Kang Hyun-min remembers the first time he slid an album from its cardboard jacket and delicately placed it on the turntable. It was 1979 and Kang's father had made the record player off-limits to the 10-year-old. But home alone one day, the young Kang gave in to his curiosity.
Unable to read English, he knew musicians only by their album-cover art. He grabbed an album by ABBA and set the needle down on a random song. The room was dark and Kang held his face close. He watched the black vinyl spin slowly and was mesmerised. The career of one of Seoul's most popular foreign-music nightclub disc jockeys was born.
Three decades later, vinyl records have been replaced by internet downloads in most DJ booths but the 41-year-old Kang remains loyal to those early sounds. For years, Kang approached foreigners to plumb their musical knowledge. Now he is sought out by expatriates in Seoul for the breadth, style and playfulness of his musical acumen.
Kang spins it all: indie, country, punk. But his speciality is the British sound of the 1980s: the likes of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, the Cure and the Smiths. Known to fans as Min — a name that fittingly rhymes with spin — he will plumb his repertoire for an obscure track that will prompt foreign bar patrons to approach with an oft-heard question: Who was that?
"If I play a song for 100 people and one person comes up to me and says, ‘Oh my God, I haven't heard that in 20 years!' I've been a success," he said. "It's why I play."
The music aficionado has always approached Western tunes with the passion of a wide-eyed graduate student, hungry for new sounds born outside his culture. "I've never seen him stumped by a request," said Allen Johnson, a Korean linguist in Seoul. "Min will say, ‘Oh, I know that band; what song do you want to hear?' And he'll play three killer tracks."
Working in Seoul's foreign-dominated Itaewon area, Kang's encyclopaedic 1980s playlist is sprinkled with out-of-decade sounds, such as Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Love Missile F1-11, Secret Affair's Time for Action and Celebrate by An Emotional Fish. Kang cut his musical teeth with the times. In high school, he tuned in to the Armed Forces Radio Network, absorbing tracks by such groups as A-ha, Dire Straits and Culture Club. He compiled Top Ten lists for friends, always attending class with his Sony Walkman, telling teachers he was studying English, which, in a way, he was. With his cheap recorder, he would tape music right off the radio.
By the mid-1980s, his older brother was working as a bar disc jockey and Kang fell in love with the DJ's easy control of the bar's vibe and mood. In 1990, fresh out of high school, he applied for his first DJ gig. The bar specialised in the American 1950s and 1960s sound, so on his live interview Kang played a few Elvis Presley cuts and threw in some Rolling Stones. The owner liked what he heard.
For the next two decades, Kang would work in a succession of bars and for a few years ran his own club. He spun tracks at night and during the day devoured books on world music. Later he researched on the internet. He sought out knowledgeable expats to teach him something he didn't know. Douglas Binns, a Korean government English instructor, was one of several who took Kang under his wing. Binns, a guitarist and one-time record-store worker with a firm grasp of 1980s music, would offer a few band names and Kang would see what obscure songs he could find. Pretty soon it became hard to stump him.
Nowadays, encased in his DJ booth, patrons dancing, the music flowing, Kang is the one doing the stumping.