My musical story…
Should we start at the beginning? I was born in Anaheim, California, but I actually spent most of my childhood in a city called Garden Grove. Bla bla bla boring…
Let’s skip to elementary school where my actual musical journey begins.
Just like 99% of kids from Korean descent (at least if you were born in the 80′s or 90′s), you were forced to learn at least one of the following instruments – piano, violin, cello, or flute. My weapon of choice was violin and piano. Actually, it wasn’t my choice. It was a choice that my parents made for me, which resulted in me taking private lessons for both instruments every week or I’d suffer a beat down.
My parents owned/own a music store called “Grace Music”. They used to sell all kinds of instruments and had music teachers come in almost everyday to give private lessons. I spent a lot of time there because my parents didn’t have anyone to baby-sit me. I was always surrounded by musical instruments, but I absolutely had no interest in them whatsoever.
My dad (when he was younger) was an aspiring singer/musician in Korea. It probably added on to the reason why I had to take up an instrument.
I remember enjoying violin and piano for a quick minute until I was told to “practice”.
I guess I didn’t realize practicing was something that came with picking up an instrument.
Practicing sucked. It required discipline…a word I did not care for at that age. I was a kid. I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to play with my Ninja Turtles and GI-Joe action figures. I wanted to drink a gallon of Kool-Aid and eat as many chocolate bars as I could. I wanted to play kickball with my friends. I wanted to play with Lego’s all day long.
That’s all I wanted to do.
I remember getting in trouble ALL THE TIME for not practicing. It wasn’t just a “go practice please”…it was a “GO PRACTICE IN YOUR ROOM FOR 30 MINUTES OR YOU’RE IN BIG TROUBLE!!!!” If I didn’t practice, I would get spanked.
I would always hear, “so and so practices for 3 hours everyday. You also need to practice”. Yeah. Really.
Honestly, I don’t remember practicing very much – thirty minutes tops. But I do remember wanting to break my violin every time I did.
It started off with a dislike of practicing which turned into a hatred for all things violin and piano. I recall even at one point, I hated music.
To me, music equated to chores, and not pleasure or enjoyment like it should have. At the time, I was only listening to jazz and classical music. I didn’t know who I was listening to, but that’s the kind of music that was being pumped into my ears.
I’m not sure if I even liked it. I wasn’t exposed to any other styles of music, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
I do admit though, the great thing about learning these instruments, especially violin, was that in school, I was able to leave class twice a week and attend orchestra class. The material would be so easy because I already learned everything through private lessons.
In 5th or 6th grade, I remember going across the street to my future junior high school (Bell Intermediate) once a week to play in their orchestra. It was great because I could miss class. Miss Van Vorris was the teacher.
So there were perks, but I still hated violin and piano.
I stuck with the violin and piano for a long time – all throughout elementary.
Since 2nd or 3rd grade, I went to an after-school daycare center called Kid’s Club (Boy’s and Girl’s Club) because my parents were running the music store and they couldn’t watch a crazy little kid like me 24/7. I made some friends and had some interesting experiences.
In 6th grade, I heard my first POP song as I was walking across the “big room” at Kid’s Club. I mean, it’s not the first song I ever heard, but all the information poured into my head at once. It was the first time I:
I actually listened to it.
I heard kids singing along with it.
People knew it.
It was a famous song.
It was catchy.
It was cool.
I felt good listening to it.
The song was “All Star” by Smash Mouth. Remember that?
Smash Mouth. Yep. That was my first song I listened to other than Classical or Jazz music.
This was the big bang of what started my “pop sensibility”.
During my last year of elementary school (elementary school ended at 6th grade), I was beginning to listen to KIIS FM (Hit Radio Station), KROQ (Rock Alternative), and basically listening to what everyone else was listening to. I remember falling in love with the music of Boys II Men, Backstreet Boys, and even listened to some Japanese Music (No idea what they were singing about, but the melodies were great), which was introduced to me by one of my best friends Samuel Chun. Some of the Japanese artists I particularly remember listening to were, Matsu Takako, and Chemistry.
By this time, I was introduced to a whole new world…new musical picture, girls were fun to look at, saw hair on parts of me I’ve never seen before, things called “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” emerged at school – we all go through that change.
I was fully immersed into commercial music as most young people are. I was always on a quest to discover new songs so that I could share them with friends.
I remember the song “All the Small Things” by Blink 182 in particular. The overplayed riff in the intro of the song still haunts me to this day. I remember hearing this riff so many times by all the kids who wanted to be rock stars and mini Jimi Hendrix’s. I actually tried playing it too, and successfully did, but I wasn’t impressed with guitar, having grown up in a music filled family, and having instruments all around me all the time.
I didn’t think instruments; especially guitar, bass, and drums were “cool” like most kids did.
Ah, the day of the cassette tapes. I remember sitting in front of the stereo system for hours at night while talking on the phone (not a cell phone, but a land-line [wow I’ve aged]) and recording songs to tape from the radio. I was making my own mix tapes, which at the time, I didn’t even know I was doing. I think I still have one of the tapes somewhere in my house. My friend Brandon let me borrow his Blink 182 CD, “Dude Ranch” and I copied the CD to tape. I don’t think I listened to it very much, but I think it’s funny how that was the 90′s version of burning a CD.
As all this was happening, I was still taking private lessons on both instruments – violin and piano. The feeling of negativity around those instruments was still there. I absolutely HATED practicing.
