Interview: K-pop may have found its next R&B giant in Dean

December 7, 2015
DEAN (Photo courtesy of Joombas/Jung Ji Eun)

DEAN (Photo courtesy of Joombas/Jung Ji Eun)

By Tae Hong

K-pop lovers, meet Dean. Chances are, you have seen his name — stylized as DΞΔN — attached to a flow of collaborative singles coming out of South Korea in the last two months.

You gave some of it a try, and you could swear, if this R&B crooner weren’t singing in Korean, you’d have mistaken the songs as those uploaded by an American pop artist.

Not quite — the 23-year-old (whose Korean name is Kwon Hyuk) was born and raised in Korea. As Koreans do, Dean calls his sound his own “color.” That’s not just a concept — it’s the culmination of the environment that raised him and the culture he enjoys, the culture that influenced him. It includes his days producing idol tunes (try EXO and VIXX, for two) from America, years after finding interest in music through R&B and hip-hop.

And if he is ready for one thing, it’s to convince the scene that it’s time for its musicians to take the reins as mainstream tastemakers, not followers.

Last month, when Korean web behemoth Naver posted a spotlight of the up-and-coming singer on its music site, the comments flooding in from K-Netizens were diverse. Some thought he had steeped himself too deep in Western pop music. Some called him the next answer to the increasingly trendy R&B genre. Many sang praise.

“I’m someone who’s of the opinion that my role with my music ends with my creation of it,” Dean said. “Everything else after that is up to the listeners. So to hear that I’ve been receiving a positive response, for that I’m very thankful.”

“I Love It,” his first Korean Korean release last month featuring Dok2, overseen in part by American producer B.A.M. (Chris Brown, Ne-Yo), garnered positive responses before he followed up with “Pour Up,” featuring Block B rapper Zico and taken on by Count Justice (Chris Brown’s “New Flame”).

A short background on the singer: He joined a Korean music production company-turned-agency with a Los Angeles office, Joombas, when he turned 20 years old. EXO may not have cried out for their “Black Pearl,” and VIXX may never have returned to fans in 2013 with “Voodoo Doll,” if it hadn’t been for the young songwriter. Since then, he’s rung in other high-profile collaborations, many of the stateside kind, including Mila J and Anderson Paak.

Before Korea, he stepped into the international market by dropping the Eric Bellinger collab “I’m Not Sorry” with Universal Records. “Put My Hands On You” with Paak followed.

Word of a Korean singer making undeniably “American” pop was enough to pique the interests of music lovers all the way home in Korea, helped, of course, by social media chatter. He also succeeded in catching the attention of Korean musicians, among them chronic chart-topper Junggigo, who personally contacted the singer.

“I didn’t expect such a big reaction from Korea,” Dean said. “When we were working on my [English] songs, we had only been thinking of the American market. I was so thankful to Korea.”

How long had he been waiting for that moment, to finally be able to stand on stage as a performer?

“I’ve researched the ins and outs of K-pop and its melodic qualities since I was young,” he said. “I wanted to become a singer when I was 20 and began writing music. It was a dream in a corner of my heart, that I could become an artist.”

He’s already making waves by working with a crew of red-hot artists, from the aforementioned Dok2 and Zico to Zion.T, Dynamic Duo and Crush, whom he met through contacts made during his producing days.

Fresh tracks carrying Dean’s voice include Dynamic Duo’s “How Are You Lately?”, a track on the hip-hop giant’s newest album, and Junggigo’s “274.”

It’s his immediate history as a young producer, and one whose taste lent to the making of idols at that, that lends to his perspective on the industry he faces.

His K-pop vision doesn’t involve so much an introduction of a “western” urban palette as much as it has to do with taking on the task of changing what it is to be “K-pop mainstream.”

In a handful of interviews, he pointed to acting icon James Dean as the inspiration behind his chosen moniker. That rebellious image appealed to him, he has said. And, when asked to describe himself as a musician, he uses the word “unpredictable.”

(Photo courtesy of Joombas/Jung Ji Eun)

(Photo courtesy of Joombas/Jung Ji Eun)

“I want to share with everyone the emotions, influences and culture I felt as Dean, the person, until now,” he said. “The K-pop industry is diverse and ever-changing, to be sure. Within that, I think I gained a lot of insight by working behind the scenes that other singers may not have had the chance to know. But what’s important is not just to change following how the industry is changing, but to figure out how to maintain my own artistic sound in entering this market.”

“A lot of [Korean] musicians talk about mainstream appeal and of altering their music to fit what the masses want, but I get the feeling that not enough of them talk about figuring out how to make their own sounds the mainstream,” he said. “I think there will come a time [in K-pop] when that will be important for artists to do.”

That includes songwriting, which the singer calls more than a form of expression — it’s a form of play, and he plans to keep on writing. He makes little discerning between K-pop and pop in taking on projects with artists.

