Jon Hawkins knows how to read a crowd.

Known professionally as DJ Jon, he’s been playing dance tunes for people of all ages at Portland-area clubs and events for two decades. But in the past few years, he’s realized there’s a glaring gap in dance music made for young people, middle schoolers and teens especially.

“It seems that most of the music for kids that age are songs about frogs and baby sharks, then it goes straight into hip-hop songs about heroin or violence,” said Hawkins, 51, of Portland. “There aren’t a lot of American pop songs that are fun for kids to dance to and are just about love.”

Noticing this gap, Hawkins a few years ago became intently interested in K-pop – danceable, upbeat pop music from South Korea – and has been spreading it around Maine ever since. He plays K-pop at weddings, in clubs and at school dances. He’s also playing a lot of it on the radio, something that’s fairly rare across the country.

He’s been hosting a show called “K-Pop Mega Mix” on the University of Southern Maine community radio station WMPG on Mondays at 4 p.m. for about two years, and this spring he began the “KPop After Hours” show on his weekend overnight shifts on Portland commercial station WHTP – Hot Radio 104.7 FM. He’s also got a website called, where he blogs about K-pop and streams sets of songs.

Hawkins recently played K-pop tunes, including requests, at a school dance in Falmouth and a wedding in Stockton Springs. He’s opening a show for rapper and DJ Lil Jon in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, on Thursday and is thinking about playing some K-pop then.


The K-pop section at Newbury Comics inside the Maine Mall in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Before the pandemic Hawkins played some K-pop events at local nightspots or outdoor festivals, often accompanied by a local K-pop dance group and calling themselves Krush Dance Krew. Cherlline Ouch, one of the dance group members, said K-pop fans share a sense of community and a longing to have fun.

“I love dancing and meeting other people, and K-pop lets me do that,” said Ouch, 24, of Portland. “It’s just a fun music that helps you escape, helps you get away from stress.”


Hawkins grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and started working as a DJ in college at Towson State in Maryland. He moved to Portland in the early ’90s and worked at The Studio, a recording studio downtown, where he mixed and mastered recordings for various artists.

Working as DJ Jon, Hawkins has been known to dancers in Greater Portland for at least a couple decades. He was the DJ of the popular ’80s night at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge in Portland and has also spun records at Portland clubs Asylum and Zootz, among others. He also worked as a DJ at Portland-area radio station WRED before coming to WHTP, which focuses on hip-hop and R&B music, about 10 years ago. Over the years, he’s performed on the same concert bill as 50 Cent, Dave Chappelle and Snoop Dogg.

Hawkins considers himself a hip-hop DJ, and says K-pop reminds him of the “golden era” of hip-hop and R&B, from about 1985 to 1995. R&B groups of that period, like NSYNC or Backstreet Boys, had a mainstream sound and sang about love but with hip-hop elements, Hawkins said. He became interested in K-pop when “digging around” for music to mix into his ’80s themed sets at dance clubs a few years ago. He found that many K-pop producers were fans of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop and R&B and that their work displayed that.


“I think a lot of people my age were influenced by that era, and you can hear how K-pop harkens back to that time. It sounds like what I grew up with,” Hawkins said. “The kids today still go for that golden era stuff, so I started testing out some K-pop on them and found they really liked that too.”

As an Asian-American – he has Japanese and Taiwanese heritage – Hawkins says K-pop also caught his attention because the performers “look like me.”

“DJ Jon” – Jon Hawkins – records at the Hot 104.7 FM studio in Scarborough. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

What exactly is K-pop? It’s pop music from South Korea, often sung by youthful vocal groups usually known as much for their slick choreography as their vocal chops. Many songs have their own dances. The music has elements of rock, hip-hop and electronica, and the version heard around the world now began gaining popularity in the 1990s. Sung mostly in Korean but with some English lyrics, the songs are usually about love, attraction or partying. Gun violence and drugs are noticeably absent. Sexy outfits and flirty lyrics are part of the package as well.

Around 2009, K-pop bands – including Wonder Girls – began landing songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. South Korean rapper Psy brought K-pop into the American mainstream – and into American living rooms – with his huge video hit “Gangnam Style” in 2012. It had kids, teens and adults all over the country dancing along.

Today, some of the bigger K-pop bands top the American pop charts. The boy band BTS saw its 2020 hit “Dynamite” debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The English lyrics to that song are a little silly and basically about having fun, with lines like: “Can you hear the bass boom? I’m ready (woo hoo)/Life is sweet as honey/Yeah, this beat cha-ching like money, huh.” BTS members met with President Biden in May, for a photo-op and to discuss anti-Asian hate crimes.

The K-pop girl group Blackpink landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in June, just the third girl group ever to be featured on the cover of the influential music publication, after Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child.


K-pop is not widely heard on commercial radio in America, except for a few of the really big hits. That may be more a function of how young people listen to music today, with K-pop bands regularly landing in the top performers on Spotify, YouTube or other online platforms.

“It really is a worldwide phenomenon because of the internet,” said Peter Lo, a San Francisco DJ and host of the weekly “Kpopcast” podcast. Lo said that K-pop fans buy physical CDs as well, since most come with extensive art and information about the band and the recording. “They’re sold all over, including in Target. And the fans will mobilize like crazy when they hear a new shipment of CDs is coming in.”

At Newbury Comics in the Maine Mall in South Portland, hundreds of K-pop recordings are sold each week, said Sean Carroll, the store manager. Hawkins performed at a K-pop party at the store a few years ago, and he and Carroll often talk about new releases and what the buzz about them is among fans. Carroll said there’s a pretty broad age spectrum for K-pop fans, from middle school to people in their 20s or 30s. The buyers are mostly women, he said.

“I was expecting it would be mostly kids, but we have older folks too,” said Carroll.

Jon Hawkins in front of the K-pop section at Newbury Comics in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In June, Hawkins was the DJ at the Stockton Springs wedding of Aiai Ren and Heng Lu of Boston. The couple, both in their early 30s and of Chinese heritage, said when they hired Hawkins his K-pop interest wasn’t really a factor. But they became more interested in K-pop as the big day approached and were glad Hawkins was able to play some, as it kept people dancing and the mood upbeat.

“Nobody understood the lyrics, but the songs were really catchy and well-constructed,” said Ren. “There were some songs with dance moves that were really easy to learn and fun to do.”

Hawkins likes that K-pop doesn’t have explicit lyrics or the “ego trip” messages of some hip-hop and thinks that helps their appeal to teens and young adults, maybe adults of any age. He thinks the music is just more fun than a lot of hip-hop today and doesn’t feature “the same depressing three chords” many songs do, he said.

“People still like melodies and harmonies too,” Hawkins said.

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