Tablo is a writer and a lyricist, and it often feels like music flows out of him as naturally as breathing. But the longtime musician says this isn’t some innate talent, but rather one he diligently honed, a craft meticulously watered and cultivated from experience.
His education began when he was just a kid buying his first hip-hop album, entranced by a new form of musical world-building and artistry. Then later, it continued as a student at Stanford, where he studied for his Bachelors and Masters in Creative Writing simultaneously. And for the last twenty years, as one-third of pioneering Korean hip-hop group Epik High, Tablo has been blending both of the worlds that came before it.
In February, the group dropped Epik High Is Here下, Pt. 2, the followup to last year’s acclaimed Epik High Is Here 上 , Pt. 1. And just last week, it finished up its first North American tour in three years.
Tablo also teamed up with Vice Studios for the Authentic: Story Of Tablo. The podcast details the Tajinyo scandal, an online smear campaign where trolls claimed Tablo lied about his prestigious degrees and launched targeted attacks attempting to “expose” him.
This weekend (and next), Epik High will perform at Coachella (the group worked with Azuki to create special art for its sets.) Tablo talked with The A.V. Club about his podcast, what it feels like to hit the road again, and learning TikTok dances with his daughter, Haru.
The A.V. Club: First, I wanted to talk about the tour. How has it been finally getting to perform?
Tablo: It’s the first time in almost three years where we are in front of in-real-life people. I’d forgotten what it felt like. It’s an amazing feeling. It feels like we restarted our careers. I’m so happy to be here.
AVC: Was there one unexpected thing you missed about performing?
Tablo: At the end of last year, we were allowed to have a show in Korea, but people couldn’t sing along or scream due to [COVID] regulations, so there was dead silence after every song. With the shows we’re doing right now, we’ll have people in the crowd scream things out at us—especially at U.S. shows. I missed speaking to my fans. Making music is great and fun, but it’s not complete until you meet the people you’re making it for.
AVC: Compared to 20 years ago, now that you’re older and have more life experiences, is writing harder or easier?
Tablo: Actually sitting down to write is way harder. Before I had nothing to do but create. Now, I’m a dad; Mithra is a dad; Tukutz is a dad. We all have responsibilities. We’ve got to pick up our kids. There’s a lot we have to do. Getting to that point is much harder—but once I get there, completing a song seems much easier. I have a bigger palette of life experiences to pull from. It helps me paint very well.
AVC: How do the three of you maintain a successful career relationship after so long?
Tablo: I’d compare Epik High to a startup. It’s a startup going 20 years strong and—despite the fact that we hate each other most of the time and we will shit on each other every opportunity we get—our visions are still aligned. All three people are willing to work their butts off. It makes up for the things we lack. We’re not naturally talented. I had to work at being the rapper/writer I am. Mithra was not a designer, but he learned how to do it because he felt the team needed it. Tukutz works like a COO, he’s pretty much running our day to day. We work really hard, and I think that’s what kept us together.
AVC: I went to Head In The Clouds last year and saw MFBTY, and at one point, Tiger JK made a joke where he was like, “Oh, you guys probably don’t know who I am, we’re old!” Do you guys ever feel similarly? Do you have a fear of aging out?
Tablo: Here’s the thing, I’ve felt that since I was, like, 27. In Korea, we have 10,000 idol groups come out, and they’re in, like, middle school. So at 27, you’re already old as hell. Every year, I’m surprised we’re still relevant, and that there are new people coming into the fandom. I think that “fear” maybe makes some people do things that they normally wouldn’t do to try to keep up. But because I have a good sense of humor, [Mithra, Tukutz, and] I are able to laugh and joke about it. I think we’re mentally okay with it. For example: We have a Vegas show coming up, and on the same day, a group we’re friends with, you may not know them but some do—they’re called BTS.
AVC: [Laughs] I think I’ve heard about them.
Tablo: Yeah, I think they’re fairly popular. There’s a big overlap in our fandoms, so a lot of fans already bought tickets to our show. Then they DM’ed me apologizing because they had to cancel and go to BTS. Some people might be devastated and feel like, “Oh my god. I’m old, they’re going to abandon me.” But as soon as I saw these DMs, I showed them to my members and we were laughing about it. We were like, “Shit, I want to cancel the show so I can go see BTS!”
