The History of SM Ent Part 1: Lee Soo-man, Establishes a Specialized Agency [KPOP History]

Some may say, with the M&A of SM Entertainment to Kakao in 2023, SM Entertainment, one of the BIG 4 in South Korea’s entertainment industry, will fade into the history books. However, with Kakao’s decision …

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Some may say, with the M&A of SM Entertainment to Kakao in 2023, SM Entertainment, one of the BIG 4 in South Korea’s entertainment industry, will fade into the history books. However, with Kakao’s decision to run SM as an independent company, the company’s legacy will live on. With this M&A, Lee Soo-man, who was the SM of SM Entertainment, will be completely out of the picture, and I think the future of SM Entertainment will actually take a different path than the past 30 years of SM Entertainment. Although Lee Soo-man’s departure from SM Entertainment was not a pleasant one, there is no denying that Lee Soo-man was one of the most influential figures in the creation of the genre of KPOP and its growth over the past 30 years. In this series of articles, we’ll take a closer look at how Lee Soo-man and SM Entertainment have evolved over the past 30 years.


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1. Lee Soo-man, the first Korean Pop star to earn a master’s degree in the U.S. [1985-1989]

Lee Soo-man went to the United States in 1981 to study computer science, but he was shocked to see the opening of the TV channel, MTV at the beginning of his studies, and throughout his study abroad, he tried to adopt American culture and apply it to Korea. During his graduate school years, he was even offered a job at a large American company, but he decided to return to Korea to pursue music. On May 17, 1985, he graduated from California State University, Northridge, becoming the first Korean artist to earn a master’s degree from a U.S. university and immediately returned to Korea to start a new life.

In fact, when he left for the U.S. in 1981, he had said in an interview that he would never return to the entertainment industry, but his great experience in the U.S. would bring him back. Upon returning home, Lee first learns about the current state of the Korean entertainment industry from Jeon Yoo-sung and gradually prepares for his own business. He started by opening a restaurant called Hemingway in Wolmido, Incheon, to raise money, and then started doing various activities such as hosting the 《’85 College Song Contest(대학가요제)》.

Inspired by the American production system, Lee had a number of ideas, but decided to start with what he knew best, music. In 1986, as his restaurant business and show hosting career began to take off and he began to pay off the debts he had incurred while studying abroad, he began to look for people who could help him with electronic music, first meeting Kwak Young-joon, a computer geek who loved music, and through him, Hong Jong-hwa, who would become a pillar of SM for a while.

Hong Jong-hwa’s passion for music began in high school when he bought a synthesizer, which led him to study music at a conservatory. He was especially inspired by Japanese music, especially Tomita Isao and Sakamoto Ryuichi, and thanks to their influence, he was able to experience electronic instruments faster than anyone else in Korea. Hong Jong-hwa became famous among musicians, and at one point he performed in a band called “Woori” with Kwon In-ha, who is now known for his thunder tiger singing style. After some time, in 1986, Hong Jong-hwa was assigned to work on the music for MBC’s documentary Koreans in the Global Village, and it was during this time that he met Lee Soo-man.

At the time, Hong Jong-hwa had been approached by MBC’s Jang Go-woong to work with him and was close to signing a contract. However, Lee Soo-man made a more interesting offer, and Hong Jong Hwa chose Lee Soo-man over MBC. From Lee’s point of view, he was convinced that he would never meet another person with such a deep understanding of computers, music, and MIDI, and Hong Jong-hwa would rather work with the younger, more experienced, and more open-minded Lee than with the stodgy MBC. Thus, Lee, Kwak, and Hong founded CPU, South Korea’s first computer band. While CPU didn’t make a huge impact, they were still a significant first foray into computer music, especially with their use of synthesizers and MIDI to compose, and the advent of sampling techniques, which were literally ahead of their time.

*MIDI technology was developed in the United States and Japan around 1982, and Hong Jong-hwa was using it around 1986, which was considered as a very early adaptation at the time.

