Pop Culture
9:09 am
Sun May 27, 2012

A Rapper Ruined In An Online Firestorm

Originally published on Mon May 28, 2012 5:30 am

Dan Lee goes by the name Tablo. He's a rapper and one of Korea's most famous artists. He's also been at the center of a media storm, but not because of his music. His is a story of pop-culture paranoia and conspiracy.

Tablo burst onto the Korean hip-hop scene around 2005 — young, handsome and just back from the U.S., where he went to college at Stanford. He earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in English there, then decided to become a rapper.

"At the time, rap was not a very popular genre in Korea, but he decided to go back to where he was from, and try to produce hip-hop music," says Josh Davis, an editor at Wired magazine who wrote about Tablo for a recent issue.

Tablo found some early success — not much at first, but by 2009 he'd started to gain traction. "He did a tour in the United States, and he sold out major venues in New York, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles," Davis tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

"His album at that time was the No. 1 album on the U.S. iTunes hip-hop charts," Davis says. "It was topping Jay-Z and Eminem, so he was really on the verge of something."

That attention skyrocketed when he married a top Korean film star. The celebrity couple burned headlines onto Korea's entertainment sites, like a Korean version of Jay-Z and Beyonce.

Tablo was at the top of the world, but then, about a year ago, it all fell apart.

From Rumor To Firestorm

Someone began making accusations against Tablo on an Internet forum.

"And on this forum, anonymous individuals started posting information, saying Lee had stolen somebody's identity, had lied about his Stanford degree, was not in fact a Stanford graduate, had basically fabricated this entire persona, all with the aim of becoming an international hip-hop star," Davis says.

The accusation stuck.

"Within a number of weeks, hundreds of thousands of members signed up to this forum and demanded that Tablo reveal the truth," Davis says.

There were a few things that seemed suspicious about Lee's story, like completing both undergraduate and master's programs at Stanford in 3 1/2 years — an extraordinary feat. Lee released his Stanford transcripts and diploma publicly, but that didn't end the matter.

"It only exacerbated the controversy," Davis says. "It basically fed food to the fire. They then zeroed in on the diploma, and they looked for the exact placement of every comma on the diploma to see whether or not, in fact, it was a forgery. And then they charged him with forgery when they said they felt there were discrepancies."

Koreans are wary of Ivy league claims; in 2007, a curator at a Seoul art museum got her job with a fake Ph.D. from Yale. Tablo was now suspect, Davis says, and his story began to dominate celebrity news in Korea.

"It affected his career, it affected his life," Davis says. "He couldn't go out on the streets because people were starting to threaten him."

Lee's record sales plunged. He parted ways with his label; he felt they didn't do enough to defend him. And because he was among Korea's most recognized celebrities, he couldn't leave his home without being harassed.

"He became a hermit at age 29," Davis says.

Tracing The Rumor Back To Its Source

At that point, Stanford University itself contacted Davis and asked him to investigate the source of the malicious accusations. The trail soon narrowed.

"I found a number of posts from an individual online claiming to be a cousin, a relative of Dan Lee," Davis says. The purported cousin accused Tablo — in detail — of lying about his academic credentials.

"This occurred right before the creation of the forum that then blew up into a larger deal, that took over the attention of the country," Davis says, "so it seemed curious to me."

As Davis scrolled back to the initial posts on the forum, he saw that the accusations were based on the alleged cousin's claim.

"I saw people saying, 'Look, here's a relative,' " Davis says. " 'If a relative thinks it, then it really must be true.' "

Except it's still not clear whether that person actually was a relative, or a jealous friend, or someone who simply wanted to ruin Lee's career.

'Fever's End'

It took more than a year before Korean tabloids began to come around on Lee and accept that he wasn't lying, and that he had, in fact, graduated from Stanford. Most people believe Lee's story now, Davis thinks.

"The evidence is so strong in his favor that you'd really have to have a strong sense of conspiracy to not believe him at this point," Davis says.

Earlier this month, 12 people who posted false accusations online were put on trial in Korea for criminal defamation against Tablo. They could face jail time.

Meanwhile, Tablo has recorded a new album about his ordeal, named Fever's End. It's put him right back at the top of the charts, but after such an experience, he's still not ready to perform publicly again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAP MUSIC)

RAZ: This story's for all our hip-hop fans out there. Are you listening?

(SOUNDBITE OF RAP MUSIC)

RAZ: All right. It's not really a hip-hop story, but a story about a rapper with enough conspiracy, paranoia and double-crossing you might think Graham Greene had written the story. And the rapper in question is one of Korea's most famous. His name is Dan Lee but he performs as Tablo.

JOSH DAVIS: I would say that he was part of the reason that hip-hop became big in Korea. There were certainly other artists, but he had a significant contribution to popularizing it.

RAZ: That's Josh Davis. He's an editor at Wired Magazine, and he wrote about Tablo for a recent issue. Tablo burst onto the Korean hip-hop scene around 2005, young, handsome and just back from the U.S. where he went to college.

DAVIS: At the time, rap was not a very popular genre in Korea. He decided to go back to where he was from and try to produce hip-hop music.

