By Caitlin Kelley
When did N.Flying feel the success of their sleeper hit, “Rooftop?” “Just now,” main vocalist Hwe Seung says, pointing down at the ground.
Their newfound acclaim brought them halfway around the world to play KCON LA, where Seung Hyub, JaeHyun, Cha Hun, and Hwe Seung are huddled in a makeshift dressing room at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Our interview competes with a chorus of cheers for rookie boy band ATEEZ, who cook kimbap at the #KCONFoodie station a few feet away. Over the booming of the fandemonium, the N.Flying members loudly enunciate their words.
“We just had a meet and greet with our fans right now,” he continues. “Right when ‘Rooftop’ started coming on, the fans started all singing along. And I felt like, ‘Oh, we are receiving so much love right now.’”
It was a long time coming for one of K-pop’s few idol bands — and it all started on SoundCloud.
Back in August 2018, the four-piece’s leader Seung Hyub unwittingly uploaded a sketch called “Rooftop Room” to his profile under the name JDON. The DIY upload was a relatively lo-fi collaboration with Hwe Seung, constructed around trappy percussion and blaring bass. It was well-received by their fandom, N.Fia (a portmanteau of their name and “Utopia”), so the group decided to create an N.Flying version.
The band released “Rooftop” to relatively modest excitement on January 2, 2019. The track did better than usual, reaching No. 643 on Melon’s daily chart before wrapping up music show promotions on February 8. But then something unprecedented happened.
A week later, an anonymous user posted their track to a popular Korean forum. Suddenly, their song took off, entering at No. 97 on Melon’s real-time Top 100. It continued to climb the charts, eventually taking over the local Gaon rankings for a few weeks. They even returned to televised music shows for an encore run.
N.Flying went four years without a music show win, a career-making milestone for K-pop artists. (For context, BTS’s first win in 2015 is seen as the turning point in their record-breaking career.) But it finally happened for the group at The Show on March 5.
The high-flying foursome was up against some of the industry’s biggest contenders: monster rookies (G)I-DLE and former Wanna One member Ha Sung Woon. When the band’s name was announced, Hwe Seung smiled brightly, and Seung Hyub choked up while giving a speech. Cha Hun maintained his cat-like cool, reaching over to console his members. But it was resident goofball JaeHyun who fully let his emotions flow.
Or as he put it: “I was really ugly crying.” (When I tell him I saw the video, he covered his face and jokingly let out a melodramatic “Noooooo!”)
This was a dramatic reversal of fortunes. A mere week before their comeback, their bassist Kwon Kwang Jin — who had been with the group since their Japanese debut in 2013 — abruptly left the lineup amid accusations that he sexually harassed fans. "We ... confirmed the fact of him dating a fan, so we have made the final decision for Kwon Kwang Jin to leave the team,” their company, FNC Entertainment, said in a statement last December, while also denying claims of sexual harassment.
Kwang Jin's departure was yet another setback for the band. N.Flying made their formal debut in Korea in 2015 as a quartet after nearly two years of delays. Initially, leader Seung Hyub was the sole frontman, defining his performance by his fluid transitions between singing and rapping. Cha Hun and Kwang Jin handled backing vocals, with JaeHyun on the drums.
Meanwhile, Hwe Seung almost went down the alluring flower boy path of a traditional idol, competing on the second season of Produce 101 in 2017. Let’s just say his high notes were fodder for instant replays. He didn’t make it to the final lineup that formed the now-defunct Wanna One. But it’s fitting that he wound up in a band the week after the show ended in June — his upper register is capable of a rough intensity that even a rockist could love.
The new maknae’s (youngest member) 2017 entry into the group didn’t only change the dynamics of their sound — it also marked their return from a lengthy hiatus. On a March 2019 episode of the Korean music program Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook, Seung Hyub revealed that they had taken a break to find their identity as a group. “But we are still not quite sure what our color is now,” he said at the time.
Now, N.Flying has a bit more breathing room to explore their sound on their own terms. A company-created track couldn’t break them into the Korean market, so it's poetic that the newly minted hitmakers’ breakthrough was their first-ever self-composed song. Seung Hyub's own vision brought them here, and it’s a cycle that will continue: He just produced the group’s latest album, YAHO.
Released as part of the Fly High Project #2, “Rooftop” is anchored by a relaxed dembow beat. The reggae-infused track presented a softer take on their rap-rock sound, while the lyrics painted a vivid vignette centered on star-crossed lovers — which resonated with Korea’s general public.
The group traverses an aural expanse of genre classifications that are in the process of breaking down. K-pop’s genre agnosticism is well-documented; it’s common for idol groups to cycle through a flurry of “concepts.” In that sense, N.Flying is true to the industry.
“I don’t think our approach is any different from any other artist in K-pop,” says guitarist Cha Hun, who cites Slash from Guns N' Roses and Creed as his favorite artists. “The only thing that really sets us apart is that our weapon of choice is that we’re a band. We try to think about, ‘How can we as a band reach our fans in the appropriate way?’”
But their ability to play instruments has drastically widened the spectrum of genres at their disposal, and their versatility is underscored by the deep cuts. The opening riff on “Just One Day” closely resembles The Smashing Pumpkins’ ’90s-alt anthem “Today” — until the track abruptly veers into a pastiche of 2000s-era pop-punk. “Lupin” is a much harder-hitting blend of J-pop and metal, refracted through dubstep wubs. Then songs like “Let Me Show You” take after The Lumineers’ style of stomp-rock with a poppified blues twist.
Still, their particular blend of rap and rock feels organic to them. Seung Hyub clarifies that the band doesn’t exactly discuss how they approach their mishmash of genres. “We basically think about what can we do as a group,” he tells MTV News. “It just comes naturally when we form those kinds of mixes.”
But genre fusions aren’t the only type of hybridization that’s defined their career. Their status as a rock band complicates their relationship to the typical idol formula.
In a visual-oriented music industry that revolves around intense choreography, N.Flying’s relatively static blocking makes them stand out. Granted, there are idol-worthy elements to their stage presence. Just watch a stage mix of “Rooftop,” and you can tell the members have clearly rehearsed that A Night at the Roxbury realness. Not only that, but they put their own twist on K-pop fandom norms. Thanks to “Hot Potato,” you could say N.Fia find light sticks a-peeling, bringing actual potatoes (on sticks) to the band's promotions. Their status as a rock band reshapes the standards of an idol.
While the Jonas Brothers were breaking the barrier for boy band classification in the aughts, Korea simultaneously forged its own take on the idol band. N.Flying’s successful senior labelmate FTISLAND is billed as the first of their kind: a hybrid of gorgeous, flower-boy imagery and rock-leaning tracks that added a new layer to the K-pop landscape in 2007. CNBLUE carried that torch in 2010, achieving commercial success right out the gate with their Korean debut, “I’m a Loner.”
Which brings us to the latest set of bands on the K-pop scene, fronted by the likes of N.Flying and DAY6. While the latter has a more complicated relationship with boy band status, N.Flying openly embraces the idol label. “We feel like we’re an idol band,” Seung Hyub says. “We feel like we are [singers who can be role models] to everyone, whether it’s as an idol or as a band.”
When they took to the KCON LA stage, a sea of wrist-lights beamed a blue glow back at them. A gaggle of N.Fia were caught on camera holding up potatoes-on-sticks and N.Flying signs — including two posters shouting out 2Idiots, JaeHyun and Cha Hun’s YouTube channel. ("It was a platform where we could shorten the distance between us and our fans," the drummer says.) As Seung Hyub played a keyboard prelude to their career-making anthem, the 22,000-seat arena erupted in cheers.
"The thing that’s most visible is we have a lot more fans," the leader says. "There are so many more, so when we perform, we receive a lot more energy, and we’re able to give back a lot more as well."
Note: All quotes have been edited to first person from the translator’s use of third person.