When I first ran into Seattle-native UNKWN outside of the preliminaries of the 2019 Battle of the Beat Makers (BBM) competition in Toronto, he couldn’t help but gush about the experience. The northern hospitality, the natural mystic wafting through the air and the foreign, but familiar, aura of the area that made him feel at home.
He asked me for a lighter and as I casually slipped into journalist mode, I slyly asked, “Are you adequately prepared for what is ahead of you?” And in between tokes he simply responded, “I’m ready.”
For 15 years now, BBM has solidified itself as a launching pad for both local producers and ones from abroad. The competition pits producers against each other as they alternate playing beats to sway the crowd and the judges to eventually come out on top in a round-robin style face off.
Toronto producer heavyweights like Boi-1da, T-Minus, and WondaGurl claimed victory early in their careers and are first to come to mind when referencing its hallowed stage. It’s an institution that many fledgling producers from around the world consider a rite of passage.
The preliminary round of the battle is always a melting pot of talent. It sees a whirlwind of 64 hopefuls go head-to-head to help whittle down the cabal so that only the best 32 step onto the mainstage at Toronto’s Opera House, the venue for the official competition.
This year UNKWN came out on top.
“I didn’t want to be standing on stage all super serious. I just wanted to go out there and have fun. Regardless of a win or a loss.”
From early on in the competition it was clear that even amongst several others who were incredibly talented, he was the one to watch for. He commanded the stage when his beat came on, entertaining the crowd with dance moves, ensuring he had a good time. After putting seven months of heavy prep work into this journey, he was confident, but also just wanted to network and have fun.
“I didn’t want to be standing on stage all super serious,” he says. “I just wanted to go out there and have fun. Regardless of a win or a loss.”
UNKWN is no rookie to the production game, but his hip-hop aspirations have just recently come full circle. 2019 was the year of wins for him. He not only took home the BBM trophy, but he also won the Splice Boi-1da Beat Challenge and got to meet the legend himself. It was a dream come true for UNKWN who in 2012 found inspiration from watching old battles on BBM’s YouTube channel.
While it may seem like a Cinderella story, it’s been a long road for UNKWN to this point. Five years ago, he was spoken highly of in underground EDM circles as one-half of DJ group BL3R. By the time the EDM bubble went pop he decided to bring that cinematic structure, full of builds and neck breaking drops, over to trap.
“With EDM there is no voice that carries the track. You’ve got synths, efx, fills and really just building up that energy to the drop and then transitioning the listeners back into another drop,” UNKWN explains. “Sometimes a lot of these beats you hear on the radio are taking less than 30 minutes to produce. It’s crazy man. And this EDM stuff could take 48 hours minimum to a year.”
For him the equation was simple. It could take months to build an EDM beat from the ground up, especially when working with a partner. However, when it came to getting his ideas out and fueling that need to create, he realized he could itch that creative nerve much faster by digging in the crates.
Two big wins since getting back into hip-hop — so far so good.
“[My parents] didn’t understand my vision. They come from Korea and it’s a lot different out there.”
Still, the stakes are high for UNKWN. Being a child of immigrants, his decision to drop out of university on a pharmaceutical scholarship to pursue music was a difficult pill for his parents to swallow, he explains.
Even with the hot streak, life isn’t easy for UNKWN. Slipping into creative mode after a long day of his 9 to 5 job isn’t easy. While the accolades are great, he’s yet to make a comfortable living off the craft that he loves, and that fact weighs heavy.
“[My parents] didn’t understand my vision,” he shares. “They come from Korea and it’s a lot different out there. Their generation is a lot different than our generation. They can’t imagine sitting on your laptop and making hit records and eventually making a living off it. The transition was very hard, but I just stuck at it.”
But if he keeps collecting Ws at this rate, it’s only a matter of time until he becomes the most known UNKWN.
Photos supplied courtesy of UNKWN’s management