Chapter 1: Once Upon A Time on the Korean Urban Scene

Chapter 1: Once Upon A Time on the Korean Urban Scene

Once upon a time on the Korean urban scene an artistic elation that kept on increasing and was ready to shake the world. While for a long time most of the westerners had been unaware of its existence, it progressed patiently, at the artists and influences’ discretions as much local as international. Yet, if it was indisputable that this urban scene had something to show, she used to suffocate. To suffocate in the shadows of its friend the Kpop. To suffocate under the weight of biases.

It is well known; the Youth is often misunderstood and sometimes people need time to recognize the value of the novelty.

Far from being a pale imitation of its more pop friend, the Korean urban scene quietly grew up in its corner and was now waiting for one thing; to be seen by people as it truly was; because, after all, it had a lot to tell.

And today we decided to narrate its story.

For a while, the Korean urban scene was kind of exclusive to the circle of the few insiders and artists composing it. However, nowadays, it is evident that this universe exceeds the country’s frontier, spreading out on the international scene. And this with surging.

For a long time, the Korean urban scene has stayed in its musical sister’s shadow, the Kpop. It’s worth noting that initially, the word Kpop was for all the pop productions from South Korea however, due to misuse of language today the term is mostly used to talk about boysband and girlsband music. Therefore here, when we’ll talk about Kpop, the term will mean the music by those groups.

The South Korean hip-hop started to stand out from Kpop because Kpop was often considered as an industrial and manufactured music by western media. Disclaimer: in this article, there is no judgment made against Kpop; we are talking about two different styles of music, and as the adage says it “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Nevertheless, it was ineluctable that those two universes converge, firstly, because of their quite opposite characteristics but also because both know their own rise.  

The hip-hop culture is an artistic expression – whether it be through dance, rap, graffiti, or artistic production – and introduced itself as the sworn enemy of Kpop, a well-oiled machine. Conversely, South Korean hip-hop was aiming to be more chaotic, unconventional, angry, different.

For us, Western people, it might be in 2015 that the South Korean hip-hop chapter opens thanks to Keith Ape‘s hit It G Ma. The success of It G Ma could be explained by the fact that this track is purely and solely tinted with Trap tones and the only particularity is that it’s performed in Korean and Japanese. The proof is that according to the American rapper OG Maco this track would be a plagiarism of his own title U Guessed It released in 2014… But to get back to the topic, in that track it’s not in one but two languages – even three if we count the few words in English – that Keith ApeJayAllday, Okasian, and two Japanese rappers, Loota and KOHH are rapping. Then, It G Ma was probably one the first Korean Rap track to truly blow up worldwide. The M/V (Ed: Music Video) counts today, 60 million views.

This time, it’s not the Kpop friend, the all-time rival, who won, but the youngest: the Korean urban scene.  Keith Ape even unveiled a second version of its famous and now classic It G Ma. The remix is featured by famous rappers from the US such as A$AP Ferg, Dumbfoundead, and Waka Flocka Flame. In this way, this remix is a real acknowledgment of the quality and of the Korean hip-hop creativity.

Thereby started the fever for Korean Rap.

This one didn’t have time to fade away that another song blew up: Eung Freestyle.

Eung Freestyle it’s a whole story. Produced by a crew called Dream Perfect Regime (Ed: or more commonly called DPR), it binds just as much visual as musical quality. In this track, you can hear LIVE from the crew DPR, but also Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz, and Flowsik. The song is released in April 2016.

The main goal was indeed to create a song that could be exported easily outside of the country. Then, they needed to take an instrumental that would be appreciated by the western audience. They needed to bring to light Korean rappers in a western universe (and above all Americans). They wanted to assert their identity and their cultural background. With this aim in mind, they chose the structure of the striking Hmmm Freestyle by the crew Hott Headzz.

And well, the least to say is that it was a winning bet.

Eung Freestyle is a mix between Korean and American references (Ed: the track is so rich that it would deserve its own analysis, however we will only talk about it briefly here). For instance:

“I’ma let you finish but Take your mic, Taylor Swift Haaaaan, Kanye 처럼”

when LIVE cut Owen Ovadoz, a short reference to Kanye West in 2009 cutting Taylor Swift short during her MTV VMA’s speech. And all of this in Korean, which is even more striking (Amburu’s Note: especially as Korean is a language which matches perfectly with English), this project was really audacious, and we can say that it was worth it. Owen Ovadoz claimed also this risk-taking via his lyrics when he says with a non-hiding off-handedness :

“Throw-throw-throw-throwing mmm cypher 한국인 버전”.

