Article. Doheon Kim (Music Critic)
Photo Credit. Beasts And Natives Alike

I first met 250 at a club near Hongik University where rapper Saba was performing when he came to Korea in 2018. I didn’t know much about 250. He had been active in the Itaewon scene for a long time, was a part of BANA with hip hop duo XXX, whom he had performed with earlier that day, and had been involved with K-pop works like the music for f(x)’s 4 Walls comeback exhibition, BoA’s “Pit-A-Pat” remix and NCT 127’s “Chain”—and that’s all I knew. Sitting backstage and nursing our drinks, I asked what he had been working on recently. His response was unexpected. “I’m looking for ppong.”


Ppong is everywhere in Korean pop music. Just as kimchi is an indispensable part of Korean cuisine, there’s no discussing Korean music without discussing ppong. Also known as ppongjjak, it was born out of the rhythm heard in 1960s trot music, itself described as sounding like kungjjak, and has since deeply penetrated the sensibilities of Korean popular music and is now commonly encountered in the form of ppongkki. The Popular Culture Dictionary, published in 2009, defines ppongkki as a term that refers to the collective characteristics of Korean popular music conforming to the sentiments of Koreans. Cool tunes, sorrowful melodies, popular lyrics, cheerful gestures—the distinction between generation and genre fall away under ppongkki’s mark on Korean DNA. Anyone born and raised in the country can distinguish between ppong and something that isn’t ppong with just a passing listen. To put it briefly, the history of Korean pop music can be interpreted as a standoff between the ppongkki custom, stiff under the weight of so-called Korean sensibilities, and the desire to escape out from under it. It’s also important to note that even those who rebelled against ppong were never completely free of its familiar melodies and exciting dance moves in their subconsciouses; pop music is no exception. In compilation albums of Koreans’ favorite worldwide pop songs, we easily find “express bus vibes” that have crossed international borders.

Ppong is a concept that simultaneously exists everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Its definition is ambiguous because it can’t be pinned to one specific form. At this time, ppongjjak, as a genre, collectively refers to fast trot music with electronic influences, but the ppong at its core is interpreted very differently. To make matters worse, the negative connotations of the word ppong further confuse that interpretation, conjuring up images of low-quality, Japanese-style, drug-infused promiscuity. I can still remember listening to a medley of Dr. Lee songs on a music streaming site because of my love for Dr. Lee’s “Monkey Magic” that had taken hold of me by chance when I was about nine, and my father scolding me, saying, “What are you doing listening to this kind of music at your age?” That musical element that undeniably exists all around us but which cannot be made tangible or simple to define: that is ppong.


The characteristic of ppong that 250, who first began to explore that musical element at his label’s suggestion in 2014, first latched onto was this very ambiguity. “What exactly ppong is, I couldn’t grasp,” he confessed in an interview with Mixmag Korea in 2018, “but there does seem to be something there; everyone knows it, but if you ask what it is, they all have different ideas. But once the music plays, everyone all at once can see it’s ppongjjak. I was drawn in by the way it obviously exists yet at the same time there’s no consensus about it.”


It was a difficult process capturing something he “couldn’t grasp.” The mini documentary series Finding Ppong, uploaded to BANA’s YouTube channel in 2017, is a cumulation of 250’s effort to study ppong from 2014 onward. He inspected an old synthesizer used for performing ppongjjak at Dongmyo Flea Market and busily moved in and out of adult discotheques, highway rest stops and a Yeongdeungpo dance training center to seek out the counsel of the masters of the underground. Nevertheless, the album showed no signs of surfacing. Leading up to the release of its first single, “Rear Window,” in October 2018, 250 asked his label, twice, if he could put the ppong project on hold. While there is a deep, diverse ppongjjak scene, the genre hadn’t received much attention and exploring it was a time- and labor-intensive task. But on March 18, 2022—four years later, and after everyone had long since forgotten about the project—250 finally published his thesis on ppong after eight long years of research. For his first studio album—its cover adorned with 250 himself, situated in a smoke-filled, underground bar, decked out in a suit, whiskey in hand—the title could not have made it any clearer: This was PPONG.

