Interview and video by Elizabeth Mak
An exclusive interview with Sam Ock, J. Han, and CL, the artists behind AMP Movement.
Elizabeth: Who were your individual inspirations and influences both musically and spiritually growing up? How did you bring all those different musical styles together?
Sam: I grew up in a Christian home and my mom actually used to be an opera singer. She went to Seoul University and got her Masterâ€™s in vocal performance. I grew up as a kid just with church music and classical music. I didnâ€™t know what pop music was until I was in middle school so you know, typical Korean or Asian kid you take piano lessons so I took piano lessons since I was 5 kind of on and off. I hated practicing but you know, Iâ€™m glad my mom forced me through it. So at the same time I was doing that and I played a lot of church music at church and sang with my family. My mom would force my sister and I to sing four-part harmony with our family and I was a little kid so I sang alto because my voice was super high. [Laughs]
So I think thatâ€™s how I got my singing and musical structure and roots down. And then I kind of discovered pop music in middle school. My cousin introduced me to all these radio artists and I was like oh, I didnâ€™t know there were all these different kinds of music. I grew up in a Christian home so having this Christian influence and then finding my own Christian identity and at the same time in high school I got involved with a whole bunch of musicâ€”jazz, wind ensemble, marching band, choirs, acappella groupâ€¦ I got into all these different styles so thatâ€™s kind of why AMPâ€™s music sounds like a mesh of all these different styles because since I make all the compositions and all my influences are combined together. The spiritual part of it is that as I found my own identity in Christ throughout high school and college that kind of played into wanting to make this Christian art that wasnâ€™t really like any kind of typical rap or typical pop but rather trying to put it together into one thing.
J. Han: Letâ€™s seeâ€¦so growing up, I didnâ€™t grow up in a Christian household so I never grew up in church. So I started going to church when I was in 9th grade. Iâ€™ll stop it there and then Iâ€™ll talk about my musical background kind of leading up to that.
I listened to a lot ofâ€”well, I didnâ€™t listen to itâ€”my parents listened to a lot of disco music and funk and jazz, specifically my dad. My dad always turned on a lot of Kenny G and Funkytown and all these songs to dance to which was motivation for me to clean the house reallyâ€¦in middle school thatâ€™s when I first discovered hip hop. And then ever since middle school, thatâ€™s when a lot of my influences for hip hop has come from all the musicians I listened to, all the rappers.
Leading up to high school, up to that point I listened to a lot of different genres. I knew pop music, I knew hip hop, I knew funk and jazz. And it kind of culminates into when I entered into college. Thatâ€™s when I really started to explore musicality and art in that manner…when I actually first started doing music seriously. Yeah, even considering it to be a viable calling in my life because thatâ€™s when I first met Sam and CL and you know, ever since Iâ€™ve just been trying to figure out how to make God-glorifying music thatâ€™s unashamed of the gospel while not compromising an art.
Sam: So itâ€™s interesting because I didnâ€™t really grow up being in the hip hop culture. I kind of listened to rap but that was just one of the things I listened to. I also listened to rock and contemporary Christian music and all these things so I kind of use rap as a part of the music but people see me as a singer while as James, he grew up more in hip hopâ€¦so people see him as a rapper.
CL: I grew up in a Christian home. My dad was a pastor. I was more of a rebellious kid so I grew up on West Coast gangster rap in the early â€˜90sâ€¦Tupac, Warren G, Snoop Dog, those guys. Yeah, so music for me was really my scapegoat. I think I really adapted to this gangster rap style because I felt the anger. And I felt like I could really relate to these guys since I had a lot of anger growing upâ€¦so thatâ€™s pretty much all I listened to until the Lord turned my life around.
For spiritual influences, I mean every local pastor, a good number of local pastorsâ€”the Lord turned my life around back in May 2008 so then, especially in the first two years there were a lot of local pastors who were just there to answer all my barrages of questions, just to give me guidance and wisdom and then of course thereâ€™s John Piper, John MacArthur, those are the pastors Iâ€™m most familiar with and their books. Yeah, thatâ€™s pretty much my spiritual and musical influences. After the Lord turned my life around, my musical influences obviously shifted, you know, Iâ€™d definitely say the guys from Lambo, especially Stephen Levi, was a big influence.
