Seoul Train

A Korean pop mogul with a thing for Berry Gordy has invaded New York, and he's brought a stable of potential stars with him

"I like Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, and Beyoncé," she manages to say. She's wearing a black mini-dress and four-inch platform pumps. All three artists agree that working with Park has its pluses and minuses. "Sometimes I look at him like a brother," says G-Soul, 18. "Other times, he's real strict."

When G-Soul admits that he thinks some of American hip-hop music is "stupid," Park pats him on the thigh, a subtle warning that his choice of words is incorrect. G-Soul looks down at his hands. "I tell my kids that after your third album with me, I'll respect your opinion," Park says. "Until then, you do what I say."

A classically trained pianist since age four, Park majored in political science at Yousei University, one of South Korea's top three universities. After working as a backup singer for another top Korean artist in the early 1990s, Park went solo with a debut album, Blue City, in 1994.

Magic touch: music producer Jin Young Park
photo: Kate Lacey
Magic touch: music producer Jin Young Park

He claims that many of his lyrics were "banned" for sexual content—but today, he says, the Korean government considers him a top export and representative of the "Korean Wave." His artists, meanwhile, have put out 23 albums, 18 of which have gone to No. 1 in Asia.

Park says that 90 percent of JYP's music sales are digital downloads. He refers to CDs as "souvenirs." To insure a larger distribution of digital music, in 2002 Park sold half of his company to SK Telecom, Korea's top mobile-communications company. The deal means that all of JYP's music is made available on the largest digital platform in Korea, including its music site, which according to Park is light-years ahead of iTunes. Park estimates that sales at his company are increasing by 20 percent each year.

But he misses his own performing days: After he's done building his American empire, he says he'll return to the studio and then finish his career touring.

Park prides himself on only sleeping five hours a night, but he looked exhausted as he sat in the studio late one night, feverishly fine- tuning a demo for J Lim. He was flying to Chicago the next day to play J Lim and G-Soul's music for R. Kelly, the r&b king currently under indictment for soliciting a minor for child pornography, who Park says has taken an interest in working with his young artists.

This isn't Park's first foray into the American music scene. Park moved to Los Angeles three years ago with samples of his work; he wanted to see if he could sell his music and produce songs for American artists. In less than a year, he'd sold songs to Will Smith, r&b songstress Cassie, and rapper MA$E. "All the songs I did placed on albums. I was the first Asian to sell music to top artists," he boasts, but it's difficult to confirm his claim. "This made me and my board members comfortable to make the move to America."

He knows that part of his challenge is getting Americans to be more receptive to the outside world. "American people think that this is the world," he says. "In baseball, you call it the World Series. That's weird to us. In the movie Mars Attacks, they go to the White House to surrender." He shakes his head in bewilderment at the American ego. "If America really opened its eyes to the world, it would help them to be a true leader."

To find the young and talented, Park holds open auditions each year in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. Each audition brings out between 1,000 and 5,000 kids, who are quickly whittled down to only 10 to 12. The chosen few are then moved from their homes to a JYP training facility where, for the next six months to several years, they constantly train, working on their singing, dancing, and acting—and also learning a second language of Park's choice. Only one in 10 make it through the training process.

The hopefuls: JYP trainees G-Soul, Min, and J Lim with CEO Park
photo: Kate Lacey
It's something like American Idol, but extended over several years, and Park is the only judge.

For the first round of his U.S. gambit, Park has placed his bets on a cherubic 16-year-old named Min. The pop and r&b singer has been training with him for four years, the last three in Los Angeles and New York.

"I've spent over $500,000 on Min," Park tells the Voice. Confident that South Korean techniques are about five years ahead of the American music industry, Park has looked for local partners to bring along. For Min's first album, Park has teamed up with the King of Crunk, Lil Jon.

"It's kind of like Fame, but it's on a different level," says Lil Jon, who plans to release Min's album in the late fall. "That's a lot of patience and a lot of vision. You have to see that talent way in advance. . . . When we first got in the studio together, [Park] came with all of his stuff together; there was no half-ass-ness at all. He's a stand-up guy."

Park knows that the gradual preparation of artists is something American labels no longer have patience for. One example he offers is the fate of the rapper Mims, who had a huge success with the single "This Is Why I'm Hot."

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