Danny from L.A. is more than a one-time deal

August 21, 2014
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Danny Im and Dumbfoundead on the DFLA set. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

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Danny Im on the set of DFLA. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

By Tae Hong

When Danny Im stands on stage nowadays, he’s not dropping the beats as he used to as a singer and rapper of first-generation hip-hop group 1tym so much as he is sitting in the interviewer’s chair, cracking jokes and poking gentle fun at young idols.

For the 34-year-old former luminary of the K-pop scene, the Los Angeles gig as the host of his own Mnet America show, the aptly named “Danny From L.A.,” is another step in his American, his Korean, his wow-fantastic-babies life.

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“I know it’s hot, but B1A4 is even hotter!” Im yells as he faces a hundreds-strong army of crowing KCON fans, forever teenage girls and boys, the same kinds of faces who used to chant his own name.

He’s helmed at the side by Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead, who’s been his show co-host about a year. They’re filming a live taping of the show, now in its third season, at the convention.

The day is hot. It’s point-blank Los Angeles-in-the-summer hot, the kind with no clouds in the sky. Only sloppily-applied sunscreen sits between the thousands of fans at the convention and an unrelenting sun.

Minutes later, when the K-pop boy band finally makes their way onto the stage, Im is comfortable perched on the on-stage couch as he casually asks the group a serious of questions peppered with American jokes — Do y’all know what a green card is? Boxers or briefs? — before he asks them to each come up with a pick-up line to woo an American girl.

Everything is adorable, broken-English hilarity. Eventually, Dumbfoundead turns to Im.

“How about you, Danny? You got one?”

“I don’t, actually,” Im says, grinning. “I’m married, man.”

Dumbfoundead presses on. “I mean, how did you get your wife?”

“We went to junior high school together and I said, ‘I always had a crush on you. I knew it was real because even after all these years, I still feel that way,’” Im answers, half-jokingly, amidst a sea of awws from the shriek-happy crowd. “I’m writing the script for the movie, so y’all look out for it.”

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A headline from a Korean newspaper on Dec. 3, 2012 reads, “1tym Danny Gets Married to Woman He’s Known For 10 Years, Has Son.”

That’s one heck of a headline for a former idol, one that took Korean media almost a year to catch up to — his marriage, his permanent move back to Los Angeles and the birth of the couple’s honeymoon baby.

In some ways, Im’s new life as a husband and working father to two (the couple’s new baby is almost seven months old, while their 2-year-old is, by all indications of a short smartphone video, a fantastic little dancer), and as a serious golf aficionado is close to what you’d expect from a typical thirtysomething millennial.

Need evidence? Here’s a snippet of his take on golf: “I love golf. Golf is beautiful. Play golf and you will understand. I could go deep into the natures of golf — you gain character by playing. There’s a whole etiquette with golf. … You could play golf by yourself, but then when you go, you’re paired up with three, four other complete strangers. But then for those hours, you guys are friends. … You would have never met. Your paths may have never crossed, except you both enjoy and have a passion for golf and that’s what brought you guys together. There’s a beauty to that. … There’s another thing. My dad is old-school Korean. Even when I was younger, we weren’t best friends interacting that much. We didn’t do much stuff together. But once I got him into golf, we play together. The age gap, it doesn’t matter. There’s a beauty to that, too. … It’s a huge challenge. It’s not easy. You get stressed out, but you learn. If you learn how to control your emotions on a golf course, you can control your emotions in life. It’s great. I’ll stop there with golf. Geez.”

And in other ways, Im is still living a part of the star-studded life he’s been living since he was 18, most notably through “Danny From L.A.” His enthusiasm for hosting is partially a result of built-up frustration of years of silence on Korean television, where his American jokes told in less-than-fluent Korean went underappreciated.

“It was something new. Of course I wanted to try it out. And I never got to talk when I was in Korea. Over here, it’s in English, and I’m going to talk my butt off,” he laughs. “I finally get to talk!”

Danny Im and Dumbfoundead on the set of DFLA. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

Danny Im and Dumbfoundead on the set of DFLA. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

The show, co-hosted in English by Im and Dumbfoundead, is for an American crowd interested in K-pop. A slew of K-pop stars have made appearances in- and out-of-studio since its beginning in 2012, among them YG family artists Big Bang and Psy, CNBLUE, Infinite, EXO, f(x) and Ailee.

