In recent years, Korean popular culture has surged in popularity around the world. K-dramas such as Squid Game have smashed Netflix streaming records, and Korean cinema is receiving long overdue respect with Parasite becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
But bigger than all of that is the impact Korean culture has had in the world of popular music. K-Pop is taking on the world. More and more K-Pop artists are getting the recognition they deserve and receiving their flowers, fuelled by inter-genre collaborations with some of western music’s biggest names.
With the rise in popularity of K-Pop, it was inevitable that producers around the world would start to take note, and begin to get involved. These days, though South Koreans are still the primary producers of K-Pop, international producers from around the world are behind some of the biggest songs in the genre.
In this article we’re going to explore the rise of K-Pop, how the international community embraced it, and how K-Pop uses sampling to great effect.
K-Pop really started becoming big on the international music scene around 2020, but of course, within South Korea it has been a phenomenon for a long time, and over the last 70+ years of popular western music, K-Pop has made a sizable splash.
Way back in the 1950s, the first South Korean pop group to receive international recognition was the Kim Sisters, a female trio of vocalists and multi instrumentalists who wowed American audiences with their 22 appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Kim Sook-ja, Kim Ai-ja, and Kim Min-ja weren’t English speakers, but performed phonetically in English. Their sheer talent and stage presence is incredible to this day, and would lay the groundwork for the high level of showmanship and musical talent displayed by contemporary K-Pop artists.
In the 1990s Seo Taiji and Boys would push the style of music that would become the global phenomenon of K-Pop. They began merging western popular music with Korean music to create a new sound. They also impressed with choreographed dancing, which is now a staple of modern K-Pop.
At this stage, however, the label of K-Pop didn’t exist. But the exciting style of music needed a name of its own, and so the term K-Pop was born.
The first wave of K-Pop started in the 90s and would roll over into the early 00s with notable artists including H.O.T, and Sechs Kies. These were the first highly manufactured true K-Pop stars.
From the 00s into the 2010s, K-Pop would become more and more popular, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the genre’s first true watershed moment occurred on a global scale.
Psy’s 2012 global hit Gangnam Style was a true tipping point in how K-Pop would go on to be received by western audiences. For many this was the first time they had heard a non-English track on the radio, let alone a Korean track.
Gangnam Style would go on to be a number one chart-topping track in the UK, and would peak at number two on the Billboard charts. Incredibly, the music video – with its distinctive horse riding dance routine – would be the first video ever to hit one billion views. Now, over a decade later it has nearly five billion views, and remains a cultural touchstone for many.
Fast forward five years and it was the turn of seven piece boy band BTS to have their watershed moment. The Bangtan Boys (as they commonly referred to) made their US TV debut performing their single ‘DNA’ to much internet hysteria.
Since then BTS have become formidable mainstays of Western popular culture.
By this point K-Pop was already big business. But strangely, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 that K-Pop would begin to reach its highest commercial heights. From 2020 through to 2023, K-Pop would see astronomical growth and go on to become a $230 million per year export for South Korea.
Though K-Pop is known for its original Korean stars, many songwriters and producers from around the world have become involved in the industry and have contributed to its biggest hits. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable names.
LDN Noise are a music production duo hailing from London, England consisting of Greg Bonnick and DJ Hayden Chapman. The pair have been active since 2012 and have worked with a plethora of big-name western artists over the years, including Nick Jonas, Nathan Sykes, and Chris Brown.
However, the duo are most prolific in the world of K-Pop where they have been working since 2014. LDN Noise’s many K-Pop credits include work with Boys Republic, Astro, AleXa, and Nmixx and the pair have been hailed as some of the hidden heroes of K-Pop by the Korea Times.
Alawn has some impressive production credits, having previously worked with Snoop Dogg, Gucci Mane, Paul Wall and Boyz II Men. However, much like LDN Noise, Alawn has made himself a much sought after producer amongst South Korean artists. He first started producing K-Pop after being invited to a writing camp in Seoul with SM Entertainment who boast artists such as Red Velvet and Exo.
Alawn himself has worked on NCT 127’s Punch (Billboard #1 Album), SuperM’s 100 (Billboard #1 Album), Victon’s Mayday, KAI’s mega-hits Mmmh and Peaches, and WayV’s Kick Back. To learn more about one of K-Pop’s most sought-after artists of today, check out our article “How K-Pop is Produced – from a K-Pop Professional”, where Alawn offered his insights as a professional K-Pop producer.
Swedish songwriter, producer and singer Max Martin is true pop music royalty. He is one of Taylor Swift’s favourite producers to work with. Martin also has credits with the likes of Britney Spears, Céline Dion, and The Weeknd, having co-written the global smash hit Can’t Feel My Face.
Martin worked on Coldplay and BTS’s 2021 single My Universe providing his legendary production services for the Korean and British pop stars.
Martin is one of many Swedish producers and songwriters who have begun pivoting from US pop to the incredibly lucrative world of K-Pop. There are even South Korean record labels who have studios in Stockholm with Swedish producers on their payroll.
Like much of the western music it is influenced by, many K-Pop tracks feature creative sample use from other pop songs. Here we’ve put together a few of our favourite examples.
If you want to make K-Pop using royalty-free samples, be sure to check out Loopcloud and its four million royalty-free samples available to members.
IVE – After LIKE
Upon first listen, this is a well-polished contemporary house production that would work as well on prime-time Radio One as it would at an Ibiza pool party. Those unmistakable Korg M1-style house chords provide some familiarity to anyone who’s heard any of the UK’s pop offering in recent years. The real star of the nostalgia-show comes during the post-chorus instrumental section; the well-implemented sample of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive elevates the already-energetic chorus to new heights.
The element of fusion that is so closely associated with K-Pop becomes particularly apparent at the end of the second chorus. Along with the house piano chords and Gloria Gaynor sample, IVE delivers a quick rap verse. On paper, this combination of elements is hardly a match made in heaven, but in true K-Pop style it works on a musical level.
Agust D – Agust D
Between the 70s string sample in the previous example and the 60s brass and vocal sample in this one, there’s a real theme emerging here. In his self-titled track, Agust D sampled James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World to support the trap-style percussion and effects.
The combination of contemporary hip-hop drums with the classic 60s brass tones are nothing new, but the grunge-esque delivery of the vocals make for a unique overall aesthetic. Once again, it’s a mix of styles that you might not expect to come across, but it somehow works in its own K-Pop way.
LE SSERAFIM – UNFORGIVEN (feat. Nile Rodgers)
If we needed any more evidence to suggest that K-Pop producers have an exceptional ear for sampling, it’s this track from LE SSERAFIM featuring none other than Chic’s Nile Rodgers. Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the internationally recognised main title song of the movie with the same name. So how does that fit into a heavily trap-influenced K-Pop track?
Remarkably, it works extremely well as an underlying background melody during the chorus. In the earlier choruses, the fluttering flute sample is pitched down, while it remains at its original register in the later choruses. The feelings of tension and apprehension that are associated with the sample lend themselves to the long pause and near silence in the middle of the composition. As a genre, K-Pop and its top producers clearly aren’t afraid to experiment with sounds and styles in order to create an exciting and innovative new style of their own.
What does a producer do in K-Pop?
Producers are responsible for building the beat in a K-Pop song, and establishing how the musical elements and the vocals all fit together in the final recording.
Is there a Chinese version of K-Pop?
Yes there is! It’s called C-pop. Japan also has J-pop.
Is there a K-Pop idol from UK?
Almost all K-Pop singers and stars are South Korean, however, there are many producers involved in K-Pop from the UK such as LDN Noise, and Alawn.