Hip-hop has always been recognized as the most politicized genre of music. Compared to pop, rock and other genres, hip-hop has been franker and more ruthless. However, no one could have predicted that hip-hop, which was supposed to be another form of entertainment, would overturn the modern way of understanding the function of art in the contemporary world. Over time, hip-hop has grown into the most rebellious music trend and has become the voice of all generations around the world.
To David Gabriel Kim, often known as Gabby/Gabby Onme, music has become a healing tool. Born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in Texas, USA, Gabby’s life wasn’t a bed of roses. Faced with a strict upbringing, racism and substance abuse, it seemed like there was no escape for this young man until he left everything behind and found his love for making music. With his dark and honest writing, his music represents the freshness of sound, and with the absence of musical clichés, Gabby’s work makes one want to listen to his songs 24/7. Although he hasn’t debuted officially yet, the artist released his 1st EP, I am So Wet Right Now, in 2019. In 2020, he produced more music, including a personal track, Trainwreck, on which he showed his vulnerability and pain while battling his own demons. In addition, he delighted his fans with two more singles: Swear to God and True Face.
In May 2020, Gabby released a brand-new EP called Monalisa, on which he worked with Kinda Domain, another talented artist. What makes the EP good is Gabby’s upwardly inflected sing-rapping and his collaboration with Kinda. Now, after working together on the aforementioned EP, the two have decided to create a duo. Will it affect Gabby’s solo career? I doubt it. In fact, this might actually solidify him as a major talent to look out for.
I recently spoke to Gabby about his musical journey and the creative process behind his music. He also shared his thoughts on the Korean hip-hop scene and his life in general.
Music Video © Anointed Productions
First of all, let’s talk about how it all started. Was music a path that has always called to you – was there a moment when you realised that music was for you?
I was born in a very conservative and traditional Christian home. My mother was a Gospel singer, and my father was a businessman. My mother always encouraged the development of my musical curiosities from an early age. I played the piano and violin from a very early age like the stereotypical Asian child. Then, I found a passion for the drums and became drumline captain at the all-state band. Drums and instruments were always very natural for me to approach. But because of some of the perfectionist and strict rules set in my family, I didn’t really ever think of becoming an artist until later in my life after my required military service in Korea.
Being raised in Texas, and going back and forth from different cultures and environments, I dealt with a bit of racism, substance abuse and depression. Looking back, I feel that all of those experiences led me to become an artist that could speak on different stories from my unique perspective, whether it be superficial, all the way to spiritual. The exact moment when I can say that I decided to become an artist is when I had a moment in my life in 2017 where I struggled with depression and was contemplating suicide. As a final cry of desperation, I decided to become completely honest with myself and change my life to live. I was fortunate to combine my vision with KINDA who eventually became like a brother to me. Together, we created the persona Gabby Onme, and Anointed Productions. For me, music was that vice of rebirth. I have been running full speed ever since.
How would you describe your music style? What kind of approach do you use when writing your lyrics?
My music style, I would describe as raw, dark, and honest. Like there are 4 seasons of a year, and a person having flesh, mind, and soul, I like to express the different cycles and seasons when it comes to my music and lyrics. When I write my lyrics, I usually always start out with the story I want to portray and fit onto the beat. Depending on the mood and tone of the beat, some songs may be finished in a 3-minute off-the-top freestyle, and some may take weeks for me to be satisfied with the delivery of my lyrical presentation. I think it also depends on the depth of each song, from superficial bangers, to romantic feels, to spiritual self-realization.
Photo © Anointed Productions
Let’s talk about your new release “Monalisa”. What was the creative process like for this EP?
Monalisa was a song that KINDA and I made to officially announce our duo. The creative process of this song was complicated because we wanted to continue the sense of mystery with our upcoming projects that will later become one large combined album. From the male perspective, the lyrics start off with a man questioning a woman about what her motives are, as her mystery draws him in, but also his instincts alarm him otherwise. In the end, the beat changes as he raps about his own self and his focus towards fulfilling a greater mission (meaning his focus might have been wrong the whole time, which was his own fault). In the visuals, we wanted to recreate an eerie experience where KINDA and I are in the same building and there is also a masked man. We wanted many questions raised to continue the mystery, but also to signify that we are a team with one vision.
