"Who's playing tonight?" is not an unusual question to ask when you see a line of people standing outside of a venue. But for the diverse young crowd that amassed outside of Warsaw — a Polish community center by day, punk-adjacent scene by night — on a Sunday evening in Brooklyn late last month, many of whom were armed with light sticks and homemade merch, the answer was obvious: ATEEZ.
For the uneducated, ATEEZ are an eight-member group from South Korea's KQ Entertainment whose sound can best be described as "turn up in Ibiza" — their own distinct blend of hip-hop and slick EDM, with charismatic rap verses and hooks that hit hard. And people are paying attention.
A concept photo for their latest album, Treasure EP.2 : Zero To One
In the five months since their dynamic debut, ATEEZ have already had an unprecedented amount of success for a rookie K-pop group: Their second mini album bowed at No. 5 on Billboard's World Albums chart, and they sold out their first-ever U.S. and European tour after overwhelming demand on concert crowdfunding site MyMusicTaste — with only 10 songs, a few energetic dance videos, and one extremely dramatic intro track under their belts.
"We've only ever promoted in Korea after our debut," leader and rapper Hongjoong told MTV News the day after their Brooklyn show, the last stop on the U.S. leg of their Expedition tour before heading to London. "So we didn't know we had so many international ATINYs [their fandom name]. It's amazing." And aside from the obvious language barrier, dancer Wooyoung said that there's not really any difference between their Korean fans and their fans abroad. "The love that they give is still the same."
Though, when asked why they think they've had such success internationally, the response isn't as definitive. In fact, they have no idea. "We are lucky," Hongjoong said. But even ATEEZ have to admit that it's more than luck that got them here, to a Tribeca hotel for a full day of press with Western media outlets and to numerous headlines deeming them the Next Big Thing. In their pre-debut days, the group (then known as KQ Fellaz) spent time in Los Angeles training at hip-hop dance studios like Millennium Dance Complex. They also uploaded magnetic dance videos choreographed to Desiigner's "Outlet," Cardi B's "Lick," and Famous Dex's "Pick It Up" (a fan-favorite they also performed at Warsaw to deafening cries of "a bad bitch, Puerto Rican"). "We like hip-hop, and we like American dance styles," Hongjoong said.
But watching them perform and interact with one another on that stage, it's easy to see why this group is resonating with fans across oceans and timezones.
Their performances are powerful, not only in the way that every movement is sharp and precise but also in their expressions. They're extremely charismatic, and their live stages are theatrical without any production value; it's just them and the stage, and yet, they deliver the drama with smoky eyes, coiffed hair, and crimson red fits. Take, for example, "HALA HALA," a sinister showstopper in the group's setlist with high-intensity choreography that borders on unhinged. Vocalist San, who arguably commands the most attention during that particular performance, said he's often inspired by film and pop culture when determining his expressions. His inspiration for "HALA HALA" was Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.
Each member has their own performance style that they bring to the group. San feels things deeply, so his movements match his intense emotions. Yunho thinks about the theme of the song first, and then he'll pull images and gestures to fit the overall mood of the performance. For main dancer Wooyoung, it's more intuitive; he tries not to think too much. "I just go on stage and bring out whatever is inside," he said. Meanwhile, for main vocalist Jongho, it's about powerful moves to match his powerhouse vocals. "It comes more from the inside," he said, adding that power isn't just about physicality. "It's about finding the emotion."
Rapper Mingi thinks of his persona. "I think about how audiences view me and I'll put that into my choreography." When asked how he thinks fans view him, he replies confidently: "Cool." And although Hongjoong likes to tease Mingi and call him the "cutest boy in the world," he would like to go on record and say that "all of the members are cuter than me."
Of course, powerful expressions are only part of the equation. After all, K-pop is known for precision and prismatic performance. But ATEEZ have also spent time establishing their individual identities both on and off stage thanks to their various social media channels and streaming platforms like Korea's V Live, where fans get to know them more intimately via post-performance live streams and variety content. "Of course our dancing and our music is very important," San said. "But showing our individual aspect is very important too."
That was extremely apparent on stage. Since the group have a relatively small catalog of music, they spent roughly 45 minutes of their set answering fan-submitted questions. This playful Q&A portion not only highlighted the members' individual charms — youngest member Jongho did push ups while San sat on his back; vocalist Seonghwa sang a bit of Baekhyun and Suzy's "Dream"; each member had to dance sexily to Ariana Grande's "7 Rings" — but it also underscored their chemistry as a group. They are (mostly) controlled chaos when all together; eight individuals who seem to genuinely enjoy making one another laugh, even when self-proclaimed best friends San and Wooyoung are fake-fighting and Hongjoong is forcing Mingi to do aegyo (or, make cute expressions).
"If I could describe my members, I would say we're a rainbow," soft-spoken Yeosang said. "Because each member has their own talents." Hongjoong is quick to add, "A rainbow is seven colors, but we are eight. So one is white."
When it comes to their music, this concept of a rainbow — or, "eight makes one team" — is especially important. According to Hongjoong, their music speaks to young people today because as a group in their late teens and early 20s, they're part of that generation, too. (ATEEZ stands for "A TEENager Z.") "We produce music that they can relate to," he said. Hongjoong and Mingi are credited as lyricists in all but one of their tracks, and Hongjoong is working on his producing skills with the help of his labelmate/teacher/producer EDEN, who was watching the group from the balcony at Warsaw.
For Hongjoong — who wrote his first song at 16 about wanting to be a good person to honor his late grandmother — it's important to make music with a message. For their current era, the concept is simple enough: "We want people to know they have their own treasure — dreams, family, friends. We have ATINY [their fans]. So they can find that [treasure] and do something amazing together." It's a theme they've been exploring since their debut single, aptly-titled "Treasure."
As ATEEZ look ahead to the rest of 2019 and beyond, they know that they have momentum on their side, so there's no slowing down. When asked to reveal their personal goals for the year, the members are strictly business. San wants a performance award at one of the end of the year award shows in Korea; Yunho wants a performance award and a Rookie of the Year award; Yeosang wants to grow as a performer; Mingi hopes that when people think of the letter "A," they'll think of "ATEEZ"; Wooyoung wants everyone to be healthy and injury-free; and Jongho wants one of their songs on the Billboard charts.
And for Seonghwa, it's all about perspective. "I'm thankful for all of the attention. We'll help each other and practice our hardest to fulfill these expectations."
Still, they do take some time for themselves to relieve stress, especially when they're touring. There's the usual — playing games (Yunho), watching dramas and anime (Yeosang), seeking alone time at the sauna (Mingi) — and then there's San.
"I was searching my name on Twitter," San said. "I like to read what fans are saying. So I search #ChoiSan, and it's like, 'Wow!'"