RAZ: He actually had a degree - a bachelor's and a master's degree - from Stanford in English.

DAVIS: Exactly.

RAZ: So he decided: You know what? I'm going to become a rapper.

DAVIS: That's right.

RAZ: Doesn't happen every day.

DAVIS: No. In fact - I mean, part of the irony of this is that in the United States, if a rapper went to Stanford, it might be held against him.

RAZ: Tablo found some early success, not much.

DAVIS: But he really started to gain traction in '09 and 2010. He did a tour in the United States, and he sold out major venues in New York, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles.

RAZ: Including the Hollywood Bowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAP CONCERT)

TABLO: What's up, L.A.

DAVIS: His album at that time was the number one album on the U.S. iTunes hip-hop charts, atop Jay-Z and Eminem.

RAZ: Wow.

DAVIS: So he was really on the verge of something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP GUN")

EPIK HIGH: (Rapping) I'm the top gun drop another hot one (foreign language spoken) show me what, what you got. I'm the top gun competition got none (foreign language spoken) show me what, what you got.

DAVIS: The attention paid to him skyrocketed when he married one of the top film stars. And so now you have this celebrity - this match made in celebrity heaven, and people can't believe it.

RAZ: It sounds like Jay-Z and Beyonce.

DAVIS: It's the Korean equivalent.

RAZ: Tablo was on top of the Asian hip-hop world. And then, about a year ago...

DAVIS: It all fell apart.

RAZ: Someone began making accusations against Tablo on an Internet forum.

DAVIS: And on this forum, anonymous individuals started posting information, saying that Lee had stolen somebody's identity, had lied about his Stanford degree - was in fact not a Stanford graduate, and had basically fabricated this entire persona all with the aim of becoming an international hip-hop star.

RAZ: He went to Stanford so he could become an international hip-hop star.

DAVIS: You know, it doesn't make a lot of sense...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...to us in the U.S, but certainly, this, you know, this accusation gained immediate traction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: And within a number of weeks, hundreds of thousands of members signed up to this forum and demanded that Tablo reveal the truth.

RAZ: There were a few things that seemed suspicious.

DAVIS: First of all, he had done his undergraduate and his masters in three and a half years, which is quite extraordinary.

RAZ: As the controversy started to take hold, Dan Lee released his Stanford transcripts and diploma.

DAVIS: But rather than end the matter, it only exacerbated the controversy. It basically fed food to the fire. And they then zeroed in on the diploma, and they looked for the exact placement of every comma on the diploma to see whether or not in fact it was a forgery. And then they charged him with forgery when they said that they felt that there were discrepancies.

RAZ: Now, a little background here.

DAVIS: In 2007, a curator at a art museum in Seoul said that she had got a PhD. from Yale. Yale, in fact, confirmed it. But it turns out that she did not get a PhD. from Yale, and Yale had mistakenly confirmed the PhD. And this created a huge media sensation.

RAZ: Which led to suspicions that Dan Lee, aka Tablo, was a fraud, and it began to dominate the celebrity news shows in Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOREAN NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Korean spoken)

DAVIS: It affected his career. It affected his life. He couldn't go out on the streets because people were starting to threaten him.

RAZ: Dan Lee's record sales plunged. He parted ways with his label. He felt they didn't do enough to defend him. And because he was among Korea's most recognized celebrities, he couldn't leave his home without being harassed.

DAVIS: He became a hermit at age 29.

RAZ: And he started to get paranoid.

DAVIS: And he takes his baby daughter in to the hospital for a check up, and he suddenly sees the nurses and the doctors looking at him. And he wonders: Wait a second. Are they in on it? And are - these people who are putting needles in my baby, are they - do they hate me? Are they going to hurt me? Are they going to hurt my baby?

RAZ: At that point, Stanford University, from where Dan Lee did in fact graduate, contacted reporter Josh Davis and asked him to investigate the source of the malicious accusations.

DAVIS: I found a number of posts from an individual online claiming to be a cousin of Dan Lee. This purported cousin accused Lee of lying and fabricating a number of elements of his academic credentials. So as I started to scroll back and read through the initial posts on these forums where people were accusing him of lies, I saw people saying, look, here's a relative. Here's somebody who says he's a relative, and this person is accusing him of lying about his academic career. And if a relative thinks it, then it really must be true.

RAZ: Except it's not clear whether it was a relative or even a jealous old friend or someone who simply wanted to ruin Dan Lee's career. It took more than a year before Korean tabloids began to come around to Dan Lee's story and accept that, in fact, he wasn't lying, that he went to Stanford. But in the meantime, Dan Lee started to record a new record all about his ordeal. He called it "Fever's End."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEVER'S END")

TABLO: (Rapping) This is my home. Leave me alone. (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: Do most people believe Dan Lee now in Korea?

DAVIS: I think they do. I think that the evidence is so strong in his favor that you'd really have to have a strong sense of conspiracy to not believe him at this point.

RAZ: Earlier this month, 12 people who posted false accusations online were put on trial in Korea for criminal defamation against Tablo. They could face jail time. For his part, Tablo's latest record put him right back at the top of the charts. But at least for the moment, the whole episode's been so traumatic he's not yet ready to perform publicly.

And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.