You collaborated with Kinda Domain on one of the songs from the aforementioned EP of the same name, what was that experience like for you? Were there any artistic differences between you two during the recording process?
Kinda is like a blood brother and a best friend to me. We are very much aligned when it comes to our musical vision and creative chemistry. From a musical perspective and producing aspect, KINDA is the lead and I respect and follow his direction in every track. And as for the writing, storytelling, and mood of the track, I take the reins to present the delivery. I think our different strengths provide synergy for a very fluid and efficient work process. Also, being so close outside of music in everyday life definitely adds to the enjoyment of our musical production. Not only was he a part of this EP, he was and will be on every Gabby Onme track, even if it’s just the production and mixing part of the track.
In general, how does your creative process differ when you create rap sections from the vocal parts?
Rap and vocal parts are very similar for me to work with. For me, it just depends on the structure and message of the song. For example, if it is a fast-paced banger, I would focus a bit more on rhymes and wordplay. For a slower introspective song, a clear chorus with very vivid lyrics would be better. Whether it be a rap or a vocal song, I focus on the mood that I want the listener to feel and write my lyrics to fit the mood.
Music Video © Anointed Productions
Looking at your whole repertoire of songs, I must admit that “Trainwreck” is one of the most powerful songs (and my personal favourite) I have heard in a while. What struck me the most was how transparent you were about your experiences with substance abuse and your battle with depression. Why did you decide to open up about this?
It is still a surprise and a very humbling experience when people appreciate Trainwreck. Trainwreck was a letter to myself. It was a reflection of the past where I hit my rock bottom physically and spiritually. I feel that the greatest starting point of healing is to identify the issues honestly and start from there. Trainwreck was the admission of guilt that led to repentance and positive growth. Looking back, there were so many events that at the time seemed hopeless. Hopefully, it can go to show that the past scars, wounds, and sins, can be mended and forgiven to bring forth new life. Although the song is about being a wreck, Trainwreck was that starting point in realizing there is always hope.
You were born in Korea but raised in the USA. Looking at your life, to what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
I first moved to a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood in Texas when I was 8. There were cultural differences and struggles to fit in as the only Asian kid in my grade. I eventually made friends and later on struggled to fit back into the Korean culture after my army service. At the time, the struggle to fit in felt lonely in the sense of being a minority in my certain environment. Looking back now, I feel that it is one of my greatest strengths to be able to experience different cultures at a young age. From dealing with a bit of racism and ignorance, I can keep myself accountable more clearly as well as express the moods from both sides. From a creative aspect, the east and the west give me different ideas when it comes to melodies, lyrical expression, sources, and genres. I consider it one of my greatest blessings.
Has being an artist changed other aspects of your life since you moved back to Seoul? Have you ever thought of returning to Texas?
I feel that not much has changed externally, but internally the focus and momentum is getting bigger every day. I will definitely be returning to Texas to visit one day. My best friends from childhood are still in Texas, so I have to go catch up because it will always be my second home and a huge part of my foundation.
Music Video © Anointed Productions
Is there a music/artist you like which/who never fails to make you feel good?
If I had to pick one artist for this, it would be Bryson Tiller. When I listen to his songs, I always think to myself, “I would say that,” or “I’ve felt like that.” From his lyrics, beats, performances, and interviews, Bryson resonated with me the most as an artist. Don’t and Insecure are two of my favorite songs by Bryson.
Korea has been producing excellent quality rappers who are now making their way to Europe and the USA. What’s your opinion on the Korean hip-hop scene?
I am always cheering on fellow Koreans in the hip-hop scene. With Show Me the Money and other shows hitting the mainstream media, Korea’s interest, as well as the level of hip-hop music taste, has grown exponentially in the last few years. It is also exciting to see Korean, as well as other Asian artists, hit the global stage in the genre. I feel that this scene is now just starting.
Are there any concepts, or certain music styles that you would like to try out with your future releases?
