Tiger JK was born in July 29, 1974 under a Korean family that immigrated to America when he was young. While his family moved to Los Angeles, Tiger moved to his uncle’s Tae-kwon-do gym in Miami aiming to become a professional martial artist. Later, he came back to LA and attend Beverly Hills High School.
This was a tumultuous time in LA as the tension between Koreans and black people was at its peak. In 1992, after the hip-hop group N.W.A. dissolved, Ice Cube released the song “Black Korea” degrading the Koreans who do business in black neighborhoods but refuse to be associated with them. As a response Tiger JK, in his high school history class, wrote a paper and rapped against Ice Cube. Tiger JK aced his performance and word spread fast. Not only was he awarded in school, but also got invited to a local hip-hop festival where he performed his song “Call me Tiger” tackling the animosity toward Koreans. He won an award for his freestyle and it was also there he met fellow Korean DJ Shine who he later teamed up with to create Drunken Tiger.
After a successful appearance on the “Johnny Yoon Show”, Tiger JK made recorded an EP called “Enter The Tiger” and then visited came to Korea. He struggled to have his music accepted, or even heard in the Korean music scene. At the time, K-pop was blowing up and Korean producers would tell him, “this is hip-hop.” (Further detail of this story can be found in the song in his 7th album “everynight 01”.)
Realizing their Korean rapping skills weren’t where they needed to be, the duo recruited Kim jin-pyo to write their first album for them. The two started to write their own Korean lyrics for the second album but Tiger was shamed in his title song “the great birth”. Now, with countless efforts, Tiger JK is very adept with the language, his Korean flow is impeccable. That same year, he formed his hip-hop crew, The Movement, whose members went on to become the foundation of influential hip-hoppers in Korea today.
After his first album, he released “the great birth” on April 2, 2000, but a month after the release of the album, he was caught for using drugs in Korea. He was told on by a member of Uptown, another rising hip-hop group at the time. Tiger JK was not even in Korea during that time and his tests came clean, but he still was detained for having close association with Uptown. This news became scandalous through the media including foreign music magazines, radio and web sites. One of the Movement crew’s members Micky Eyes even wrote a song called “Free JK.”
Tiger JK was released on bail after 36 days and was able to tape Uptown member’s false accusations. He wanted to disprove his lies by putting the audio on his 3rd album but decided against it, and later he was exonerated. Despite the scandal, Drunken Tiger came back with masterpieces such as “Symphony 3” and “Good Life,” which hit the number one on the charts in Korea, marking a stunning comeback. His fame rose to the extent where he was the Korean face for Karl Kani clothing.
After the fifth album, DJ Shine suddenly quit. Many were saying his passion for music has been depleted for a while, and that he did not particularly like Tiger JK getting all the recognition and fame. Some say he wanted to make money through business. In fact, he opened nightclubs (which was very unsuccessful) and quality restaurants in the outskirts of Seoul. He still says that the Drunken Tiger period of his life was the “proudest times of his life.”
Even after Shine left, JK could not bury the Drunken Tiger name so he just kept deciding to use it. By this time JK was widely recognized within the Korean population to be an enlightened sort of wanderer – as his long, messy hair and beard became his trademark.
Suffering from ALS
Sadly, Tiger JK was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). One in a million develops this syndrome. By 2004, he couldn’t survive without constant medication. While appearing on a Korean reality show, he described his illness: “I would be touching cold water but my fingers would have a burn as my senses would determine it as hot. My eyes would be open but I wouldn’t be able to move.”
However, he continued to say that now he is almost completely cured and that his case was so rare it has been reported for ALS research.
Even though he was sick, he continuously progressed with his music and in 2006, he formed his own entertainment company, releasing his 7th album as an artist of Jungle Entertainment Company.
The Korean hip-hop community was surprised when Tiger JK released the news that he is collaborating with Rakim,, Dilated Peoples’ Rakaa and the Japanese rapper Zeebra. Furthermore, they all did this for free; for the sake of music.
Rakim called Tiger JK a fellow pioneer on the narrow road of hip-hop movement. Tiger JK said, “No modern rapper wasn’t influenced by Rakim.”
(This article was written by Ryan Kim as part of the Global Hip Hop Cultures class at Trinity College, Fall 2016 semester.)