Elizabeth: How does the music writing process, especially the lyrics, how do you guys get together to do that?
CL: Well, it depends. I mean usually Sam will send out an email thatâ€™s like â€œNew Beatâ€ and weâ€™re like yeahh! [Laughs] And sometimes heâ€™ll send it with a chorus and a hook that heâ€™s already written so thereâ€™s already a concept of a song. Sometimes heâ€™ll send it out with an idea and a concept already for the song. Or you know, heâ€™ll just send one out and weâ€™ll think about a concept, throw it out there and agree on the concept thatâ€™s the best as a group. And once we have a beat and agree on a concept as a group, weâ€™ll just get to writing. Now we use Google Docs, Google Drive, which is awesome. Weâ€™ll put up all our lyrics, weâ€™ll read each othersâ€™ lyrics and thatâ€™s really how as a group writing goes.
For myselfâ€¦really depending on the topic I think itâ€™s your personal study, what you read, you know, your intimacy and relationship with the Lord that flows into a number of topics. Definitely each time when, you know, you donâ€™t know what to write, you pray and ask the Lord for words and thatâ€™s how the writing process goes.
J. Han: For me, itâ€™s everything that Chung said and something Iâ€™ve been trying to do more recently is if thereâ€™s a certain emotion or certain feeling or certain conviction I have, I try to capture it and kind of convey that sort of mood into the way I write and how the chorus is written. Yeah, so thatâ€™s just something in addition to what Chung has saidâ€¦Yeah, I mean, how softly you sing the lyrics or if you want to make it more hype, youâ€™re a little more aggressive. Contemplative, definitely a lot softer, thereâ€™s just different little nuances that you can explore to convey that sort of message.
Elizabeth: So when did it become apparent to you guys that God brought you together for the purpose of actually taking this seriously and becoming AMP. Was it just for fun at first or were you guys super serious from the beginning?
Sam: I think at first it was just us collaborating with each other as artists and not really seeing it so much as a viable career option more than a ministry outletâ€¦where a commitment was mostly toward the local church and finding a job and those kinds of things and being able to have a vocation that will support a family. That was at the beginning when AMP first got together in 2010 where we were just three artists collaborating together. These guys from Illinois, they invited us out to a show as separate artists and we met CLâ€™s manager at the time and he is the one who proposed that we join forces to make a group so we didnâ€™t think too seriously about it becoming a vocation. It was more of just oh, this is a great outlet of music ministry, that kind of thing.
I guess the turning point for meâ€¦where I personally considered it to become more of a possible future is when people started sending more messages to us about how much AMP has blessed their own Christian walk and just how they feel like we have something special that no other artists have and the fact that we kind of represent this Asian American Christianity, this kind of young presence in social media and those kinds of things. When those kind of things started to pick up more, thatâ€™s when for me personally I started thinking that maybe this is something God wants us to do and with a more intentional and full-time kind of effort.
CL: I think for me it was a little bit differentâ€¦I mean Iâ€™m kind of in a different life stage than the guys where, to be honest, before AMP started I was in a rap ministry of my own. And I actually before starting it had a big problem with it. I grew up in a conservative, traditional Korean Christian church where you wear suits every Sunday and if you chew gum during service, youâ€™re a sinner [Laughs]. And so watching these Gospel rappers on stage and on youtube, I thought, this canâ€™t be glorifying to God, you know? But actually, out of all people, my momâ€¦she heard a song that I had written out of my desperations and she was like, â€œThis is a great way to reach the youth.â€ And she didnâ€™t understand anything I was saying but she said it was a great way to reach the youth. And she never asked us what we were doing or came down to our room or anything like that so that had me thinking. But it wasnâ€™t until I heard a song by Lecrae called â€œPrayinâ€™ for Youâ€ that at the end of the song it struck me, I was like â€œWow, this is a great song. This is a great way to reach the youth.â€ I was struggling with it for six months and God constantly brought it to my attention that I got a big problem with it but after that song, I felt really convicted that okay, Lord, if this is where you want me to go, Iâ€™m going to go but youâ€™re going to have to pave that way because I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™m doing and Iâ€™m really just following out of faith and conviction. So when AMP came around, for me since at that point just music in general was always serious to meâ€¦it was such a personal calling that I really feltâ€”because I was really going to be hands-off on music. I used to do production before the Lord turned my life around and I walked away from everything. I didnâ€™t think I would ever be involved in music at allâ€”so you know, for me, conviction, knowing that this was where the Lord was leading me, and to keep up with the guys, I mean it was even more confirmation because with them, just over the years we have learned to grow together, learning more, feeding off each other, encouraging one another. It really did feel like a ministry as the Lord saw fit and hopefully as the Lord continues to be willing weâ€™ll be able to do this full-time and put all our focus into it.