It’s taken time to adjust to the role of interviewer, not interviewee, but his approach to the work is uniquely his own, a been-there-done-that perspective few hosts can bring to the table.

“If you watch ESPN, you have a lot of analysts who are former players,” Im says. “So I consider myself one of those analysts, a former K-pop star, that now talks about K-pop in interviewing K-pop artists.”

His co-host Dumbfoundead, who has collaborated with Korean artists like Epik High in the past, on the other hand, had no idea about non-hip-hop Korean music or 1tym until he joined the team. He met Im while being interviewed by him on the show during its first season.

“If you see us, we’re definitely more jokey and have a lot of fun with [K-pop artists],” the rapper says. “I think they feel a lot more comfortable around us. That’s why you see more of a goofier side come out of them, and I feel like we humanize them a little bit.”

It’s been two years since the show started. Im, who says he wasn’t as comfortable in the beginning, offers an analogy — “I use a lot of analogies. About everything.” — on hosting.

“If someone’s going to start snowboarding, it’s actually better if you’ve never skied,” he says. “If you’ve skied a lot and become a good skier, to make that transition into snowboarding is actually harder than if you’ve just never skied. Because it’s so different, even though you’re going down the same slope. That’s how it kind of felt in the beginning, but now I’m getting into the flow of things.”

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Here’s a K-pop discovery story from the late 1990s of the sort that you may or may not have heard before. And if you have, that’s because K-pop discovery stories from the late 1990s never seem to begin with open auditions or “American Idol”-esque shows as they do now.

They begin with a night out to a Koreatown karaoke with Teddy Park, another future 1tym member and close high school friend, and a couple of guys — friends of a friend — who turn out to be fellow Diamond Bar residents and contributing producers to Yang Hyun-suk.

Danny Im during a live taping of "Danny From L.A." at KCON 2014, Aug. 9. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

Danny Im during a live taping of “Danny From L.A.” at KCON 2014, Aug. 9. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

Im and Park had grown close through music, taking advantage of regular special offers at karaokes to pay for one hour and stay from 2 to 6 p.m.

Soon, they had another hobby: hanging out at the producers’ house after school to tinker with their recording equipment.

It wasn’t long before they were asked to do a couple of demos for tracks that would be sent over to Yang, and his relatively new entertainment company, YG.

The company had released Jinusean, a hit-generating hip-hop duo, and, less successfully, Keep Six. SM Entertainment was on the early cusp of K-pop greatness; Park Jin-young, who later went on to begin JYP Entertainment, was still performing hit songs in notoriously transparent plastic pants.

“They sent [the demo] to YG, and he said, ‘Who are these kids on the record? Let me meet them when I come to America next time,’” Im recalls. “A month later, we met YG.”

Inside a seedy K-Town hotel, Lim and Park danced, rapped and sang for Yang. The next day, they had dinner. And after that, the two high school students were off to South Korea to join one of the country’s first hip-hop idol groups.

“It just happened,” Im says. “All of a sudden, it literally just happened.”

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Culture shock is one word to describe what happens when you’re an 18-year-old uprooted from California and thrown into late-’90s Seoul, where you’re primped and prodded and placed in front of screaming teenage girls.

Dumfoundead and Danny Im on the set of DFLA. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

Dumfoundead and Danny Im on the set of DFLA. (Courtesy of Mnet America)

“1tym is one time for your mind,” the words to the four-member band’s eponymous debut song go, “We’ll give you everything you want.”

Through seven years, Im couldn’t quite shake the frustration that came with adapting to the Korean language and culture.

It was simply a different land to him. Here was a kid who hadn’t even been given a Korean name until he asked for one from his grandfather (“No document in the world has the name ‘Taebin’ on it. … No one in the world — except for my fans — who is in my immediate family or in my immediate circle called me Taebin.”); he’d taught himself how to read Korean while in California so he could sing along to songs at karaoke, but his Korean speaking was so incomprehensible that Park had to translate for him in the beginning; no one understood his American-style jokes, leading people to identify him as the team’s “quiet one.”