After recruiting Hong Jong-hwa, Lee Soo-man gradually adjusted his lineup, releasing the album <Endless Moment(끝이 없는 순간)> (1986), which was entirely produced by Hong Jong-hwa, in 1986, and the first Korean album in the New Age genre in 1989. This was largely influenced by jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Lee believed that the new age was on the way to trendy new jack swing and hip-hop, so he wanted to show the new age to the public first. However, his album <New Age 1>(1989) did not appeal to the public much. In the end, the band CPU and <New Age 1> and <New Age 2> albums, which Lee tried to showcase New Age music, ended with near-failure. Lee’s health deteriorated due to his show hosting and music work, thus he stopped working for a while to pursue a new path.


2. Establishment of SM Entertainment (1989)

At the end of the 1980s, balladers, including Lee Moon-se and Byun Jin-seop, and dance singers, including Kim Wansun and Park Nam-jung, were dominating popular music. Lee took a keen interest in Kim Wansun because of the upbringing she went through before making her debut. Starting as a trainee with her aunt Han Baek-hee at the age of 14, Kim Wansun spent three years as a member of Rhythm Touch(리듬터치), undergoing various training and working as a backup dancer before making her debut with a near-perfect performance. In addition to Han Baek-hee’s know-how, Lee Soo-man, who decided to become a producer rather than a singer, took note of the work of American Morris Starr. Morris Starr was a producer who had been producing groups like New Edition and New Kids on the Block since the 70s, and although he did not have much success at first, he gained prominence over time as Bobby Brown from New Edition became successful and New Kids on the Block became successful. Seeing this, Lee began to dream of becoming a producer himself.

The genre he chose to produce was black music, specifically hip-hop and new jack swing. Unlike New Age, which was already out of favor locally, hip-hop and new jack swing were just taking off and enjoying immense popularity, and they had already formed a fan base as foreign music flowed into Korea through various channels. In the age of video stars, black music and dance, which became a global trend, was a window into a new generation of superstars, and Lee decided to look for someone who could handle them.

The person he recruited for the casting was Choi Jin-yeol, who had already made connections with some of Korea’s top dancers while DJing in Myeongdong and Itaewon in the 1980s. When he visited Choi Jin-yeol, who was DJing at a club in Itaewon at the time, Lee Soo-man explained his plan and asked him to join him as a manager. He then asked Choi Jin-yeol to find someone who could perform black music for Lee Soo-man. In 1989, Choi Jin-yeol went to the best dancer he knew, Lee Joo-no, to cast the role, but Lee Joo-no could not accept the offer as he was active in Oh Bok and Oh Bok Sung(오복과 오복성) at the time. Instead, Lee Joo-no introduced a friend named Hyun Jin-young to Choi. After Lee Soo-man heard about Hyun-young’s dancing skills, Lee suggested that Hyun Jin-young for a formal audition. After a dance audition and a singing audition (Hyun-young remembers the audition song as “To You Who Know My Pain(내 아픔 아는 당신께)” (1989) by Jo Ha-moon, but according to Choi Jin-yeol, it was “Aha(아하)” (1989) by Jin Mi-ryung), Hyun-young takes the spot.

*Hyun Jin-young mentioned on his YouTube channel that both Lee Joo-no and himself auditioned for the spot and that Lee Soo-man chose him because he had “a black note in his voice,” but if you read Lee Joo-no’s and Choi Jin-yeol’s memories, it’s more likely that Lee Joo-no was not cast due to his circumstances at the time. 

After returning to Korea, Lee Soo-man had always intended to build a studio with the latest systems, but for a while he had a temporary studio in Daebang-dong due to financial concerns, but after casting Hyun Jin-young, he began preparations to establish SM entertainment in earnest. With some financial stability, Lee Soo-man prepared to set up a studio with the latest equipment, but he was unable to find a suitable building. With the help of Hong Jong-hwa’s father, he found a four-story building in Sincheon-dong, where Lee Soo-man will use the basement as a studio, the first floor as an office, the second floor as a rest area for the members, and the fourth floor as a living space for himself. The office/studio was completed, and Soo-man launched SM Entertainment.


