AFTER a four-year hiatus, South Korean group Epik High have made their return to the K-pop scene with their new album 99.

The album has been highly anticipated since news of its release broke last month. It is the first time the group has released an album under their new management company, YG Entertainment, which signed members Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz in July this year.

YG Entertainment is also home to huge artistes like PSY, 2NE1 and Big Bang, who were in Malaysia just last weekend as part of their Big Bang Alive Galaxy Tour.

Epik High member Tablo had actually previously been signed to the company as well, releasing a solo album, Fever’s End, in November 2011.

The road to the release of their seventh studio album, however, has not been an easy one. The group, well known for their unique sound, has seen members enlisting in Korea’s mandatory two-year military service; while Tablo was caught up in a controversy over his studies as well (more on that later).

While most K-pop followers know the group pretty well now, they didn’t have the strongest of starts back when they made their debut in 2003. Their first album Map Of The Human Soul featured some of the biggest names in Korean hip-hop, including Drunken Tiger and CB Mass. But because hip-hop wasn’t popular in Korea at the time, the album failed to shine, and it wasn’t until their third album, Swan Songs, that the group started to become a force on the K-pop scene. Their fourth album was an even bigger success, selling 90,000 copies in the first month alone.

South Korean group Epik High.

In 2009, the group left Woollim Entertainment, going on to start their own independent music label, Map The Soul. The group released Map The Soul as a book-album with the help of other Korean hip-hop artistes.

In the same year, it was announced that DJ Tukutz was to enlist in the army, and he was followed by Mithra Jin in August 2010. It was during the absence of both his band members that Tablo made his solo debut with YG Entertainment, though he made it clear at the time that the group was not disbanded.

But 2010 was nevertheless a tough year for the group. Tablo’s graduation from Stanford University, majoring in English and English literature, was seen as highly suspicious. A group, going by the name “We Demand The Truth From Tablo”, claimed it was impossible for Tablo to have completed his studies there as quickly as he did.

The controversy made the front pages of Korean newspapers, which led Tablo to reveal his transcripts and other documents online; but many remained sceptical.

To put an end to the controversy, Tablo visited Stanford as part of a documentary to prove that his documents were not forged, and that finally put an end to the matter, with Stanford officials confirming Tablo’s graduation.

In October 2010, Korean police issued an arrest warrant domestically and with Interpol to arrest the leader of the “We Demand The Truth From Tablo” group, which was later revealed to be a 57-year-old Korean American currently living in the United States.

After that controversy, and the return of Mithra Jin, speculation was rife that Epik High would release a new album this year. On Oct 27, YG Entertainment officially announced that Epik High was to return to the music scene together with new artiste Lee Hayi.

Their new album, 99, includes collaborations with labelmates Park Bom (from 2NE1) and Lee Hayi. The track with Lee, It’s Cold, was an instant “all-kill”, topping all the major charts across Korea at the same time.

This year marks the ninth year since Epik High’s debut, and the group has promised to make it up to fans who have been patiently waiting for their comeback over the last three years.

They are even organising a special autograph session today with 250 lucky fans. Those who purchase the new album will get to be part of an online raffle to select the 250.

Considering the positive response to the album so far, it seems inevitable that the group will be big winners at the year-end music awards.

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