Coachella 2016: Epik High brings rowdy, rap-driven K-Pop to a curious Coachella

Members of Epik High perform onstage during Day 3 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival during the first weekend.

Members of Epik High perform onstage during Day 3 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival during the first weekend.

(Michael Tullberg / Getty Images for Coachella)

A few days before Epik High’s Sunday performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the group’s three rappers and DJs knocked out some rounds of bowling at Shatto 39 Lanes in L.A.’s Koreatown. While doing their best to throw strikes, they heard something that suggested their upcoming Coachella debut would turn out just fine.

“They were playing Korean music in there, which was a great feeling, to see K-Pop getting so much love,” said the band’s leader, Tablo, inside the band’s wood-paneled artist trailer backstage at Coachella this past weekend. Even though he acknowledges that his group’s bawdy, hip-hop driven sound was a world away from K-Pop’s glossy choreography (“We don’t fit into K-Pop too snugly,” he explained) it was another hint that the time was nigh for Epik High in Indio, Calif.

The trio (with Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz) is one of South Korea’s most popular and longstanding rap groups, regularly playing festivals and headlining dates to tens of thousands of people over a 13-year career. They’re no strangers to L.A., either -- Epik High has headlined the Wiltern and played other tours geared toward Korean American audiences. In 2010, they topped the U.S. iTunes hip-hop charts, becoming one of the first Korean artists to do so.


But as K-Pop established itself as a cultural phenomenon in the U.S., it also became a favorite hipster reference point (fellow Coachella act Grimes, for one, is a huge K-Pop fan). Epik High saw that their mix of golden era hip-hop, dubstep breakdowns and high-velocity electro might fit into the new wave of interest in more progressive South Korean pop music.

Epik High isn’t the first South Korean group to perform in Indio (the experimental duo EE played in 2011). But they’re certainly the highest-profile Korean band to play Coachella so far, and might have already changed the rules for K-Pop’s reach in the U.S.

The trio breaks the mold of what Coachella crowds might envision when they think of clean-cut K-Pop. For starters, they were almost derailed by a weird Internet conspiracy theory claiming Tablo faked his Stanford degree by stealing someone’s identity (for the record: he graduated with a BA and MA in English in 2002).

But a better starting point is the video from their South by Southwest set last year at the K-Pop Night Out showcase, when the group stormed Austin, Texas, with a vengeance that surprised even them.

“I was drunk the whole set,” Tablo admitted. “I downed a whole bottle of soju before we went on. But we woke up the next day and saw we were trending on Twitter.”

They believe that attention helped land them the Coachella gig. While they’re far from novices about festival gigs in Asia, Coachella presented a new challenge. They had to play early -- 1:20 p.m. on Sunday in the Sahara tent -- and arrange a set not of their greatest hits, but songs that would appeal to fans who have no idea of their established star power overseas.


“It’s totally inspiring whenever we do fests outside of Korea,” Tablo said. “Korean audiences are the greatest in the world, everyone that plays there says they’re mesmerized by the fans. When we play there, it’s a hit-driven set. But here, it feels like how it felt 13 years ago.”

All well and good, but as any Coachella veteran will tell you, simply getting bodies on the field at that hour is tough -- even for Korean superstars. They tempered their expectations beforehand. “As long as we come out of there with a good memory, that’s enough,” said Tukutz in Korean, through Tablo’s translation.

When the group walked onstage Sunday for their debut, the Sahara tent was about a third to a half full -- not bad, considering the typical state of the crowd at that early hour. Tablo wore an oversized shirt from the proto-punk band Television; Tukutz and Mithra Jin joined in to spray water all over the first rows. A good swath of fans -- many Korean Americans, but also many others -- knew every word to lit-up singles like “Born Hater” and “Kill This Love.”

Epik High didn’t know quite what to hope for when they sauntered onto the Sahara stage. “I know I’m going to be super hung over out there, so if we get even one fan to wake up at 1 p.m. for us, that’ll be amazing,” Tablo said.

But as they posed for a band-family portrait onstage in front of the crowd of a few thousand sweaty, exuberant Coachellans, they had all the more reason to keep the party going.

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