Miss Van Vorris was also the music teacher at Bell Intermediate. Orchestra was super easy and I chose it as my elective because it was an easy “A”. In both 7th and 8th grade, I recall being concertmaster for both years. I wasn’t even a great player. I nonchalantly “led” the group, I was a total goof-off, and was sent out of the classroom a few times. I didn’t take that class very seriously at all.
I’ve got to say though, it was a fun time, and it was definitely one of the very few experiences of junior high I remember.
Not only was I involved in Orchestra at school, but also with pressure from my parents, I auditioned for GATE orchestra. GATE stands for Gifted And Talented Education. It was a program where students met at Bolsa Grande in Orange County every Tuesday night, performed at some competitions throughout the school year, and played at the District Baccalaureate at the end of the year at the Crystal Cathedral (amazing place!).
I made it into the program, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I was placed in the 2nd violin section and dreaded being there, but I went along with my parents’ wishes. A man named Mr. Gassaro* conducted the Orchestra and sometimes a conductor named Mr. Shaker* would stop by (I found out he’s gay recently. Nothing wrong with that, and I have nothing whatsoever against gays. It’s uncomfortable knowing that he stared at me during our practices. Creepy…). It wasn’t the greatest thing being in the program, but I won’t say it was nothing. I took some great memories with it.
* (Some names in this section are fictional)
Into the next major phase I go….
I don’t think there was ANYONE in my generation who was an Asian male and didn’t play computer games. Especially Counterstrike, Diablo, or WarCraft. I was a game addict. Looking back, I don’t regret it because I had fun, but it was clearly an addictive, unproductive, and time-consuming habit.
I believe in the middle of 8th grade, all the way into my junior year of high school was my prime computer game playing days. I mean hours of dedication towards these games, trying to master every move. Not to mention the awesome interaction with friends and people you randomly meet online. It was a great place to “get away”, but seriously, it was so damn fun! Every chance I got, I found my way to a computer – whether it was at my house (I had 56k for the longest time until I convinced my parents that we NEEDED Cable/DSL), a friend’s house, or “PC Bang”.
In the beginning of high school, I quit private violin lessons. It just happened. My parents didn’t ask me if I wanted to quit. I think they knew I hated it. I remember as a child telling my parents I wanted to be a violinist when I grew up. That was pure BS. I just said that because that’s what I thought they wanted to hear and I thought of the worst-case scenario if I chose otherwise.
Ninth grade wasn’t the end of violin though. I remained in Orchestra throughout high school. I don’t regret it. It was some of the most memorable times of my life.
In 9th grade, I started taking Jazz piano lessons from a very talented man named Les Counts. It was my first time learning something other than classical music on piano. This style of music in a way shook everything I’ve learned because it didn’t require you to follow strict rules.
This is where I learned what “improvisation” was.
I enjoyed it a lot more than classical music, but I still HATED practicing. Memorizing all the scales, chords, inversions, riffs, and notes was a major pain in the ass for me. I didn’t try very hard and I was doing my practicing during my lessons. I would have rather been playing computer games.
After a year with my piano teacher, I decided to call it quits. I learned a lot from him, but the pressures of private lessons were too much for me. I definitely give this man a lot of credit in shaping my musical style and subconsciously jump-starting my journey into songwriting.
So violin was still a somewhat major part of my life throughout high school. No more GATE orchestra and no more private lessons. Life was much easier for me. Being in Orchestra all 4 years was actually really fun. It was easy. I made a lot of life-long friends, and it was the most memorable class I ever had. I went through 4 different teachers. Mr. Campbell [moved on to another school], Mr. Goldstein (he got kicked out of school for getting caught looking at porn) Ms. Gabriel (left because it was too stressful [quitter]), and Mr. Compton [also quit for unknown reasons].
***For those in Orchestra or Band, I strongly suggest you stick with it because it will become one of the most vivid memories you’ll ever have of high school. I promise.***
I’m in 10th grade, the school year is almost finished, and I’m sitting in Mr. Roy’s history class. There’s a kid named Pablo (I think), and he puts a CD into Mr. Roy’s CD player and electronic music starts playing. There are only a few students in the room including me, and I hear Pablo saying, “yeah, I made this music”.
The gears in my mind started grinding and I asked myself, “You can make your own music? Wow, hmmm, wow…I didn’t realize you could do that. I think writing music is something I could do.
*Hums melodies in my head*
See, I’m making melodies in my head right now!”
That was my turning point.
So there it began. The early stages of songwriting.
I went home later that night, and started to fiddle around on my Yamaha EX5 Keyboard, which I asked my dad to bring from the store. (I still use to this day). This was my first taste in composition. As I was messing around on my keyboard, there was a big question I asked myself. “HOW DO I RECORD MY IDEAS?”
I took out the instruction book for my keyboard and didn’t understand a lot of the terms. I was desperate at that very moment to record, but I calmed myself down and I quit for the night. It was too late and I was tired.
Fast forward to August of 2002. By this time, I figured out how to record on my keyboard and learned what “tracks” were. I created a remix of an old Korean traditional folk song called “Arirang” using piano, strings, drums, and bass – sounds that were all built into the keyboard. It definitely had jazzy elements to it. As stated previously, Jazz had a big influence on me and it showed in this crappy remix.
Few days later….
