In Seoul, Korea, the hip hop scene has expanded into a cultural phenomenon, producing hip hop artists that can match skills with the best of their U.S. counterparts. Represented by such top acts as CB MASS, Drunken Tiger and T (Tasha), all of whom command incredible social influence, Korean hip hop music firmly stands as the respectable and socially-conscious antithesis to an often superficial and confused pop genre that pervades the Korean music industry.

Tablo is an emcee who recently made his debut into the Korean hip hop scene. Although his group, Epik High, has yet to release a full-length album, the duo’s collaborations with top Korean hip hop acts have created a noticeable buzz within the industry. Considering this anticipation surrounding Epik High’s first record, due in November of this year, it is somewhat surprising that just a few months ago, Tablo was Daniel Armand Lee, a coterminal student in the Stanford English department.

INTERMISSION: How did you go from writing literature papers to writing rhymes?

LEE: I’ve done music for a long time. When I was 17, I wrote a song with Kim Gun Mo, a singer who literally has deity status over here in Korea. And I was part of an underground hip hop group during my Stanford years, so it’s not like all of a sudden I decided that this was my “call.”

INTERMISSION: Who else is involved with Epik High?

LEE: The other half of Epik High is Mithra Jin. Though he’s two years younger than I am, he’s been featured on over 11 major albums in Korea. Brilliant writer. I met him a year ago at a freestyle contest in Seoul, which he won, by the way. Then there’s my producer J-Win, who’s a student at USC on break to do hip hop in Korea. He’s done incredible work with Drunken Tiger and CB Mass. Our DJ’s name is TuKutz, the boy with the magic fingers. For our debut album, we’ll be working with CB Mass, Drunken Tiger, T and the likes. I’m blessed to be working with these talented artists.

INTERMISSION: What would be the best way to describe your music?

LEE: I guess you can call it “soulful.” We’re not doing the whole “jiggy” or “bling bling” thing . . . that’s just not us, and personally, it would be a waste of time for me. Our music is inspired by ’60s and ’70s soul music, both melodically and lyrically. We want listeners to nod their heads because they enjoy the beats, but at the same time because they are feeling our message.

INTERMISSION: Can you tell me about the current state of the Korean hip hop scene?

LEE: It’s getting there. Acts like Drunken Tiger and CB Mass airlifted hip hop to an amazing level. That’s probably why the United States scene is showing so much interest in Korea now. CB Mass, for example, will be on DJ Honda and EPMD’s new albums. The form, at least, has definitely been mastered now — the beats, the rhymes, the performances, the look — it’s indistinguishable from the United States scene. The social relevance, however, has a long way to go. The message is slowly catching up to the medium.

INTERMISSION: What is the role of hip hop in Korea?

LEE: Hip hop is important for the same reason that it’s important in the U.S. Seoul is a heavily congested metropolis, which creates a lifestyle of emotional desolation. I think hip hop’s stress on a “one love” community of young men and women can assist the efforts of social reformers struggling to better city life. Of course, this is the ideal role of hip hop . . . it’s sadly ignored most of the time, however. Hip hop is also important to Korea in a cultural aspect. Because pop music has become the norm — the lowest common denominator of Korean culture — most listeners are indifferent to issues beyond love, parties and fun, fun, fun. At the same time, in order to cater to these audiences, pop artists barely ever talk about anything thought-provoking. Hip hop artists such as CB Mass, however, have criticized blind materialism, political corruption and drug abuse in their music, bringing to Korea, for maybe the first time, a “conscious” music. What’s interesting is that, unlike the United States, where commercial-minded artists such as Jay-Z rule, Korean hip hop would privilege artists such as Common or Mos Def. That’s a wonderful thing.