FEATURES In the Hyperspeed of Seoul, Yoonkee Kim Moves at His Own Pace By James Gui · May 23, 2023
Photos by James Gui

“People in Seoul, they look like they’re so fast, but at the same time they’re so slow,” says Yoonkee Kim. The musician/DJ/painter/skateboarder/filmmaker has embraced these sorts of contradictions in his oeuvre and attitude in the two or so decades that he’s milled about in Seoul’s underground music scene—as well as during a three-year stint in London in the mid-2000s. He’s diligent, but also lazy, something he picked up “through listening to reggae bassists.” And he’s “not really a school person, but still very much a school person,” he adds, explaining how his interests in the arts began in elementary school music and painting classes. While his lo-fi, erratic output—spanning experimental electronica, films, indie folk, doodles, dub, and noise—has sometimes earned him comparisons to Daniel Johnston, he doesn’t necessarily claim the label of outsider artist. “I don’t like to be a strange person, mostly,” he says in his characteristic deadpan, slightly dazed tone, “but there’s some good aspects of being strange too.”

Judging from CV alone, Kim might be a contender for the most interesting artist in Seoul. His 2000 debut 관광수월래, released by indie stalwart Cavare Sound (Peppertones, Bluedawn, Oh! Brothers), made a splash as one of the first experimental hip-hop/turntablism records in Korea. That record turned him into the favorite artist of many a favorite artist, including mid-2000s K-hip-hop group Dynamic Duo. He has a devoted following in Japan, having been interviewed by magazines like Quick Japan, Relax, and Bounce in the early 2000s; noisician Masaya Nakahara (aka Hair Stylistics) sat with him for Quick, for which Kim returned the favor. He even has a rare collaboration with Dennis Bovell. “I just sent Powershovel Audio my original tapes, compact cassettes,” he says, “and then they sent it to Dennis Bovell, and he prepared the album.” For those paying attention, he’s almost omnipresent in Seoul’s musician circles, whether it’s playing the slide whistle with up-and-coming indie rockers Hyodo and BASS, improvising with Mogwaa, or in the VIP section of MSCHF’s live lookbook showing soundtracked by the Seoul underground’s most stylish DJs.

Like other South Korean music enthusiasts in the ’90s, Kim was introduced to Western sounds by the American Forces Network Korea radio and television broadcasts, as well as local record stores. “Those were the sources in the ‘90s,” he says. With a fake Fender Stratocaster that his mother bought from Nakwon Musical Instrument Arcade, he began making music with a friend who lived in the same building in Apgujeong. “We liked stuff like Cannibal Corpse, Run DMC, and the Ghostbusters soundtrack, and we were like, ‘Let’s make death rock music!’” he remembers. He was in his mid-teens at the time, and he dubbed their short-lived project Torchara after “torture” and the Egyptian god Ra.

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While attending Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, he formed a hip-hop group with his friends called Shisha, producing instrumentals that his friends rapped over at legendary venues like Hongdae’s Master Plan. “Those friends, they told me some songs were too lazy or too druggy, and they told me they couldn’t rap on those songs,” says Kim. “And then I listened to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, MixMaster Mike’s albums, and DJ QBert and other scratch music, which made me want to add so much scratching to those songs rejected by my friends.” Later he gave the demo tape to Korean techno pioneer Dalparan during one of his parties. “He went back to his studio, and after a few days he said that he releases only his music through his record label, but that he could introduce me to another record company called Cavare Sound.”

Kim’s next three records were released on his own record label Slowseoul—a nod to his unique perspective on the pace of the city. But in the mid-2000s, he went to London for three years to study English. “I think wherever I go, I become a part of that place, and I reflect a lot of that place,” he says. Working at a skate shop and performing with Kenichi Iwasa and Keisuke Hiratsuka, Kim quickly integrated with the city’s skate and music scene. “To me, skateboarding and skateboarders are like a country,” he says. “They’ve got their own culture, they wear similar clothes to each other.”

After returning to Seoul, however, Kim found it difficult to continue as an artist, facing bouts of schizophrenia. “I became mentally ill and then around that time I wanted to quit doing music and drawing,” he says. He got rid of all his equipment and took a break starting in 2009, but after the encouragement of his family he started making music again. In 2015, his eighth album She’s Ready Now announced his return to action off the heels of a collection of drawings titled DRY, published by Grigo Gallery. “My story isn’t really so smooth, it’s up and down, like a road full of little rocks,” he says. “I think I am fine now. I still take medicine every night—the minimum amount to prevent [relapses]—but it’s OK.”

These days, Kim maintains a prolific output of sonic and audiovisual vignettes on Bandcamp and YouTube respectively, while also performing improvised electronics and spinning with the likes of Rian Treanor and Mr Fingers during his vinyl DJ sets. Rather than a single release, it’s the sum total of his multimedia oeuvre that holds all the contradictions of his practice and philosophy. “Songs for physical release are things that my companies might like,” he says, “but when I upload some stuff on Bandcamp, I don’t need to care about anyone, it’s just up to me. Sometimes it’s pleasing to please someone, so I like minding some people when I make something. But also I like minding no one but myself.” His unpolished work feels primal and instinctual, capturing the naïve magic of encountering art for the first time. “I don’t really consider myself as an outsider, nor an insider,” he says. “I’m just a person…I am always Yoonkee Kim but things get changed and I’m inside of it, I’m around it, and it happens like that.”

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