PPONG is not a ppongjjak album. What’s important is not what elements of ppongjjak it contains or how accurately it reproduces them. There are fairly straight bits of ppongjjak on the album: The versatile artist Baik Hyun Jhin shines with his passionate performance in the music video for “Bang Bus,” but I wouldn’t quite say this song represents the core of 250’s work. As an album, PPONG defines the peculiar elements that govern the sensibilities of Korean pop music and takes things a step further by making use of the heritage 250 unearthed while following in the footsteps of Korean pop, lending the album a sense of history and legitimacy. Here, I share what 250 told me at his studio when I visited him after the album’s release:


“Embedded in PPONG are aspects of a man named 250 and an honest account of the time he spent searching for ppong. It’s not merely an exhibition of the collected elements that make up ppongjjak but a personal album made through selections in accordance with my own tastes and method of production. I hope for the album to rouse the ppong sensibilities that remain in small traces in each of our memories. I would like if it sounds like recent music while being like the music of old, and that it not be too sad, despite being sad music.”


250 concluded that ppong is “a feeling of needing to dance even if you’re sad.” PPONG is a lonely work. At first, the breakneck melody, Dr. Lee’s exhilarating ad libs and the familiar riveting, twisted tone of ppongjjak sound simply exciting. However, from the moment the synthesizer’s delicately placed first minor chord hits your ears, there’s no finding your way to a cheerful dance. That’s why there’s no discussing ppong without also touching on Korean history and Korean sentiment. Its performers and main consumers, whom 250 traveled tirelessly across the country to find, belong to the generation that lived through Korea’s turbulent modern history. For the laboring class that was middle-aged during the 1960s and ’70s, ppongjjak was a daily energizer that allowed them to endure their arduous lives as well as an everyday art that provided cathartic relief from deep-seated anger.


The main character of PPONG is a lonely, middle-aged, or perhaps elderly, man. The album opens with the regretful “It Was All a Dream,” follows up with an escape attempt from the lust and disgrace found under the red light of “Bang Bus,” sets a straightforward fire with “Love Story” and comes to the realization that “…And Then There Were None.” The alienating effect of stealing a glance at a scene from a past that can never be revisited in “Rear Window,” the entrancing “Barabogo,” “I Love You” and “Give Me,” and the misery of washing down futility with a glass of cheap liquor in “Royal Blue” all unfold like a scene from an old movie. Finally, the album shifts to the man, drowning in sorrow as he makes his lonely way through a tunnel of dark memories: He leaves behind the faint voice of a TV cartoon he used to sit down to watch long ago as a child in “Finale.”


The album takes us back to a time which lay dormant, deep beneath our memories. It’s a testament to the living witnesses of Korean music and the album/result that eight years spent searching for ppong ultimately yielded. Dr. Lee, the face of Korea’s ppongjjak, his eternal partner Kim Sooil, veteran sax player Lee Jungsik and master of ppong electronic organ Na Undo all helped with the ppong project. “I Love You” samples a song by godfather of Korean rock Shin Jung-hyeon and the bonus track “Let’s Dance” is a remake of Chang Eun-sook’s song of the same name and features vocals by Na Undo, Lee Jungsan on guitar and drums borrowed from N.EX.T’s “The Knight of a Doll Part 2.” The lyrics to “Finale” are written by star Korean pop lyricist Yang Inja and sung by Oh Seungwon, who also sang the famous Dooly the Little Dinosaur theme song.


Since releasing PPONG, 250 has been bombarded by the same question: “So, did you find ppong?” One listen to his album, however, and you will quickly realize that it’s meaningless to ask whether or not he found it. Ppong may not have garnered much attention, but it was always there. Notably, 250 sees the very inquiry process he diligently underwent as having been a meaningful expedition meant to satiate his curiosity as to what exactly ppong is—that thing that’s so deeply ingrained in us all, yet we never thought too deeply about. 250’s PPONG is an archival record of the history of Korean popular music, a study in the humanities that explores Korean sentiments and a fantastic tool that fully captures the musical world he aims for—it is both seasoning and bowl.

Kim Sooil makes his debut on the microphone in “It Was All a Dream” and closes the song with an awkward, “Well, I’m not a singer ….” Importantly, the statement defines 250 and PPONG as well. 250 is not a singer, nor is he a ppongjjak artist. Performances infused with the essence of ppongjjak and collaborations with masters of the sound certainly help, but those aren’t even the defining characteristics that make PPONG so interesting. The real significance of the project comes from its use of the ppong framework to reveal 250’s unique musical world, emotions and stories. It’s wholly different from campaigns such as Finding Our Sound or “Setting Up History the Right Way,” which were one-time projects that tried to jump on the retro bandwagon. PPONG is a work that does justice to the form and its substance; that is in no way an easy feat.


250 readily invested eight years of his life for this album. When asked, “What took you so long?” he replied modestly: “I need this much time if I’m going to release an album like this.” Given the magnitude of it, it was hardly a long wait. And I await the next project to come from 250.