A Dive Into The SEA

On a recent night at club Air, there was a mysterious figure wandering around with his hood up tight all night, eyes hidden behind wrap-around sunglasses and a thin red utility vest strapped around his jacket. He could easily be mistaken for another one of the artists on the lineup, and he did indeed pick up the mic at one point, but he’s here in Bangkok on a much larger mission: to help take Thai music to the international stage. His name is Danny Chung, and he’s recently uprooted a very comfortable life in Seoul to move here and help spearhead that goal on behalf of THEBLACKLABELβ€”creative home to ubiquitous superstars BLACKPINKβ€”and their new Thai company THEBLACKSEA.

Danny is a music head, through and through. “At heart, I’m a rap nerd,” he says proudly. He grew up in and around Philadelphia, taking music lessons as a young child like many other Asian Americans, but nothing stuck until he discovered hip hop. He had a successful career as a rapper, able to build a lifestyle around dropping albums and touring. “Every college has an Asian club that we’d visit on tour. That was our bread and butter.” Hip hop was a part of his everyday life, and he loved everything about it, from battle raps to freestyling at the lunch table. But he was lowkey also a big pop fan. “I really liked stuff like NSYNC, although maybe not publicly back then. And I was a fan of the first generation of K pop.”

As a Korean American, Danny would visit Seoul yearly and he even charted as an artist there with the help of guest verses from Jay Park and other famous acts. His career hit new heights when he became a songwriter for THEBLACKLABEL under the guidance of iconic producer Teddy Park. When they first met, Teddy offered him a chance to write a verse for a song they were working on but only gave him 20 minutes to do so. A year later, his verse would end up on the chart-topping track by CL, “Hello Bitches.” Eventually, he moved to Seoul and became an official member of THEBLACKLABEL family. “I mostly write the raps, but also top lines, pre-choruses, and melodies. They really lean into me for the raps and English lyrics.” He’s got credits on over a dozen BLACKPINK songs and more.

Songwriting wasn’t something Danny ever expected to do. “I didn’t know enough about the industry when I was younger to even know I could be a songwriter. The only lane I thought I could go with this skillset was to be an artist, so I was touring, playing out albums,” he says of the revelation this could be a career path for him. “My biggest flaw was that I was too versatile. That sounds like a good thing, but really I didn’t have a sound, an identity. I was doing hardcore rap records, street shit because I’m from Philly. I was doing real pop records, like love songs. I wanted to show off my versatility. The audience doesn’t know who you are. But that flaw of versatility as an artist is a feature of a songwriter.”

The process for songwriting and producing is a global affair with many people working on a variety of songs at once. The building at YG (which THEBLACKLABEL works closely with and shares space with) is filled with studios. “Everyone has their own in-house studio. It’s an incubator for music. 80 percent of the building is studios,” Danny says. Most of the time, they’ll bring him in when they need a specific style of rap lyrics. But he’s not just sitting around waiting for them, he’s also writing his own music to pitch and listening to other songs to bring in as an A&R. Sometimes he’ll have an artist in mind when pitching songs but ultimately that’s not his choice. He’s also done writing camps working with songwriters and producers from LA and Sweden where he helps direct what the label is looking for.

“If you listen to our music, we have a lot of artists doing different genres,” Danny explains. “There are so many different genres, it’s kind of a Frankenstein.” There’s hip hop, EDM, R&B, soul music, and more. Many of these genres tend to come from Black communities, and there can be issues of cultural appropriation when it comes to cherry-picking sounds like this. Although there are no Black in-house creatives at THEBLACKLABEL, they have a network of freelancers the label draws from that includes Black artists. “That’s where the music comes from, so of course they should be a part of it. We have a very good relationship with them and we repeatedly go to a lot of the same people. They understand what we’re trying to do and we respect them as much as they do us. Some of them are already mega pop star artists.”

With Jersey club shooting to international fame thanks in part to K pop, Danny wants to draw on artists from the places where it was made. That includes Philadelphia, which has its own regional variant of club music. “We have a new girl group coming up and want to do something new, and I’m definitely interested in bringing these regional artists in. Philly club is the sound of the city right now, and being from there, I still pay very close attention. These guys have cultivated a new sound for Philly.”

Now Danny is in Bangkok for a new chapter in his life as head of content, business, and talent for THEBLACKSEA, THEBLACKLABEL’s new venture into Southeast Asia in partnership with Thai conglomerate CP Group. One of his roles is to be a talent scout, and they’ve already held an audition where they found a new trainee, in true K pop style, who’s now in Seoul learning the ropes. They view Thailand as a place brimming with creativity (this is where LISA is from, after all) but also as a launching pad for the rest of Southeast Asia. “Our goal is to make Thai musicians, celebrities, and personalities global figures in the same way it’s happened with Korean culture.”

So what will that take? In Danny’s eyes, he thinks that a focus on creating rather than performing is an important step. “Even mid-tier artists here can make a pretty good living just performing. But if you’re performing most of the month, what time is left for creativity and making art in the studio?” he asks. “Being too reliant on performing is detrimental to art and culture.” He also sees authenticity as key, which means connecting with Thai culture is a necessary step along the way to reaching the rest of the world. “There was a moment in Korea where they were desperately trying to reach the Western market and they were making a bunch of really forced things that didn’t make any sense. It was blatant that they were simply trying to reach the West. But the music was just not it. I think eventually they knew it was corny and they started making music for themselves and their people. The audience isn’t stupid.” This resonates with everyone, not just locals. But he does think at least some English is absolutely necessary for artists. “It’s not exactly a xenophobic thing, it’s just that it’s really hard to chart unless you’re Bad Bunny. English is the common denominator.” Any artists they sign will be expected to take English classes if they don’t already speak it.

Danny is here for the long haul and says he truly believes in Bangkok. “This city has welcomed me with open arms and I’m very grateful for that,” he says. “There are going to be people that come in with more money and more connections. But I take pride in making these organic relationships with the right people, letting them know that I’m here with a common goal. Whatever it takes. If it takes a decade, I’ll be here. I’ve already been in K pop for ten years, and when I started it definitely wasn’t what it is now. But I had a feeling about it, my intuition told me that something was happening there. I made the right bet. And now I’m betting on Thailand.”