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Light in the Attic

Our Town: Jazz Fusion, Funky Pop & Bossa Gayo Tracks From Dong-A Records Vinyl Record (Second Edition)

Our Town: Jazz Fusion, Funky Pop & Bossa Gayo Tracks From Dong-A Records Vinyl Record (Second Edition)

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One word that might aptly describe Japan’s society and culture during the 1980s would be ‘bubble economy(バブル 景気)’, which is to say that it was characterized by abnormally inflated asset prices. Japan, which had emerged as a global economic powerhouse through rapid growth during the 70s, saw an era of unprecedented economic prosperity as it entered the 80s. As the Yen appreciated, the Japanese government opted to focus on stimulating domestic growth. Policies for driving domestic demand, such as low interest rates and relaxation of loan requirements, saw mass capital flows to the stock market and real estate. Japanese people experienced an unprecedented level of economic stability and leisure. The interest rate on savings accounts at banks hovered in the 8% range. Companies looking to hire new recruits paid hundreds of dollars to interviewees, and it was not uncommon for a salaryman in his 20s to make upwards of half a million dollars per year. It was a blissful time for everyone involved – businesses, the state, and the people. Or so it seemed. By the early 90s, this short-lived bubble suddenly collapsed as interest rates spiked and loans were put on hold.

Around this time, the very notion of city life, with its promise of prosperity amid economic stability, had a sense of allure to it. More and more people wanted to partake in a culture that was more sophisticated and refined. Likewise, a growing consumer base was purchasing automobiles and car audios. It was amid this atmosphere that new forms of music drawing on western soft rock, AOR, and adult contemporary, and incorporating elements of smooth jazz, contemporary R&B, and funk, rose to prominence. The urban-tinged music created by artists such as Hosono Haruomi(細野晴臣, formerly of Japanese rock pioneers Happy End(はっぴいえんど)), Tatsuro Yamashita(山下達郎), and Mariya Takeuchi(竹内まりや) came to be known as ‘city pop’. The city pop boom, which was buoyed on by the optimism pervading Japanese society during the 80s, faded away along with the collapse of the economic bubble. City pop still went on to influence the ‘Shibuya-kei’ style, which developed during the 90s around Tokyo’s Shibuya district, drawing from French pop, baroque pop, bossa nova, lounge, and house music.
The recent resurgence in the popularity of city pop, to the point where it appears to have carved out a central position in hipster culture, is a rather intriguing phenomenon. To begin with, the term ‘city pop’ itself was more of a marketing slogan, pointing to ‘music with urban sensibilities’ targeted toward consumers aspiring to urban life, rather than a descriptor of some particular music style or genre. Neither was the term widely used during the actual historical peak of the style’s popularity(that is, the 80s). On the contrary, it appears to have been rediscovered and redefined amid the ‘new-tro’ vogue of the late 2000s, driven by the nostalgia of those who grew up during the 80s. The important elements of ‘city pop’ have more to do with the sensational and affective descriptors associated with the term itself – such as sophistication, relaxedness, comfort, freshness, dynamism, elegance, radiance, sweetness, as well as the splendor and romanticism associated with the city. The underlying appeal of retro stems from the desire to experience and enjoy things from before one’s own time. This is not unconnected to the popularity of ‘cool kitschy’ subculture trends like vaporwave or future funk. So, there’s nothing surprising about today’s youths digging through well or lesser-known gayo records from the early/mid 90s featuring AOR, jazz fusion, or funky styles. Likewise, the artists that are mentioned under the keywords of ‘Korean City Pop’ – names like the Yoon Soo-il Band or the City Boys, Lee Jae-min, Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Kyeoul(Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), Kim Hyun-chul, Yoon Sang, Jang Pil-soon, Bitgwa Sogeum(Light & Salt), Yang Soo-kyung, Nami, Lee Eun-ha, and Hye-eunyi – are not unfamiliar.

