Thanking Mark Lee for 10 minutes of his time isn’t overdoing it. One of the busiest men in K-pop, the 23-year-old Toronto native is currently in Newark with NCT DREAM — one of three boy bands he’s a member of — backstage at the Prudential Center in the final minutes of preparation before the group’s first-ever U.S. concert.
But it’s not the first time Mark has graced this arena’s stage thanks to his intense range of opportunities. On April 8, 2016, Mark made his official debut on the K-pop scene with NCT and their minimalist, futuristic hip-hop cut “The 7th Sense” showcasing a then-16-year-old Mark rapping alongside NCT members Taeyong, Doyoung, Jaehyun and TEN as five stars in what would expand into the boy-band collective’s current 23-member galaxy. While Mark has assumed a range of concepts from joining two NCT offshoots in the spritely NCT DREAM and experimental NCT 127 where he first played Prudential Center — not to mention one-seventh of K-pop’s Billboard 200-topping supergroup SuperM — the ace’s seven-year anniversary is commemorated with his own music, and his own memes.
On April 7, Mark dropped “Golden Hour,” a new solo track, as part of the ongoing “NCT LAB” series where the different NCT members release music independent of their groups. It’s a self-assurance anthem, but the song’s lyrics lean heavily into NCT fan’s viral Twitter moment: 2017 Korean reality show It’s Dangerous Beyond the Blankets captured teen Mark helplessly attempting to fry an egg on the kitchen stove. With an influx of oil, a broken yolk and various parts of his egg burning and sticking to the pan, Mark’s fried failure became a legendary internet moment when a fan shared a photo of eggs from her “boyfriend” during a Gordon Ramsay Twitter Q&A. The MasterChef’s take? “Get back on Tinder!”
Seven years into the game, Mark stays on top of the jokes and celebrates NCT’s musical moments. He also knows the power of creating music meaningful to him, first and foremost, and its healing powers to balance what he calls “all this chaos” of being a boy-band MVP.
First out of the dressing room to talk with Billboard (it’s easier to get him seated before wrangling the other six DREAM members, ages 23-21, for their following interview), Mark starts with his signature, deadpan sarcasm before getting sharing his deeper, reflective side. The eldest member and native English speaker in the group, his goofy older-brother side also beamed while teasing and hugging all his NCT DREAM band mates through their 29-song set that was bursting with palpable fun for the audience and the septet themselves. But Mark’s thoughtful side inevitably came out when he took a moment to share how the crowd helped him recognize how far he had come.
“I wanted to say something that really comes from the heart,” Mark told the arena before closing the show. “Looking at you all, it really reminded me of when I used to live near here. Back then, I saw at that time the Korean idols that were famous and I always looked at them as if they were from a different world. It was something I never really got to fully connect with and now, over the years, I’m here back in the U.S. and North America and the perspective of being that K-pop idol. Tonight, it felt very meaningful for me to be here again. Thank you for celebrating with me in this moment.”
Celebrate the moment with Mark by getting into his new release for “Golden Hour,” his latest muse in Gordon Ramsay, and the moving reason why these tracks mean so much to him.
You’re one of the busiest men in K-pop, so thank you for the time. You’re here for the NCT DREAM tour, but your solo single is coming out in the middle of tour. First of all, where’s your head at now?
MARK: Where’s my head at? I think my head is where my body’s at, usually…I’m focused on the tour. I’m wearing the NCT DREAM cap, but I just can’t help but be excited about the release of “Golden Hour.” So, it is strange to know that my song’s going to be released during [preparations for] the show in Chicago with the time zones and everything. And I think, now, stuff like this will happen often for NCT. Or at least for me. It could be just a step that I have to take to get used to.
Congratulations on “Golden Hour,” it’s a really cool track. I always thought “Child” was special if just from hearing more singing from you. What sides are you showing on these songs that you hadn’t with others?
It’s really different and it’s experimental for me as well. This track was actually a song that I wanted to do instead of releasing “Vibration,” a song that I did as an NCT 127 solo stage [from the Neo City – The Link Tour]. No songs from those tours have come out officially and I debated between this instrumental and the “Vibrations” instrumental. But I knew I wanted a song with that guitar-ish heaviness and strong drums. I had that picture in my mind, but I didn’t expect it to fall more on the topic of “the egg story” and everything. Everything just kind of fell into place, I guess, but explaining the story was what I focused on the most.
How did this song end up connecting to the “egg situation” with the Gordon Ramsay tweet?
I didn’t expect it to go that far, but everything with it just connected and brought this whole web of egg stories for the song.
