The producer Steve Aoki has fond memories of his
first meeting with the seven-man K-pop ensemble BTS. “We got a big old
Bluetooth boombox, huddled around it and just jammed,” Aoki recalls.
“The last time I saw them in L.A., I gave [the rapper] RM my hoodie; he
gave me his jacket. We were doing the Aoki jump together. Right off the bat, we
were in sync – the language barrier didn’t stop us in any way.”
Aoki plays an important role in the BTS story: In 2017, he crafted a caffeinated, clap-happy remix of the group’s “Mic Drop” that became their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. Suddenly American listeners realized that one of the most popular groups on the planet came from the other side of the globe. The American music industry took notice too: After Aoki left BTS’ house in Los Angeles, he ran into the singer Halsey on her way to meet them. And all this took place well before pre-sales of BTS’ latest album, Love Yourself: Tear, were reportedly close to 1.5 million copies. For comparison’s sake, it was noteworthy last year when Taylor Swift pre-sold more than 400,000 units in the U.S.
Due to the fervor of BTS’ fanbase – when introducing the ensemble at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, host Kelly Clarkson struggled to make herself heard over the crowd’s anticipatory shrieks – the group’s label, Big Hit Entertainment, stays mum about its operations. Big Hit refused an interview request on the grounds that it wants “to protect our staff members’ daily lives from potential bothering from fans.” Perhaps that’s not unreasonable: “I worked with Beyoncé for two years – I was her engineer, her mixer, I travelled with her around the world – and never once saw fandom like this,” says DJ Swivel, who produced BTS’ April single “Euphoria” and co-wrote a pair of songs on Love Yourself: Tear.
As BTS’ profile has grown, they’ve worked more with people like DJ Swivel, behind-the-scenes
figures from the worlds of U.S. and U.K. pop. These ocean-hopping
collaborations intensified on 2016’s Wings, which featured writing from Tricky Stewart (Beyoncé, Rihanna), Sam Klempner (Emeli Sande, Niall Horan) and Tony Esterley (Sia). Love Yourself: Tear includes the highest percentage of songs with U.S. and U.K. co-writers – seven out of 11 – of any BTS project to date. “I think them coming over and working with producers, writers, mixers from the U.S. market has been part of their strategy in making their crossover happen,” DJ Swivel says.
Speaking with several of these writers offers a window into BTS’ process. (Though there is a level of secrecy around these collaborations as well, with one writer commenting, “I feel like I would get in a ton of trouble if I told you too much.”) While some K-pop labels are fond of bringing ace writers out for hyper-productive writing camps – the Stereotypes’ Jonathan Yip, for example, recalls penning four songs a day during trips to South Korea for SM Entertainment – BTS collaborations are mostly done remotely. Sometimes the group obtains pre-written instrumentals, including Stewart’s beat for “BTS Cypher Pt. 4” and “Euphoria,” which DJ Swivel wrote primarily with Candace Sosa. BTS kept their track mostly intact, aside from adding what he describes as “the ‘hey yay eh yay eh yay’ vocal in the post-chorus.”
For Love Yourself: Tear, BTS instead decided to send DJ Swivel tracks that he used as the basis for vocal melodies. (This is known as toplining.) One of those songs was “Love Maze,” an astute distillation of Nineties rap and R&B. The other was “Magic Shop,” which has a synthesizer part that seems like a blatant homage to the Chainsmokers. Since DJ Swivel has worked extensively with the Chainsmokers in the past, he was highly qualified to help with this record. He hopped on Skype with Sosa and “threw melodies around”; she laid down a guide vocal. Some of the English lyrics in the song – “So show me/I’ll show you” – were written during those Skype sessions and appeared on the final version of the song. Many of the other lyrics and the rap parts were rewritten in South Korea.
Just as Big Hit picked DJ Swivel to work on a Chainsmokers-like track, the label reached out to Ali Tamposi to write over the Latin-inflected beat for “Airplane pt. 2” because she had already enjoyed success in this space: Tamposi co-wrote Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” She brought in frequent collaborators Liza Owen and Roman Campolo. They were given specific instructions, according to Owen: “[BTS] wanted something that explained their journey, coming from nothing and now flying from country to country.”
Campolo laid down the first melodic ideas for “Airplane pt. 2.” “[BTS] are an amalgamation of everything that’s happening in American pop music, and they bring equal amounts of enthusiasm to it all,” he says. “The possibilities as a writer are endless.” In the end, the three writers came up with a track that sashays between rich singing and blunt, staccato raps. “BTS matched every one of our melodies impeccably,” adds Tamposi.
While the group often stitches together toplines from afar, the mixing process requires more back and forth, and BTS’ team sends detailed notes to make sure the sound is perfectly pitched to their specifications. “I remember there were many times when we were working on records and I would think, ‘Do these guys ever sleep?'” says Sam Klempner, who’s been mixing the group’s music with James Reynolds since 2013. “We’d deliver a mix, and they’d be up again after maybe an hour’s sleep giving us points of revision.”
This attention to detail is not surprising; BTS albums are intricate affairs. “They’re trying more than pop [acts] usually try – it’s quite ambitious musically,” says Irish singer-songwriter Orla Gartland, who helped out with the melody of “134340.” The instrumental for that song includes flute passages and nimble bass work that suggest the adventurous wing of Seventies funk. “You don’t hear instruments like that in pop at that level,” Gartland adds. “[BTS] make bold moves.”
That boldness can boost BTS’ collaborators as well. Aoki, for example, was able to play against type on “The Truth Untold,” the Love Yourself: Tear cut he produced. “I made a song that’s totally unexpected,” he says happily. “When people see ‘Mic Drop,’ they’re like, ‘OK, that’s a Steve Aoki banger.’ This is a ballad; the drop only happens at the very end. ”
For a group that often leans towards maximalism, “The Truth Untold” is a surprising turn, a showcase for the naked voice that is perhaps the sparest song the group has ever recorded. “BTS are coming stronger on the melodic tip now,” says Tricky Stewart, who has continued submitting music to the group since 2016, though he did not land a cut on Love Yourself: Tear. “It’s more digestible for the U.S. market.”
Sure enough, American listeners are increasingly willing to engage with BTS. On Sunday, the group won the Billboard Music Awards’ Top Social Artist honor – for the second year in a row – and performed their new single “Fake Love.” It’s one of BTS’ most impressive accomplishments, a track that could seemingly appeal to a wide coalition of listeners: fans of Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” or mid-2000s Dashboard Confessional, along with anyone who tunes in to Top 40 radio hunting for sugary melodies.
In the U.S., the “Fake Love” video has been one of the top 10 most-popular YouTube clips and one of the 30 most popular tracks on Spotify since Friday. It’s written by BTS member RM along with Big Hit founder “Hitman” Bang and longtime BTS producer Pdogg: It turns out that this group might not need American writers to conquer American pop after all.