Epik High's Tablo reflects on creating 'PUMP', upcoming US tour and the trio's legacy

It's been two decades since the release of Epik High's debut studio album "Map of the Human Soul" and Tablo says the trio did not expect to stay busy after so long in the music industry.

Epik High's latest release dropped June 20, the group is gearing up for a North American tour in August and Tablo's daughter recently graduated middle school, the frontman tells USA TODAY.

"It's like super, super crunch time," he says.

Fellow member DJ Tukutz was "running errands" and Mithra Jin was working on new merchandise, while Tablo was in charge of music and visuals, he says. The busyness, however, is "a huge blessing."

"There's no way that a group 20+ years in should be this busy, and we're actually busier than we were when we were young, and like, 'a hot new group,'" Tablo adds.

Epik High is in its "+first year," as their fans call it, and after a blowout year for their 20th anniversary, the trio sees now as a fresh start.

How Epik High's two decades sparked self-reflection

Epik High's first mixtape "PUMP", out now, came through introspection. "It began with admitting something to ourselves that may be uncomfortable for other artists," Tablo shares.

"It sort of even felt like we were just repeating things over and over again. I personally felt that, unknowingly, we had become too much in our comfort zone and maybe a little complacent," he says.

The other members felt defensive at first toward the sentiment, but when Tablo explained further, Tukutz agreed.

From there, Epik High was unsure how to move forward. "It feels like we're just trying to maintain status quo and and I don't want to do that," Tablo recalls.

The trio had to challenge themselves or else there was "no point" in continuing "if we're just gonna repeat every year exactly the same," Tablo says. So, Epik High altered its approach to everything, this ultimately led to "PUMP" and its accompanying tour.

Creating 'PUMP'

For "PUMP", Epik High is returning to its roots. "We asked ourselves, 'what would we do if this was really our first year?'" says Tablo.

The members went back to "being rookies." When Epik High had a novice mindset, they had no idea of what performs well, what is chart friendly or what sells versus what doesn't.

"We ended up knowing all of that through our experience because we had 20 years of hits and success. We had to really force ourselves to empty ourselves of that knowledge," Tablo adds.

The freeness and open creativity of that caused the mixtape format of "PUMP." The members didn't want familiar sonics and also stayed away from collaborations, which have been an Epik High signature. In the past, the trio has collaborated with the likes of SEVENTEEN's Hoshi, CL and Jackson Wang, among others.

"It is kind of anxiety-inducing because we don't know how an Epik High album would be received without all those blockbuster features," Tablo adds. "Forcing ourselves not to be able to lean on features and lean on comfortable ways of doing things ended up making this."

DJ Tukutz, Mithra Jin and Tablo of Epik High.
DJ Tukutz, Mithra Jin and Tablo of Epik High.

During the creative process, songs deemed "super radio friendly" were made, but were left out.

"The minute we take them out, it becomes a mixtape," Tablo shares. "We were like, 'Wow, just having one or two songs taken out turns it into an entirely different project."

The sonic switch-ups within single tracks was intentional to challenge not only listeners, but also Epik High themselves.

"We wanted these songs to be very performable on stage. We wanted quick beat and mood changes so that we would be able to keep people pumped throughout the process," Tablo explains. "Just when they start getting comfortable with a rhythm, we would change the mood or the BPM of the song. The whole thing was like a makeover of the way we do things."

Breaking down the mixtape's tracklist

About the song's on "PUMP", "the lyrics are written more like I'm writing in a journal," says Tablo. The tracks are up for interpretation, and sometimes, their meanings are not concrete.

"Mithra and I sat down and when we discussed how to go about writing the lyrics, the first rule we had was we can't have a specific subject matter that we want to talk about," Tablo adds.

Mithra would write three or four versions of certain tracks to allow for that ambiguity.

"If you listen to our first album, it now seems like we had these big topics that we wanted to talk about. But we were in our teens, entering our 20s, when we wrote those songs. At the time, we had more questions than answers," Tablo shares.

He points to "Lesson One (Tablo's World)" off of Epik High's debut album as the crux of this. In the song, Tablo raps "Genius is not the answer to all questions, it's the question to all answers.

"The whole premise was that we don't know anything, and that's sort of what we wanted to go back to (with 'PUMP')," Tablo reflects.

Stand-outs on "PUMP" include "ANTIHERO" and "K-DRAMA" for Tablo. The latter is "both very funny and very serious," a quintessential facet to Epik High's discography.

But the former echoes to Epik High's roots with an added realization of the trio's age and legacy within the industry.

"We are like veterans, and that's a very scary thing," Tablo shares.

The track then segues into a confidence of not giving up. Enter "LATE CHECKOUT", where Epik High is saying, "'it's not time for us to check out yet,'" but coupled with a fear and that the clock is ticking, Tablo says.

Epik High's legacy in the industry

It's a complicated feeling when reflecting on the group's impact, says Tablo. It's nice knowing that other artists look up to you, but "then it goes into this really scary, confused feeling.

"We always said to ourselves if Epik High stopped at our third or fourth album, if that was the end of Epik High, our status might actually be even higher," Tablo reveals. "We may actually live up to what certain people (believe).

"Because we have been continuing to do it, we have become human. People are literally watching us as we have our rises and falls. People can see us growing, but another word for growing is also aging."

Longevity isn't visible from the onset, and sometimes people have their ebbs and flows. But Epik High hopes to show that things don't always have a definitive end.

"Maybe we don't have to do that. Maybe there is like a second shot, third shot, fourth shot," Tablo says. "We want to be at least one of the groups that (younger artists) can look to and be like, 'Hey, you know, Epik High stayed together for 20+ years.

"One day when we're like really old, (people can say) 'Those grandpas can still rock it, like they can still rap. Maybe we can do that too."

So, whenever a younger artist shouts out Epik High, it's "a sense of flattery, also anxiety, but at the end, a sense of responsibility," Tablo adds.

What to expect on the 'PUMP' tour

Besides Epik High's discography, the trio is stepping up the production and music of tour. They're going to change the way they perform and are trying to fit more songs into the setlist.

There's also a difference of VIP packages, exclusive merchandise and upgraded perks for the upcoming concerts. Tablo says the group wants to give back to the fans for their passion.

"It's really indescribable to see a huge group of smiling faces, right? It's rare. Like, where else can you possibly get that?" he adds. "It's just very rewarding."

"I am willing to do whatever is necessary so that I can do that, so I can keep performing for people."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Epik High's Tablo talks upcoming US tour, 'PUMP' mixtape and impact