Sub-unit, not ‘suboonit’: A guide to the trending K-pop buzzword
Getting into K-pop is a matter of familiarizing yourself with a number of unfamiliar terms, including the trending buzzword “sub-unit” which has been a topic of discussion among fans and curious netizens on social media.
The topic of sub-units came into discussion after TV host-actress Dianne Medina accidentally mispronounced the term while reporting about the upcoming debut of Twice’s Japanese members Mina, Sana, and Momo (MiSaMo) at a news segment on the government-owned network PTV-4 earlier this week.
But what is a sub-unit anyway, and why is it a thing among fans? For beginners, allow us to guide you through the trending buzzword, as well as some of the biggest sub-units in K-pop.
Defining a sub-unit
For starters, a sub-unit is used to describe a smaller unit of K-pop idols within a group that is currently active. It is pronounced just like its English counterpart, “suh-byoo-nuht”; instead of Medina’s earlier mishap which sounded like “sub-oo-nuht”.
Just like a mini version of a K-pop group, the sub-unit is an opportunity for idols as a duo or trio to showcase more of their strengths as singers, dancers, performers, and even producers. This unit is not meant to be a stepping stone towards disbandment, but instead as an additional activity for artists to shine in the industry — which usually is seen as a win among fans of groups with larger members.
What sets a sub-unit apart from a typical music collaboration or K-pop group is that it is a privilege for idols to showcase a different side of themselves through a unique set of concepts and music styles. Some sub-units can choose to either go on a sexier route, while others may opt for a more playful take on their music.
For example, veteran sub-unit Girls’ Generation-TTS is a more mature and glamorous take from the usual concepts of Girls’ Generation — which is known for their feminine image and bubblegum pop discography.
To clear things up, a sub-unit promotes like a usual K-pop group. After releasing their EP or album, the members perform in various music shows, participate in variety shows, grace the cover of magazines, take on dance challenges with their fellow idols, and go on to release more music, among many others.
Sub-unit vs supergroup
There are also certain cases in the industry where sub-units are instead marketed as a supergroup consisting of idols from different K-pop groups, should their agencies permit them from doing so.
An example of the former’s case can be seen with the male supergroup SuperM from SM Entertainment which is composed of SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127’s Taeyong and Mark, and WayV’s Ten and Lucas. The male unit debuted with their first EP “Jopping” in October 2019 under SM and U.S.-based record label Capitol Records.
Another example is the female supergroup GoT The Beat, also from SM Entertainment, which consists of soloist Boa, Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon and Hyoyeon, Red Velvet’s Seulgi and Wendy, and aespa’s Karina and Winter. The female unit released their debut single “Step Back” in January 2022, and followed up with their first EP “Stamp on It” in January 2023.
To clear things up, SuperM and GoT The Beat are not sub-units of the aforementioned K-pop groups, but instead are supergroups formed by SM.
Some of K-pop’s most popular sub-units
The K-pop industry has produced quite a number of successful sub-units that catered to different types of fans. While these idols have made a name in their respective groups, the sub-units were an opportunity for them to showcase more of their artistry and performance skills.
Take a look at some of the most popular sub-units in K-pop:
Members: SHINee’s Key, Infinite’s Woohyun
Perhaps, one of the most unique sub-units in the industry is the duo Toheart composed of SHINee’s Key under SM Entertainment and Infinite’s Woohyun under Woollim Entertainment. The unit debuted with their first mini-album in March 2014 with the lead single “Delicious”.
Longtime K-pop fans would fondly remember this song as it contains the lyrics, “Come on girl, love is so nutritious / Come on girl, love is so delicious.”
Members: Mina, Sana, Momo
The upcoming sub-unit is composed of Twice’s Japanese members Mina, Sana, and Momo, and their debut is slated for July 26 of this year. Prior to their debut, they released the single “Bouquet” which was included in the soundtrack of the J-drama “Children’s Heart Clinic”.
MiSaMo also made waves on social media after being featured on the cover of Vogue Japan’s March 2023 issue.
Girls’ Generation – TTS
Members: Taeyeon, Tiffany, Seohyun
Girls’ Generation-TTS, also known as Girls’ Generation-TaeTiSeo, consists of three members of the girl group’s vocal line Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. The sub-unit made their debut in April 2012 with their first mini-album “Twinkle”, where they showed off a more mature and glamorous concept compared to the original group’s image.
The sub-unit also released their second mini-album “Holler” in September 2014 and “Dear Santa – Xmas Special” in December 2015. Some of their hit songs include “Twinkle”, “Adrenaline”, “Holler”, and “Dear Santa”, among others.
Seventeen’s BSS (BooSeokSoon)
Members: Seungkwan, DK (or Dokyeom), Hoshi
Seventeen’s BSS, the sub-unit consisting of Seventeen’s Seungkwan, Dokyeom, Hoshi, debuted in March 2018 with their first single “Just Do It”. The unit name is the shortened form of the real names of the K-pop boy group’s members, namely, Boo Seung-kwan (Seungkwan), Lee Seok-min (DK), and Kwon Soon-young (Hoshi).