Elizabeth: So why the name AMP? How did that come about?
J. Han: So AMP, when we met in 2010 and we were trying to think of some sort of name, some sort of alias to call our group, our collective, and I think we were sitting in Samâ€™s house and we were just kind of looking around the room for inspiration and somebody pointed out this poster that said â€œAmplify Christâ€ on it. And then someone said, what aboutâ€”oh, there you go. [Sam brings out poster] [Laughs] Thatâ€™s the poster. That is the poster. Thatâ€™s good. So anyway, somebody was like, hey! what about â€œAmplify Christâ€? And weâ€™re all just like no, dude, thatâ€™s too long. And then someone was like â€œAmplify!â€ And weâ€™re like, no, thatâ€™s too many syllables, no. And then someone was like, â€œAMP!â€ And weâ€™re like, like the energy drink? We were all just like, uh, I donâ€™t know. But yeah, we kind of liked the name and it kind of just stuck from that point on. Thatâ€™s how we thought of the word AMP. I mean, itâ€™s just a really short, super short version of â€œAmplify Christ.â€ But thatâ€™s pretty much how we got it.
Phoebe: So, after all of this time that youâ€™ve been recording together, what would you say are some of your biggest challenges as individuals and also as a group?
CL: I think all of us can share one thing about the group and about their individual self. I think one thing, to be honest, to be practically speaking, we all live anywhere from 30-40 minutes from each other. Practically, one of the challenges is scheduling and trying to make things work in our schedule. I mean, I guess individually, my biggest challenge lately has just been how to manage not just AMP but just everything in general, working full time, married, having a kid, doing AMP, church, and then I just finished school a couple months ago. So I think thatâ€™s been the biggest challenge in midst of all the busyness. My personal time with the Lord has been taking a hit. Just being able to findâ€”not really find timeâ€”but just being able to weed out the things you need to weed out and just get into the discipline of saying okay, thatâ€™s enough for today. Thatâ€™s just my own individual struggle.
Sam: I think one of the biggest challenges for the group is finding a musical middle ground because we come fromâ€”well, at least, CL is kind of from the hardcore rap side of things and so many times it does not mesh too well with our generationâ€™sâ€”what are we? Are we the Y2K generation?â€”like, musical palette. So there is a bit of compromise. Usually, CL kind of concedes since I make the music but there is always a challenge of trying to make music where we all feel compelled and really able to be our creative bests and to be able to do that and cater the music to both CLâ€™s and J. Hanâ€™s and my own level of where we can all call it our own art. Thatâ€™s always been a big challenge for me in writing the music.
For me personally, one of the biggest challenges is the fact that I feel so young but because of the position that AMP is in, I feel this really big responsibility to like, you know, now that people see you as some kind of example, and itâ€™s not even voluntary, but itâ€™s kind of like, once youâ€™re an artist, people will come to you and youâ€™re like â€œWhy?!â€ But they do, you know? Because that is there, I canâ€™t assume a lifestyle that is different from the music. It has to line up, you know? And so for me, a big challenge that Iâ€™ve been facing these days is really meaning what we say in the songs and applying that to my life. And my life actually being a testament to the music and thatâ€™sâ€”because Iâ€™m 23 and there is a part of me that wants to enjoy adolescence. Being a leader, we have tasted and we have seen that itâ€™s good being able to share this passion for the Lord with other people but you know, because thatâ€™s such a big message in our music thatâ€¦being passionate about God and Him satisfying us in all parts of our lives, thatâ€™s something that Iâ€™m challenged to do and seek everyday.
