Pushing through the heavy glass
double doors of Hunstman Hall in a neat
business suit, Sean Koh hardly stands out from his Wharton peers. He's 5'9", with close-cropped jet-black hair, and thick framed glasses. He looks carefully put-together. "Sorry," he gestures toward the suit, "I had an interview today."
These days, Sean has more on his mind than the average Wharton student. It's 6 p.m., and he's on his way to his producer's house to record his newest single, "Touch." Sean has been touring around Philadelphia under
the stage name "Eskoh," performing his own brand of hip hop and R&B fusion.
Koh's burgeoning music career is only the latest of a string of impressive feats he's accomplished in his time at Penn. In 2003, at age 18, he founded Koherent Records - the only student-run label in Philadelphia - to give exposure to West Philly's underground artists. His artists have ranged from semi-professional rappers to dining hall cooks at Penn. He's founded Wharton Christian Group on campus; started his own high-end "urban couture" label, Ova Da Wall Apparel, which generates up to $30,000 in sales every month; he's a respected leader of the Renewal College Fellowship. And he is a mere 21 years old.
Though Sean seems the normal Penn student, his quietly confident attitude towards life sets him apart. Even as he walks through Huntsman Hall, he exudes a kind of inner peace. Chalk it up to his spiritual background: Sean attributes his tranquility about the future to his firmly rooted belief in God.
His resume begs the obvious question: how does he have time for everything? Sean only shrugs. Does he study? "Mmm. Sometimes."
Plans for next year? Now, Sean pauses. "After graduation? I don't know." He looks earnest. "Is it time for me to grow up and do serious stuff?"
* * *
Koherent isn't just a hobby. It's a full-time business with a staff of 15. At the moment, they represent Sean and local rapper Lbs.; their records are distributed online at koherentrecords.com and by local street vendors. A lot of the money is tied up in investments like equipment and studio space. Koherent draws profit from CD sales and events like parties at Shampoo, which bring in around $500 each time.
"At first I wanted to call it Seannie Boy Records. That's what my mom used to call me," he confides over pizza in the kitchen of his residence in Sansom Place West. Hidden under the textbooks and normal college boy mess are the tools of his trade: recording equipment, guitar, keyboard. "Then I talked to my cousin, and he was like 'What the hell is wrong with you?' I thought it was cool back then. But I guess it's not. So we came up with Koherent, off my last name."
He met with artists and producers and started organizing local shows and parties. The label grew faster and bigger than he expected. "People hopped on board." He sheepishly admits, "I guess I'm good at selling things to people. I could sell my smelly socks."
Josh Smith, a senior film major at Drexel and one of Sean's producers, remains impressed to this day with his friend's abilities. "He can form armies of people to do things with him." He chuckles before adding, "He has so many ideas . he pulls things out of his hat. There's got to be some secret recipe . either he has a closetful of slaves or he's a sorcerer."
On Penn's campus today, you'll find students sporting black and white Koherent T-shirts. They go to his parties, listen to his music, and some even give time and energy to help build his vision. But you would never suspect that the mellow, mild-mannered student in your finance class was the brains behind popular Thursday night parties at Shampoo Nightclub, and his own hits like "Ring the Alarm."
Recently Sean ceded some control of Koherent to CEO Kevin Banks, in an effort to focus on his own music. He's been composing and singing for various audiences since high school, but only recently has he achieved wider visibility. "Touch" will be his first song to be produced as a music video.
If all goes according to plan, this track should be the one that brings EsKoh to the mainstream.
* * *
At Au Bon Pain, Sean answers e-mails on his Treo and adds cream and sugar to his tea with the same confident motions. Josh Smith soon appears.
Sean met Josh freshman year at a prayer meeting, and more recently they've teamed up for the "Touch" music video. Josh is serving as director and writer. Gangly with wire-rimmed glasses and a mop of light brown hair, he is just as unassuming as Sean.
We walk a few blocks to where Sean's shiny black Hummer is parked. As we drive away from Penn's campus, he puts in a CD. Songs like Ne-Yo's "Sexy Love" and Busta Rhymes' "Touch It" fill the car. Sean turns to me as he pulls onto I-76, "I'm picking my set for Friday." Friday, Sean will perform at 8th Street Lounge.
The plan is to perform a few mainstream songs, before turning to his original material. Cedric Hall, Sean's producer and choreographer from Temple University, explained it to me later, "He has to kind of prove that he's down with popular music, you know? Gives him credibility."
In the driver's seat, Sean manages to study song lyrics, ad lib harmonies to the thumping music, and talk on his Treo at the same time. His voice, pure with a high range, is mesmerizing above the general noise in the car.
It's 6:45 p.m. Sean is headed to his producer, Jarren "J. Dunny" DuPree's house in Southwest Philly.
The studio is in DuPree's basement. Chairs and couches line the walls, with the recording equipment on one side and Dunny's piles of laundry on the other.