I actually remember sitting down, and being serious about finishing a full instrumental piece. By this time, I already learned how to record into my keyboard by reading the instruction book. I started with a piano sound, and started composing. I took my score-pad out, and started notating each note of the melody and chords up above the melody. This way, I could remember it and see it. Thanks to my classical training, I knew how to do this. I remember the song took me three days to complete.
I named my very first instrumental piece “Lost Memory”. Yes, corny title, but it did suit the feel of the song. After it was composed and recorded into the keyboard, I played it for my dad, and I think I remember him liking it. Didn’t seem like he was blown away or anything. Honestly, I didn’t expect that much of a reaction.
PS. Try typing “Lost Memory” and “David Choi” on Google or Yahoo and you might be able to find it on the Internet
Over the course of a couple weeks as school started, I immediately started on my next song “Good Day”, and then “Beautiful Butterfly”. Once again, both seriously corny titles, but they worked. They were also notated on a score-pad. Next after that was “Rose Petaled Heart” [As I'm writing these titles, I am disgusted], and then some other unnamed song I didn’t complete.
After the pieces were composed, they were all stored inside my keyboard. I couldn’t share them with people or get critiques without having them stand next to my keyboard, so what did I do? I recorded them to cassette tape using a cheap tape recorder and a cheap Radio Shack microphone.
Later, in the middle of the school year (I was in 10th grade; 16 years old), the school district held a “Reflections Contest”. I don’t remember the theme, but it was something I was interested in. I wanted to see if I was good enough to keep pursuing this music thing. So I entered my song “Lost Memory” and to make a long story short, I won for my school division (I think 2 people entered), and I won the City Level but did not move on.
I remember losing to someone who scored a piece for a string quartet. I have to admit that it did make me a little angry because it was something I knew I could have done. It was just a little more time-consuming, but I thought an instrumental pop song would be “cooler” to submit, so I went with that. I did get a certificate and some medals. Whoop de doo.
My first award for music!!
I honestly did not bask in the measly amount of glory that came with the win. It was just enough of a pat on the back to drive me to pursue music a bit harder.
Out of 10th grade….
During 10th grade, the intense computer gaming days were slowly coming to an end, and I started a new obsession with composing music. This was also the time when I had 42k(?), or 56k Internet. I’m not sure which, but I do remember it was free and it took 5 minutes to load a page. I tried convincing my parents with every reason I could think of to upgrade to DSL or Cable Internet, which was actually for gaming purposes. I was sneaky you know!
Definitely wasn’t happening.
Well this music obsession was apparent after I downloaded a free music program called “Acid Pro” off of the website www.acidplanet.com (mainly electronic music based), which is still there to this day (as well as my user account). This program was much like today’s Garage Band, which is based on arranging loops – hearing what you liked in a browser, and pasting them in a sequencer. I was amazed at how easy it was to “create” using pre-existing loops. Of course, the program sat in my computer for a few days because I had no clue on how to use it.
“AHHH, how frustrating? I don’t know how to use it…wah wah wah…”
What did I do like a smart boy?
I learned how to use it.
I learned to use at least the basics. Taught myself enough to be able to paste the loops and create electronic music. It was definitely something completely different from what I was used to doing previously on my EX5 keyboard. It was different because it had cooler sounds, it wasn’t a ghetto keyboard recorder, and it was “almost professional sounding”. I must have “composed” about 10 songs that week. The only negative to this experience I felt at the time, was that it wasn’t “creative” enough. My definition of “creative” was coming up with something original from my own heart and soul. All I was actually doing was pasting loops that someone else had created, which made me feel a little guilty. I admit it was fun, very inspiring, and everything sounded great with so little effort, but I was limited in my creativity because the loops didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
So once again, I did my homework.
I researched on my slow ass 56k Internet like a mad man. I really wanted to learn how to use this program to its fullest capabilities because I wanted to record my own original ideas. From my research, I stumbled upon one website I particularly remember to this day.
It was www.tweakheadz.com. I learned pretty much all the basics of recording through this website. This website had so much great info in layman’s terms (easy words). I remember spending HOURS and HOURS, filling my brain with information. I probably read the entire website at one point. I figured out how to hook up my Yamaha EX5 keyboard into an audio interface, which I asked my parents to purchase for me. I convinced them that this is what I wanted to do and it was something I NEEDED. Of course, I had to remind them of all the awards I won in the previous year.
I’m not quite sure what made them get it for me (maybe it was my birthday), but I eventually got my audio interface (Edirol DA-2496), hooked up my MIDI keyboard, and started recording my own ideas in conjunction with the loops.
There were quite a lot of instrumentals I composed during 10th grade. I didn’t keep very many instrumentals, but one thing was sure.
I knew Acid Pro. I mean really. I MASTERED it.
I learned all the hotkeys and I was extremely efficient at it. I don’t think anyone was as fast as me. Not being able to do something in Acid Pro irritated the hell out of me. Who was to blame for not knowing how to use it? ME!!!!!! I BLAMED ME!!!!! A vicious cycle I tell you. Because of that experience, I’m usually always able to find a solution to most problems in my life.
Another main development in my early stages was my desire to become great at what I was doing. Good wasn’t good enough. I remember sending instrumentals to EVERYONE on my AIM buddy list, asking for opinions and critiques. I bet a lot of them still remember my crappy instrumentals to this day. How else could I have gotten better? I wanted honest truths, and sometimes, I knew I couldn’t get them because they were my friends, but I kept asking anyways.
