A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Imagine Justin Timberlake's boy bander-turned-credible musician pedigree and Kanye West's genre-bending artistic daredevilry, and you'll get an idea of G-Dragon's standing in K-pop -- though his reach is expanding rapidly beyond Asia.
Juggling equally successful careers as a solo artist and as frontman of the group Big Bang, whose 2012 world tour drew 800,000 fans to sold-out shows on four continents, the rapper, songwriter and producer says, "Before I was physically there in different countries to meet my fans in person, I didn't really realize how famous I was."
The 25-year-old, né Kwon Ji Yong, also has attracted recognition from Western peers. A few years ago, Ludacris paid a visit to the Seoul-based YG Entertainment, the record label and agency where G-Dragon, Big Bang and Psy are all signed. "We were showing him some music videos that YG came out with," recalls Danny Im, a former labelmate who now hosts the talk show Danny from LA on cable network Mnet America. "When they saw GD, they didn't know who he was, but they went, 'Yo, that kid's a star.'" The video was "Knockout," a track from the Big Bang subnunit GD&TOP, and produced by Diplo. The in-demand DJ returned for G-Dragon's 2013 solo album Coup d'Etat, a bold mashup of hip-hop, EDM, punk rock and Korean folk that charted on the Billboard 200 and also featured contributions from Baauer, Boys Noize, Sky Ferreira and Missy Elliott.
Still, G-Dragon, who has recorded a yet-unreleased song with Justin Bieber, says there is only one artist on his wish list: "Pharrell [Williams]! Ever since I got into writing hip-hop music, he's been my only living idol." (For his part, the newly minted Oscar nominee has tweeted that GD is an "amazing talent. Korean art is vast and next level. Time to collab.")
Was there a moment when you truly realized that you and/or Big Bang had become incredibly popular on a worldwide level?
When I went on the Big Bang Alive Galaxy world tour in 2012 and my first solo world tour in 2013. Before I was physically there in different countries to meet my fans in person, I didn’t really realize how famous I was. Through the world tour experiences, I was able to figure out where we stand in different countries, which helped us learn how we should plan things going forward.
Do you now think about the international market, and not just the Korean market, when you're working on a new record?
Definitely. Nowadays, I can interact with my fans all around the world via SNS and YouTube, and they can monitor my daily life. I study my fans all the time and what I learn from them will definitely be reflected in my future work.
How many frequent flier miles do you think you have?
I’m not sure. Maybe a few million?
You and your bandmate Taeyang recently returned from Paris Fashion Week, where you sat front row at shows like Yohji Yamamoto, Thom Browne, Saint Laurent, Lanvin and Comme des Garcons. What do you wear on long overseas flights?
I don’t care. I just try to look good always.
What are your future career goals? Would you consider doing a Big Bang or solo album for the English-language market?
I’ve always been thinking about it but, of course, learning English comes first. I’ll definitely do it when I’m really ready for it.