After turning on the equipment, Josh starts recording, working the controls as Sean sings into a microphone. He records in a tiny space enclosed by old mattresses, used to insulate the sound. By then, Hall has joined us; he sprawls out on one of the couches, giving Sean feedback and suggesting different harmonies. Sean listens and tests his suggestions. "You know better. You're The Entertainer," he says. Hall is as flashy and outgoing as Sean is quiet and modest.
"I can't stop," Sean says. "There are people, you know? That's the fuel. It's all about creating something that other people are passionate about and sharing with them."
"Touch" is a beat-heavy track about "going crazy all alone" and needing a girl's touch.
After recording enough material, Sean sits down at the computer and starts sequencing the different tracks. Cedric has already left for the night. Josh retreats to the couch and begins an elaborate sketch of a triangular Rubens Tube, a long tube with a series of small flames controlled by sound, for the music video. His vision was for each tube to pump out colored gasses to the beat of the music. "No one has ever used a Rubens Tube in a music video before. I want to be the first."
His vision for the video is a guy and a girl dancing and drawing close to each other, trying to touch hands, but never quite making it. They plan to shoot the video in the spring and feature both Outta Kontrol, Temple's premier hip-hop dance group, and Penn's Strictly Funk. They've already chosen a few Philly locations, and Josh is working on building a set depicting the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute so that he can set the walls on fire. "I'm experimenting with a pyrotechnic right now on PVC tubes."
In the studio, J. Dunny takes over for Sean and sequences the track in a few minutes. Sean sighs. "He's so much better at this stuff than I am. He makes it sound all professional."
Dunny plays the seamless final mix through the main speakers - "Touch" as it will be heard by the public. Sean's face lights up. Glowing, he trots around the room and pumps his fist in the air. "This guy's a genius!" The gold chain peeking out from his shirt hints at the performer behind the Wharton student.
At 10:45 p.m., Sean is still glimmering with excitement; no jacket, sleeves pushed up, hair tousled. For his gig at 8th Street Lounge, he wants to mix four songs together, splicing together clips of beats. "I just want to be cool. I don't want it to be corny." Josh calls out from his couch of lazy doodling: "You said it was okay to be corny." Indignant, Sean shoots back: "No I didn't! I said the music video could be corny!" Josh just laughs.
Dunny, meanwhile, is occupied with the beats Sean wants to splice together. "You sure about this?" Sean asks about Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous." "Does it sound stupid if I sing it? Even the girl's part?" He gives it a try. It's silly, but somehow he makes it work. His high notes are impressive: clear and clean.
Sean and Dunny sit at the computer, moving to the beats and analyzing the different clips Sean has put together. Sean calls all the shots - "Put this beat here" - with Dunny either grunting, nodding in approval, or shooting back a skeptical "Are you sure?"
It's 10:55 p.m. Sean hasn't managed to magically create more time; he lives by the same rules as everyone else. In less than six hours, he's recorded and mastered a new single.
On the table, his Treo vibrates again.
* * *
Outside 8th Street Lounge, people are lining up for ID checks. Inside, DJ Wreckless has people dancing on the dark, smoky floor. The Projekt EsKoh crew has taken over the coatroom, and Josh has his cameras and equipment all set up and ready to go when the door opens and Sean walks in. He wears a blood red Ova Da Wall shirt, studded with gleaming crystals in the shape of a skull. His thick black-framed glasses are gone, his hair is gelled back, but he's the same cool, calm Sean.
"Any pizza left?" are the first words out of his mouth. Sean's sister Josephine, a freshman at NYU, had come down to support her brother's gig. Professor James Peterson, who taught Sean in "Hip Hop Culture," is also there. Everyone smiles wider than normal, edgy and antsy, with obvious anticipation.
Eventually, EsKoh walks out on stage to loud cheers; the crowd on the dance floor moves towards the stage. He opens with "Sexy Love," then Cedric, onstage by his side, goes into "Touch It." They move around the stage, singing, dancing, and hyping up the crowd.
After a few more tracks, he goes into his own hits, "Ring the Alarm" and "Touch." His voice is every bit as golden as it sounded in the studio. Josh and his film crew scout all corners of the club, culling footage for the music video.
As the performance comes to an end, EsKoh thanks the crowd and walks off stage to great applause. If there's a performing gene, Sean certainly has it.
Josh and Ray Ting, another producer from Drexel interview audience members and Sean's friends. "Really crazy good" and "out of control" are just a couple of the compliments. One guy notes later on, "If he can sing like that live, then you know he's got talent."
Sean feels that he's starting to lose his self-consciousness. "I used to think my music wasn't good. But then I did a little, and people liked it. So I did a little more, and it just grew bigger." He blinks. "Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if I had focused on my own music from the very beginning of Koherent."
Eunice Jung, Sean's assistant and a junior at Temple University, enjoyed the performance, but feels "it would have been better if more people had come." It's true that Sean Koh is still emerging slowly from below the radar. But this show is a start, and there are more performances lined up, more songs to be written, and every day, more people are hearing about his music.
* * *
For now, Sean Koh continues to work on his solo career. Production for the "Touch" music video is scheduled for later this year. While negotiating with record labels about licensing "Ring the Alarm," he performs twice a week at clubs and events around Philly. On March 5, he's scheduled to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York City.