J. Han: Cool. Okay, my turn. So, for the group one challenge we are working through and going through is trying to sustain and grow as a business. We have different avenues we can travel down, many opportunities but just trying to figure out where would be most fruitful for us, what would be beneficial, have longevity and you know, trying to still be efficient in what we do. Yeah, so thatâ€™s for the group.
And individually, itâ€™s kind of in line with that Iâ€™m just trying to be productive, manage my time better, things like that, something Iâ€™m trying to improve on because I realize I donâ€™t have that much time as I thought I used to have when I was in college. When youâ€™re an adult and youâ€™ve got to pay bills and you have responsibilities and youâ€™ve got to learn to manage things like what CL was saying earlier. Just trying to manage all that is still something that Iâ€™m still trying to get better at. Just being responsible and an adult, you know, be a manâ€”thatâ€™s something Iâ€™m working on.
Sam: I guess another thing is becauseâ€¦I personally, my musical agenda for AMP is kind of like to put out a marriage of deep and artistic lyric with innovative and also culturally relevant musicâ€”to try to marry that vision is very challenging to constantly reproduce album after album and so for me itâ€™s a lot of praying and asking for inspiration becauseâ€¦I have no idea how to make something that is new. Because a lot of times in a lot of Christian music today itâ€™s just a recycling of something thatâ€™s already been made. You know, like youâ€™ll hear it all the time of, thatâ€™s a Christian version of U2 or thatâ€™s a Christian version of Drake, thatâ€™s a Christian version of Lil Wayne or Christian version of Jason Mraz. Rather than that, trying to have an actual musical identity for AMP. Thatâ€™s probably for me, creatively, the biggest challenge.
Elizabeth: So tell us about your new album that just came out, Transition, the EP, what inspired it, etc.
CL: Obviously the name sets the tone. This year was a transition year for all of us. J. Han, Sam, and me being college grads and just pursuing AMP full time and myself being married and having a daughter, you know, so these are all life-changing events. What we were trying to encapsulate in this project was just the transitions of lifeâ€”going through the challenges, going through obstacles, things we faceâ€”but all in all, God is faithful and will remain the same. But itâ€™s the way how we end up becoming more and the new ways that weâ€™re learning how His Words apply and can be walked out in our lives, just practical ways, especially in facing all these new frontiers in life.
And then Sam, you know, Sam can give you more of an idea of production.
Sam: I guess to add onto what Chungâ€™s saying orâ€¦to kind of sum it up in like a sentence or twoâ€”if you asked all of us who we are, like what weâ€™re thinking about, those kinds of things, I would say that this EP is like a musical consummate product of that, like lyrically and musically. For me, itâ€™s a transition because it kind of sounds like the last albumâ€¦you hear a lot of different types of movement in these songs where itâ€™ll go from one style to another style in the same song where like itâ€™ll kind of change up on you and it has this kind of transition going through the album musically. So itâ€™s a transition because there are kind of new or different kinds of genres and stylesâ€¦mixed in, transitioning into each other and those kinds of things. I would say musically and lyrically, it kind of is a good representation of at least where I am. I donâ€™t know about the guys but I think it is a good representation of where we are right now.
Elizabeth: So whatâ€™s next after this? Or are you guys going to take a break for a while?
CL: No, thereâ€™s no time for that. [Laughs]
Sam: Ainâ€™t nobody got time for that! [Laughs]
CL: I think one thing too, our focus of this year was you know, just doing everything for the glory of God, which also includes excellence, integrity, faithfulness, and stewardship. I think after the first few years, weâ€™ve learned that itâ€™s easy to get complacent, a little laid back. So this year, we really pushed ourselves as a group and as individuals to challenge ourselves to put out as much as we can.