3. First SM Idol, Hyun Jin-Young and Wawa (1990)

After casting Hyun Jin-young, SM planned about a year to prepare Hyun Jin-young and put him through rigorous training. First, he took a basic vocal class at Kyung Hee University and received various singing training from Hong Jong-hwa (who trained him to sing in various environments with fatigue, such as singing while standing on a handstand, which he would later take over and train several singers), and to improve his dancing skills, he was allowed to enter Soul Train, a club in Itaewon at the time. Soul Train, a foreigner-only club run by Seo Chi-hoon, became famous because the club’s DJ played a lot of black music, which attracted many American dancers. As SM wanted Hyun Jin-young to have the feel of a more authentic black dance, he introduced Damon William, who was the best dancer among the American soldier troops, and talked to Seo Chi-hoon to let Hyun Jin-young enter the club exclusively.

*In 1989, Soul Train would soon move across the street to Moon night.

By the time Hyun Jin-young’s skills had matured, Lee Soo-man realized that Hyun Jin-young should have two backup dancers like Bobby Brown did, so he organized a dance contest at a club in Itaewon called Woman City(여인도시). After being contacted by Kim Sung-jae and Lee Hyun-do, Kang Won-rae and Koo Jun-yeop participated in the end-of-month competition and won first and third place, respectively, and advanced to the monthly competition (the judge at the time was Kim Chang-hwan). Then, at the year-end competition, Kang Won-rae and Koo Jun-yeop teamed up to compete, and they won the title by defeating the team of Miae and Yoo Young-jin. The hosts for the year-end competition were one of SM’s show hosts, Kim Seung-hyun and SM’s manager, Choi Jin-yeo, and Hyun Jin-young was also present. 

*There is also a version of a story that Kang Won-rae and Koo Jun-yeop beat Lee Joo-no and Yang Hyun-suk in this competition, but that’s a story that came from another competition.

With their dancing skills, tall body proportion, and fashion, SM Entertainment thought they would be a great fit, so they offered them the role of backup dancers, with the condition that they would play a bigger role than the usual backup dancers. Starting with the name Wawa, which was chosen to make the dance team more active, Kang Won-rae and Koo Jun-yeop took on roles such as choreography and album jacket design. Their role as backup dancers was largely due to Hyun Jin-young’s dancing skills, which were so broad that there wasn’t a dance move he couldn’t do, and he was said to be more skilled than anyone else (there are stories of her doing 12 spins of a direct headspin).

As a side note, Hyun Jin-young had a history of being a bit of a troublemaker, often running away from dormitory and going out at dawn. To manage him, SM kept him in semi-confinement and took it upon himself to teach him general manners and etiquette. One day, Hyun Jin-young offended Lee Joo-no when he met him at Moon night. As a result, Lee Joo-no took revenge by performing the Roger Rabbit dance while working as a back dancer for Park Nam-jung even though he knew that Hyun Jin-young was preparing the move for his debut. It was an embarrassing moment for SM and Lee Soo-man, so they decided to give the dance move a Korean name of Rabbit Dance to show their originality, claiming Hyun Jin-young as the originator of the dance.

After a long period of preparation, in April 1990, they released a single album containing their debut song, “Sexy Woman(야한 여자)” (1990). By the early summer of 1990, rumors were already circulating that Lee Soo-man would be making a move into the entertainment industry. On June 19 of the same year, Lee Soo-man debuted Hyun Jin-young and Wawa through KBS’s 《Star Birth(스타 탄생)》. Wearing headset microphones for the first time in South Korea, dressed in equestrian outfits similar to Bobby Brown and MC Hammer, and with two dancers, Hyun Jin-young’s career was launched on a major TV show. However, it doesn’t get off to a great start even with Lee Soo-man’s connections in the broadcasting industry. Hopefully, with the release of his first album, <New Dance vol. 1> (1990.08.01), in August, his second song, “Sad Mannequin (슬픈 마네킹)” began to gain popularity, and soon, Hyun Jin-young reached number three on the Korean music charts, showing promise as a singer who will lead the video era.

Continued in episode 2.


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