I was going to ask you your favorite lyric, but before I need to ask, how do you catch these obscure online moments with your busy schedule?
That story was something that we all knew about way back. And that was a long time ago…I don’t even know if that fan is still a fan.
Shout out to that fan, though.
And I did! I did a live [stream] yesterday and I wanted to acknowledge her. She sparked it all. But anyways, my favorite lyric, I’d say it’s, “I got a really big problem” and then it goes, “I don’t know how to make eggs.” I don’t think any rap song would have that in a song. Who would say I don’t know how to make eggs? But it sounded pretty badass in my opinion. I don’t know. [Laughs]
I saw you worked on it with Dress, Jane, and Ron, who also worked on “Child.” Tell us about these collaborators and how you work.
Those are the go-to guys for me. “Child” was the first song I did with Dress and, even then, we did it with Jane and Ron. For this one, I went to Dress’ house, but I usually do it at our SM studio; there’s a room, but I did it at his house for this first session. This became a crew that I became so comfortable with, but for “Golden Hour” there’s this guy called Sion, and he’s a musical talent himself that’s doing his solo stuff right now too. Dress brought him in because he felt he’d bring something good for the song. I wasn’t even there when he first heard it; I only had this draft demo of the song, and the next time I came in, Sion changed it, totally upgraded it and turned it into his own thing. We were all like, “Dang, yo, thank you so much.” He really graced us with his talents.
Do they hype you up and know these inside jokes and stories? Like, “Let’s talk about the Gordon Ramsay stuff!”
We had the most fun writing the lyrics because I was like, “Yo, I got this idea, we got to talk about this and that.” And then we just started throwing stuff in the air and then that just made it into more of a fun brainstorming session.
Just as this solo song comes, April 2016 was “The 7th Sense” and your first introduction to the world with NCT. It’s now your seven-year anniversary which is a special anniversary in K-pop. Can you remember yourself at that moment?
We were so innocent and just very excited to be released to the world. After SM’s reputation, us being the next boy band after EXO, we had high anticipation so we had to train hard. I just remember the last bit of my training life being very hardcore for practicing time. And the NCT system itself, it wasn’t easy. And so all of that just made us prepare even harder. But having “The 7th Sense” as my first debut song, I was honestly honored. The song goes so hard. It still does. Even today, I’m glad to be a part of it.
You have the famous line that international fans loved, “And that’s a long ass ride…”
[With emphasis] “It’s a long ass ride.” It’s so hard. It became a classic.
It’s standing the test of time. What do you still want to show as NCT’s MARK and as yourself?
That’s actually an interesting question because I don’t really vividly know exactly what but after working with Dress, various producers, and even after “Child,” I realized that I got to expand the way I saw myself too musically and just as a person too. There’s so many things to explore about the world, and there’s a universe inside my own self as well. So, the more I know about myself, the more I age, the more I mature—I just want to put that in the music and just grow with my music and see how far I can go.
You thought you could only be the rapper, but recognizing there’s more to try and show?
Yeah, I think I’m exploring more about my spectrum, and it’s fun to do that. The more I work in music, the more tracks I write on; that all opens another window for me to explore, so it’s fun.
The term all-rounder” is overused in K-pop, but I think you embody it. Not to gas you up, but you’re in NCT 127, a SuperM member, the leader of NCT DREAM, and doing solo work. How do you keep it all together and take care of yourself too?
This is an honest answer, but the reason why I released “Child” was because 2021 was actually one of the toughest years for me, schedule-wise. From the beginning of the year to the very end of 2021, I was just going nonstop. I realized by December, I looked back and was like, “I’ve done so much, but I feel empty inside. And I don’t feel like I don’t have anything that lasts for me to treasure for my own.”
I realized, “Dang, I think I should release a song of just me alone at the end of the year.” That got postponed, which eventually led to 2022 January or February-ish; that was when “Child” came out. That was when I realized, “Oh, I got to keep doing this for my own sake too. Not only for the fans but for how I can enjoy what I do in the middle of all this chaos.”
That song was the reminder to yourself about your love of music?
Yeah and this can all lead up to another big solo thing in the future. But, for sure, I want to show my fans—and myself—how I would look alone too. It’s something that I, before anyone else, have to want to do.
I think many people will find comfort in that so thank you. Is there anything else you want people to know about “Golden Hour”?
I hope Gordon Ramsay reads this.
Do you have a specific message for Gordon Ramsay?
Thank you for being my muse for this song. Check it out when you have time, man.