Talking to ESKOH, immediately puts you in a great mood and it makes it clear why the acronym for his name is Every Situation Kan Offer Hope.
Getting his start as a singer in the church, then pursuing a career in finance and eventually pursing a music career full time, ESKOH has a well-rounded and diverse background. He approaches everything with a positive attitude, which is also a reflected in his music. After listening to his newest single “Only Option”, I could not help but to bop along and sing out loud, which is something I definitely needed during this time of being quarantined here in New Jersey.
You can listen to his music online at: youtube.com/eskohmusic
Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photograph courtesy of ESKOH.
Carly Kutsup: I saw that by the age of 16 you were starting to tour worldwide, but when is it that you started getting involved in music?
ESKOH I grew up doing music in church ever since a very young age so it’s hard to really trace it back, but professionally I started recording when I was 16. I did a gospel album and then I toured America and Asia as well.
CK: How did you get recognized?
E: I guess the only outlet beyond church for my music was the Asian market so what happened was I was recruited to essentially be a trainee to become a K-Pop music star. I was kind of at a crossroads after high school, which was when I was approximately 17/18, whether to go to Asia to pursue my music career full time or go to college. So, I ended up going to college in Philadelphia. I went to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and I ended up starting a record label out of my dorm room. I always felt more comfortable with the American market being I was born and raised in the New York City area and I didn’t want to go and restart my life in another country so I created my own label and was more behind scenes. Since there wasn’t really any opening for people of Asian descent in pop music, R&B music or hip-hop music so I produced and developed a lot of hip-hop artists in Philadelphia at the time. I then built my own label and managed different acts, did songwriting, producing, writing behind the scenes. Then more recently in the past two years I’ve been approached by different Grammy award winning producers to pursue my own career so it’s been a long journey.
CK: What lead you to getting involved with like the R&B and hip-hop scene? What influenced you to pursue R&B or hip-hop?
E: I guess you can say that there are a lot of different factors that contributed to that. First and foremost, I’ve always been a fan of R&B singers. I grew up listening to artists like Boyz II Men or like KC and JoJo or Brian McKnight and artists like The Fugees. I kind of grew up listening to that and I grew up in the area of Z100, Hot 97, Power 105, KTU of the 90s and 2000s so my ear has been tuned to that sound. And then beyond that I guess I’ve always had an affinity to people who are disadvantaged because I grew up in the Church. We learned a lot of values in terms of love and helping people less fortunate that us. My mother would take me to soup kitchens in Harlem at a young age. My love for music kind of grew out my love for people and just being able to give hope to people who are less fortunate than I am. The reason I got very deep into hip-hop in college is because there was a big trend at the time called battle rapping. I always have been an entrepreneurial, so my first business was to capitalize on this trend of rap music which was plentiful in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is known for street rappers and emcees. I befriended a cook who was a chef at my college dining hall, and he took me to West Philly. So West Philly is notorious for crime and is also where Will Smith is originally from. I went to this community which was right next to my college. So when we explored that area I realized that there was this phenomenal talent where a lot of former drug dealers, pimps and ex-convicts were very good at this music form, which was trending at the time but didn’t have infrastructure to record, come up with original beats and come up with music or had any musical training. So, I set up shop in my dorm room, created a recording studio. There is this documentary called “Hello Sean Koh”, which documents it and won the Philadelphia Film Festival. I then just started developing all these different artists as a passion to help people and then that became successful. I then started getting offers from major labels to bring my artists over there and then befriended legendary producers such as Teddy Riley. Teddy was a good friend from that era since I discovered him through this hip-hop journey and then eventually, I worked with Teddy and helped him expand to Asia and bring a more westernized sound to K-pop. We then worked with some of the biggest companies in South Korea and helped globalized K-pop. I was managing a lot of artists in Korea and helped bring K-pop over to America. I feel that now is prime time for someone finally of Asian descent to come out in the American market because every other race has had their representative or less; now it’s about something different, something fresh, something unique storytelling so that’s kind of what kind deliver right now.
CK: How did you get into producing? Was that something that you learned through the church or was it something that you learned completely on your own?
E: I didn’t exactly learn it in the church, but in the Church you do learn chords and instruments. Unfortunately, if you look at the history of hip-hop, it was burst out of the ghettos of Bronx where people didn’t have access to music so they needed to improvise and use turntables to DJ and replay samples. That’s how they started making music. So early on when I was involved in the hip-hop industry, I realized that a lot of people didn’t have typical music training, like what I learned from the Church and school. I play multiple instruments so as the saying goes “Invention is the mother of necessity” I just started making these productions. I learned how to use MIDI. With MIDI technology and digital music, you can make beats from your keyboard or from a computer in your dorm. So that’s kind of how I started naturally and then I started producing some different up and coming artists. I was producing a girl named Ailee at the time. She’s probably one of the biggest K-pop stars right now. I met her through the church as well. Her mother asked me to help kind of train her and develop her and then she went on and became a big star in Korea. Ailee was singing a lot of covers so she was generating hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube around the same time Justin Bieber was doing it early on. She wanted to start doing original music and then I started creating original music. All these things just came from my natural passion for music and people. From a very young age, I have been able to write songs very quickly. I can write a whole song in about a half an hour or so. I always hear these melodies and have ways to produce and record them and mix them. It has kind of just been a natural passion and gift and I am very fortunate to be able to use it across different genres.
