If you would have told 17-year-old Changbin that one day tens of thousands of people would be screaming his name inside of a packed arena, a satisfied smirk might have bloomed across his face. It would have been easy to mistake his adolescent ambition for arrogance, but the truth is Changbin, even from a young age, possessed a strong belief in not only his own virtuosity but also that of his friends, Bang Chan and Han. It's why he penned the lyric "1, 2, 3RACHA get spotlight" in 2016. He knew that's where they were meant to be.
In the years since, 3RACHA — the rap trio formed by Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han when they were trainees under JYP Entertainment, before they debuted as members of Stray Kids in 2018 — have become some of the most prolific self-produced idols in South Korea, crafting an eclectic body of work that has directly influenced the sound of K-pop's current generation. Loud, honest and disruptive, 3RACHA have dictated much of Stray Kids' sonic identity from the start, where they began sculpting the group's distinct sound from their dorm rooms in Seoul. Bang Chan made homemade beats in the midnight hours under the moniker CB97; Changbin and Han worked on lyrics and composition, going by SpearB and J.One, respectively.
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They called themselves 3RACHA because they wanted the world to taste the piquant tang of their music — to feel the searing heat of their words. They released their first mixtape at the top of 2017, dropping it on Soundcloud and posting it on niche hip-hop forums (a fact they would rather you forget). The project opens with "Intro," the very first song 3RACHA worked on collectively. You can see fragments of what will become their signature style: Trap arrangement, an array of samples and borderline braggadocious lyrics. And while their sound has since evolved and expanded, their belief in themselves hasn't wavered, which is why, five years later, they open their eponymous new track with the same statement: "1, 2, 3RACHA get spotlight."
"We were talking about how we grew up and what we've been through, how passionate we are about our work, and how that really represents 3RACHA," Bang Chan tells PAPER. It's late morning in Seoul and he's hiding his dark, unkempt hair under the hood of his black MAHAGRID hoodie because, he says, he woke up 30 minutes before our Zoom call. ("It's for your comfort," he jokes.) Stray Kids are in the thick of comeback preparations for their new EP, MAXIDENT, in which 3RACHA are credited on nearly every song. He's joined by Han and Changbin in a company conference room, who mirror his exhaustion. But they're here to talk about the album, and more specifically, their unit song, "3RACHA."
The title was Changbin's idea. "It takes me back to that moment," he says. He wanted it to reflect 3RACHA's journey, from "Intro" to now. "We competed and won with quantity and quality," he raps on the track, as translated to English. "A far-off vague dream? We weren't the ones with our heads in the clouds." The power of Changbin's words is that he's very direct and these lyrics underscore one of 3RACHA's strengths: They never stop creating. It's not uncommon for Bang Chan to work on tracks amidst the group's hectic schedules, in green rooms in-between tapings and in hotel rooms while touring. Such is the case with "3RACHA." The trio cut the demo while quarantining individually in a hotel this past March after several members tested positive for COVID-19. This halted their promotions for their Maniac album and 3RACHA some unexpected free time to work on music. They put the track together remotely. "That's the thing with us," Bang Chan starts, "every time we have a comeback, or even before we come back, we have to prepare for the next album."
In the K-pop industry, there's an expectation for idol groups to release multiple albums a year, which means the work is nonstop. This year alone, Stray Kids dropped three EPs (including one in the Japanese market) and a mixtape track dedicated to their fans, embarked on a sold-out arena tour in the U.S., and 3RACHA participated in the making of "Heyday," their formidable contribution to the Street Man Fighter soundtrack. And this doesn't even include the solo tracks the members of Stray Kids release on their own, typically with guidance from Bang Chan, the group's tireless leader. "It's always pretty hard," he says, referring to their tight deadlines. But they've long since adjusted to their workload. The ideas, he adds, come intuitively, and surprisingly, they always see them through — from conception to completion.