During all the obsessive work I was putting into becoming the best I could, I started entering even more contests. I remember submitting music at www.broadjam.com, where I was in the top 10, for a remix contest for Madison Park. It was a song called “Who’s Got the Time”. I also won an honorable mention (which I laugh at now because I guess it was a big deal for me back then) for a remix contest held by www.Alternate-Earth.com. It was an electronic music website which specialized in Break Beats.
That concludes my 10th grade year. I don’t remember much else, but I should probably mention my family moved houses from Garden Grove to Fountain Valley.
Here comes 2003!
I’m an 11th grader at Pacifica High School. The “Reflections” contest didn’t happen that year, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing others. I searched for more contests to even further validate myself if I should be doing music.
I got heavily involved with electronic music in 2003 and was finding my way through it. At this point, I was working on music almost every single day for about at LEAST six hours a day after school. I really wish everyone could experience what I did. Although it wasn’t healthy living at all, it gave me a feeling of fulfillment and purpose. It was a great time and I enjoyed every minute of it.
It literally consumed my life.
I wanted nothing to do with anything else, and it was then, I decided that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I made a vow to myself that I would never get a “real” job. This pressure I put on myself definitely worked. The fear of having to live on the streets!! I’d have to say that was one of the main driving forces in working hard.
Music was really the only thing I seemed to be good at compared to everything else in life. I was never really that great in school. I hated waking up early, I hated homework, and the pressure of tests. I never got used to them. (Does anyone? ha!)
In 2003, I became involved with www.Acidplanet.com (AP), which was/is a great online community for electronic musicians including trance, techno, breakbeat, nu-skool, jungle, etc. They held contests every so often and I did my best to enter every single one. There were always hundreds and hundreds of entries, but that didn’t stop me. A year of crazy obsessions with music production and composing slowly paid off.
I entered a contest for Warner Bros. BWB remix contest on AP and placed 3rd. You could still hear it today on the website. I won some loop packages and the latest copy of Acid Pro. I was happy for even placing in the top three and it made me feel good that I was advancing.
I remember being so sick and tired of the pre-made loops that came with Acid Pro that I connected my Yamaha EX5 keyboard and created my own loops as well as recorded parts directly from my keyboard. The sounds weren’t great, but they were all original parts. That mattered a lot to me.
I also entered a contest held by the “Call to Arts!” expo, which took place at Cal State Fullerton (a state college). I found out about the contest through the Internet. I entered my song “Lost Memory” into the contest and won for the “Creative Visions” category. I went to the school to pick up my prizes (dumb prizes) and some medals.
I was working on my resume.
Another contest I entered that year was for a piano loop company called “Hark Productions”. They wanted people to make “recreations” of their original song – so basically, a remix. Duh. I was a runner-up, which was a little disappointing, but the people who won definitely had better remixes than me.
When I think about why I did these contests back then, it was to prove to everyone – parents, friends, and especially myself that I would be able to become something more than just a quiet, loser kid who plays computer games all day and is unproductive. Since the day music grabbed a hold of me, I never let go, and I wanted to get deeper and deeper into all things musical. Not only did I research ALL over the Internet for music production advice, but even the business side of it. I figured, “Hey, if I’m going to do this professionally, then why not learn about the business side of it too?” So everyday, there were hours and hours dedicated towards all things music.
With the help of my parents, my persistence, and a credit card, I also joined a couple “music communities” like www.tonos.com (which shut down) and www.letstalkmusic.com (inactive) where people discussed, critiqued each other’s music, and just hung out on forums. I made many great friends there and learned a LOT. This was definitely a major shift in my musical journey.
This was when I started writing songs with melody/lyrics…
In the summer of 2003, I started writing songs with a woman named Andrea Crims whom I met through www.tonos.com. She was a great person. What drew me to her was not only her amazing lyrics, but also her sweet heart and mother-like character. She would always send me lyrics to put melody and tracks over. We did around 30 collaborations over the course of a couple of years. It was great practice for me. I also wrote with others on the website and offered my remixing services to them. It was a great community and I was very involved with it.
“Octonosfest” was a little gathering a few people on the “Tonos” website organized. We met at the “Good Earth Café” in Hollywood. Peter Ren, (who ended up marrying Andrea about a year later) and I hit it off pretty well at the get-together. There were about 10 people who attended from rock styled musicians, pop, folk, and everything in between. I was the youngest one there with the average person ranging from early 30’s to maybe late 40’s. I was a bit shy as it was my first encounter of such thing. Not to mention I was just quiet in general. I just wanted to be entrenched with the knowledge of everything musical. That’s why I went. I also wanted to meet people who did the same thing I did. There was a connection there.
After Tonos shut down shortly after my arrival (I didn’t shut it down, I promise!), the community scattered all around the net, but most migrated to www.letstalkmusic.com. Its pretty much dead right now, but it used to thrive until drama came to play, but we won’t get into that here. The collaboration, education, and discussions were very informative, and I continued to work on my craft of writing and producing, as well as a little bit of remixing on the side for fun.
I guess my first musical mentors had to have been Peter and Andrea. They supported me through the tough times when I felt like quitting. They were both very talented people and I really respect and thank them for what they did. I remember sending almost all of my songs to Peter to get them critiqued by him. He gave me valuable advice, as did the people in the community.
Well, back to school as a senior in 2004, the Reflections Contest returned. This year’s theme was ”I’m Really Happy When” so I wrote a song. My very first original song where I did both lyrics and melodies was simply titled, “I’m Really Happy When”. The great thing was, I already had practiced writing melodies over the lyrics Andrea gave me so writing lyrics wasn’t something that was completely foreign to me.