In 2004, Im released his first and only solo effort under the name Taebin. The 15-track album, featuring the golden-abbed singer glistening on the pages of its booklet and a slew of slower, mellower sounds, remains a blur in his mind as one of the busiest periods of his 1tym days.

Im says Yang suggested that the album concept be reincarnation, a born-again rebirth, nudity. The photoshoot was then scheduled, appropriately, for Im’s birthday.

“There was one point where I was laying on the ground, butt-naked, and I remember thinking, I’m wearing my birthday clothes on my birthday,” he laughs. “What am I doing?”

Still, Im and the rest of 1tym took pride in doing things their way to the end — two-year gaps between albums, straying away from variety programming. And by no means was 1tym just a blip on the radar of K-pop history — the group’s five studio albums sold more than a combined 780,000 copies, a respectable figure in the Korean market, according to the Recording Industry Association of Korea.

“If you do [albums] back-to-back, you can’t help but come out with the same thing. It’s not in you to come out with something different. We always liked that,” he says. “The thing I think is worst with artists in Korea is that the most dangerous thing is becoming comfortable. Because butterflies are good. Because when you become too comfortable with it, you’re not on point. … I always felt like, every time we came out, we felt we’d been gone for so long that it felt fresh again. We had to prove ourselves again. We always had that energy.”

Officially, 1tym has not yet broken up. Their activities came to a halt in 2005, when member Jin-hwan entered the two-year mandatory military service for male Korean citizens. The question is always asked: Will you ever make a comeback?

“Obviously, you do think about it. But then you also think about — we don’t want to mess anything up,” he says. “We have a lot of pride in the name. We’re not just going to come out to come out.”

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YG Entertainment is now a giant in the K-pop industry, having produced and taken in some of the genre’s biggest acts in the past decade: Big Bang. 2NE1. Psy. Se7en. Epik High.

Part of its success lies in the abilities of its talent scouting department. That’s how Im spent 2007 to 2012 — as a trainee scout and as an in-the-know mentor.

His insider knowledge of being a K-pop idol was, even then, an asset not many others could imitate and something he would later bring with him to host his show.

“They didn’t have anyone who was mentoring them that had actually been through the process, actually been on stage, experienced it and knew what to expect, knew how to prepare themselves mentally,” he says. “I had been through it. I have sympathy and I know what they’re going through and how hard it is.”

His mentees include singer Jenny Kim and members of the group Winner, which debuted to chart success and hot-topic status just last week.

“[Being a mentor] makes you feel old,” Im laughs. “When I came out, YG was a much smaller operation. The whole office was in a basement. Now at the office, it’s all set up. They have dancing coaches, singing coaches, a whole gym with a trainer.”

He envied them in a way, he says. It wasn’t that they were handed anything on a platter — no, they had to put in their own work to make it — but in his training days, he had no proper lessons. That kind of structure hadn’t existed back then.

“I actually took singing lessons with the singing coach,” he says. “I was just curious. I like to learn new stuff. Since I had the time, I did it. … I do wish I would have had proper vocal training, because then I would have known the technical aspects of it. … I envy the kids in that sense. Obviously, they do work for it very hard, but the opportunity is there for them to become good before they even come out.”

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A fan with a DFLA sign poses at KCON 2014. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

A fan with a DFLA sign poses at KCON 2014. (Tae Hong/The Korea Times)

Times are changing in and outside the world of K-pop.

The number of fans who revel in the genre balloon by the day; Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a huge booster for the scene, hit two billion YouTube views a few months ago; people all across the globe are increasingly consuming Korean culture as a norm.

Im knows better than anyone how true that is. It’s what drives his show.

“Around our era, you had to physically go out and get the CDs, or you had to physically go to the video stores to see the shows. Only the people who knew, knew,” he says. “Nowadays, you just turn on your computer and you can see everything. The world has become much smaller.”

Im was a Korean star, but he’s a Californian at heart. He sees DFLA as a bridge between K-pop and America, a platform to help spread the phenomenon to even more people.

His story started with music, and he says it will continue with music. He’s not ruling anything out.

“Music is a part of my life, it was a big part of my life,” he says. “The reason I’m doing this show is because of music. Because I did 1tym and because of the music that I did, Mnet said, ‘We’ll do a show with you.’ So it’s always going to be a part of my life.” 

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