CK: What is the writing process like for you?
E: Usually I just come up with a melody. I am very melody centric. I come up with a catchy melody whether its acapella. I just start coming up with an idea. Sometimes it can become the chorus or something. I just come up with a melody and then I try to be a wordsmith and then come up with words that epitomize a certain message that I am trying to share at the time or that vibes with the music with a rhyme. So, it’s very organic for me and every song is a little bit different. It’s kind of a spur of the moment kind of thing for me where I sit by a piano and can play chords or play guitar and play chords and then I just come up with this melody and build it from the ground up from there.
CK: Besides the piano and the guitar are there any other instruments that you do play?
E: I also play the flute. So, I’ve been trying to incorporate that in my recent music. I just put up a video on my YouTube where I was playing four different people. The video is cut up in to four different quadrants and I’m playing all these different instruments. It’s funny how I ended up playing the flute. In 4th grade where you pick your first instrument, my mom didn’t want to get me a new instrument so there was a flute laying around the house. That’s kind of how I got into it and I’m glad I have that skill set now that I can use it.
CK: How do your friends and family feel about you pursuing a career in music? Are they supportive of it or are they indifferent?
E: They’ve always known I’ve had a passion for music so it’s part of who I’ve been, and they’ve become very accustomed to it. Obviously, I’ve been balancing my job in finance. I was involved in all these different adventure capital financing industries and then it was the past year that I just dove fulltime into this so they’re kind of not understanding why I’m sacrificing a successful kind of Wall Street financial career to pursue music, but aside from that kind of curiosity or that kind of doubt I do have their support. Everyone wants me to be happy ultimately. I surround myself around people who really care about me and not only see this as a life passion or something that I love to do, but now with K-pop spilling over with the recent Academy Award winning movie “Parasite”, I see America is also open to a new type of artist and I think this will also in itself become a very successful business venture. NYC is Holy Grail of the world when it comes to epitome of success and when I make it here it can only multiply my success globally in Asia where there is obviously a larger population in markets. I do see this as kind of like the beginnings of hip-hop in the 70s as that did for the African American people. For Asian Americans, this kind of being a future industry or era that can also become a successful business enterprise.
CK: What would you say to those who want to pursue a career in music but don’t really have that same support that you have?
E: I think where there is a will, there is a way so if you if you look at all different types of artists, they’ve all had different types of success stories. More recently you see somebody like Lil Nas X. He was able to leverage Twitter, TikTok, other social platforms where he had no resources where literally from what I hear homeless, living with his sister and recording out of his sister’s closet in her bedroom to going to the number one record that crossed genres not only in hip-hop, R&B or urban but also into country. I would say that where there is a will, there is a way, and everyone has a different way of approaching it. Obviously, if you’re Asian, there is less infrastructure, tools and labels and producers that will give you a chance and that’s why I’m trying to spearhead this ecosystem that will allow more Asians to succeed in the American market, just like African Americans have, just like Caucasians have, just like Latinos have. Similarly, I’m trying to do that for Asians, but right now more than ever it’s a fertile environment for you to literally be like an artist in your bedroom and have success similar to Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas. They also started from their bedrooms so more than ever it’s not about the resources, but it’s about hustling online and using these platforms and making sure you have a unique story and identify your target audience online.
CK: Would you say that having social media platforms makes it a lot easier to get noticed than it did without it?
E: So, with everything, I think there is a tradeoff especially because since social media has made musicians and artists more accessible it’s created more of them. There is more competition so in that way you need to make sure you know your stuff, you have to make sure you practice, you have to make sure that you’re authentic all across the board so it’s kind of raised the bar in terms of competition. If you don’t have something unique or you don’t have that competitive advantage you might get drowned out by noise of social media, but a plus of what it has done is it allows you to access anybody in the world from your smartphone, from your computer compared to back in the day when they needed to print records or print CDs or cassette tapes. It does make music more accessible and allows you put the work in where you can see measurable results live online and where you don’t have to depend on a huge record label to do everything for you anymore.
CK: I see that you have a strong connection with Jamaica and then I saw that it’s your grandfather’s younger sister that were doctors there. Is that correct?