“I’m Really Happy” won the County level, but didn’t go beyond that. I’m pretty sure it was because it wasn’t a classical piece. But it didn’t really matter to me.
Half way into my senior year, I signed up for choir as my other elective on top of orchestra. It was an easy class and I didn’t have to try very hard. I mean…there wasn’t really anything challenging about the class to begin with. I remember the last concert we had, we all sung Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. That was cool.
As school went on, I kept remixing songs on www.acidplanet.com and got better and better, learned new tricks, learned the “Akon Effect” (BEFORE Akon used it, it was known as the “Cher Effect”), entered contests, and continued to write songs. I placed second for the PVDJ/ACIDplanet Mix Contest at www.broadjam.com, where they provided samples, which you then created a song with. I don’t remember what I won. I also won “A New Kind of Blue” remix contest where I remixed the old jazz tune “So What” which can be found on iTunes.
About 2 months before school ended, I entered a contest on www.acidplanet.com called the “David Bowie Mash-up Contest”. Now the awesome thing about this contest was that the grand prize was a CAR. A freaking 2004 Audi TT.
I immediately went to work.
I did 9 Mash-up’s and submitted all of them because I wanted to win. I also knew in the back of my mind that most people did not know how to properly “mash” songs together, so that gave me an advantage. I’ve got to say though; it was still a super long shot because of how many entries there were. Thousands including professional remixers! I wanted the car.
All the mash-ups were submitted, and eventually, one of my mash-ups got chosen to be a finalist where it was entered into a voting process. To make a long story short, I got a call from the contest people congratulating me that David Bowie himself chose me as the winner!
I was super excited and asked if I could take the money instead of a car because I already had a car. They said yes, and I upgraded my studio, and gave the rest to my mother.
A month later, I got a call from USA Weekend Magazine’s Frappa Stout, telling me I won a contest. I didn’t remember entering the contest at all, but after thinking about it for about 10 seconds, I remembered I sent in lyrics to a contest they held in the beginning of the school year. It was about the “American Dream”. Wow! Two huge contests in such a short period of time! I was pretty happy and I felt like my hard work paid off. I met Usher and took a photo with him for the cover of USA Weekend Magazine. I was also interviewed on CNN Headline News (which I totally butchered, which is probably why they didn’t send me to radio stations haha), and appeared for 2 seconds on the NBC Show “American Dreams”. Not to mention a $1,000 dollar treasury bond, which matures in 10 years! (Takes 10 years from the date I got it to reach a max of $1,000 dollars).
Winning all the contests was a confirmation to me that music was my purpose in life. I didn’t see anything else in my future but that. More than the prizes, knowing that I could work hard and have it pay off was the best feeling ever.
During college apps, I was supposed to enroll to Cal State Fullerton. I was actually already accepted before my senior year ended, but I screwed up big time. I was so occupied with music that I forgot to register for the school year! I was two days too late. Goodbye to Cal State Fullerton! Hello community college!
Do you all want to know my GPA in high school? It was a measly 3.2 GPA. Like I said, I hated school. Especially the waking up part – even to this day, I do not enjoy waking up. I will never be a morning person!
2004, the school year ended, they played “Time of Your Life” by Greenday, Vitamin C’s “Graduation”, people cried, screamed, people were happy, people were sad, and I was ready to walk into a new era of life which involved sleeping in until whenever I pleased. But seriously, more than that, I was ready to do this music thing for reals.
Immediately after graduation, I applied for an internship at a studio called Satter Music* in North Hollywood, which was about an hour drive from my house. I found out about it through a guy named Mark who I met on a web forum, of which I forgot the name.
Sometime in high school, I read that most of the world’s biggest producers and songwriters got their start by interning, so I decided to follow their formula for success. I remember searching hardcore for a month until I found Sadder and I was very happy when I did. I checked out the studio and it was super vibey. The vintage gear, instruments all over the place, and the layout was amazing. The studio was beautifully hand-built and didn’t look like all the other typical studios I’ve seen. I knew Sadder would be more hands on than the other bigger studios I looked at. They had a wood-shop in the back with every tool ever made. They made cabinets and other things for the studio. Connected to the wood-shop was a wallpaper making room with 3 long tables for custom designs. It was their side business.
The first guy I met there was Sag* (one of the owners), who was a bassist in the 90’s for a band called “Hary’s Danish”*. He looked like he came straight out of jail and was ready to pound someone in the face, but he was actually a super friendly guy – my favorite at the studio. He had a large build with black-framed glasses and spoke with a raspy smoker’s voice (although he didn’t smoke at the time). One of the smartest guys I’ve ever met and knew almost everything about vintage gear and technology. I learned a whole lot from him and also gained a lot of musical influences from his iTunes collection (Tom Waits, Motown, Oldies). I definitely rubbed off his musical taste.
The asshole/owner of the studio was Dan (won’t mention his last name just in case he reads this. If you ARE reading, you’re an asshole). I have to say this though, I liked his blunt attitude sometimes and he was one of the most amazing electric guitarists I’ve ever seen or heard. He came from an Italian family who played old country/blues/folk songs, which is pretty odd if you ask me. He ran the wallpaper company and basically designed and built the studio. He has a great eye for aesthetics.
