And that anything can be beautiful. Yaeji – Kathy Yaeji Lee, but really just Yaeji – is a rising New York-based DJ whose hypnotic house-inflected tunes have found their way around the globe in the past year.
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People who like Yaeji might also like these artists. For a minute I got really into this Korean DIY scene of making your stamps out of erasers and drawing your own stickers and selling them online,” she says. The music associated with it was bossa nova, like jazz music, and certain Korean indie bands at the time.” She would visit small storefronts in Seoul where people associated with this culture would sell their stickers and stamps, and this music would be playing at the small pop-up retailers.
But that mystery is part of her charm, and now, on her second full release, ‘EP 2′ – the NYC-based producer, singer and rapper is finally uncorked. Take ‘Raingurl’, for example, a pop-house banger that’ll soon dominate your Friday night seshes – in which we see her effortlessly splice her heavenly Korean and English vocals.
Thematically lots of things overlap. There’s a real sense of freedom. You can really be whoever you want to be in this game, everyone starts from zero. You can choose your race, gender, rank and either a merchant, fighter or an explorer. But what’s interesting is throughout the game you can change any of those by going on quests, which I thought was amazing! And I never thought about it as a child, but it was really ahead of its time.
This was the anime to watch in my middle school in Korea. One Piece generated lunchtime conversations and friendships and took me away from the real world. The anime, and the manga from which it’s adapted, takes place in this fabricated world where pirates travel in search of treasure, money, and fame. I recently discovered that there are now over eight hundred episodes, and that it’s been running for almost twenty years (!!). I’m genuinely excited that we can age together.
An ocean-deep strain of house, hip hop, and subversive pop is making sweaty walls bang from New York to Seoul and beyond. Yaeji (Kathy Yaeji Lee) is a Korean-American DJ and visual artist with a fervent DIY aesthetic and quiet confidence – instead of trying to scrape the wallflowers from the club’s dark corners, Yaeji tends to their vines and blooms.
In terms of what I’m interested in music-wise, it’s the same. I’m still interested in really left-field, underground weird-weird music that you can dance to. And a lot of that is being played right now in Brooklyn, so I’m still very much inspired by that at the roots of it all. But touring through America especially, I’ve unintentionally taken on this persona onstage where I’m more lively, dancing, moving and singing. That’s making me realize that maybe some of my production can lean into that as well. I’ve always been a huge fan of pop music in general, so I’m taking notes from contemporary pop musicians I’m into.
This is a tough question. I feel like my production is so different than my DJ sets. As Yaeji, an artist, it’s hard to pick one. I’ve heard I’m kinda R&B influenced house or down-tempo pop. I can see why and I agree with that. My DJ sets are more aggressive, definitely darker. Not as personal. More dance tools. My strongest background is hip-hop and R&B so I started DJing with that. I really like those elements that exist in house music. House is very soulful and from its origins does have ties to hip hop. It’s very human but also very dance floor appropriate. So I guess I live in that realm.
My relationship with New York is a little confusing: I was born here but I don’t really remember that time too well. I’m a little shy from calling myself a New Yorker in that sense, but since I’ve been back, my connection to New York has been so, so deep and intimate, specifically with Brooklyn. When I tour, I try not to forget that, and that my music was mostly influenced by what I encountered here in Brooklyn. For my tour, it felt significant to me to bring DJs who are friends of mine, who came up in the Brooklyn scene. I had one for each leg of the tour. That was really huge for me, because I would hear them spin before me, and I would get into the energy they had built up to perform my set. In that sense, it felt like home, which was really soothing.
Yaeji: I kind of see being a woman producer in the same way I view Pittsburgh. It’s a small city and there aren’t a ton of people but I think one of the pros you get out of it is that there are all these great people doing very different realms of music that show you there are so many different avenues you can take. And since they’re kind of their own thing because there aren’t as many people here, they dig deep and are experts in it. I think that’s cool. New York is such a different beast. It’s hard to even compare. A lot of things become very numbing there because it’s oversaturated all the time. It definitely made me realize a lot about my gender and race. It’s the most accentuated it’s ever been. It’s such a topic of discussion which is great. This kind of conversation happens a lot which made me learn a lot about it.