AVC: In “Super Rare” you bring up TikTok in a cheeky way. Was coming up with “TikTokable” content ever something you thought about while making music—especially since dance challenges in K-pop are so popular now?
Tablo: Oh yeah. People have to realize my daughter’s turning 12, so my best friend is 11 right now. Even though I’ve lived a full life— the world I actually live in also involves YouTube, TikTok, and Fortnite. I’m interested in everything my daughter is interested in. I spend at least 30 minutes a day looking at mindless TikTok videos and dance challenges. She taught me Aespa’s “Next Level” choreography. I was doing it in the bedroom and then my wife walks in; she sees me, and she’s like, “No, this is how you do it,” and she corrects me. That’s the world I live in. So it’s going to seep into my lyrics.
AVC: That’s a good segue to the podcast. It comes at a time where misinformation online is worse and where the culture is reexamining the way we treated celebrities in the early aughts. Is that why you decided to do it now?
Tablo: When [the Tajinyo scandal] happened, I hoped my case would change things. I didn’t want anyone else going through it. I honestly don’t know how I made it through alive. I lost my dad, and that was irreversible. I hoped that because [my situation] was so big it would happen less. That wasn’t the case.
Every day, there’s someone else on Twitter getting canceled for the right reason, sometimes the wrong reason—there’s no way to really know. To other people, it might be entertaining, but to me it’s something else. As it got worse, I felt like, “This is the world that my daughter is going to end up living in, one she’s already living in. I need to tell this story now so maybe I can convince people to not do things like that.” And if someone goes through something similar, [the podcast] could help them cope.
AVC: How were you able to be so vulnerable publicly through your music/lyrics after going through something so traumatic?
Tablo: With my solo album [Fever’s End], it poured out of me. It was kind of the only way I could stay sane. I didn’t think it’d become something I’d release. Other songs like “Family Portrait” on this album, it’s talking about my dad—but it’s 10 years after those events. It took a long time to digest my thoughts and get to the point where I could even do a song like that. Some songs take me a long time to get comfortable with.
But it’s very important for people to—whether it’s public or private—make a record of their emotions and thoughts. It might be useful for someone one day.
AVC: Another thing that struck me while listening is how you’re such a voracious student of hip-hop. Which artists and groups do you think you’ve learned from the most?
Tablo: I think the rapper that influenced me the most is Nas. Illmatic happened to be the first album I bought with my own money—which is crazy, considering it’s literally the greatest hip-hop album ever made. I lucked out. It’s poetry. The way he can describe scenes, a life, and a mindset, all with words, was fascinating. It not only made me love hip-hop, but it made me want to be a writer.
Also A Tribe Called Quest. Listening to lives that I didn’t fully understand, but they were able to make me feel like I understood just with their words. I thought that was beautiful.
AVC: For the younger generation of K-hip hop and K-pop artists, you’ve kind of become a “teacher.” Is that your way of continuing the hip-hop tradition of learning and teaching?
Tablo: I don’t know...but at 20 to 23, when I was starting Epik High, I learned from everyone before me. I was a student of the history [of hip hop] and I paid attention to the details. It wasn’t something I looked at and tried to mimic. I spent time learning to appreciate it before I started doing it myself. That’s the right way to do anything.
AVC: How does it feel when younger artists cite Epik High as one of their formative influences? Does it feel like getting your roses?
Tablo: When it comes to roses, I think we’ve gratefully gotten more than we deserved. We appreciate it all, but if you just stopped there, it’s nothing, right? What I’d like to do now for younger musicians is show them that you can have a career into your thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties—and teach them how to live with their light being a little dimmer than before. I know younger musicians who are constantly worried because popularity is [fleeting], and they don’t know how to deal with it. They worry about what they can do after music because they’ve almost dedicated their entire existence to it. I want to show that it’s possible to be 20 years in and still be invited to Coachella. You can keep going, and the fans will be there.
AVC: I know hiatuses aren’t new for Epik High. Have you imagined what another break looks like?
Tablo: We’re starting to. But I definitely don’t want to go down that path where you’re a successful musician and become the CEO of a label. That’s noble, but currently that’s not what I want. That’s not what I’m here on Earth to do. I have other aspirations. I want to affect people in other ways.
I have the podcast, but I’m also working on a scripted project with Amazon Studios. Hopefully that’ll be in front of people’s eyes at some point. Creating and writing is at the forefront. That’s the most important thing. I think I was born to be a storyteller.