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Chicago-area native Dan Suh finds his groove with Korean pop star Psy

Whirlwind with 'Gangnam Style' artist started about 6 weeks ago for Suh, who got start in music at U. of I.

Melissa Harris

Chicago Confidential

November 4, 2012

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Dan Suh returned my call Tuesday from his room at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto, and we started with some housekeeping. Could he please email me a photo of himself for the paper?

"Yeah, I can do that. We have a photographer traveling with us," Suh, 32, said. "I look pretty ragged, but she can make me look half-decent. And we have a makeup artist. Maybe she can touch me up, so I don't look like I haven't slept in a month."

Such is life on the road with Psy (pronounced "sigh"), a South Korean pop star and the worldwide cultural phenomenon of the moment. Suh, who graduated from Barrington High School and the University of Illinois, has been Psy's day-to-day manager for nearly two months, joining him about a month after Psy's "Gangnam Style" video went viral on YouTube.

Suh's Tumblr account, cleverly called "korean tom cruise, the," shows photos of tables of Korean food, a chartered jet, Psy performing on stage (shot from backstage), Suh with Betty White, Suh on the sets of "The X Factor" and the "Today" show, and lots of pictures of his dog Bunny, whom he misses on the road.

"He is very busy, extremely busy," said his father, Glenn Suh, who lives in Inverness. "As a father, I'm worried about proper eating and resting. Their schedule is like crazy. One time he said he only slept 1 1/2 hours."

Psy's "Gangnam Style" has been No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for five weeks. The catchy song is the first K-Pop (Korean pop) hit to cross the Pacific Ocean.

The music video is a parody of life in Gangnam, an affluent neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea. It has racked up more than 600 million hits on YouTube. And if you haven't visited YouTube lately (or ever), you might have seen kids in your neighborhood wearing pastel tuxedo jackets and sunglasses on Halloween. That's Psy's wardrobe — kind of like Michael Jackson's red leather jacket.

Back to Suh. He got his start in music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after figuring out that the student union had an entertainment budget that wasn't being spent. So he filled out a form appointing himself president of "the concert board," then pulled together some friends to help him stage shows.

"We didn't bring in anyone huge or anything like that," Suh said. "We didn't have all the money in the world. But I was always looking for bands on the up and up. And after 2 1/2 years of doing that, I had become connected with different booking agents, record companies, and things like that."

After college, he landed a job with Champaign-based indie label Polyvinyl Record Co. Then he went on the road with Motion City Soundtrack and managed tours for Fall Out Boy. Along the way, he left Chicago for New York and then New York for Los Angeles.

After consulting and doing marketing for musicians, mostly setting up sponsorship deals, Suh left the music business in January for his first "grown-up job" — his words — working for a Korean clean-water technology company, Pan Asia Water Co. His father is a general partner in the firm.

"When the jobs come (in the music business), it's great, and you get paid all at once," Suh said. "But sometimes it'll take two to three months to set up the next job, and that part made it attractive to work for a company, draw a salary and have a little stability."

It lasted nine months. In September, Psy signed with Scooter Braun's Schoolboy Records. Braun is Justin Bieber's manager. Within days Suh told a friend, who also knew Braun, to pass along that he was available if Braun wanted someone with experience in the music business — who also spoke Korean — to work with Psy. Suh said he meant the comment as a joke. But Braun called the next day.

"He said, 'Hey, we need your help,'" Suh said. "'Psy is performing on the 'Today' show in two days. We need somebody to get in there and make it happen.' I ended up moonlighting for a few weeks, doing two jobs at once (the water company and the music), and then we worked out a deal for me to come work for Psy and Scooter full time. That all happened in the last six weeks."

Suh had tried to keep his side job hidden from the water company. That failed after a Korean broadcast network, MBC, caught Suh on camera while documenting Psy's debut on "Today."

"I'm in the background of a lot of the shots, coordinating for Psy, getting him to the stage, kind of doing my thing," Suh said. "Co-workers and family members started emailing me from Korea, 'What are you doing with Psy?' I thought, 'Oh, man, the cat's out of the bag.' I was trying to do it on the down low. Now my relatives are pausing national TV, taking pictures of the screen and emailing them to me."

Suh is in charge of making Psy's schedule. Put another way, in conjunction with Braun and Psy's Korean record label, YG Entertainment, Suh makes strategic decisions about where and when Psy should promote his music.

"The 'Today' show was actually for me, as a Korean-American, a really almost emotional kind of moment," Suh said. "I'd never seen the Korean community really mobilize like that. They took over Rockefeller Center. To have a Korean artist perform on national TV in the U.S., it was a historic day. I kind of got caught up in the moment, just playing some small role in that. It's Psy. It's his performance, but knowing I was involved in that some way, in making history, was really cool."

Suh took a brief break from touring last weekend to return to Chicago for a wedding.

"One of my cousins, she has three young girls, and she was telling me how her girls' friends think it's so cool they're Korean because of how popular Psy is, the video and the dance," Suh said. "When we were growing up, it was definitely not cool to be Korean. It wasn't tough, but, you know, there always was this kind of feeling of being an outsider. It's been really cool to see how one song and one artist can really change people's perceptions."

Pete Wentz, Fall Out Boy's bassist and a Wilmette native, said Suh's new role combines two passions.

"It's hard to be as passionate about sprinklers and what not, as you are about music and going on tour," Wentz said. "Music seemed to be his first passion ... and Dan's always been pretty proud of his Korean culture."

But will it last? Will people still be wearing Psy costumes on Halloween next year? Suh says yes.

"What I think a lot of people don't realize about Psy is that he is extremely, extremely talented," Suh said. "He's not only a musician and singer. He's a rapper, composer of music and producer. He's kind of a one-man machine."

For instance, most pop artists have songs written for them and collaborate with producers to cull better ideas.

"I've seen him in the recording studio, and the ability to do all of that himself is really impressive," Suh said. "Yeah, he's got this catchy song and this catchy video. But he can really back it up. In Korea, they already know this. He's been a very successful artist there for almost 12 years. So it was no surprise in Korea when the song went No. 1, and it didn't shock anybody there that this took off in the rest of the world."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com, 312-222-4582 or Facebook.com/chiconfidential.

Twitter @chiconfidential