You know your K-pop stars. Now meet the American producers and songwriters behind them

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And while these American producers and songwriters have worked with some of the biggest names in the States like Bruno Mars or Justin Bieber, many of them credit K-pop as their saving grace when they struggled to stay afloat in the US.

“In this music industry, the highs are really high and the lows are really low. It’s tough to survive in this thing,” said Jonathan Yip of the production and songwriting team, The Stereotypes.

“We could’ve quit plenty of times … But we got the opportunity to go to Korea and they embraced us,” Yip told CNN.

From Taeyang’s timeless “Eyes, Nose, Lips” to the latest BTS hit “ON,” these American songwriters and producers have brought their talents to help create the songs that we love.

Here are some of the biggest US songwriters and producers in K-pop right now:

The Stereotypes

Behind: Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy,” BoA’s “Kiss My Lips,” Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” Super Junior’s “Devil,” Jessi’s “Gucci”

This production and songwriting team consists of Jonathan Yip, Ray Romulus, Jeremy Reeves and Charm. The Stereotypes might have started out of Yip’s spare bedroom in the early 2000s, but they’ve become one of the hottest producing teams in LA, working on tracks like Justin Bieber’s “Somebody to Love,” Chris Brown’s “Beg For It,” and Fifth Harmony’s “Deliver.” They won two Grammy Awards in 2018 for their work on Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” and even brought Asian faces to the forefront of the US music scene with Far East Movement’s “Girls on the Dance Floor” in 2008.

But after “Girls on the Dance Floor” became a hit, the Stereotypes hit a slump.

“We had conversations between each other like, ‘Dang, what are we going to do?’ Yip told CNN. “The checks aren’t coming in and all the checks that do come in are going to rent. And it’s just like, ‘What are we going to do?'”

But an opportunity to delve into the world of K-pop presented itself when executives from SM Entertainment visited them in LA.

“We played them a bunch of records and they took two songs. One was for Girls’ Generation called ‘XYZ,” Yip said.

SM then invited them to South Korea, where they began producing more than 20 songs a week. While it was hard work, Yip said K-pop allowed them to be creative in different ways than what American music allowed.

“Here in America, people want it simple and, you know, a four-bar loop,” Yip said.

“But the thing they really stress over there in (Korea) is changes within the beat … From the verse to the pre-hook, there’s a change. From the second hook to the bridge, there’s a change. They want to be able to change your emotion every time, which we love because that allows us to be more musical,” Yip added.

Melanie Fontana & Lindgren

Melanie Fontana, Lindgren (center), and their manager Justin Garza.

Behind: BTS’ “Boy With Luv,” “ON,” “Euphoria,” Twice’s “Trick It,” I.O.I’s “Crush,” TXT’s “Crown,” EVERGLOW’s “Bon Bon Chocolate”

Songwriter Melanie Fontana and producer Lindgren, are the ultimate power couple, having worked with the biggest name in K-pop, BTS.

Fontana’s songwriting career kicked off when she was just a teenager, after she helped write Justin Bieber’s “Home This Christmas.” She started her K-pop journey in 2013, helping write “Stay Girls” for Girls’ Generation.

But her life was forever changed when she helped write “Euphoria” for BTS’ Jungkook.

“If it wasn’t for that moment, I don’t think we would be here right now,” Fontana told CNN. “It was a stadium favorite of theirs and I just couldn’t believe how big it was. I knew BTS was big. I always admired them from afar, but I didn’t think a boy band would really want to work with some girl, you know? But turns out they do.”

After seeing Fontana’s talent, Big Hit Entertainment, which manages BTS, approached her again to help write more songs for the seven-member group.

She and Lindgren went right into the studio and after sending ideas back and forth from LA to Seoul, “Boy with Luv” was born.

The song instantly climbed to the top of the Billboard charts and was certified as Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for selling over one million units in the US.
From The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, “Boy With Luv” was performed everywhere. Fontana even got to share the stage with BTS as she sang the backing vocals to the song as they performed on SNL.

And while Fontana and Lindgren said the song was definitely a collaborative effort with other songwriters and producers, seeing a song they helped write become so successful was “one of the greatest honors of life.”

“It’s like seeing your art hung in the Louvre,” Fontana said. “All an artist can really hope for is the appreciation of people and it’s incredibly rewarding, especially when you’ve worked in a genre that’s been kind of looked at as less than for a long time.”

“When I started writing K-pop, some of my American colleagues were like, ‘Don’t you want to work for somebody who’s like blowing up in America?’ And I just had this affinity for K-pop and I was like, ‘Well yeah, I do want to write for American artists, but I also have a passion for this too,” Fontana said.

Bekuh BOOM

Bekuh Boom

Behind: Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” Blackpink’s “Whistle,” “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du,” “Kill This Love,” iKON’s “Goodbye Road”

For all you Blackpink fans, thank Bekuh BOOM for the fact that “Boombayah” is actually pronounced ‘boombayah’ and not ‘boombayay.’