Yes, they well and truly did a remake of a successful freestyle in a language that most of the audience of the first version didn’t understand. So what? Today, the South Korean Rap is more than just rap in Korean language, it’s a whole picture, from composition to production and visual direction.

However, is this enthusiasm mere coincidence? Just some songs which would have drawn the attention of a western audience which is not especially known for its open-mindedness?

The answer is as simple as brief: no.

Today, no one can say anymore that the Korean Urban scene is a One Hit Wonder on the global scale. With tenacity and panache, the scene knew how to assert itself and reinforce its place, uniting a real public all over the world. So yes, if it wasn’t obvious yet, we love Korean hip-hop and people might retort us that this rise isn’t that big, that we are biased; however, the YouTube’s view counters of several M/Vs and World Tour more and more frequent don’t mislead. Such phenomenon cannot be the consequences of just some successful tracks. No, it doesn’t. The roots of the phenomenon are deeper.

When one watches a Korean M/V, the first thing catching the attention might not always be the music in itself but maybe the visual which goes along. As weird as it looks, there is, in most of the Korean productions such an importance granted to the M/V aesthetic and atmosphere that this is kind of a common fact for people to be firstly stricken by them. Even the most simplest M/Vs, are in fact the result of a meticulous and thorough colour-grading (Ed: the colour-grading is nothing else than the colour and contrast work during post-production). It is not that Westerns productions are not well-made, far from it, but there is clearly a kind of Korean touch which is probably not free from some influence of the Korean cinema:

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From left to right and top to the bottom:

Burning – Lee Chang-dong ; Parachute – Code Kunst ft Oh Hyuk, Dok2 (M/V) ; The Strangers – Na Hong-jin ; Please – DPR LIVE ft Dumbfoundead, Kim Hyo-eun, G2 ; Man on High Heels – Jin Jang ; Photograph – OffonOff ; Joint Security Area – Park Chan-Wook ; Yamazaki – Bang Yongguk ; Man on High Heels – Jin Jang

Nevertheless, it would have been uncalled-for from us to lessen Korean hip-hop only to its visual productions.

If visual productions are contributing to distinguish the Korean urban scene (Ed: they clearly deserve at least one editorial, hopefully I’ll find the time one day), when it comes to hip-hop and music, overall, people often forget the importance of the producers. And there again Korea isn’t to be outdone. Giriboy, Code Kunst, Groovy Room, BoyCold, Cha Cha Malone, Millic, 0Channel, 2xxx!, IOAH, WOOGIE, GRAY, Prime Boi, BRLLT, Candid Creation to quote only them, on the Korean urban scene people might find productions with trap, groovy, lo-fi, pop, techno, jazzy and even rock or emo-rap influences. Chances are high that you’ll find something in your liking! A lot of those beatmakers even unveiled their own projects and the results is worthwhile (Ed: Again, I’ll try to make something about the talent of these producers).

And indeed, Korean rappers themselves can go for different kinds of instrumentals. From Trap to ego trip; boom-bap to bubblegum trap and conscious rap tinged with jazzy influences, here again, everyone will find something that they’ll like. If the influence of the English-speaking scene is incontestable, it is after all not irrelevant to remind that the cradle of rap is the USA, so yes in a way it’s absolutely normal to find some imprints of it in Korea, like in the French scene in some aspect; nevertheless, it wouldn’t be true to say that Korean rappers don’t have their own identity. Slowly but surely a “Korean sound” is emerging and contributing to the development of a real urban culture in the country. And this culture is starting to surge overseas.

That Korean urban culture starts to spread in Western countries and give the opportunity of other way to promote hip-hop to appear. Firstly, it would be completely out of place to talk about South Korean hip-hop without talking about Show Me The Money. Show Me The Money is controversial but the show also contributed to the popularization of the genre in the country over the 2000s.

To talk about it, we have to go back in time. It is in 2012 when the show began. Its purpose: to bring hip-hop to the mainstream. While hip-hop was really popular in the 90s, the genre had kind of lose in influence during the 2000s.

Show Me The Money is broadcasted on Mnet (Ed: one of the main channels in South Korea) and quickly, it thrilled the crowd. Even if that show is criticized, especially by the purists, it is impossible to not talk about its capital role in the popularisation of hip-hop as much in the country as worldwide.

Thanks to the enthusiasm that Show Me The Money induced, several streetwear brands gained popularity and the rappers are the first ones to support them by wearing their creations. 