The sub-unit explores more of Seungkwan, Dokyeom, and Hoshi’s playful side, which reflects in their second mini-album “Second Wind” which was dropped earlier this month.
Members: Chen, Baekhyun, Xiumin
EXO-CBX consists of Chen, Baekhyun, Xiumin — which was jokingly referred to as a sub-unit with the “shortest members” of the group. They were first introduced to the public during a video in their “Exo Planet #3 – The Exo’rdium” concert before making their debut in October 2016 with the mini-album “Hey Mama”.
The unit pays homage to Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin’s retro sides which can be seen in their hit songs “Hey Mama” and “Blooming Day”.
Red Velvet – Irene and Seulgi
Members: Irene, Seulgi
Red Velvet fans — also known as ReveLuvs — were overjoyed when it was confirmed that Irene and Seulgi will be debuting as the group’s first sub-unit in July 2020.
While the girl group is known for their wide range of concepts, Red Velvet – Irene and Seulgi explores more of a femme fatale image where the members showed off their sexier sides to the public. Some of their hit songs include “Monster” and “Naughty”, which caught the attention of fans due to its intricate tutting-inspired choreography.
WJSN The Black
Members: Bona, Seola, Exy, Eunseo
Perhaps the most popular sub-unit of the girl group WJSN or Cosmic Girls, WJSN The Black allowed Seola, Bona, Exy, and Eunseo to flaunt their mature side which can be seen in their first EP “My Attitude” released in May 2021.
Girls’ Generation – Oh!GG
Members: Taeyeon, Sunny, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Yoona
The second sub-unit of Girls’ Generation, Oh!GG is composed of Taeyeon, Sunny, Hyoyeon, Yuri, and Yoona — members who remained in the Korean music label SM Entertainment following the departure of Tiffany, Sooyoung, and Seohyun from the agency.
The name of the sub-unit is a combination of the words “Oh!” or the Hanja-Korean word of five and “GG”, the abbreviation of the girl group’s name. The seductive unit debuted in September 2018 with their first single album “Lil’ Touch”.
Members: Jinyoung, JayB
GOT7 members JayB and Jinyoung showed off more of their vocals in the duo JJ Project, which made their debut in May 2012. Some of their most popular songs include “Tomorrow, Today”, “Bounce”, “Before the Song Ends”, and “Icarus”, among others.
Stray Kids’ 3RACHA
Members: Han, Bang Chan, Changbin
Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han, known among fans as some of the most prominent songwriters and producers of Stray Kids’ music, showcase their hip-hop roots through the unit 3RACHA.
Compared to other sub-units, 3RACHA’s discography is uploaded in the music platform Soundcloud including their first untitled mixtape “J:/2017/mixtape”.
Members: Chanyeol, Sehun
EXO’s Chanyeol and Sehun debuted as the group’s second sub-unit EXO-SC in July 2019 with their first mini-album “What a Life”, where the music video showed more of their fun-loving sides.
The sub-unit took things slow in their first full album “1 Billion Views” which was released in July 2020.
Members: Hyolyn, Bora
While Sistar is known for their sexy concepts, Sistar19 is a more nuanced take on seductiveness which leans towards the topic of love. The sub-unit, composed of main vocalist Hyolyn and rapper Bora, debuted in May 2011 with the hit single “Ma Boy” — which features the notable body roll steps in the chorus.
The sub-unit released their follow-up single “Gone Not Around Any Longer” in January 2013. Since the girl group had already disbanded in June 2017, it’s unknown whether Hyolyn and Bora will make their return.
Members: Nana, Raina, Lizzy
Compared to After School’s “independent woman”-inspired concepts, Orange Caramel is a 180-degree turn from the group’s image. The female sub-unit, consisting of Nana, Raina, and Lizzy, is known for their eccentric concepts which can be reflected through their music and unique sense of style.
Orange Caramel debuted in June 2010, and are best known for their hit songs “Catallena” and “Lipstick”. Lizzy, however, revealed in a May 2019 interview that the members have gone their separate ways but After School and the sub-unit haven’t officially disbanded, as of this writing.
Members: Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, Yesung
Super Junior-K.R.Y. is a grand display of the veteran boy group’s main vocal line, composed of members Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, and Yesung. Prior to their sub-unit debut, they released the songs “The Night Chicago Died” and “The One I Love” for the K-drama “Hyena”, then performed the former as their music show debut.
The sub-unit is known for their powerful ballads and are usually featured in the soundtracks of Korean series. Aside from Super Junior-K.R.Y., the group also produced the sub-units Super Junior-T, Super Junior-M, Super Junior-Happy, and Super Junior-D&E. EDV