Then there was Rick and Dono*. Rick (owner) was also a bassist and had a side job of working on commercials. He’s about 6’3 and has a lazy Australian accent. Walked pretty slow…Dan and Rick were both in a band called “The Fharthogs”*…I didn’t really like their music because it was dark and the melodies weren’t that great. The singing was also pretty bad. These guys were all in bands when they were younger, signed numerous major label deals, bla bla bla – the whole cliché. I think Rick was one of the best bassists I’ve ever heard. He played it really musically and smooth. I liked his style. One thing that bugged me about him was that he rarely did any dirty work (more about dirty work later). Dono was the office guy who occasionally played bass on stuff for the boys. He took care of all the money business and I would always see him surf the Internet. He was one of those people who liked giving advice. Most of the time, I have to say it was good advice, but sometimes, it was just too much for me. He’d be a great teacher.
I worked under these guys for three years and for free may I add. Three years of learning. Three years of pain. Three years of torture.
With passive learning, came active work. I was basically treated like a slave at Matter. Maybe I’m exaggerating just a fraction of a micron, but I definitely paid my dues in this stupid industry. People think they have it hard at their internships. They all think that doing coffee runs once a week is a pain in the ass. I used to come into the studio from around 12pm to 8pm at night 6 days a week for a year, cleaning dirty piss stained bathrooms, driving to get lunch for the boys, going to Starbucks (which had no parking lot) to buy coffee all on my own tank of gas. Sure they probably gave me a total of 20 bucks throughout the three years I’ve been there for gas, but it wasn’t anything compared to the 100 miles I drove there, and back home to work for them. I remember one instant, I was asked to drive about an hour from my house to pick up some paper for them, then I drove all the way back to the studio which was another hour away. I ended up going through rush hour traffic to get there (LA rush hour sucks!!!!). On top of that, I had to stay until 11pm to help them make freaking WALLPAPER. That’s just one incident. I ruined about 4 pairs of jeans because of how much painting I had to do for these guys. Painting cabinets, painting walls, painting ceilings, painting desks, crawling through air ducts with hidden black widows – the work was endless. Not sure if I was ever thanked for all the work I did. I even did a lot of “ghostwriting” work for them, not full songs with lyrics, but I composed quite a few instrumental tracks for the TV shows they were working on. Did I get paid or get credited? Nope.
* (Some names in this section are changed because they threatened to sue me after reading this. If you’re reading this go ahead and try. I’m speaking from fact and you know it. If you want me to change this stuff, call me personally and ask nicely.)
What made the experience worse for me was that I never said “no” to anything they would ask me to do. In Korean culture, you learn to respect your elders. Usually, they in return have a certain level of respect and courtesy towards you. Not at Sadder. They cursed me out for fun, made some racist jokes from time to time, and I endured the mental abuse. I didn’t want to ever talk back, and my mistake was that I didn’t demand respect. I should have held my ground, but I was just a shy kid who kept everything inside.
Now they sound like evil men from how I’m describing them (they are), but I learned some positive things from them too, besides carpentry, painting and back breaking work. I did a lot of observing and asking questions (of course when the time was right) and I listened to what different pieces of gear did what. I learned about different EQ’s, compressors, limiters, pre-amps, transients, analog tape, Pro-tools, microphones, and instruments. Eventually, they gave me a key to the studio, but I wasn’t always able to use it after they went home because I was too tired.
All kinds of people went in and out of the studio. It wasn’t a corporate studio, so there weren’t any huge acts, but some people I remember were Mike D and Money Mark from the Beastie boys, Chris Cornell, Steve Aoki, John C. Reilly, Greg Upchurch of Puddle of Mudd, Dean Butterworth of Good Charlotte, and Victor Indrizzo who played on many hit songs. I can’t remember any other significant artists. But there have been some great musicians who’ve come by.
The torturous interning went on and on and I was still working on music as usual. I pushed through it all, working hours and hours. I entered a couple songs into a songwriting contest at www.songwriteruniverse.com, which led me to getting a couple songs signed to the owner Dale Kawashima, who used to work at Sony/ATV publishing. He sent a song a song of mine to the A&R guy at Jive Records, David Stamm who was looking over the Backstreet Boys project. I got a call from Dale saying that David loved the song for the BSB but wanted to hear it produced a little differently. Of course, I was very excited about this amazing opportunity and went ahead to produce the song up more “organically” as David asked (A&R people never know what they want). Well after many re-mixes, the opportunity faded away as when a song gets re-worked so many times, it loses it’s magic.
This single incident made me never get excited about things in this industry because it was always so wishy-washy. It was a big bummer and I knew at least I had a contact at Jive records. By the way, the single they chose for the BSB was “Incomplete”. Remember that?
I went through a period after that where I didn’t see any progress in my career as I kept sweeping floors at the studio. I felt extremely frustrated and depressed. I was miserable but was reluctant to intern anywhere else. If I went to another studio, I’d have to start all over again from the bottom and I did not want to do that. I worked way too hard.
One day, I randomly went to www.ascap.com (ASCAP pays songwriters royalties for performances on Radio, TV, Films) where I stumbled upon an opportunity to submit music for the “Lester Sill Workshop” run by Brendan and Judy. This is where I found my biggest break ever.
