are now making their way to Europe and USA. What’s your view of the South Korean hip-hop scene?
First off, shout out to the South Koreans out there who are making the hip-hop scene not just in Korea but taking the steps into the foreign world! I have huge respect for them. When we think of hip-hop or any type of music except for K-Pop, we donʼt think of South Korea. But now, if you ask or talk about people like Jay Park… Everybody knows about him; the first Korean-American to get signed by Roc Nation. I personally think if it wasnʼt for him, not a lot of other rappers or people would know about South Koreaʼs passion for hip-hop. If you go to South Korea’s main hot places, you would see people just busting out their guitars or just having an amp with a mic and rapping away – to the point where few people were selected to be idols. There are programs like Show me the Money or High School Rappers where people would come out and audition for the top spot. Putting them in the spotlight, giving them a bit more attention from the audience. I believe that the popularity of Show me the Money in Korea has set a trend in China to make a similar TV program. Just want to say, Iʼm proud of the South Korean hip-hop scene right now.
Photo © N:elo
Have your surroundings shaped you in a creative sense and in what way?
My surroundings I guess would be very arbitrary, ’cause I donʼt just make music, but I also teach kids taekwondo in Korea. Therefore, I’m always surrounded by kids. Kids in Korea are very creative and so smart, to the point where I sometimes feel like Iʼm not talking to a first grader but maybe a 6th grader. Being with kids made me feel like a father to them. There would be times where I had to be strict and there were times where I was more lenient on them. But if you say how it affected my music, then I would say that a lot of my music comes from my passion and from my drive to not give up. Kids these days from the age of 5 go to school; then after that, they would go to piano class, then they would walk to art class, and then they would go to taekwondo class. Then they would go to English school, then after, come home, eat dinner. And thatʼs an ordinary life for a 5-year-old in Korea. But for a 1st grader, thatʼs nothing, it’s kinda sad, but at the same time, it taught me to persevere and never quit on music. Even if Iʼm not where I want to be, it taught me to look into the future and set my goals high.
Which would be your dream collaboration, if you could choose any rapper or producer?
Dream collaboration… I would personally say that I donʼt have a dream collaboration that I would love to do. Instead, I would love to collaborate with people around the world who have the same passion for music just like I do. I mean, if there were some A-class rappers or producers that would want to work with me, then I would take it, but before anything else, it all boils down to the chemistry.
Photo of Flowsik & N:elo © N:elo
How was it like, growing up on Guam? How different is your life now that you live in South Korea?
Guam is a very small island. Everybody knows each other, and it’s the same thing over and over again. I love Guam, the weather, the friendly vibe, everybody there treats each other as if they were a huge family. Thatʼs why there arenʼt a lot of big crimes happening in Guam. But if you had to compare it to South Korea, then thatʼs a different story. South Korea is way bigger, with more people, more activities to do. Therefore, it’s a fun place to live for the rest of your life. But having being born in Guam with an American background, it was a bit hard for me to adapt to the South Korean culture. Yes, my parents are both Koreans, but it was something really different. So I had a hard time at first, making friends and adopting the manners of Korea. But I love it; now, I fully understand why South Koreans live the way they live.
When you see other rappers or any other artists, what are the three things you look for when you see an artist play live?
To me, the most important thing that an artist should have while performing live interaction with the audience. Anybody can just grab a mic and spit out 50 bars. But interacting with the audience while doing the 50 bars is a different thing. If I can feel or understand the song that is playing, to the point where it starts to jog my memories, then it’s a pass. Music is like any other language that we speak. I can rap or sing to a Japanese person in Korean and if that person cries or feels any type of genuine emotion, then I believe that the song is a keeper. Last, but not least, the song has to make my head bop to it. (Laughs)
Photo © N:elo
You recently mentioned that you would like to work on the second album. Can you tell us more about what we can expect? More rapping, more singing, perhaps something totally new?
The 2nd album is what Iʼve been working on this whole time. To be honest, the first album isnʼt finished. The original plan was to upload a 20-track album, but it was taking way too much time and the people I was working with were a bit behind. Therefore, I didn’t want my fans to be waiting any longer, so I decided to upload the top songs that I personally thought were ready to go out. If you enjoyed the first album, then youʼre just about to fall in love with the 2nd album. All I can say, for now, is that there would be more features from artists that we might all know. And for the type of music, I would say it’s a mix of old school, new school, a lot of singing, a ton of rapping, and a sprinkle of classical music.
It’s almost the end of the year, so it’s time for New Year’s resolutions… What are your hopes and resolutions for next year?
Wow, is it already the time to be thinking of my New Year’s resolutions? (Laughs)
I guess the first one would be to impact other peopleʼs lives in a positive way through music. But thatʼs something Iʼve been doing this whole time. I just hope that there are people out there listening to my music whenever they feel down and feeling hopeless. We all have been there, but it all depends on how you want to overcome it. I just wish everybody around me would be healthy and love their life so they can live the way they desire.
Written and interview by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna