When the first familiar drum machine beats of Yaeji’s “Feel It Out” enveloped the cavernous confines of the Showbox last night, the assembled crowd collectively lost its shit. “I love you, Yaeji!” they screamed, as the Brooklyn-based artist née Kathy Yaeji Lee pranced onto the stage for an hour-long solo performance.
Yaeji, a 25-year-old Korean-American house music producer, is on a remarkable rise that has seen her play four Seattle shows in the last 12 months. A year ago, she packed Kremwerk weeks after her single “Drink I’m Sippin On” went viral. Back then, she was still in DJ mode, playing a 90-minute set mixing records and occasionally indulging her fans by dropping one of her own tracks and picking up the mic to sing along in her signature, soft-voiced mix of English and Korean.
Flash forward a year, after Yaeji sold out Barboza then headed off to buzzy appearances at Capitol Hill Block Party, Coachella, and Sónar, and she has transformed from a DJ hesitantly dealing with a finicky mic to commanding the room on one of the city’s premiere stages as a hybrid DJ/producer-turned-underground pop star.
A year and a half ago, dearly departed Seattle promoter Allen Huang (dearly departed as in moved to Taipei, not dead) prophesied the rise of the likes of Yaeji in VICE when he related his occasionally uphill battle booking Asian and Asian-American dance music lineups in Seattle throughout the 2010s in his quest to turn the Emerald City into the Pacific gateway for exciting underground dance music. While he never got a direct “too many Asians on your line-up” rejection, bookers would look askance at his suggestions for “not having any big names.”
That notion seems quaint now in Seattle with a spate of high-profile shows featuring Asian and Asian-American artists straddling the lines of electronic music, pop, and hip-hop that culminate in Saturday night’s 88Rising tour stop at the Showare Center. The trend was clearly on display last night as Yaeji, supported by fellow New Yorker stud1nt, packed out the Showbox on a Tuesday bolstered by a largely pan-Asian audience who came in equal measure to support an artist who looks like them and luxuriate in Yaeji’s beatscapes, by turns mellow chillout room, by turns amped-up rave.
“Her live sets are very visually compelling,” said Christina Chung, a UW grad student by way of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, in the Showbox lobby before Yaeji took the stage. “I love that she’ll have a rice cooker in the background. As an Asian, it matters to have that kind of weird representation in a rice cooker—that and some sick beats really makes it for me.” (Yaeji’s Showbox show did not include visuals.)
Yaeji’s background—having grown up in the Asian enclave of Flushing, Queens, but also having spent formative years in Seoul—resonated with Jainey Kim. “She’s Asian-American, which is very different,” Kim said. “She totally speaks to both sensibilities instead of just being an Asian artist.”
The friends likened Yaeji’s growing popularity to LA-based TOKiMONSTA, who sold out the Paramount earlier this month with Chinese-American beatsmith Zhu. They disavowed any comparison to Crazy Rich Asians—the first majority-Asian blockbuster cast in 25 years—as Hollywood trying to make up for a lack of inclusivity, while Yaeji represents the bubbling up of a DIY, underground music scene without a major marketing push behind her.
For other attendees, the rare representation of someone like Yaeji on stage trumped actual love for the music.
“I am a mediocre fan,” said Michelle Kim. “I wouldn’t go out of my way to see her if not for the solidarity aspect—the fact that she and I are very similar; born in the U.S., lived in the U.S., went to international school in Korea, and have since returned to the U.S. And she’s a queer Korean-American girl, it’s literally the exact same narrative.”
Others are diehard Yaeji fans who have been following her career since her first singles trickled onto the Internet. Gan-Ochir Nyamdorj was born in Mongolia and was stoked to catch Yaeji so soon after moving to Seattle upon graduating college in Missouri. “Her first EP was great and just knowing there’s a Korean-American up-and-coming DJ makes me feel good,” he said.
Once Yaeji hit the stage, the audience was rapt—dancing, cheering, arms in the air, phones set to record. As a live show, it was a confusing mixture of performance styles. She cued up and occasionally mixed and tweaked her tracks like a DJ, but played the vocal versions, so when she sang and danced like a pop star, she was also essentially lip synching. But unlike a pop star, she wrote, produced, and recorded all her own music, so does it even matter than she sang along live?
Certainly her fans didn’t care—merely reaching out to touch hands in the front row sent a jolt of electricity through the crowd as her final four tracks mixed together into a raving fury that reminded me of an LCD Soundsystem concert: electronic music turned into a live set.
She wrapped up with subdued party anthem, “Raingurl,” but was lured back to the stage with insistent chants of “One more song!” I spied a set list next to the mixing board and no encore song was listed—her return was truly by spontaneous popular acclaim.
“You’re going to make me cry,” Yaeji said demurely. And then she did.