R&B musician Babylon (Babylon Records)
The value of classics lies in its everlastingness, and such a trait shines even brighter at a time when the world seems to evolve too fast while our heart still lingers on the past.
But the past is where our present lies, and South Korean musician Babylon, whose real name is Lee Jong-min, takes listeners on a ride back to the 1990s and 2000s Korean pop music with his latest album “Ego 90’s.”
“Making music, I held onto the one immutable law, that no matter how fast trends change and how much time goes by, the value of classics and the originality never fades,” Babylon said during a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.
Babylon made his solo debut as an R&B musician in 2015 with the single “Pray.” Since then, he has devoted himself to creating music. The singer-songwriter and producer has dropped three full-length albums and more than a dozen singles since, writing the words and composing the melodies to almost all of the songs dropped under his name.
With the 18-track package jam-packed with music created in an homage to early pop music -- and his musical roots -- the artist’s return comes a year and half after his second LP, “Hardy,” that dropped in February 2021.
According to Babylon, he started making “Ego 90’s” in the cold winter of 2020.
“I felt like I was overloaded by too much information and the ceaselessly changing things surrounding me, and I thought, ironically, something analog is what we truly needed in this digital era,” he said.
The ’90s and the 2000s is often considered an era of prosperity and expansion for K-pop music, as more music listeners embraced the diversity of new genres, including contemporary R&B, soul, jazz, ballad, new jack swing, to just name a few. What we now consider as pop music have originated from then on, or perhaps a bit more earlier from the ’80s.
“I also listened to these music much when I was young, and they have stayed with me all along inside my heart, unchanged. And they were original.”
Babylon said the key to this project was in the precise reenactment of the nostalgic sentiment the music brings out.
“The only way to do this was to collaborate with the original musicians, and so I did,” he said.
Track list of Babylon’s full-length album “Ego 90’s” (Babylon Records)
Babylon makes it sound easy, but those singers include Lee Hyo-ri, Park Jin-young (also known as J.Y.P), Uhm Jung-hwa, Kim Beom-soo and Lim Jeong-hee, some of the most experienced and high-profile musicians, who are considered “living legends,” as Babylon put it.
In a fledgling musician’s career, it’s not an easy task to join hands with even one of the musicians, let alone bringing all of them together. But he called them up and visited them one by one, introducing himself and his intentions in producing such an album.
“I think they felt my genuine attitude toward this album, that I wasn’t making it just for the sake of business or stardom, but because I really loved music,” he said.
Adding to the authentic 1990s vibe were the voices of Lee Hyun-do of Deux, Boni, Ann One, Hareem, Uptown, Realslow (formerly known as Wheesung) and Young-jun of Brown Eyed Soul. Other artists featured on the album include hip-hop musicians Dok2 and Kirin, Babylon’s longtime music partner Kyle Lo and singer-songwriters Sam Kim and Kassy.
The LP comes with six lead singles, “Beautiful (feat. Sam Kim),” “Rain (feat. Uhm Jung-hwa),” “Blue Heart (feat. Dok2/prod. Lee Hyun-do of Deux),” “Do or Die (feat. Realslow),” “Missing You (feat. Boni)” and “Call Me Anytime (prod. Lee Hyo-ri).” While most full-length albums come with one or two main songs, Babylon said it was difficult to single out even these six.
“Rain” pays tribute to Uhm Jung-hwa’s 1998 hit song “Invitation,” which Babylon said had influenced him greatly as a musician. The pop diva features her voice in “Rain,” while J.Y.P, the producer of the 1998 dance-pop tune, penned the lyrics.
For “Blue Heart,” Babylon teamed up with rapper Dok2 and Lee Hyun-do of the iconic hip-hop duo Deux. Lee produced the new jack swing song.
Teaming up with comparatively younger musicians, Sam Kim for “Midnight” and Kassy for “Fool Like Me,” Babylon said he wanted it to be a kind of mix-and-match through their collaborations.
“While their voices made the album flow more naturally, the music they did still had to be in line with the original ’90s vibe,” he explained.
Rounding out the album is a song produced by Lee Hyo-ri, “Call Me Anytime.” This marks his third time making music with Lee. They co-produced “Alone,” the lead single of his second full-length album “Hardy,” and then together gifted the song “Good Night My Love” to Soyou, which the singer dropped under her name in March 2021.
Once a K-pop superstar and now a popular TV personality, Lee Hyo-ri has been devoting the second part of her music career outside the spotlight as a songwriter and producer.
About his experience working with producer Lee Hyo-ri, Babylon said, “The presence she had shown as a performer and as a Fin.k.l member was so strong that it overshadows her talents as a songwriter and lyricist. She’s a great producer, and she’s especially skilled in putting her own stories and emotions into words through lyrics.”
“Call Me Anytime,” featuring the voice of Kim Beom-soo, sings of the loneliness people feel amid a busy city life. Through the lyrics, Lee sends warm solace to those people sitting alone in their rooms, watching over the bright and bustling streets, wanting to call someone but are hesitant to.
“I cried reading the lyrics. I didn’t directly ask, but as a superstar I thought it was the loneliness that she had felt herself. Maybe, she is portraying through the song her longing for that outstretched hand when she had felt alone,” he said.
Now a close musical partner to Lee, Babylon said Lee is a sensitive soul who tries hard so that people don’t feel distanced by her fame and stardom.
“She always treats me like a younger brother. She’s very quick witted and is always aware of how I am feeling around her, making the extra effort to make me feel comfortable. I think this is why I could open up to her things that I can’t usually talk about with others.”
Cover image of Babylon’s full-length album “Ego 90’s” (Babylon Records)
According to Babylon, the process of producing “Ego 90’s” has not only been a lesson-filled journey, but also a turning point for him as an artist.
“As they are musicians who have already reached the peak of their careers, regardless of how famous they are, I learned a lot about their lives, their philosophies and the know-hows,” he said. “They make music not from the mind but from the heart, and they are very cautious, especially in treating other people. They all have the respect for others, both as artists and as people. Such lessons have greatly influenced my attitude in making my own music.”
While his album will take those who grew up listening to the songs on a walk down memory lane, Babylon hoped his usual listeners -- those in their teens and 20s -- could be introduced to the good music that had paved the way for his own songs.
“I hope they could understand that, like fashion, music also comes and goes, only to come back again; that as long as we remember them, some things could stay with us forever.”
Babylon said his next album will be the complete opposite: an album packed with songs of the trendiest sounds made in collaboration with the most coveted current artists. He plans to drop the 15-track package around the end of this year.
Asked if he hoped to be remembered if his music was to be re-created 20 years later, Babylon said, “I hope my music had been on those musician’s life journey with them, sharing their emotions. I hope they remember me as someone who made songs that stayed with them during their moments of happiness, sorrow, love and farewell."