Life & Culture

Meet ONE, the Korean Rapper Doing K-Pop Differently

Once part of a K-Pop idol duo, Jung Jaewon aka ONE is now defining his artistic identity on his own terms, with a fierce independence – here, we meet this rising star

ONE, the 23-year-old rapper, is a rarity in the cut-throat world of South Korean music, where second chances aren’t always easy to come by. K-Pop idol groups come and go in the blink of an eye, and ONE (real name Jung Jaewon) knows this only too well, having made his debut in January 2015 as one half of idol duo 1Punch, which was disbanded that very same summer. For most artists, this would signal a return to everyday life – school, an office job, the army (South Korea has compulsory military service) – but ONE is different. Not only is he now signed to one of the country’s most powerful labels, YG Entertainment (home of WINNER and BIGBANG), he understands who he wants to be as an artist.

“At first, I didn’t want to become a ‘known artist’,” ONE says, looking back at the period of time between the end of 1Punch and joining YG. “I just wanted to become a happy and free artist. But, recently, I realised that that’s the hardest goal to achieve. Even if I fail in becoming a ‘known artist’, I’d definitely want to become a happy person.”

Upon leaving the duo, ONE surfaced on the fourth series of the hugely popular hip hop survival show, Show Me The Money (SMTM), performing in front of skeptical rappers and producers, including K-hip hop legends such as Verbal Jint and Tablo, and young heavy-hitters, Jay Park and Zico. He was eliminated in the sixth episode but it didn’t matter – YG brought him over to the mega-label (who also have sub-labels covering models, clothing brands, sports stars and actors).

heyahe” and “Gettin’ By” were released together; the former is sensuous and intimate, his fans were taken aback by its breathy urgency and suggestive lyrics (“Leave the lights on, I wanna remember everything clearly / Your perfect silhouette when you look back at me”), while the summery “Gettin’ By” shimmers with tinkling, wistful keys as ONE’s resigned, knowing vocal echoes above. “Delivering emotions is what I consider to be most important,” he says. “Some parts of both songs include my own imagination but both are songs that express my genuine feelings; I wrote ‘Gettin’ By’ to express that numb feeling after love and ‘heyahe’ is a song inspired by characters in my favorite movies.”

“Delivering emotions is what I consider to be most important. Some parts of both songs include my own imagination but both are songs that express my genuine feelings” – ONE

Neither song is inherently ‘YG’ – a big sound characterised by brash, clubby hooks that’s come to define the label, due to the fact that most of their output is produced in-house by their regular team of producers. ONE instead turned to in-demand production duo GroovyRoom, and Cha Cha Malone (of Jay Park’s AOMG label). “I’ve worked with a lot of different producers, and those two songs are really tip of the iceberg. I don’t particularly differentiate ‘in-house producers’ with ‘outside producers’. I’m up for anyone if he or she is a producer who can cope with me well,” he says, with ease, despite the significance of a new artist working beyond YG’s clearly defined borders. “I’m sure YG will support me with me anything as long as it concerns making good music!”

ONE may have a firmer grip on his style and aesthetic, but his is a landscape not at all set in stone; the style of his future releases is completely unknown. “My preferences are very susceptible to change, so I can’t guarantee (anything),” he admits, and even struggles to pin down his influences. “This is the most difficult question of all!” he says, finally reeling off The Beatles, Oasis, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and DEUX’s Sung Jae Kim. Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Nirvana, despite having large tattoo of Kurt Cobain. “I just like him,” he explains. “On my right arm, I have a figure of [painter] Mr Lee Jung Seob. There wasn’t a particular reason, I just like them to be on my arms.”

ONE also remains a bit of a mystery. K-Pop’s idols live in dorms and appear regularly on variety shows where they’re encouraged to share stories about each other and open up their personalities, yet ONE is yet to undertake such an appearance. “I need some privacy, so am living by myself,” he says simply. That said, ONE is already a darling of fashion magazines like Dazed Korea and Arena Korea thanks to his long locks, good looks and a brooding inscrutability that’s reminiscent of River Phoenix.

His beauty isn’t always a blessing, despite South Korea’s obsession with image, and ONE’s appearance can take precedence over his music. Towards those who see him rather than hear him he is dryly polite, merely commenting, “Thank you very much. Please keep continuing with the comments, while listening to my music.”

“Rather than categorising myself as an idol or K-Pop star, I want to be ‘ONE’” – ONE

“Rather than categorising myself as an idol or K-Pop star, I want to be ‘ONE’,” he points out. But despite what he’s achieved so far, his knows his career is still in its infancy and he unflinchingly looks forward. “As the artist ONE, I’d want more people to know a little more about me,” he says frankly, “and as Jung Jaewon, I want to be a bit more happier in near future. One thing I can guarantee is that my songs are going to get better and, whatever the process is, my goal this year is to release as many songs as possible.”  

“I became a member of YG because they invited me to be a part of the family. It was at YG that I started learning writing and composing, which eventually helped me find what sorts of music I wanted to make and what kind of person I wanted to be,” he recalls. It was during this time he connected with another of YG’s stars, B.I of boy group iKON, as well as continuing to look up to K-Pop icon, G-Dragon (BIGBANG). “B.I and I used to work on our songs until morning and seeing each other every day made us become close,” ONE says. “G-Dragon is a type of person you would only see in a fiction! There is no artist like him in the world. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him a lot yet, but when I did see him at private events, he seemed very friendly. A very different kind of image from what I expected.”

Rediscovering himself as an artist, however, wasn’t a fast process. K-Pop news sites reported on ONE’s signing, psyching up his burgeoning fanbase for his return, but the young star fell silent. He made another appearance on SMTM in 2016, before disappearing once more. ONE is casual but candid about his absence – “To put it in one phrase, it was a time of ‘searching for my ego’,” he confesses.

It was never going to be easy. YG standards are notoriously high, young musicians and idols are expected to be polished, near immaculate performers before they reach the public eye. His debut with YG was to be their first by a male solo artist in 14 years, something no one was taking lightly, least of all ONE himself. “It’s true that I’m pressured sometimes,” he says of the expectations. “Those pressures stress me out at times, but become motivation to move forward at others.” He had plenty of time to utilise it – his first tracks under YG were only released in July this year. “Honestly, I couldn’t control those times. I simply endured,” he confesses, thinking back to the long wait. “It’s because of those times that I am who I am right now. From now on, I want to work on my music with happy and cool vibes.”