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 didn’t stop to increase and was ready to shake the world. While for a long time most of the westerners had been unaware of her existence , she 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. Suffocate in the shadows of her big sister the Kpop. Suffocate under the weight of biases.

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

Far from being a pale imitation of her more pop big sister, the Korean urban scene had quietly  grew up in her corner and was now waiting for one thing; that people see her for herself and only for herself; because, after all, she had a lot to tell.

And today we decided to narrate her story.

For a while, the Korean urban scene was only limited 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 in its musical sister’s shadow, the Kpop – initially this word meant, all pop production from South Korea however, due to a misuse of language today the term is mostly used to talk about boysband and girlsband music. Then here, when we’ll talk about Kpop, the term will mean the music by those groups.

The South Korean hip-hop stood out from Kpop because Kpop was considerated as an industrial and manufactured music. Disclaimer: in this article there is no judgement 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 is truly in 2015 that South Korean hip-hop chapter opens thanks to It G Ma hit by Keith Ape. The success of It G Ma could be explain by the fact that this track is purely and solely tinted with Trap tone and the only particularity it’s 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. In that track it’s not in one but two languages – even three if we count the few words in English – that Keith Ape and its Cohort Crew distinguish themselves, composed of JayAllday, Okasian and two Japanese rappers, Loota and one of the Japanese rap figurehead: KOHH. Then, It G Ma is the first Korean Rap track to truly become that famous and being on a rise globally. The M/V (Ed: Music Video for the newbies) counts, today, 60 million of views.

This time, it’s not the Kpop sister, all-time rival, who wins, but her youngest: the Korean urban scene. Since a long time, Europe and especially France, but also in the USA are fascinated by Asia but above all Japan. The Korean peninsula is the closest country in terms of geography, so it was normal than sooner or later the young westerners end up interesting into Korea. All of this allows the South Korean hip-hop to find a place in the global scene.

Since this induction from the western audience towards the South-Korean scene, especially from the USA, Keith Ape unveiled a second version of its famous and now classic It G Ma. The remix is composed of US Rap’s figurehead such as A$AP Ferg, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka Flame. In this way, this remix is a real acknowledge of the quality and Korean hip-hop creativity.

Thereby started the Korean Rap fever.

This one didn’t had time to fade away that another song got itself talk about: 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, five skilled rappers are distinguishing themself: the DPR’s crew rapper LIVE, but also Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz and Flowsik. The song is released in April 2016.

Indeed, the main goal was to create a song that could be exported easily outside of the country. Then, they needed to take an instrumental that Westerns would love. They needed to bring to light Korean rappers in a western universe (and above all American) that they would succeed to make a reappropriation of it and expose their “Koreanity”. 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 we can 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, short referencing 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 match perfectly with English), this project was really audacious, and we can say that it 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 realisation, the South Korean rap is allowing the spreading of endless artistic possibilities.

However, is this enthusiasm mere coincidence? Just some songs which would have capture the attention from 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 isn’t always the music in itself but rather the image 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/V, 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 Asian cinema:

yamazaki 2

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 visual productions.

If visual productions are contributing to distinguish the Korean urban scene (Ed: they clearly deserve at least one editorial, we’ll try to write it in the next few months), when it comes to hip-hop and music globally, people often forget the relevance 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. There is something for every tastes! A lot of those beatmakers even had unveiled their own projects and the results is worthwhile (Ed: This time again we’ll try to put under spotlight the talent of these producers in the articles ahead).

And indeed, Korean rappers themselves don’t fear tackling instrumentals of all kinds and often with a technique which is just as good as the Anglophone rappers’ one. From Trap to ego trip; boom bap to bubblegum trap and conscious rap tinted with jazzy influences, here again everyone must 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 or in the Londoner/British grime; nevertheless it would be insincere to say that Korean rappers don’t have their own identity. Slowly but surely a “Korean sound” is emerging and contributing to the fulfilment 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 talking about South Korean hip-hop without talking about Show Me The Money. Show Me The Money is the show which popularised the genre in the country during 2000s.

To talk about it, we have to go back in time. It is in 2012 when the show began. Its purpose: drive hip-hop mainstream. Indeed, meanwhile hip-hop was really popular in the 90s, the genre had, somewhat, disappear 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 criticised, 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 globally.

Thanks to the enthusiasm that Show Me The Money provoked, several streetwear brands are developing and the rappers are the first one to support them by wearing their creations. Those days in South Korea, Champion, Fila and the unrivalled Supreme make the rules on the street dress code.

Since always rappers – whatever their nationality might be – had an ambiguous relationship with brands. And Korean rappers aren’t an exception, far from it and, for instance, Run It by Jay Park featuring 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 in, you could notice the weight of 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 culture hip-hop streetwear influenced the society; especially the Korean youth. Which is, by the way, the same for tattoos (Amburu’s Note: it’s a topic that I’m really into so I’ll promise you to do an article about it), the Korean urban scene influenced a whole panel of the population and that style have an impact till 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 thing, a refined look is a top priority for all rapper pursuing success.

Collaborations are a proof of a scene weight. To collaborate with an artist is, in theory, exchanging, being interested in his vision, his culture, his influences; to recognise his legitimacy, his talent, his universe. And de facto, a proof of the standing of the Korean scene is also its collaborations always more bountiful with global artist.

The It G Ma remix with A$AP Ferg, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka Flame; Dean who, soon 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 that everyone knows about. The list is really long, and we probably have forgot some.

It’s also worth noting that this increasing influence also applies for the beatmakers: for instance, Millic on his album VIDA multiplies global collaborations whom track I’M GOOD with the Irish rapper Rejjie Snow who is starting to have a serious reputation; but also Code Kunst who produced the beautiful track Hood for the featuring between Tablo and Joey Bada$$ unveiled in September 5th 2015 (Eli’s Note: 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 it!

Dumbfoundead is a seasoned 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 (Amburu’s Note: My word excellent and full of references, we have to send our regards to that exceptional editing!) he goes back over some famous movies characters such as Indiana Jones, Titanic, Iron Man or even those from Fast and Furious in which he puts him on performance as the main character.

He also won fame during an a capella battle, organised by Drake and OVO (Ed: if the artist intrigues you and you want to learn more about him, go to his article it would be released next week). 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 fighting to have an acknowledgement of the Asian talent 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, but the topic must deserve at least an editorial if people have interested in 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, people might know that the realisation of Ateyaba’s music video (formerly known as Joke) – Rock With You get some of its inspiration from 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). 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 follow its sister’s prints? That it could not unite a public as broad as different? Over the years the scene grew up and blossomed little by little and, the coming days seem as fertile as stunning. We hope that, like in fairy tales, she would have her “they live happily ever after”, but this, it’s another story!

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