Portland DJ spreads his love of K-pop wherever he can
Jon Hawkins can read a crowd.
Known professionally as DJ Jon, he has been playing dance tunes for people of all ages at Portland area clubs and events for two decades. But over the past few years, he’s realized there’s a glaring gap in dance music designed for young people, college kids and teens in particular.
“It seems like most of the music for kids this age is songs about frogs and baby sharks and then it goes straight to hip-hop songs about heroin or violence,” said Hawkins, 51. , of Portland. “There aren’t many American pop songs kids can dance to that are just about love.”
Noticing this shortcoming, Hawkins became interested in K-pop – danceable, upbeat pop music from South Korea – a few years ago and has been playing it in Maine ever since. He performs K-pop at weddings, in clubs and at school dances. There are also a lot of them on the radio, which is quite rare across the country.
He hosts a show called “K-Pop Mega Mix” on the University of Southern Maine community radio station WMPG on Mondays at 4 p.m. for about two years, and this spring he started the show “KPop After Hours” during his weekend night shifts. on commercial Portland station WHTP – Hot Radio 104.7 FM. He also has a website called kpopmaine.com, where he blogs about K-pop and streams song series.
Hawkins recently played K-pop tunes, including requests, at a school dance in Falmouth and a wedding in Stockton Springs. He opens a show for rapper and DJ Lil Jon in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire on Thursday and plans to perform K-pop at the time.
Before the pandemic, Hawkins played K-pop events at local nightclubs or outdoor festivals, often accompanied by a local K-pop dance group and calling themselves Krush Dance Krew. Cherlline Ouch, one of the dance group members, said K-pop fans share a sense of community and a desire to have fun.
“I love dancing and meeting other people, and K-pop allows me to do that,” said Ouch, 24, from Portland. “It’s just fun music that helps you get away from it all, helps you get away from stress.”
MAKE PEOPLE DANCE
Hawkins grew up in the Washington, DC area and began working as a DJ at Towson State University in Maryland. He moved to Portland in the early 90s and worked at The Studio, a downtown recording studio, where he mixed and mastered recordings for various artists.
Working as DJ Jon, Hawkins has been known to Greater Portland dancers for at least two decades. He was the popular 80s party DJ at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge in Portland and also recorded records at Portland clubs Asylum and Zootz, among others. He also worked as a DJ at Portland-area radio station WRED before joining WHTP, which focuses on hip-hop and R&B music, about 10 years ago. Over the years, he’s performed on the same concert schedule as 50 Cent, Dave Chappelle and Snoop Dogg.
Hawkins considers himself a hip-hop DJ and says K-pop reminds him of the “golden age” of hip-hop and R&B, from around 1985 to 1995. R&B groups from this period, such as NSYNC, or Backstreet Boys, had a mainstream sound and sing about love but with hip-hop elements, Hawkins said. He became interested in K-pop while “searching” for music to mix into his 80s-themed sets at dance clubs a few years ago. He discovered that many K-pop producers were fans of 80s and 90s hip-hop and R&B and their work was proof of that.
“I think a lot of people my age were influenced by that era, and you can hear how K-pop is coming back to that era. It sounds like what I grew up with,” Hawkins said. “Kids today still love that golden age stuff, so I started testing some K-pop on them and found they really liked it too.”
As an Asian American — he has Japanese and Taiwanese heritage — Hawkins says K-pop also caught his eye because the performers “look like me.”
What exactly is K-pop? It’s South Korean pop music, often sung by young vocal groups generally known as much for their clever choreography as their vocal chops. Many songs have their own dances. The music contains elements of rock, hip-hop, and electro, and the version heard around the world now began to gain popularity in the 1990s. Sung primarily in Korean but with some English lyrics, the songs usually talk about love, attraction or celebration. Gun violence and drugs are conspicuously absent. Sexy outfits and seductive lyrics are also part of the package.
Around 2009, K-pop groups – including Wonder Girls – began landing songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. South Korean rapper Psy brought K-pop into the American mainstream — and into American living rooms – with his huge hit video “Gangnam Style” in 2012. He got kids, teens and adults dancing all over the country.
Today, some of K-pop’s biggest acts top the US pop charts. Boy group BTS had their hit ‘Dynamite’ debut in 2020 at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The English lyrics to this song are a bit silly and mostly about fun, with lines like, “Can you hear the bass boom? I’m ready (woo hoo) / Life is sweet as honey / Yeah, that rhythm cha-ching like money, huh. BTS members met with President Biden in May, for a photo op and to discuss anti-Asian hate crimes.
K-pop girl group Blackpink graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in June, just the third girl group to appear on the cover of the influential music publication, following Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child.
K-pop is not widely heard on commercial radio in America except for a few of the top hits. Perhaps it depends more on how young people listen to music today, with K-pop bands regularly finding themselves among the top performers on Spotify, YouTube, or other online platforms.
“It’s really a global phenomenon because of the internet,” said Peter Lo, a San Francisco DJ and host of the weekly “Kpopcast” podcast. Lo said K-pop fans also buy physical CDs, as most come with lots of artwork and information about the group and the recording. “They are sold everywhere, including Target. And fans will rally like mad when they hear a new shipment of CDs is coming.
At Newbury Comics in the Maine Mall in South Portland, hundreds of K-pop records are sold each week, said store manager Sean Carroll. Hawkins performed at a K-pop party at the store a few years ago, and he and Carroll often talk about new releases and how popular they are among fans. Carroll said there’s a pretty wide age range for K-pop fans, from middle school to people in their 20s or 30s. The buyers are mostly women, he said.
“I was expecting it to be mostly kids, but we have older people as well,” Carroll said.
In June, Hawkins was DJ at the Stockton Springs wedding of Boston’s Aiai Ren and Heng Lu. The couple, both in their early 30s and of Chinese descent, said when they hired Hawkins, his interest in K-pop wasn’t much of a factor. But they became more interested in K-pop as the big day approached and were happy Hawkins got to play it, as it got people dancing and the mood was upbeat.
“No one understood the lyrics, but the songs were really catchy and well-constructed,” Ren said. “There were songs with dance moves that were really easy to learn and fun to do.”
Hawkins likes that K-pop doesn’t have explicit lyrics or the “ego trip” messages of some hip-hop and thinks it helps them appeal to teenagers and young adults, perhaps adults of any age. He thinks the music is just funnier than a lot of hip-hop today and doesn’t feature “the same depressing three chords” that a lot of songs do, he said.
“People still love melodies and harmonies too,” Hawkins said.
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