So for the next year, we got this plateau and as you go through it, you build a better habit of workflow. This year, we were really trying to put out as much contentâ€¦at a high level while not trying to compromise the quality. Next year, I think our focus is going to be more on getting back on tours, back on shows. At the same time, still the focus is music, still putting out content at the same level we have, if not higherâ€¦
As a group too, one of our focuses is to continue to build up AMP both as in the ministry aspect where we can grow and mature as believers together. So weâ€™re talking more about just attending more conferences and training and challenging ourselves and getting involved in our communities and ministries next year. But at the same time, challenging ourselves as a business and being able to get to a point where hopefully the financially stability is there. I think what a lot of people may not know is that thereâ€™s a lot of finances involved in producing music. Just to give you an idea, one project alone can easily cost anywhere from $12,000-17,000â€”and thatâ€™s just for hip hop. Thatâ€™s not considering a live band recording and playing out the songs. So this year we put out new songs every month. We put out an EP. Sam put out an EP. J.Han put out a self-released albumâ€¦a lot of finances we put into projects so we hope we can build our foundation up more financially. Next year, weâ€™re seeing the amount of projects we can do next year at minimum. So thatâ€™s going to be a focus too.
Weâ€™re learning as we go what it means to really Biblically pursue a music ministry and what that looks like. But at the same time, Biblically pursue what a business looks likeâ€¦understanding a merge between events and challenges in the process as well. But God is extremely gracious and grants wisdom to those who ask so weâ€™re hoping next year weâ€™ll just continue to grow in that path.
Phoebe: I guess to wrap it up, one last thing is that I know you mentioned the transitioning, the struggle with time management, or even just being responsible. Like you mentioned, you want to enjoy your adolescence but here you have this sense of responsibility to God and to these people. So do you have any words of encouragement or practical advice for your audience and people also going through a time of transition or are struggling with those same areas?
CL: I think we can all share. I think we shared a lot of you know, practical things, things we can focus on, more individualized items and stuff, but I think at the core of everything, really it boils down to having that time with the Lordâ€¦your personal walk. Because really everything that we do flows from thatâ€”our desire to hold up our integrity, our desire to do things in excellence, our desire to reach people, our desire to be a blessing, our desire to growâ€”it all really comes out of the overflow of this relationship with the Lord because the reason why we want to pursue these different things is because we want to be able to exemplify and honor God and show our love for Him thatâ€™s being expressed in these different and new ways.
For myself, Iâ€™m taking my own advice here, but definitely your time with the Lord is extremely critical.
J. Han: So during this transition time for me, one verse that has really helped me kind of process everything and navigate through situations is Romans 8:28â€”we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His good purposes. I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s right. I paraphrased, butâ€¦with that verse, it tells me and whatâ€™s illuminated for me is the fact that, you know, whatever situation we go inâ€”whether good or badâ€”I know that there is some mysterious great plan that God has for me for sanctification, for holiness in my life. And thatâ€™s something I hold fast onto and gives me a lot of hope. Itâ€™s because, you know, I may go through this transition, like I may lose a job or a person listening might have lost a job right now, or may have lost a family member, maybe going through some transition of moving housesâ€”I donâ€™t know butâ€¦all these things that weâ€™re going through, in that passage it says that God is going to use it for our good. We donâ€™t know what that good may be but we know that we can trust our loving Father. So you know, thatâ€™s one verse I can offer up to anybody who is listening, maybe something to meditate on and marinate in.
Sam: Yeah, a lot of the lyrics that I wrote for the EP that we just put out, a lot of them are kind of a reminder and encouragement to myself and the listenerâ€¦kind of what Iâ€™ve been thinking about these days. One of the lyrics, the singing part in the song â€œRulerâ€, it says, there is no greater satisfaction, no quintessential joy than in knowing Iâ€™m made for glory, to know the everlasting Lord. And it kind of ties in with this Bible verse, Isaiah 48â€”the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever. Thatâ€™s one thing Iâ€™ve been realizing in my life and the lives around me. The only constant, the one thing that I can be sure of more than anything else is that life changes constantly, that people change, that things around me changeâ€”I canâ€™t hold onto it because itâ€™s God working in my life. Because God is in control, because all things belong to Him, thereâ€™s nothing better, no greater sense of peace and steadfast love, no greater sense of relationship that is solid, that wonâ€™t let go than to know God and spend time with Him and to love Him and to get joy from Him. So, thatâ€™s my encouragement to everyone: keep your eyes from the worthless things that fade away and keep your joy in the thing that will last forever.
Elizabeth: Thanks, you guys, for sharing.