The Lester Sill workshop was a class that included 15 songwriters and artists who were selected out of hundreds of entries across America. We had a chance to meet and learn from big-time industry professionals, as well as network with our fellow classmates. A couple notable guests that came by were John Shanks and Bob Clearmountain whom I knew of and had a great respect for. I felt very honored to speak with and learn a few things from them. It was a great feeling to be surrounded by truly talented people, and I mean the most talented group of people I’ve met thus far in my “career”. It was something I was not used to being around, and I felt like there was a bond between all of us that we all shared. I still keep in contact with a handful of them to this day. I remember on some workshop days when we would have “listening sessions”, I would always be the first to volunteer to have my song played because I wanted opinions on my songs. I wanted to grow as a songwriter and producer. That was one of my main objectives in life. I knew my songs weren’t always GREAT. I didn’t care about being judged, and knew this was the only way to become better.
Brendan took an interest in me and I felt very fortunate and humbled to have her believe in me. Judy also ran the workshop with her. She made the workshop experience like a musical therapy session. It was pretty interesting…but more on that later. After the eight-week workshop was over, Judy called me to her office at Warner Chappell Music and asked me to play her some more of my music. She listened to some of my songs (including “That Girl”), and offered to sign me to a deal as a staff songwriter. It was the break I was waiting for. The day I could finally call myself a “professional songwriter and producer”. I was a happy camper to be finally signed.
During my first year, I was paired up with many songwriters who were signed as well as unsigned. Judy helped develop my songwriting skills and also in ways other than music. I do have to say she was very nit-picky on lyrics, which I found helpful. It definitely helped me to be aware that songs have to have both great melodies and great lyrics.
She put it this way: A melody is like a woman in a bar that you are instantly attracted to – the part that hooks you. The lyrics are what make you fall in love with that person. That sort of stuck with me throughout the years.
I thought being signed meant that the hard work was done. It definitely was in a way, but I realized after getting signed, you are at the bottom of the food chain. In the amateur world, I was doing fairly well, winning things, getting my name out there, but this new world of professionals was different. It involved a ton of politics, money, and business. I was exposed to the superficial side of the music industry where I found it was a people pleasing business more than just the creative side. I had to remember that I was now writing songs for artists. They had to be tailor made to fit their voice, style, and current life situations. It didn’t matter if I felt inspired or not, I had to write songs. It was a job. I had to make contacts with A&R reps at labels and remember to keep in contact with them. I had to make sure they liked me, so they would listen to my songs for a potential placement. Warner Chappell did not do much as far as placing songs, but they (Judy and some others who worked there) did introduce me to some high players in the business. I found out the business is closed, and it really did have many inner circles that outsiders couldn’t really get into unless brought in by an insider. I was lucky to be in that door. I was lucky to have an industry veteran who everyone in the industry knew and respected. Judy believed in me and wanted to help me succeed.
So fast-forwarding a bit, I’ve written with tons of people, and produced tons of demos. Being a producer, and someone who makes tracks, whenever I wrote a song with someone, I was the one who always did the musical tracks. I did not get paid to do the extra work, and spent hours upon hours, while the other songwriter waited until the demo was finished. I didn’t mind doing the demos. I hated it when some co-writers would complain or not be considerate that I was doing this extra work for free by being too nit-picky. I did the track work (demos) because otherwise, the song would just sit on a hard drive un-produced.
I became jaded with everything I was doing, but continued to press on, develop relationships, and I really tried to enjoy it. I was able to use the studio I interned at to record vocalists and such for my demos at night, which was a great advantage.
Taking meetings with A&R reps at labels and going to industry mixers was a difficult task for me because I was young and wasn’t interested in networking or meeting folks whom I was supposed to impress. I felt a lot of people were superficial and all they wanted was someone to cut their songs. I couldn’t really do it well.
As a side note, I realized that people who were not music tech savvy thought it was impressive whenever they saw a bunch of gear in racks. I mean, it looked good, but it wasn’t necessarily good equipment – just a bunch of crappy gear in racks. I found that one of the purposes of a studio was supposed to be a place where it’s visually impressive and gives off the impression that a great product would come out of it. Quality versus Quantity.
During my 2nd year at Warner, I started posting YouTube videos. I actually started off by posting videos of trips and such just like most people do on YouTube. I also enjoyed watching videos from older YT-ers like lonelygirl15, EmoKid21Ohio, Renetto, and thewinekone. It was a great place to get my mind off things Warner related. I do admit though, that I was a bit addicted to the website. Who doesn’t want to see a cute kitten or someone falling off a chair? Admit it. It’s entertaining.
One day as I was browsing YT, I came across a video of Esmee Denters and was blown away by her talent. I became an instant fan of hers and I decided to make a video response to the song she wrote. After I did the cover, someone did a remix of what I covered! The whole thing was crazy! Insane! This was YouTube – a creative community of sharing music, having fun, and trying new things.
Shortly after the response to her, I decided to post a song I wrote called YouTube (A Love Song) just for fun. I didn’t expect anything, but to give random people who happened to stumble upon it some laughs and giggles. A week passed. Somehow, it got featured on the homepage of YouTube, and I got a call from my friend Ryan at Interscope saying he saw me on the home page. I was like “what are you talking about?”. Then I realized that the video had not only been seen by him, but thousands of people all over the world.
Blogs started writing about me, articles started appearing, and I even was interviewed for Koream Magazine (A Korean American Magazine). Emails started flooding in asking if I had an album, or if I performed live. I didn’t have an album, I didn’t perform live, nor was I interested in pursuing those things since I was already working my way up as a songwriter/producer. Also, since I was signed at the time, I wasn’t able to work on, or release an album without having to go through legal obstacles. My contract stated that whatever I wrote during the 2 years, Warner Chappell would own 50% of the publishing (which was normal) and if I released it, I’d have to pay Warner whenever I made money off those songs and bla bla bla…money/business stuff = boring.
