Thanks largely to the group of the moment BTS, boy bands are back — or at least in the eyes of mainstream America. The truth is that, unlike in the West, pop groups continued to thrive steadily in South Korea since the ’90s even as the trend largely died down here. And after years of being a kind of underground, niche scene in the States, K-pop acts are regularly touring the country (and the world!) now more than ever.
Being the size of the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco, South Korea’s K-pop market is highly saturated. With hundreds of groups and soloists being active, K-pop acts often look towards overseas markets to expand their reach. More often than not, groups find more success outside of Korea than in their native country, and the U.S. is a hub for boy bands in particular.
One of the up-and-coming groups with a cemented fandom in America that has yet to become a household name in Korea is Monsta X. The seven-member ensemble came together as part of a competition show, where important figures in Korean entertainment like San E and Mad Clown judged and coached them in order to form the group. Making the final lineup, Shownu (real name Sohn Hyunwoo), Wonho (Lee Hoseok), Lee Minhyuk, Yoo Kihyun, Chae Hyungwon, Lee Jooheon, and I.M (Im Changkyun), Monsta X released their first EP Trespass on May of 2015. Just a couple of months later, the group had their first stateside performance at KCON LA in the Staples Center, where they opened up the show. “Everything was very, ‘Whoa so big;’ the stage was so huge. It was such a good opportunity for us,” said rapper I.M on a phone call from Seoul. “That was the first time I noticed [fans] really liked us. Now we’re getting bigger in the U.S. so we feel very thankful [towards the] fans.”
Monsta X has garnered a growing fan base, known as Monbebe, particularly in the States for their mix of EDM and hip-hop and their dark and sultry concepts. They also caught the public’s attention by displaying writing and producing chops since their days in the competition show and taking creative roles in their music. Though a growing trend nowadays, idols (what K-pop performers are known as in Korea) writing lyrics or being involved in production wasn’t commonplace just a few years ago, and they were often stigmatized for being inauthentic.
However, Monsta X didn’t have that problem. “Pitching our songs, choosing our songs, you know, good stuff is good stuff, so I think that’s the reason [why our company] picks up our songs,” the rapper explained, the only member fluent in English. I.M and Jooheon, who is also a rapper, pen their own verses on the group’s songs, and Wonho has composed a few of their album cuts. And though idols receive grueling training in dancing and singing, writing came natural to I.M. “I didn’t learn or have an education about writing lyrics or producing, I just did it for fun and thought people would like it.”
Barely three years into their career, Monsta X are on their sixth EP and second world tour —with the LA stop receiving a notable upgrade from last year at the Novo to the Microsoft Theatre just a few feet away. The European leg of their current world tour, The Connect, sold out in minutes, and Monsta X became a Worldwide trend on Twitter when the Latin America dates were announced.
Like other K-pop groups, Monsta X understands the power of social media and effectively uses it to connect with fans all over the world. The group peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart in April when they dropped their current album, The Connect: Dejavu. “I think this is the biggest part of promoting or showing ourselves because fans are very curious about what we do, about everything. Learning other languages [is also very important]. That’s why I speak English or other members use English or Japanese or other languages to communicate with more fans so they won’t feel so alone. It’s like, we’re not that far!” he added.
With 2.5 million followers on Twitter, they keep Monbebe updated with a handful of times a day with selfies and videos, even if their schedules are jam-packed. The Connect world tour kicked off in Seoul in late May and they have not stopped since. Running on only a couple hours of sleep, I.M chatted with the Weekly right before hopping on a plane to Bangkok. “Our idol life is very hectic. We try to motivate ourselves like, even if we’re very tired or very sleepy, our fans will like us more. Like, whenever this story comes out, lots of fans or people who are interested in us are going to be very happy because they got information about us,” he said. “I just think about that, ‘If we do this schedule, even if it’s hectic, people will feel closer to us,’ and that motivates myself.”
As for what’s next for Monsta X, I.M shared: “I’m doing a collaboration with Elhae, and our next comeback is going to be in October, maybe… We [also] have a big arena tour in Japan [coming up].”
Monsta X will wrap up the U.S. leg of their world tour The Connect at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Aug. 3. The rapper said that he’ll be performing a unit stage with Hyungwon, a cover of Drake’s “Fake Love” where he penned his own verses in English. “The reason I’m doing [that song] is in the lyrics. Fake people are showing fake love to me. I just wanna let the fans know that you guys are the [what is] true love.”