This year I’m taking it easy—I’m going to devote a lot of my time and energy to writing. I have stuff that sounds like a continuation of One More and EP2, but at the same time, I have a lot of things that are more emotion-based, not as highly produced but really emotionally connecting music. I am also planning an event for the local Brooklyn community that’ll happen late summer, but nothing’s concrete yet. I’m trying to stay rooted in this community that really feels me, and also understand ways that I can give back.
That’s actually been a really funny experience for me. My Korean wasn’t exactly conversational or meant to be heard by other Korean friends, so a lot of it is phrased quite awkwardly. And then it reached Korean audiences, and at first, I was so embarrassed because I was like, damn, this isn’t actually a secret code. This is just my diary. But they take it in a positive way. They’re like, “Oh, she’s really poetic,” which I’m grateful for.
A year later, Yaeji and I were both performing in the Serpentine Galleries’ Park Nights programme in London. The genuine warmth I felt from her and her crew was affirmed when my collaborator, Shy One and I, were invited to New York to open for the last leg of her One More tour. There, the familiar feeling began to make sense. In Yaeji, I recognized an artist who has made a conscious effort to surround herself with a community that values and sees her as much as she sees them.
It’s an steady indication for the night’s flow — Yaeji builds then retreats, jumping out in front of the crowd to rap and dance before returning behind the decks. She regularly lets songs fade completely before beginning the next, or following crowd-favourites like ‘Guap’ by grabbing a mic-stand to perform ballad ‘feelings change’.
Yeah! I started in Pittsburgh. At the end of my sophomore year of college, I joined the Carnegle Mellon University radio station WRCT 88.3 and met all these people into crazy music. I didn’t really grow up with music. A lot of it was being filtered. It hit me all at once. I was completely immersed. I skipped class and kept producing and DJing. All of this is so fresh to me – every show, every conversation. I learn so much. And opposite of you, I’m really interested in learning more about noise bands and punk. I want to go to these shows live. From what I gather, the energy is actually quite similar to techno raves. I love that connection between totally different sounding scenes. They are connected.
Having wrapped up a sweeping summer tour, electronic experimental artist Yaeji is embarking on a run of fall tour dates. The Korean American artist, Kathy Yaeji Lee, is building a rapidly growing following for music that dives head first into themes of Korean identity, the value of therapy, and artistic creation.
In Korean I’m a bit more nuanced and sexy I think, more metaphorical and contemplative. When I sing in English, sometimes I think it sounds tacky or I’m embarrassed, because when I try to say straightforward things it just doesn’t feel right, versus in Korean I can do that freely. It’s almost like I have another persona.
Her family, who know her as Kathy Yaeji Lee, are behind the back and forth” background that’s let to the culturally diverse character of her music. She was born and raised in America until the age of 5, when her family relocated back to South Korea.
The DJ and music producer, born Kathy Yaeji Lee, created a minimalist scene, yet lured the crowd in with her prominent beats, which synced with the dramatic lighting. The early stages of her set began with her famed tracks One More and Drink I’m Sippin On. The crowd witnessed Yaeji’s vivid animation of dance moves, bringing to life her own mechanical rhythms. She effortlessly engaged with her fans, gesturing them to feel and move freely, as both sides mutually fuelled each other’s energy.
Our last show in Asia was Seoul, in Korea. My whole family was there, my grandparents were sitting side stage with The Queens who were performing for a few songs, side by side. Really crazy worlds clashing, but also so harmonious at the same time. Just tears of joy, I could not stop crying at the end of the set because I was so happy, and I was talking to everyone in Korean, and I’ve never got to do that. That was mind blowing. Like Wow I can talk to you in this language I talk and dream and sing in sometimes.” This is a side of me I don’t get to let out as much, only in my music, and that happens in a studio and I’m alone. And otherwise with family when I’m on the phone. I feel really happy right now coming back from that experience.
The 25-year-old put the up-tempo music on hold for her soulful rendition of Drake’s Passionfruit, which helped her rise to fame in 2017. During this, the audience stopped their dance moves and instead raised their phones to film her stunning acoustics.
A year after I moved back to New York from Pittsburgh, I was invited to play Technofeminism, a night organized by Emma Burgess-Olson (aka Umfang), one of the three founders of Discwoman, and Bailey Hoffman (aka Beta Librae). I will never forget it. I felt like I could play any type of weird music I loved in a space where people could dance open-mindedly. As a collective, booking agency, and event platform, Discwoman has helped pave a way not only for underrepresented DJs but also for the listeners, dancers, and participants who want to feel welcome and safe at clubs.