Since the requests for music kept rolling in, and to be honest, I was a bit annoyed, I started putting up older songs that I wrote up on my YouTube page as well as covers. The feedback I was getting was pretty good in general and I found it to be a good tool to get unbiased opinions of my music.
I actually viewed YouTube as something quite funny (and I still do) because it was all so new. I never thought that a shy guy like me would be posting videos of himself for the world to see. It actually never really felt like I was playing in front of a global audience. The whole thing felt surreal like it was some sort of a game. I even got people commenting on my appearances and personality, which I rarely experienced in real life. I found that to be strange and interesting, how a place like this could exist. People commented on why I never smiled and as I always explain, it was because I felt odd smiling to an “audience” that only existed in my room. Staring into a laptop camera and superficially smiling felt funny. After reading the same questions again and again, I took it upon myself not to ever smile again on YouTube. It was no marketing gimmick (which I guess it became to some people) – just plain truth.
While continuing to work for Warner Chappell, I continued posting to YouTube and started to slowly develop a subscriber base. With the constant video uploads, came new opportunities. In 2007, I was asked to speak at the “Imprint Conference”, which was a conference held by “Intertrend” (Ad Agency) about my “YouTube success” along with my soon to be good friend “HappySlip”. The conference went well, and as a side note, that’s where I discovered the Coco Bidet, but more on that later.
I remember at the time, Christine had around 50,000 subscribers and I had 10,000 subscribers. That was large at the time since YouTube was still in its infant stages. We developed an instant bond, both being YouTubers and having much in common. That was the start of our friendship! After the conference, Christine did a meet and greet since she was in town with all her fans. I brought my guitar along (I was supposed to perform a song during the panel) and Christine asked me to go up on stage and perform a couple songs. Now this was something I was extremely nervous about, but I got enough of a push to go up and play a couple songs. I sucked, not to mention, I was sick too with my cough I get 6 months out of the year. After I went up and played horribly, I put it behind me. After the conference, me and Christine decided to work on our first collaboration called “Happyslip Makes David Choi Smile”. It was a ton of fun filled with laughter and smiles – which you were not able to see. I also met her managers at the time that I still work with to this day.
Back to the bidet now. So at the hotel where the conference was being held (in Little Tokyo in Downtown LA), they had a bidet in the bathroom. Now it wasn’t the first time I encountered one, but I never actually tried using it. Well, I decided to try it and it tickled a bit, but I felt clean and I thought to myself, “Hey, I’d really like one of these”. After the conference ended, and I said my goodbyes, I went home and contacted the Coco Bidet Company and asked if they could send me one and in turn, I’d write them a song and make a music video for them. The rest is history.
In the same year, I was asked to speak at another conference called the “TAXI Road Rally” on a publisher/songwriter panel with my publisher at the time Judy in front of about a thousand people. That was a great public speaking experience for me.
2008 was a very big and busy year for me. It started off with me entering a YouTube cover contest held by the band Lifehouse. I basically won a Plasma TV with a home entertainment system, which is still sitting in my garage because we have no room for it here.
Shortly after that, I found out a song I co-wrote, “This is Your Life” with a songwriter, Brodie Stewart got cut by the band “Flipsyde” on Interscope Records! I was super excited when I heard the news because it was my first official cut! A goal of every songwriter achieved! I remember the day I got the phone call. I was in front of my friend Peter’s store driving back home at around 6pm…one of the happiest days of my life. This was awesome news because I also got co-producing credits with Brodie on an album that Akon mostly produced. I actually did the entire instrumental track at home while Brodie recorded vocals with the band up in San Francisco. He sent the vocal files back to me and I edited and mixed everything together. I was actually supposed to get paid for this, but I never did to this day. Where’s mah money?!?!?
Through the 2 years at Warner, I was very close to getting songs cut by various major label artists, particularly Disney artists (they had a huge market at the time, and still do!). By this time, there was some momentum and people in the Disney camp started to recognize me as a writer/producer. I even remember going into some meetings and playing them songs. On a side note, I remember I worked on some drum programming for Jordan Pruitt’s album. Although this was an area I could have pushed myself a little harder into (the networking side), I was tired and jaded of it. I still worked hard though. I always worked hard and gave my best.
The year also brought in opportunities to be in print magazines such as Music Connection Magazine, OC Weekly, and SF Chronicle through my YouTube success. Those were fun.
In middle of 2008, I discovered a song of mine “We’ll Make it Last All Afternoon” was being used in a Global Warming Commercial on a major TV network (MBC) in Korea without my permission. How did I find out? A fellow David Choi listener from Korea wrote on my Facebook wall and notified me! This was a big deal. A national campaign using my song?!?! Without my permission?!?! WTF?!?! My parents called the network and after discussing, supposedly, in Korea, without getting into too much detail, they didn’t need to get permission from the original songwriters and just had to pay a fee to their Performance Rights Society KOMCA. Their industry is corrupt and very much flawed compared to the American industry. They kindly removed the commercial and I’ve yet to see a penny from that incident.
On October 28th, I released “Only You”…
This story will be added on to in a year or two…
Thoughts? Comment below?