"I don’t think we’ve ever said, 'Let’s stop, this isn't working,” when we’ve worked in this trio, right?" Bang Chan asks Changbin, who's sitting next to Han. The rapper leans on his elbow, his black baseball cap pulled low, and responds, "I think there have been a few times but close to zero." According to Changbin, they never scrap tracks midway through the process. They always finish a song first and then decide what to do with it. So you could imagine that Bang Chan's harddrive is full of unreleased treasures. "There are many songs that we haven’t released yet," Changbin confirms, "but none that we’ve abandoned."
Some of these projects even serve as inspiration for future work. "Give Me Your TMI," a glitch-hop track that appears on MAXIDENT, was actually written a few years ago. And a fan-favorite lyric from a cypher 3RACHA debuted at KCON:TACT in 2020 ended up on "3RACHA" two years later. "They always say the same excuses," Bang Chan sings at the end of the song, "While they're complainin', we're producin'." (When asked to identify the "they" in question, he gets flustered and replies, "It's an open answer kind of thing.")
For "3RACHA," Changbin and Han wanted to try something new: drill. "I love drill music," Bang Chan says, so when they asked, he was excited. The moody, atmospheric track came together quickly, with help from producer VERSACHOI, one of their frequent collaborators. "We wanted to make a song that would make an impact when it's performed on stage," Bang Chan explains. "That was our mindset as we finished the demo."
There's really no formula to 3RACHA's process. They say it starts with a theme or a mood. Bang Chan typically works on the arrangement of the track, while Changbin and Han focus on lyrics and melodies. Changbin constructs the lyrical framework; he has a knack for writing addictive toplines and building contrast. Han participates in the overall organization of the piece; he's a deft and instinctual lyricist who's been known to pen entire verses in under 30 minutes. He laid down a demo for "Chill," a vibey MAXIDENT b-side he wrote and produced himself, in approximately three hours. However, it wasn't always this easy for him to complete things. He's often influenced by his emotions, so one off day can derail his productivity. He's since learned to bring confidence into the studio.
"When I start working on a track, I need to be confident, and it’s important for me that the process of working on a project or song is fun and enjoyable," Han says. "When I first started writing music in the past, I had lots of concerns, and I couldn’t organize the thoughts in my mind. It was difficult to collect and organize my ideas. But I must have grown a bit since then, and now I’m able to collaborate with the members quite well. Writing the lyrics is a lot smoother and faster. I also love to share fun ideas together."
"So over time," he adds, "I’ve gained the confidence that a particular song will have a great result, be fun, enjoyable, and Stray Kids-like."
The thing about Changbin is that he pays attention. He's incredibly skilled at reading people and situations, and that's a useful trait when working with others. "I have an interest in the people around me and what’s happening around me," Changbin says. "I’m in the middle as well [in terms of age], so I feel a responsibility to be the bridge to connect the members."
To describe their dynamic, 3RACHA refer to a well-worn metaphor that features prominently on "3RACHA." On the hook, they describe themselves as "the clash of three rain clouds." It's an image Han is especially fond of, and it's the reason this is his favorite lyric on the track. "The lyrics create an image in my mind of our unit," Han says. "When you see a rain cloud, it might cause rain to fall like a sun shower for a brief moment, or it can be a slight drizzle of rain. But these lyrics remind me that when the three of us come together, we can create something huge like a thundercloud. I love this imagery. It makes my heart beat when I think about it."
The goal is never to make something good; it's about making an impact, "creating something that we enjoy, something that we are proud of," Bang Chan says. "Music is about preferences. It all depends on what you like. If you think it's good music, then that's good music. If you think it's bad, it's bad music. There's no answer to art, and I really don't think that it's right to put a label on music," he adds. "I don't think there's such a thing as good music, but one thing that I am sure of is there's music that I like, music that I enjoy."
The same can be said for the process of making it, how they stitch their stories into the lining of every song, even the ones that haven't been released yet. A studio. A blank page. The glow of a laptop screen. This is their spotlight. They found it a long time ago.
Photos courtesy of JYP Entertainment
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