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

"His song was No. 1; the album came out and flopped. American record labels are still looking for that one song." To fight off the one-hit-wonder phenomenon, Park has refined what he calls "one source, multi-use." All of his artists have more to offer than music: They craft personalities, hone their acting and dancing skills, and develop fan bases that remain loyal for years.

"I hope American record labels go back to doing things this way," says Park. "I hope my being here can contribute to that. I don't think they should learn from me; they should learn from Motown. That's who I learned from."

Taking a break from his late night of mixing, Park explains his approach to music. "Michael Jackson is a bible to us," he says. "I train them solely on American samples. I don't want my artists to look fake. I want them to look real, not like just another African-American wannabe." Park encourages his students to study African-American culture and takes them to see black singers in concert and films like Dreamgirls and Stomp the Yard. This can lead to some cultural misunderstandings, as when a black reporter from the Voice put out her hand to say hello to G-Soul and got a "pound"—an urban handshake that ends with a snap of the fingers. Someone, apparently, had been watching too much BET.

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

On a recent afternoon, Mary J. Blige was blaring from a small boombox, and Min was giving it all she had. Her long brown hair whipped through the air as her oversized, sweat-drenched shirt and sweatpants clung to her five-foot-one-inch frame. Her every move was being videotaped by a JYP staffer for her development archives. Periodically, Park will look over the tapes to see if Min is improving, note where she needs work, and give suggestions to the choreographer. She has recently completed her freshman year at the Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts, a small Manhattan school of 180 students. With high school out for the summer, her days are composed of dance, vocal lessons, English and Chinese classes, and trips to the gym.

When the music stopped, Min walked over to watch the video of her footwork. Two JYP staffers watched alongside her.

"She's a little sloppy," one staffer said.

"Well, this is only her second class since she's been back," the choreographer responded, jumping to her defense. They carried on talking about her as if she wasn't in the room. The criticism doesn't faze her. This is what the last four years of her life have been about. Park believes in natural talent, but he doesn't believe in putting someone before the public until they've been tested, trained, and educated. (The same philosophy applies to his executives—the CEO who replaced Park in Korea first shadowed him for two years.)

After six months, a trainee is evaluated by Park, and either dropped or allowed to continue—those who make it are divided into two tracks: one track focusing on dancing, acting, and modeling, the other on learning an instrument and composition. Min is in the first category.

Park says the focus is necessary to produce a well-rounded star. "I don't want my artist to get onstage and look a mess," he says. When he signed Rain in 1999, for the first year Park required him to read the newspaper every day and write a report on it. Rain wouldn't release an album for another three years. "I'm testing character and dignity," Park says. "In 11 years, not one of my artists has gotten in trouble. I don't want an asshole on my label. Nobody smokes—not even a cigarette. I want to be happy with a good kid. All of my artists have longevity. If you want to be a star, pay the price."

Koreans, meanwhile, track the number of years an artist has spent training with Park like sports fans talking about a professional athlete's stats. Park, in turn, credits the devotion of his trainees to the general mind-set of Koreans.

"South Korea is the 12th-wealthiest country in the world," Park boasts. "We have no natural resources; we're half the size of Florida and only have 50 million people—one-fifth the total of America's population. We're the home of Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and Helio. Ten-hour days are standard for us, because we know if we don't work, our country won't succeed." For the last 15 years, Park has committed himself to working 16-hour days, breaking them down to know exactly how much time he spends per day eating (two hours total), working out (three to stay ready for his comeback), and showering and grooming (one and a half).

Min, however, isn't quite so regimented. She's showing some rustiness because she's just returned from spending two months visiting her parents in South Korea. It was the first time she had seen them since leaving to train with Park three years ago.

JYP regularly sends parents videos of their children performing. On YouTube, there's a video of Min at age 13, singing a Beyoncé song. There's another of her dancing in the studio, and more of her training as Park looks on and corrects her.

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