Since always rappers – whatever their nationality might be – had a close relationship with brands. And Korean rappers aren’t an exception, far from it and, for instance, Run It by Jay Park featured by Jessi and Woo Wonjae is sponsored by Nike, Balance by Loco and Woo Wonjae and produced by Code Kunst sponsored by New Balance or also 9UCCI Bank by BewhY; Nike, extremely popular in South Korea, also had a marketing campaign with the crew DPR and its rapper LIVE and, recently the singer Dean also participated in an advertising campaign for Puma called Dean x Puma “Run the Street”

If you have the opportunity to go to South Korea or to live there, you could notice the importance granted to streetwear. As much in the passer-by dress code as in the plentiful number of shop. More than just clothes, the streetwear is the embodiment of a state of mind, the rapper’s firm stance and is a part of his style. The hip-hop streetwear culture influenced the society; especially the Korean youth. Which is, by the way, the same for tattoos, the Korean urban scene influenced a whole panel of the population and that style have an impact on the street. The dress code for a Korean rapper is really important, he has to be perfect. Indeed, in the Korean culture, looks is one of the most important things, and it can be a key factor for success.

Collaborations can also be proof of the recognition of a scene. To collaborate with an artist is, in theory, to share, to be interested in their vision, their culture, their influences; to recognize their legitimacy, their talent, their universe. And de facto, proof of the growing recognition of the Korean scene worldwide is also the collaborations with global artists.

The It G Ma remix with A$AP Ferg, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka Flame; Dean who, early in his career collaborated with Eric Bellinger, Syd from The Internet, Anderson .Paak or the Philippine American artist Jeff Bernat; Okasian and the Japanese rapper KOHH; RM with Wale; Tablo and Eric Nam with Gallant, or Jay Park multiplying collaborations with American rappers such as recently Rich The Kid, 2Chainz or even Vic Mensa. He also signed with Roc Nation, JayZ’s label. The list is really long, and we probably forgot some.

It’s also worth noting that this increasing influence also applies for the beatmakers: for instance, Millic‘s  album VIDA is made of the lot of collaborations with international artists like the track I’M GOOD with the Irish rapper Rejjie Snow who is starting to become pretty famous; but also Code Kunst who produced the beautiful track Hood for the featuring between Tablo and Joey Bada$ unveiled in September 5th 2015 (Ed. It’s clearly a masterpiece, there is no other words to describe it).

Of course, we don’t even talk about Dumbfoundead.

Well, no, let’s talk about him!

Dumbfoundead is a veteran American Korean rapper (Ed: more on the American scene than the Korean one though) and he’s also known for his involvement in the promotion of the Asian artists. His M/V Safe is the best example. Released in 2016, this M/V is a response at the hashtag #Oscarsowhite and denounces the lack of Asian representation in artistic works. How could people express their own identity if they are ashamed of it or if people pertinently know that, because of their ethnicities, they would never fit in? His lyrics are based on that idea:

 “They gonna let an Asian brotha’ get a lead role”.

Indeed, Dumbfoundead criticises the obvious lack of Asians in main role. Meanwhile the fellow Asians who were in that artistic field are often secondary characters or useless for the story. In his M/V he impersonates some famous movie characters such as Indiana Jones, Titanic, Iron Man or even as one of the main characters from Fast and Furious.

He also gained recognition thanks to battles like the one organised by Drake and OVO (Ed: if the artist intrigues you and you want to learn more about him, go to his article). During that battle it is especially thanks to his self-mockery – talking about him as an Asian and all the stereotypes he had to face – that he stood out. Since then he never stop to fight for the acknowledgement of the Asian talents and a true promotion of the Korean urban scene.

However, if people can talk about a Korean urban scene, it is also and above all because now a lot of the codes which were originally part and parcel of the Korean urban scene identity are now increasingly used in mainstream/western production/art. Here we don’t talk about streetwear anymore because obviously we don’t know that much about it. Nevertheless, it is at a visual level, that this trend of the appropriation of the Korean Urban Scene identity starts to become really obvious. If it’s true that in bubblegum trap we can kind of see a Korean influence, we have to admit that it’s more generally about an Asian aesthetic influence, even especially an influence of the Japanese animation (Cf Lil Uzy Vert); however, Ateyaba’s music video (formerly known as Joke) – Rock With You can remind of the Korean visuals (Ed: by the way the instrumental looks like a mix between YeLows Gang by Sik-k and If I die tonight by the Japanese rappers SALU, Dutch Montana and Kohh so is there an influence or is it just a mere coincidence, we can’t really tell). But it may not be really telling for you as Ateyaba/Joke is a French rapper but go check it out nonetheless, it’s also below!

Then is it still relevant to say that the Korean urban scene doesn’t have the potential to get worldwide recognition? That it could not attract a broad public? Over the years the scene grew up and blossomed into a really interesting dynamic. We hope that, like in fairy tales, it would get its “happily ever after”, but this is another story!

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