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How American R&B Songwriters Found a New Home in K-Pop

In recent years, mainstream American pop has relied less and less on R&B songwriters. So they took their talents to Korea – and the hits followed

How American R&B Songwriters Found a Home in K-Pop

Read why K-Pop artists are enlisting American R&B experts to write and produce hit singles.

Claude Kelly, who has helped craft Grammy-nominated singles for Bruno Mars, Tamia and Ledisi, earned his first publishing deal as a songwriter in 2007. Around the same time, he started to notice dispiriting new constraints in R&B writing sessions. The genre was paring down rapidly to keep pace with hip-hop, deemphasizing melodic complexity and embracing the austere loops and rhythmic cadences that often imbue rap with pummeling power. As a result, Kelly remembers, “Suddenly, I didn’t have to write a bridge anymore.” 

“People would say, leave that 16 bars, and we’ll get a rapper on it so we can make sure it gets on the radio,” continues Kelly. “Things that had a bridge, that were a little slower, that took more time to build and had more than two keyboard sounds, people got afraid of.”

Rap’s minimalist palette still rules much of American pop. But some writers with bridges to spare have found an unexpected – though not unwelcome – refuge in South Korea, where K-pop artists still treasure the songcraft that persisted in R&B’s mainstream until the early 2000s: Meaty chord changes, harmonic richness and a bridge that demands a singer demonstrate range and ad-libbing ability.

During the week of March 24th, the top of Billboard‘s K-Pop 100 chart was dense with homages to American R&B from two decades ago. Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy” (which peaked at Number Two) dips and darts like a vintage single from the group Jade, while Heize’s “Jenga” (which climbed to Number Four) is textbook neo-soul, and MoonMoon’s “Contrail” (which also peaked at Number Two) contains shades of Tamia’s “Officially Missing You.” MeloMance reach even further back on “Gift” (yet another Number Two single), a four-minute mini dissertation on the work of Stevie Wonder.

In a musical marketplace with those reference points, it makes sense that American R&B mavens would be in demand. Teddy Riley, the American singer-songwriter-producer famous for his work with acts like Keith Sweat, Guy and Blackstreet, was one of the first to make the trip to South Korea, flying out in 2009 and establishing a sideline as a New Jack Swing savant for Girls Generation and Jay Park. Another early K-pop convert was Harvey Mason Jr., who once penned hits for Mario, Toni Braxton and Justin Timberlake; more recently, he’s written for BoA, SHINee, TVXQ and EXO, among others.

August Rigo (Musiq Soulchild, Kehlani) made his first journey to write K-pop songs in 2013. He was flown out for a week-long, high-intensity songwriting camp – some writers say they churn out as many as 13 demos in just seven days – by S.M. Entertainment, one of the three major labels in K-pop. “They had a whiteboard there with pictures of all the U.S. producers they were bringing in,” Rigo recalls. “When I got there, I think there were about 10 pictures, and they were all like Harvey, Teddy, R&B O.G.s.” Now, he says, the whiteboard is so packed that you can’t put a new picture on it without covering an old one.

Rigo, who went on to make songs for NCT Dream, Boys Republic and others, has attended K-pop writing sessions several times with the Stereotypes, the production group whose members recently picked up Grammy awards for their work on Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic album. Other visitors to South Korea with K-pop cuts under their belt include Patrick “J Que” Smith (Beyoncé, Usher), Kevin Randolph (who served as Jeremih’s musical director for five years and also has credits on cuts from Jazmine Sullivan and Keyshia Cole) and Rodnae “Chikk” Bell (a protégé of Mason Jr.).

Songwriting camps in South Korea share some characteristics with camps in the U.S. “Our goal is still to write the best song possible,” Bell says. But writers employ a wider array of tools. Priscilla Renea (Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, the K-pop group Girls Generation), says she often faces frustrations in American sessions. “We’ll listen to R&B in the studio to get inspired, turn it on like, ‘That’s so dope!'” she explains. “Then when it comes time to make something, the chords become less colorful, there’s less movement, the beat becomes really basic.” “In the U.S., we like it simple, we like the same melodies repeated,” agrees Bell, who has written hits for EXO, ShinEE and Taeyeon.

In contrast, “Korean pop music likes differentiation and changes,” Bell continues. “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies.” “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there,” adds Randolph, who helped write “Limitless,” a hit for the nine-member boy band NCT127, who were put together by S.M. Entertainment. “You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs.”

K-pop’s attraction to R&B, a style developed by black Americans, has led to charges of cultural theft. On previous occasions, K-pop groups have been criticized for singing the N-word – a controversy that resurfaced recently in different form when the Indonesian rapper formerly known as Rich Chigga used the N-word in his viral hit “Dat $tick” – wearing cornrows and performing in blackface

Though K-pop labels’ interest in working with black American writers does not erase those actions, it remains notable that the K-pop system is at least willing to connect with musicians who have helped shape R&B. The same cannot be said of many English-language pop acts who borrow liberally from the genre. When Adele, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift dabble in R&B, they work with writers – almost always white – from the pop world: Greg Kurstin, Steve Fitzmaurice, Steve Mac or Max Martin.

“Everyone is stealing from R&B; not everyone is giving credit to it,” says Kelly, who also wrote for Girls Generation. “I’m actually happy that the K-pop scene is so unapologetic about giving props to Nineties R&B for its influence – much more than our American pop does, much more than American hip-hop does, much more than American country music does.” 

K-pop’s willingness to acknowledge its debts to R&B leads to an odd phenomenon for the genre’s ace writers – a feeling more familiar to American jazz musicians, who have long been valorized overseas and overlooked in their homeland. “It’s almost like you get more honor outside of your own country for what you do sometimes,” Kelly admits.

That may change, though, because K-pop is becoming increasingly prominent in the U.S. as well. Last October, BTS became the first K-pop group to crack the Hot 100 in the U.S. with “DNA”; two months later, they one-upped themselves by earning the first Top 40 hit for a K-pop ensemble with “Mic Drop.” K-pop clips now routinely appear on YouTube’s ranking of the 100 most popular music videos in the world (recent examples include Momoland’s “BBoom BBoom” and iKon’s “Love Scenario”). And during the week of April 14th, seven of the top eight spots on Billboard‘s Social 50 chart ­– which creates a cross-platform measure of online popularity – were occupied by K-pop acts.

As K-pop’s profile in America continues to increase, it’s possible that some of the harmonies and melodic complexity might trickle back into the U.S. mainstream. “America is responsible for inventing R&B and especially the 1990s R&B hip-hop fusion,” Kelly says. “We’re having this thing now where we are literally being reintroduced to our own stuff. [K-pop acts] are like, ‘Hey, this is the shit that you did that was dope, and we still love it.'”

That could be a boon for American R&B writers and producers who remember how to write a bridge. “Hopefully it allows more K-pop artists, but also more American artists that love R&B, to do R&B,” Kelly adds. “And make a lot of money doing it.”

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