Korean hip-hop star Tablo was at the height of his career when a rumor started spreading on the internet that he was a liar. As a trivial accusation explodes into an international obsession, host Dexter Thomas Jr follows a bizarre conspiracy that asks a fundamental question: Are we who we say we are? Stream “Authentic: The Story of Tablo” now on VICE and iHeart Podcast Network.
For many, Daniel Lee needs no introduction. Most would know him as Tablo, the frontman of hip-hop trio Epik High, one of the most popular bands to come out of South Korea. Years before the recent K-pop boom in the West, Tablo and his colleagues, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz, were already attracting global audiences.
The band debuted in the South Korean underground music scene in the early 2000s and went on to perform in London, Sydney, New York, and Los Angeles, among other cities around the world. In 2016, they became the first major South Korean group to perform at Coachella. They remain popular today, recently releasing the second part of their 10th studio album, Epik High is here (part 2), and with a planned 29-city North American tour beginning in March. In April, they will make their return to Coachella.
All of this would have seemed unlikely just 12 years ago, when, at the peak of Tablo’s career, a petty accusation about his past exploded into an international obsession.
Even before Epik High, Tablo had achieved something few people can – he graduated from Stanford University in three and a half years, with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. It’s a benchmark that has gone from an effective hook for his music career to the center of a national debate about media, politics and privilege.
Members of an anti-fan club had accused him of lying about his school career, an allegation that was, or should have been, easy to refute. But the rumors only grew from there.
“I don’t even know how to introduce myself anymore, to tell you the truth,” Tablo told VICE in an interview for the podcast. Authentic: The Tablo Story. In a studio in Seoul, the musician recalled the controversy that changed his life.
“black mirror wasn’t out yet, but I felt like it was some horror sci-fi thing where the whole country I was living in had collectively agreed to fuck me up,” Tablo said. . “Nothing I said would be accepted as truth, and they had collectively agreed to be delusional. It’s either they’re delusional – all of them – or I’m delusional.
“Nothing I say would be accepted as truth.”
Born in South Korea as the youngest of three children, Tablo and his family moved to Canada when he was in second grade. His parents, he said, did so to provide a better education for his older siblings.
“My brother literally had to memorize the entire English dictionary. My dad forced him into it, because he was maybe two years old to apply for college, and they wanted him to go to an Ivy League school, which is ridiculous considering he comes to leave Korea,” Tablo said.
He was under the same pressure. His parents wanted him to go to one of three schools – Harvard, Stanford or MIT – and then get one of the few jobs – doctor, lawyer, professor “or, like, Nobel Prize winner”.
While on a family road trip across the United States, Tablo’s parents made it a point to visit the Stanford campus. Outside the imposing Stanford Memorial Church, his parents were praying that their youngest son would one day become a college student. Years later, their wish was granted.
Tablo left Stanford with both of his degrees, then returned to South Korea to pursue a career in music. Epik High debuted in 2003 and as they grew in popularity, the Korean public’s fascination with Tablo’s academic achievement also increased. In fact, that was a big part of his stardom – parents saw him as a good role model for their children, while youngsters loved him for his rebellious rapping attitude.
In 2009, the group had the wind in its sails. By then they had released several albums and helped establish hip-hop as a genre in South Korea. Tablo wrote: pieces of you, a best-selling short story published in Korean and English. He also got married.
But it was also in October 2009 that the rumors started. In the comments section of an article about the band’s sixth album was a comment by username Whatbecomes:
“Get off the hook. Surrender, bastard. Your brother and sister were screwed too. You who couldn’t integrate into the Canadian community and were kicked out of college, came back to South Korea and lied that you graduated from American universities? How dare you? People who really studied in these privileged schools don’t live like you. You low life, use your brain before you lie.
No one could have imagined Whatbecomes’ comment would become much of a thing, but just months after it was published, Tablo’s label received a strange package.
“My label [had] received an envelope from Manila with a bunch of documents with conspiracy theories about me, basically a PR package explaining why I’m an impostor,” Tablo said.
He paid little attention to it, perhaps because he couldn’t imagine how it could all be considered true, and because there were more important things at hand – he was soon to become a father. One day, Tablo took to Twitter to let people know that his wife was safe and that they had just welcomed their first child, a baby girl.
“Then some mentions come in and I watch and some of them are, like, ‘Congratulations’ but a lot of them are, like, ‘Why the fuck don’t you fucking explain?…and some of them are downright, like, ‘just die’,” Tablo recalled.
The Whatbecomes comment had spread, and in May 2010 an online forum dedicated to “finding out the truth about Tablo” began.
“TaJinYo” is an abbreviation of the Korean expression “We demand the truth from Tablo”. It is also the name of the online forum that began accusing Tablo of forging his credentials.
“[It’s] an ironic name considering that’s not what they wanted. They wanted anything but the truth,” Tablo said.
TaJinYo’s motives remain murky. Some believe it was started by anti-fans who simply wanted to see Tablo go down, but others insist the forum was really a pursuit of the truth. Within weeks, the forum was receiving hundreds of comments a day, with users determined to prove, above all else, that Tablo hadn’t actually gone to Stanford.
TaJinYo members were not only actively accusing, they were also looking for evidence that could serve as evidence for their claims. They emailed professors and students at Stanford, for example, asking if they had ever seen Tablo on campus. They asked Tablo to publish his transcripts. They even dug up a photo of his diploma to compare it to the “real” Stanford diplomas.
Several articles from legitimate publications, even one from Stanford itself, and one including Tablo’s transcript, had already come out to prove his credentials were legitimate. MBC, a major broadcast network in South Korea, has released a full documentary on the issue which shows its former teachers, administrators and classmates confirming that Tablo did indeed go to college.
But the evidence didn’t convince the members of TaJinYo, who apparently weren’t really interested in being convinced. To them, mainstream media and hard evidence didn’t make sense, but their theories did. Which even becomes alleged that the media was protecting Tablo because he was part of the South Korean upper class.
The controversy grew so great that she forced Tablo to stay home because strangers yelled at her in public. “It got to a point where I had no choice but to fight,” Tablo said. He brought libel charges against some of the more egregious hecklers.
“It had gotten to a point where I had no choice but to fight.”
He also turned to music.
At the end of 2011, after confining himself to his room and writing songs, Tablo released his first solo album. The end of the fever. It rose to the top of the charts, both in South Korea and abroad.
But the controversy surrounding Tablo had little to do with his music. It was, among other things, an early consequence of internet culture and fake news that stoked deep societal angst over fame.
It’s all part of the Tablo and Epik High story now. The rumor shaped how others saw him, and how he views himself, to this day.
“Some may see me just as a musician. But at the same time, some people see me as this person who’s been through a lot,” Tablo said. might be interested. So I just say, ‘Hi, I’m Tablo. And then I let them figure it out.
“Authentic: The Story of Tablo” was reported and produced by Stephanie Kariuki, Min Ji Koo, Kate Osborn, Dexter Thomas Jr, Janet Lee, Stephanie Brown and Sam Eagan.