This trend shouldn’t be regarded simply in terms of the so-called ‘golden age thinking’ in the face of a bleaker present-day reality. While there are plausible sociological interpretations attributing the popularity of retro to economic downturns or as an affective reaction to a precarious present and an uncertain future, there is a more complex background that should be considered. Unlike the generations before them, the current ‘core’ age group of Korean society who grew up during the 80s and 90s had ample exposure to diverse cultures, in which they partook and immersed themselves in a natural manner. The music from this time period has become ingrained as part of this generation’s cherished memories – so they actively revisit this bygone era. On the other hand, for the youths of the 2010s, this past that they never experienced is not only unfamiliar – it isn’t particularly interesting, either. For this novelty-driven generation, the past simply represents outdated and lame relics that have rightly faded away into obscurity. But lo and behold – they are in for a surprise! They soon learn that the killer tune from the latest Marvel movie they saw is actually several decades old. Or that the main melody from their favorite new track is actually a sample from an 80s tune. Or take popular TV shows set in the 80s, like – they are full of music from that era. A realization soon dawns on them: that the past lies blended in with the present, often within grasping distance. Some younger viewers of the series go so far as to feel a certain nostalgia for a time that they never even experienced. For this generation, retro represents not a trip down memory lane, but an adventure where they go off in search of new, interesting, and hip stuff. Thus, it becomes the case that the ""old is the new new"". Meanwhile, for the generation who grew up during the 80s and 90s, retro can become a means of rediscovering things that they might have passed by without noticing – elements of sophistication or sensibilities that were ahead of their time. Some works from this time need some retouching, or ‘restoration’, to be appreciated again, while others can be partially recycled. In most cases, however, these past works hold up quite well on their own, as they are. Cycles in art and culture never cease to ebb and flow. The sounds that laid the groundwork for the birth and growth of hip hop were in fact hidden sounds from an even earlier past. The popularity of rare grooves gave rise to new styles, while urban contemporary and AOR were in heavy rotation on FM radio. And now, three decades down the line from then, it just so happens that the trends of the present trace their roots back to the 80s and 90s. Serious/intense rock, innovative experimental/avant-garde sounds, or artsy music have become out of touch with the current sensibilities of our time.

Though its popularity might have been short-lived at the time, the music of the 80s and 90s featured soft saxophone parts, lively rhythms, meticulously-crafted harmonies, and beautiful melodies. These make for a fusion sound that is particularly well-suited for the tastes of today. It is worth appreciating that the 90s, by which time the waves of American AOR and Japan’s city pop had already faded away, was a golden age for Korean gayo. So, it’s quite rewarding and enjoyable to rediscover and listen to tracks that are well worth another spin after all those years.

Amid this process of rediscovery, one of the recurring names is ‘Dong-A Records’ – an artist-driven label that has left a distinctive mark on Korean pop music. It rose to become the ‘Mecca of Korea’s underground music’ thanks to its unique beginnings, sense of orientation, and production/promotion methods that set it apart from the usual record labels and entertainment agencies. Consider some of the mainstays of the label’s roster – there’s a long list of illustrious artists including Deulgukhwa, Shi-in-gwa Chonjang(Poet and Chief), Cho Dong-jin, the Shinchon Blues, Han Young-ae, Kim Hyun-sik, Pureun Haneul(Blue Sky), Kim Hyun-chul, Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Kyeoul, Bitgwa Sogeum, Jang Pil-soon, Park Hak-gi, and Lee Sora. Although Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Kyeoul did score a latter-day hit in 2002 with ‘Bravo, My Life!’, the true heyday of Dong-A Records was a short-lived period that lasted from the mid-80s to the early-90s(A list of ‘100 Masterpiece Albums of Korean Pop Music’ selected by critics in 2018 included twelve Dong-A releases from this time – the most entries for any one label). Regardless of whether some of the works achieved commercial and/or popular success, all albums were produced to very high musical standards. Building on the individuality and talent of the artists on their roster, each of the works produced at Dong-A employed capable session musicians and were recorded meticulously. And among this body of work, there have been a number of tunes that did not fade away with the passing of the years, but have stood the test of time and retained their brilliance. Such are the tunes that have been carefully collected into this compilation album. The 10 tracks were selected by the multi-talented Tiger Disco, who has made his name amid the retro resurgence as a DJ specializing in funk/disco gayo from the 80s.

The title of this compilation, ‘Our Town’, and the by-title, ‘Jazz Fusion, Funky Pop & Bossa Gayo Tracks from Dong-A Records’ plainly outline the character of the album. Perhaps a more ‘current’ description of the album would be to call it a ‘Dong-A Records City Pop Collection’. The tracks cover the historical heyday of the label – from 1989 to 1993 – an era by which time Korea’s gayo scene had matured to the point of making significant strides forward in terms of both quality and quantity. Amid a previously pop-dominated music market, gayo music had carved out a newfound and varied sense of status, putting out records that were enthusiastically purchased by young listeners. Upcoming Korean musicians who’d absorbed the vibrant and plentiful influences and sensibilities of 80s pop, rock, and jazz were starting to reach new levels of sophistication in their music, thus setting them apart from the gayo acts that had come before them without thinking to confine or limit themselves to notions of ‘Korean-ness’. In any case, their music was uncommon in Korea at the time. The sensibilities of these songs, which in many aspects were ahead of their time, sometimes served as a refreshing inspiration for listeners while escaping popular notice at other times. And now, after nearly a generation has passed, the tunes of this compilation have not lost their appeal. Throwbacks to some, and the object of exciting discovery to others, the tunes selected here remain cool and hip.

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