“If I can feel something from their music and find harmony between their color and mine, then I want to work with them,” he said.

Joombas CEO Shin Hyuk, the producer who took Dean under his wing as a composer, said in a recent Reddit AMA that the singer would produce a track on EXO’s next album.

“K-pop doesn’t need to change,” Dean said. “I think, instead, there’s a need for people who are preparing to make music as artists to figure out their own values and philosophies. Then the market will change along with them.”

Some have taken his Korean debut to mean that he’s given up on entering the American market, he said.

“There’s a definite difference in the way my career will play out in America and in Korea, and I’m planning to create more music to show off my color in both places,” he said.

Check out Dean’s two Korean singles, “Pour Up” and “I Love It,” below:


  1. bora

    December 13, 2015 at 2:20 PM



      January 3, 2016 at 12:51 PM

      You ? i know right

  2. Horangih Gomtoki

    December 15, 2015 at 4:04 PM

    Why does Korean pop culture turn men into girly boys?

    I know homosexuals are prominent in pop culture, but must they make up ALL males as a bunch of pansies?

    Korea is still divided. It is a small weak country. Even though South Korea has the double the population and 40 times the economy of North Korea, it still depends on US military occupation for protection.

    If South Korea still feels so vulnerable(and dependent on America), it means South Koreans need to toughen up.

    But Korean popular culture, which is controlled by US-trained Korean-American homosexuals, encourages Korean men to dress like girls and act pansy.

    What is happening to South Korea? It is turning into an idiot nation.

    Korean pop culture brainwash Korean girls that they should get plastic surgery and hair-dyeing to look white or ‘western’, and it encourages Korean males to dress effeminate and act girly.

    How about Korean culture teaching Korean men to be Korean men and teaching Korean women to be Korean women?

    Stop pretending to be what you are not.

    Stop preaching and promoting junk and trash.

    • sjnn1

      January 29, 2016 at 6:53 AM

      ok first of all you are just a hater and you know it.
      And are you calling DEAN a pansy? Like really? I could maybe understand if you posted your comment in a Jo Kwon article but DEAN??? …and even then I would think your view on masculinity is brainwashed by society.
      Who says males all have to act like a MACHO man – if you are really going by that idea then all males in the entertainment industry defy the stereotypical norm of what it means to be a man. They dance, they sing, they heavily groom their appearance and dress in high fashion. SO WHAT? That doesn’t mean you are more of a girl. If you believe that, you need to be more open because you are constrained to the narrow minded view of what society has taught you to believe.

      As far as the military presence in S. Korea, dude … the US has a military base in just about every single allied country. (they are in the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Singapore, Portugal, Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Guam, Greenland, Bulgaria, Bahrain, Brazil, Italy, Japan, … too much to F*** list. It doesn’t mean the men of the country are weak! The US has a military monopoly – this has to with political dynamics NOT anything related to masculinity. And South Korea does embrace their military, all males have to enlist and serve in the military.
      You sound like a Homophobe, and it’s soooo ironic that you’re attacking S. Korea because Korea is actually a very homophobic country…despite what the pop scene might have you believe. This just proves that you can’t judge something by appearance! Koreans hold a very conservative view on homosexuality; they barely have any rights in terms of law and societal acceptance. Compare them to the US where homosexuals have the most rights and Thailand where they have a much higher societal acceptance than probably any country.

      And if you are saying Korea is turning into an idiot nation because of Kpop … please! … they are sweeping the global entertainment stage with this “Korean Wave” … just behind Hollywood. The reason they are so successful is because of OTHER countries are buying into the wave.

  3. Soo Min

    December 16, 2015 at 2:53 AM

    I must say Dean’s colour really surprised me. As seen through the other comments I think I wasn’t the only one. But I was surprised in a positive way. I’m not Korean myself but I love the culture. I’m also not American but I like American music. I’m very happy to see someone as Dean trying to combine the cultures he likes himself. I’m proud of someone like him to step out and do something many people find strange or talk bad about. I’m happy he tries something like this and that he does what he likes. More people should have these guts and be open to new things and mixes. Please listen to his songs with an open mind and respect him for trying such a couraguous thing. Thank you.

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  7. Julie

    January 28, 2016 at 11:15 PM

    Great article! I’ve just recently learned about dean over the past week and find him very amusing! His music is great and I hope he does well in all his future endeavors ^^

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  9. Caroline

    May 15, 2016 at 5:53 PM

    Is Dean by any chance half white? I saw him for the first time on sugarman and I right away think that he’s a white or at least half white.

  10. Jenni

    August 16, 2016 at 7:47 PM

    He’s 100% Korean, he said sometimes ppl get confused about whether or not he’s Korean because of the name, but it’s simply a stage name. His real name is Kwon Hyuk, both his parents are Korean.