When the 25-year-old songwriter was sent a text by YG Entertainment’s famous producer, Teddy, to help write Blackpink’s debut single, he let her know that he wanted the song’s title to be “Boombayay.” But she read it as “Boombayah,” and that’s how the song that helped Blackpink explode onto the scene was made.

Bekuh started writing songs when she just 10 years old as a way to cope with her parents’ divorce.

“The first song I ever wrote was about my parents’ divorce and it was called ‘I’m Stronger,'” Bekuh said. “Then every time I liked a boy in school or anytime I was going through anything, I would come home, close the door and I would take out notebooks and just write a bunch of songs.”

Despite her talent, Bekuh’s songs failed to catch the attention of American artists. But luckily for her, they did catch the attention of YG Entertainment.

They put her on a plane and brought her to Korea. While she felt shy and out of place, one of the first artists she was able to connect with was Taeyang. He and Bekuh bonded over their shared Christian faith and the next thing she knew, she was writing the chorus to “Eyes, Nose, Lips.”

“When I got that song, in the eyes of the company in Korea, I was a valuable asset,” Bekuh said. “But when it came to America, nobody cared … So I decided to live (in Korea) basically for a year.”

With Bekuh’s songwriting skills, Blackpink became one of the top girl groups in Korea overnight. But Bekuh said she felt the most success with “Kill This Love” because it charted on American iTunes.

“It went all the way to #1 and that was a huge thing for me because basically I had to travel halfway across the world just to get my music played in my own country years later,” Bekuh said. “The place I started out in, nobody believed in me or got my vision … So I feel like I completely owe my whole career to Teddy and YG.”

Bekuh says she has a new song coming out with Jennifer Lopez and is even working on her own EP that she hopes to release sometime this year. But even as she branches out in her career, she said K-pop will always have a special place in her heart.

“(K-pop) has blessed my life in so many ways and has showed me different views and different ways of life,” Bekuh said. “Anytime that Teddy or anyone there needs me, I will drop everything to be there for them because they have completely changed my life for the better.”

Chikk

Chikk

Behind: EXO’s “Overdose,” “Monster,” Girls’ Generation’s “Mr.Mr.,” Taeyeon’s “Why,” Red Velvet’s “Red Dress,” NCT 127’s “Kick It”

Rodnae “Chikk” Bell was already writing for big US names such as Iggy Azalea, Jordin Sparks and Jennifer Hudson in her first year of songwriting. So when her publisher asked her if she wanted to go to Korea, she was skeptical.

“I was like, ‘Why?’ But that publisher just had an ear and he’s like, ‘I think you’ll do really well there.’ I honestly didn’t think I would, but it was a free trip and they said they’d feed me so I said, ‘I’ll go,'” Chikk said.

Chikk flew to Korea in 2013 and despite it being her first time in a foreign country working with foreign artists, she came back home having written two major hits — EXO’s “Overdose” and “Mr.Mr.” for Girls’ Generation.

“I left with two #1’s and I was like, ‘Whoa, maybe I actually am good,'” Chikk said. “Now, I’m averaging almost four trips a year.”

Chikk (right) with Lay of K-pop group EXO.

Chikk mirrored what Yip of the Stereotypes said about how American pop artists want repetition in their music while K-pop artists want more complex melodies and changes within their music. Chikk said the reason for it traces back all the way to the Korean War.

With a large number of US troops stationed in South Korea during the war, jazz superstars including Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong held performances there to support the troops. Their music created a “major buzz among the Korean people,” according to the Korean Culture and Information Service.

“So Korea technically, since the rebuild, was built on complex melodies and during that crucial time of coming together as a country, it was built on black music,” Chikk said.

But with black music and culture being such a driving force in the genre, K-pop has also been accused of cultural appropriation.

From K-pop artists sporting dreadlocks and cornrows in their music videos to some even performing with blackface, many K-pop and K-hip hop artists have been slammed for stealing from black culture or being downright racist.
South Korea, however, is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world, so Chikk says the artists and entertainment companies are still learning to find that “happy medium” between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

Chikk said what hurts more than seeing K-pop artists being accused of cultural appropriation is the lack of credit that’s being given to songwriters.

“I remember once hearing years ago that you will never see any artists of color on the Korean charts. That’s what an executive in Korea told me,” Chikk recalled. “But when I looked around, everyone was of a different race writing the song. I think that is what hurts and what we’re fighting for. Inclusivity in the acknowledgment of who’s really helping these artists be who they are.”

Chikk, who just released her own debut song titled “Happy Now,” said she’s currently working on her own music to which she hopes to bring some of the “Korean flair” she learned while working in K-pop.

“I found a part of myself across the world in another country,” Chikk said. “K-pop has given me this sense of identity and told me that I was born to do great things.”

Correction: This story has been updated to give a more accurate size comparison for North and South Korea.



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