E: Yea that is definitely one aspect of it. That and I just found out kind of serendipitously recently that my father’s father, so my grandfather on my father’s side, had a younger sister and her and her husband were some of the earliest medical doctors to help Jamaica start up their health care system, but to give you the main reason as to why I have this connection to the Caribbean is because of my manager. Currently, I am managed by multi-platinum Grammy nominated artist by the name of Jimmy Cozier. Jimmy had a huge song in the 90’s called “She’s All I Got” and then he’s also had a duet with Alicia Keys. He was the first signee of Clive Davis. He was signed to J Records when Clive started J so Jimmy knows the ins and out, but since then he’s taken more of a backseat approach to the music industry. He’s more behind the scenes managing and developing artists and doing publishing and writing. I befriended him over the past 10 years and his roots are Brooklyn, but his parents are from the Caribbean. His mother is from Jamaica and his father is from Guyana. His father’s a very prolific jazz saxophonist also by the name of Jimmy Cozier. In Jimmy’s career as well, he had a marketing strategy where he originally when to the Caribbean because obviously Jamaica is known for authentic music. It is known for all these “one love” vibes. In Jamaica there is no kind of segregation or kind of the separation of races that you see so prevalent in America, especially with the polarization of recently of the parties and so forth. In Jamaica, everyone from Asians to Blacks to Caucasians, to people of Latino descent, they kind of all have a melting pot there, like a literal melting pot. The industry also has a lot of Asian people, such as there is a record label down there called VP records that was founded by Chinese Jamaicans so it was kind of a testing bed of what I like to call the minor leagues to get exposure. Jamaica also has strong ties to Europe because it’s a former British colony. So, it was more of a strategic short-term strategy for me to establish myself down in Jamaica just to get that authenticity of me being a real artist and knowing the roots of the music that I sing. Believe it or not, even hip-hop originated from Jamaica as well through DJ Kool Herc so there’s a lot of things from a foundational aspect of music. Obviously, there’s my family connection and then there’s also my manager and his roots in Jamaica that has brought me there. Going back to kind of more of the altruistic mission-oriented part of me I was down there also to do some social entrepreneurship to help the local people there create sustainable lifestyles through clean energy, solar energy. Believe it or not, a lot of the energy they produce is still based on oil; it’s not very sustainable. So, all across the board, I just wanted to bless that country. And then it all culminated me performing for 200,000 people on a live telethon to raise funds for Jamaica. Other famous Jamaican artists, like Shaggy, Sean Paul, Koffee, and I were able to raise about 10 million dollars to provide personal protective equipment for Jamaican health care workers. Now I’m here in New York trying to strategize something similar for the people here. My brand and my name ESKOH stands for Every Situation Kan Offer Hope and that’s kind of the main theme of everything I’m doing, which is to bring hope and to bring positive energy through my music, through my being through whatever mission it is I’m involved with.
CK: What was is it like performing live for 200,000 people?
E: Well with needing to err on the side of social distancing it was just like me performing for a camera. When I saw my performance garner the kind of the viewership it did, I was obviously very honored and I’m glad that a lot people tuned in to raise more awareness for this cause and help the healthcare workers in Jamaica.
CK: With going to Jamaica how are you starting to add that sound into your music?
E: My first EP is titled Koribbean so that’s kind of the brand I established for myself while down there. I did get influenced by the island vibes, like ska, reggae, these types of different genres and you’ll hear it in my upcoming music. I also worked with some big artists down there. I have a new song coming out with Sean Paul who people know of. So, these are all the different kind of things coming out of my experience there and I’m still connected with them so we’re making a lot of virtual music. I’ve worked with a lot of different artists down there, such as Dre Island, Jamila Falak and Vanessa Bling who are some of the bigger artists out of there, so their music has definitely influenced me. I’m coming out with some feel good music that also instills hope kind of like the songs of Bob Marley. These types of anthems are what I’m aiming for not only from a sonic perspective, but from a message perspective.
CK: You talked about your name ESKOH. How did you finally come up with that name?
E: It kind of really started in the hip-hop industry. My name has a three-trifold meaning: three different meanings. So first in the 90s in hip-hop everyone kind of had a gangster name, more or less. ESKOH kind of alluded to Escobar so I had that Pablo Escobar kind of feel. And then another thing is my name is Sean Koh. That’s my government name. If you just take the S and Koh, phonetically is sounds like ESKOH; that’s another aspect. Then finally once I listened to my name and thought about what I wanted to do, I wanted to make it into an acronym so that the name could stand for something. So I added the “e” in the beginning and then it became Every Situation Kan Offer Hope. Because no matter how bad a situation is, I just feel that there is always some silver lining and we can always kind of figure out an optimistic way to improve the situation. Like right now, there are many people suffering, but at the same time there are so many people that are showing the amazing strength of humanity and of generosity and of these different amazing values.
CK: What else would you like to see happen within your own career?
E: I would love to put the area of New York and New Jersey back on the map when it comes to music. I think it is time that New York can come back on the map as the epicenter for music as well. I think we need some resurgence and we have the talent!
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