With the pillar of my influence in southern hip-hop and R&B, I am always open to mixing genres and influences. I am actually a huge fan of Latin American cultures and reggaeton. So much that I lived in Santiago, Chile for a few months after graduating high school to study Spanish by myself. Most of my Spanish is forgotten, but I would love to incorporate the sounds and movements of the Central and South American culture in some of my future releases.
Music Video © Anointed Productions
Would you say the music that inspires your work matches what you listen to when you’re part of an audience? Or are you a fan of other genres other than your own?
There are certain hip-hop and artists that resonate with who I am. However, I love listening to all types of music starting from classical, to jazz, to punk rock, all the way to techno.
What do you find are the main challenges of being a musician?
I tend to be self-conscious and very self-critical at times. For me, the biggest challenge is to stay on the course for myself while finding a balance between confidence and humility. Also, as an artist identifying different backgrounds, it is a challenge for me to check myself on my values and true self when it comes to my content. For example, I am a Korean, who grew up in Texas, who is Christian, that loves raw hip-hop and R&B music that has very traditional parents in opposite fields of work. For me, when I write on different topics, dealing with the different internal conflicts with my associations can be a struggle. I guess I am still settling into my identity in this journey.
Improvisation is a large part of the creative process for many artists. How strictly do you separate improvising and composing in your work?
For the creative side, especially at the start of projects, I rely heavily on improvisation and what comes to my mind at the moment. Whether it is a keyword for the hook or the color tone for the music video, I love to visualize and work off of that moment of creativity. If an idea that I feel is certain sparks up, I will scratch the previous ones that have been developed. As for the details and revisions, that is where most of the techniques practiced and details come into play to build on the foundation and make the finishing touches.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the tasks of artists today (e.g. political/social/creative), and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I can’t really speak for other artists in this area because there are so many different types of artists in so many fields with different backgrounds and messages. For myself, however, I would love to bring value to the different communities that I could influence through my art. Each song is a message rooted in different parts of my life. If people could listen to my music and find a sense of encouragement or healing that would be the greatest honor. As for now, I am working nonstop to make quality music every release. If our songs and platform reach wider audiences in the future, I hope to use my platform to help people who are going through oppression or mental illnesses around the world. I feel that if I can do this, anyone can. That is the message I would eventually want to spread.
Photo (Kinda) © Anointed Productions
Is there anything you would like to change in the music industry that might help emerging artists get bigger exposure in domestic and foreign markets?
Like with any country or industry, there is always corruption or too much power concentrated in certain areas. I feel like we are also lucky to be living in an age where there are so many platforms for independent artists to promote themselves. In Korea, the mainstream TV stations and big entertainment companies still have the majority of power when it comes to mainstream distribution of music. It is changing and I hope it will keep continuing to change to a more transparent market where talent and quality are recognized better.
It is the job of the artist to win over an audience, but listening is also an active, rather than a passive, process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
I think the role of the listener is to just be themselves. And by that, I mean to have complete freedom. I believe in vibrations of thought and sounds in which if the listener is attracted to the sound and message of the song, it was meant to be!
When you are not working and writing songs, what do you do to get away from it all and relax?
It might sound super cliché, but my healing place is music when it comes to my life. I love being in the studio and working on new projects and ideas. KINDA and I are always in our studio (Anointed Productions). As for other hobbies, I love to play basketball, and drink coffee!
What are your upcoming plans? Apart from promoting your new EP, are there any other projects that you have planned for the future?
Next year, I will be officially debuting in Korea with my previous releases/videos combined with new songs to launch a 20+ song album project. After my first album release, I hope to collaborate with foreign artists and keep the catalog growing. Performing live was a big plan coming up next year, but due to COVID19, we will see how it turns out because safety is always first! We are always focusing on improving the quality of each project we make. The ultimate vision shared by KINDA and I is to make our label a label that can cross-cultural, religious, and gender boundaries freely. No matter what background, artists in Anointed Productions can thrive as long as they have quality music, a strong work ethic, and passion.
Photos © Anointed Productions
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Julia Litwinowicz
All other photos © Anointed Productions