By Frances Cha
SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- When veteran music producer Jae Chong -- a former member of the '90s K-pop group Solid -- got a phone call last June in the middle of the night, he didn't know that it would be the most important call of his career.
Chong's latest and most ambitious music project to date had been producing Aziatix, the three-member Korean-American R&B/hip-hop group. While Aziatix had racked up an impressive track record since their debut in 2011 -- winning Best New Asian Artist at M.net Asian Music Awards in 2011 and reaching No. 4 on U.S. iTunes R&B/Soul album chart -- the group still remained relatively under the radar in South Korea despite being based in Seoul.
The late-night phone call was on behalf of Cash Money Records, the hip-hop/R&B music label that had U.S. mega stars Nicki Minaj, Drake and Lil Wayne attached to its name.
And now they were interested in signing Aziatix, their first Asian artists.
"I woke up the next day thinking it was a dream," says Chong, whose six-employee company Astar INC., based in Nonhyeon-dong in southern Seoul, had been managing Aziatix exclusively.
Chong found that Cash Money had already looked at every song and music video that Aziatix had released, and wanted to talk contracts. Big contracts. The subsequent five-album, US$11.3 million deal is not only a record-breaker for South Korea, but for any music act from Asia to date.
Previous attempts at cross-over ventures from Korea -- think BoA or Se7en -- were initiated by Korean entertainment companies as joint projects with U.S. distribution companies, but the Aziatix contract marks the first time a U.S. label, let alone a major hip-hop/pop powerhouse, courted a Korean artist to sign in the United States.
"Jae didn't tell us for a month until it was finalized because he was so nervous," says Eddie Shin, 27, one of the band's two vocalists.
For all three of the Aziatix members, the Cash Money contract is beyond a dream come true.
"We all had wildly different emotions when we first heard the news," says Nicky Lee, 33, who was a member of Korean group Voice and then a successful Mandarin pop star before he joined Aziatix. "To be part of that family is an absolute honor and we want to continue the legacy."
"We're fans of every artist that they have worked with and we've seen them grow," says rapper Flowsik, 28, who has performed with rapper Ice-T and was recently featured on a track on the new album from K-pop star and JYJ-member Kim Jae-joong. "We're anxious to do the same."
News of the contract dropped at Cash Money's annual Grammys party in Los Angeles, when the label's co-founder and CEO Ronald "Slim" Williams walked the red carpet with the group and announced his two new signees -- 20-year-old Orlando rapper Caskey and Aziatix.
The group then got to go to the Grammys and watch the performances from the VIP box reserved for the label.
"It's really hard to see Slim in the media, but there he was introducing us to the press and to the world," says Flowsik, whose real name is Jay Pak. Cash Money co-founder Bryan "Birdman" Williams also dropped by the group's recent music video shoot late February and appeared in an impromptu cameo in the video. "We're very grateful for that," says Flowsik.
Speaking of the video, signing with Cash Money means that Aziatix is now working with the biggest names in the business. Aziatix's next single was produced by RedOne, whose production discography includes Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and the Backstreet Boys.
Jeff Panzer, who has worked with acts such as The Rolling Stones, Brian McKnight and Nelly in his three-decade career, was the producer of the recent video shoot, while Jay Martin, who directed videos for Death Cab for Cutie and Nas among many others, was the director.
Even their new stylist has a high profile: Darius Baptist has worked with everyone from Channing Tatum and Adam Levine to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
In terms of their own creative output, Aziatix is still writing their own music, albeit under decidedly more high profile observation and production. "They told us to never sway away from our originality," says Flowsik. "Keeping our unique Aziatix color is a must."
As to the appeal of Aziatix, the Cash Money CEOs say that it's the creativity behind both the music and the presentation.
"The project was brought to us, we got a chance to watch some of their videos and some of their music," says Cash Money CEO Slim. "I loved the creative style of the group and I really love their music. The first video I watched of them was the record 'Go' and it was very impressive, the creativity of the record and the way they did their video. Just their style, it was very creative.
"They have their own different styles, and that's what really makes a group and that's what makes them strong, because they have their own character and their own style, and the way they present their record."
As record-breaking as the news is for an Asian act, it's also interesting to note that the signing marks a move by the U.S. label to become more international, rather than just focusing on a U.S.-centric market and appeal.
And how has the reception been from the group's Korean peers and media?
"They were surprised and skeptical," says Eddie, looking at the others.
"A lot of people are mind-boggled," laughs Nicky.
"We wanted this, we've been working for this, but even we were shocked," says Eddie. Aziatix's first single with Cash Money is due out in the first half of 2013 and one to two more singles will follow right after. The group plans to drop their first Cash Money-produced full album after that.
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