K-Pop Hitmaker and Alum KENZIE Visits Berklee
Berklee hosted K-pop hitmaker KENZIE (Kim Yeon-jung ’99) and Chris Lee, CEO of SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s top entertainment companies, for a speaking event at the Red Room at Cafe 939 on Tuesday, March 7, kicking off a week of on-campus engagements for the alumna producer and songwriter.
For two decades, KENZIE has produced records for some of the biggest names in K-pop. Lee served as the longtime leader of SM’s A&R department before becoming the top executive for the South Korean media giant. Together, they are responsible for many concepts that have become the musical and marketing hallmarks of the K-pop genre. At the March 7 event, titled Inside K-pop: SM Entertainment, KENZIE and Lee discussed the company's “cultural technology” concept, its songwriting and content curation process, and its future.
“[Music] is the most important thing,” said Lee, revealing why it was important for him to speak to Berklee amidst a sea change within K-pop. “If we don’t have the right music and writers, [SM] cannot survive. For me and for the company, the most important part is the song.... I feel that Berklee could be a good source [of writers and producers] for SM.”
It was a rare opportunity for the Berklee community to hear from one of its most accomplished and influential alumni; KENZIE has remained largely private and out of the public spotlight for most of her career. In addition to the speaking event, KENZIE held office hours on March 8 and 9 where she provided students with feedback on their original tracks. She will also hold a studio session open to all students on Friday, March 10.
“I’m really glad to be back in Boston, my second home, especially my alma mater, Berklee,” said KENZIE. "As a music production and engineering [MP&E] student, you have to book a studio early in the morning. It was pretty hard. [I also remember the] pizza and Dunkin.’ I’m so glad Dunkin’ is still here!”
Celebrated as a pioneer and innovator of modern K-pop, KENZIE is the mastermind behind BoA's “My Name,” Girls’ Generation's “Oh!,” and other smash hits. As a producer and songwriter for the musical collective SM Town, she has also collaborated with such high-profile artists as Super Junior, NCT, TVXQ, Shinee, SuperM, f(x), Exo, Red Velvet, Twice, and æspa.
An MP&E major at Berklee, KENZIE spent countless hours in the studio honing her mixing and production skills and developing her sound. In a 2012 alumni profile, she described Berklee’s requisite ear training, harmony, and arranging classes as “the world’s best curriculum.” After graduating, KENZIE earned a chance to work with Lee Soo-Man, the founder of SM Entertainment, and she's been helping to define many signature elements of K-pop music ever since. In her introduction of KENZIE, Dr. Hae Joo Kim, assistant chair of the Professional Music Department, noted that several students have cited the producer as the reason they came to Berklee.
“SM Entertainment is globally recognized as a giant in the world of K-pop and in the larger context of South Korean popular culture, so to have KENZIE and Mr. Chris Lee join us for this event was a special moment for the Berklee community,” said Dr. Kim, who moderated the event. “There is a lot of change happening in the industry right now, and it has been a privilege to have this pair of hugely influential change-makers take the time to speak with our community. We are truly grateful to have KENZIE provide feedback to our students and engage them in conversation during office hours this week.”
Lee began as an intern at SM Entertainment before joining the A&R department in 2005, eventually working his way up to becoming co-CEO of the company. Under Lee's direction, SM Entertainment has successfully adapted to a rapidly changing market while cementing its legacy as a foundational entity of K-pop, producing some of the genre's top artists and creating the systems, styles, sounds, and aesthetics that define the culture.
In a detailed presentation, Lee laid out the future direction of SM Entertainment, a plan he calls “SM 3.0” that focuses on the development of “cultural technology,” which includes using new technology platforms to maximize the presence of K-pop in virtual communities such as the metaverse, where SM has created lifelike replicants of æspa, one of its top groups. He emphasized the importance of helping artists and producers create great music as the main focus of the company.
“The essence of SM is people,” said Lee. “There are over 600 employees. We have over 90 artists under SM. And [looking at] all the people who work with SM…all the writers and producers…we have over 3,000 people all over the world.… [I]t’s not only about the money [for these people]; it’s about their obsession with the music.”
KENZIE and Lee fielded questions from Berklee students on topics that ranged from the essential skills needed to succeed as a K-pop songwriter/producer to the structure of SM’s songwriting camps to the changes in the business that are transforming the industry.
“We invite writers from overseas because we expect [there will be] some kind of special chemistry between Eastern and Western [writers],” said KENZIE when asked about SM’s songwriting camp philosophy. “Writers [might] write a song in a day many times.… [But the] mix, the recordings, the lyrics, everything has to be developed in a perfect way. There are [many] other steps to [make a song] sound like [an] SM song. [In some cases], it can take six months to develop a song.”
The event concluded on a high note, as Lee announced that he would work with Dr. Kim, the assistant chair, to create potential opportunities for Berklee students at SM.