Listening to Yaeji’s music is like having someone whisper in your ear in the middle of a crowded club. Combining deep, rumbling subs with the softest of vocals, it’s exhilarating and soothing at the same time. The combination wasn’t intentional. I was pretty shy about using my voice, because I don’t think of myself as an amazing singer,” the 24-year-old explains, speaking (softly) on the phone from Brooklyn. So me singing quietly came from that.” But what began as a by-product of her own self-doubt ended up perfectly suiting the duality of her music, which takes elements of house and techno and drapes gentle melodies over the top; the kind of songs, she says, that make you want to dance your soul out until sunrise”. She has got two EPs out – Yaeji and EP2 , both released this year – and has already landed a spot on the BBC Sound of 2018 longlist.
Before anything, Yaeji gives me a tour of the place, which she shares with four ceramicists and a graffiti painter. Passing over a few unfinished canvases in her corner of the space, she takes care to talk about the work of each of her studio mates, making the case for their art with a genuine enthusiasm. It’s a moment that reflects something central about Yaeji’s character. She cares deeply about her friends and collaborators; it’s an ethic rooted in a longstanding commitment to kinship and community.
Childhood and adolescence saw her bunny-hopping through NY borough Queens, Atlanta, and Korea, but the artist found her home in Brooklyn’s thriving creative scene. There, she’s well-known for nights that serve Japanese curry to dancers alongside the melodic, soul-hugging dance music.
Yaeji’s Instagram handle is @kraejiyaeji, a fitting yet ironic moniker for the rising artist considering her soft-spoken but hard-hitting way of singing, rapping, and producing beats. The electronic producer has shaken the music world with a distinct sound, meshing house and trap beats with witty one-liners and sullen whispers that can shock, in both English and Korean. Her catchy singles like “Raingurl” and “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” make her a member of our Class of 2018. Read on as Yaeji answers our questions about her ambitions, the music world, and the causes that she holds dear to her heart.
Across her 2016 debut and last year’s EP2, Yaeji’s stunning narrative glides from Korean to English, exploring her own identity, despotic beauty standards, jubilant love, and corrosive depression. Drink I’m Sippin’ On”, a remix of Drake’s Passionfruit”, and the mesmerising Raingurl” video are just some of the high notes from an embryonic career that’s garnered fans in Grimes and Charli XCX.
Sometime toward the end of college, I fell deep into gradients. The gradient allowed me to choose more than one color, and therefore convey more than one idea. Gradients are ambiguous, like a gray area. Like things in life, nothing is quite black or white. An artist I followed closely at the time was Rafaël Rozendaal, whose use of the internet as a medium was superfresh and aesthetically interesting. Recently, I’ve been enjoying the Korean Minimalist Lee Ufan’s way with color.
Yaeji’s music is an invitation into an intimate, healing, world exploring cultural identity and self-reflection through dreamlike house productions that morph from whispery confessionals to dancefloor burners.
There’s a sad undercurrent to the EP that comes to the fore right as it ends, but this subtle sentimentality is part of what brings Yaeji’s music to life and makes EP2 a mesmerizing release. Most of all, what’s most evident here is that Yaeji’s reign is just beginning.
You won’t have heard anything like Kathy Yaeji Lee’s music before. The 24-year-old combines English and Korean lyrics with deep house beats to create an entrancing sound that works equally well in the club and your headphones.
Though she’s now signed with L.A.’s Godmode, her sound sits within a more global movement: lo-fi house. Yaeji’s output shares commonalities with other up-and-comers like DJ Boring, Ross from Friends, and Mall Grab, but her cover of the latter’s Guap” from earlier this year is a great illustration of what exactly puts Lee in a league of her own. Yaeji ‘s work circumvents many typical house trappings—like, say, repetitiveness to the point of making your eyes gloss over—thanks to what feels like a signature playfulness. She has a minimalist’s ear, curating the details in each of her songs to an impeccable degree, but she also knows how to keep things interesting with ornamental textures, layered vocals, and a hip-hop- and R&B-inspired touch. Altogether, it’s no wonder she’s able to capture the attention of those well outside the EDM scene.