Monday, February 23, 2015

What's Real in Korean Hip Hop? A Historical Perspective

Recently, Lizzie Parker addressed an important question in the Beyond Hallyu website:  what is "real" in Korean hip hop

The question of authenticity may pop up in any given genre of Korean pop music, because every genre of K-pop is an import. Yet the question of authenticity is particularly pressing in hip hop, because no other genre of pop music cares so much about "being real," to a point that authenticity is the genre's raison d'etre, as hip hop does. Indeed, even in the birthplace of hip hop, the quest for authenticity is elusive. (Is Jay-Z still real, even though he went corporate?) When hip hop is exported to a different cultural sphere, the hurdle of authenticity becomes ever higher.

Parker's article did a great job in identifying the elements of what is considered "real" in Korean hip hop. Consider this post a companion piece, about how the idea of authenticity evolved in Korean hip hop. This inquiry is necessarily a historical one. So let's jump right into history of Korean hip hop, and start with the pioneers.

I.  Pre-History:  Early 1990s

The very first piece of K-pop that may be considered "hip hop" appeared in 1989. Hong Seo-beom [홍서범], a moderately popular rock musician, recorded a song called Kim Satgat [김삿갓].

Even by today's standards, Kim Satgat's rapping, overlaid on funk beat, has held up surprisingly well. But Hong's attempt was clearly an experimental one. Hong never aspired to be a hip hop musician; Kim Satgat was a one-off, avant-garde take at the new form of music that was gaining ground in the U.S. at the time. In the popular recount of Korean hip hop's history, Hong name is rarely mentioned.

Instead, the K-pop artists who came after Hong, such as Seo Taiji [서태지], Hyeon Jin-yeong [현진영] and Lee Hyun-do [이현도] are usually considered the pioneers of Korean hip hop. But even with this corps of artists, the label "hip hop musicians" would be a stretch. Seo Taiji's first album in 1992 , for example, definitely caused a sensation with a historical rap number, I Know [난 알아요]. But hip hop was just one of the many musical styles that Seo Taiji played with; in his later albums, Seo drifted toward his original love, i.e. rock music. Lee Hyun-do and his group Deux showed more dedication to the genre, but Lee's creativity (at least for the music that he himself would perform) was cut short when Kim Seong-jae [김성재], Lee's partner in Deux and the animal spirit of the group, passed away under mysterious circumstances at the tender age of 23.

(More after the jump)

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It is fairer to think of this era as the pre-history of Korean hip hop, because few K-pop artists considered themselves as a "hip hop artist." In this time period, Hip hop was a device, not an end to itself. Even at the time, music of Seo Taiji and Lee Hyun-do was not referred to as "hip hop", but "rap dance"--dance pop with some rap sprinkled on. In fact, the tradition of rap dance is very much alive in today's K-pop, as it is almost a K-pop cliche to insert a rap bridge in a dance number.

II.  Anchored Realness:  Late 1990s to Early 2000s

It was not until late 1990s that K-pop artists who dedicated their career to hip hop began to emerge. For the first time, it made sense to refer to a proper "rapper" in Korean pop music scene. Korean hip hop in this time period brewed in two levels, which largely kept away from each other at first. Roughly speaking, the levels may be referred to "overground" and "underground." The former appeared on television and sold albums by hundreds of thousands; the latter put together mix tape-quality albums and performed in basement clubs.

1997 was a watershed year. A sizable crop of K-pop artists who may be considered proper rappers debuted through large production companies. (I add the "may be onsidered" because Korea's hip hop purists would vigorously disagree with my assessment.) Jinusean, Uptown, JP (Kim Jin-pyo [김진표]) and Yoo Seung-jun [유승준] all debuted in 1997. During this period, the idea of "realness" in Korean hip hop had a clear orientation: across the Pacific, toward America. Hip hop was the latest genre that was imported into K-pop, as all pop music genres were previously. The logical conclusion was clear:  real hip hop was American. Realness was anchored outside of Korea.

To be real was to look like America hip hop artists. So at the time, Korean hip hop appealed its American-ness in many different ways. Virtually all significant (overground) Korean hip hop artists in this period flaunted their American connection. Both members of Jinusean (Jinu and Sean--yes, seriously) were Korean Americans. So were all three members of Uptown; the crown jewel of Uptown, a promising female rapper who went by "T", was half African American. (T stands for Tasha; she is now better known as her real name Yoon Mi-rae [윤미래], and as the wife of Tiger JK.)

Cover for Jinusean's 2001 album, The Reign.
Jinusean still holds the record as the most copies of album sold among Korean hip hop artists.

Not only were Korean rappers kind of American, they (almost) looked and sounded like Americans. Much of their songs had a generous helping of English lyrics and rap. (Tiger JK and DJ Shine of Drunken Tiger, who debuted in 1999, could barely speak any Korean in the early stages of their career. JP wrote much of Drunken Tiger's Korean rap in their first album.) Korean rappers' fashion and choreography, ahem, "emulated" the prevailing black music trends in America. Their music videos were shot in locations that evoked the milieu of American inner cities--a sight that simply did not exist in Korea.

In this cohort, Jinusean enjoyed the most popularity, owing greatly to the two major figures in the pre-history of Korean hip hop:  YG (Yang Hyeon-seok [양현석]) of Seo Taiji and Boys, and Lee Hyun-do, who produced the group. But for our purpose, Yoo Seung-jun is probably the most significant, as Yoo was the one who pushed the "anchored realness" logic to its breaking point. Yoo Seung-jun did not simply import the music or the fashion of hip hop. Yoo sought to import the soul, the swagga of hip hop--the aggressive, authority-defying, rule-breaking "thug life" kind of rap.

Yoo's music video for his hit song Nanana, linked above, is in some sense historical. Yoo's first hit song, Saranghae Nuna [사랑해 누나] was about dating older women, already indicating his willingness to break the rules. (By the way: that's not really considered breaking the rules in Korea anymore. Korea changes quickly.) In Nanana's music video, Yoo Seung-jun achieves peak thug life, Korea circa 1998. The music video for Nanana displays Yoo in all possible variations of thug-life style power play in Korea--most daring motorcycle rider, best fighter in class, blatant disregard of school's hair regulations, romantic liaison with a young, hot female teacher, and so on. For some time in Korea, Yoo Seung-jun occupied the same space that James Dean occupied in his life: a rebellious, heartthrob bad boy.**

Let's take a step back, and make one thing clear:  in hindsight, Korean hip hop of the 1990s was cringe-inducing. The cringe does not simply come from the fact that most things, 20 years later, are tacky. It also comes from the fact that Korean hip hop of the 1990s was clearly an exercise in exoticism and cultural expropriation. To put it bluntly: these were a bunch of Koreans trying to be black--so much so that JP, in 1998, dropped this infamous diss that will forever remain in the annals of Korea's hip hop history:
혹시 그거 아냐? 여기는 미국 아냐
You know something? This isn't America.
얼어죽을 East Side, West Side 외치지만 말고
Stop saying freakin' "East Side, West Side"
제대로 좀 해봐 몇 년 후에 깡통 매봐
And do something real. Or wear a can a few years later. [="go bankrupt and become a beggar."]
그럼 두고두고 땅을 치고 후회할 테니 그럴 테니 하하하하
Then you will regret it for the rest of your life, that's right, hahahaha.
"Anchored realness" is a misnomer, if one takes the definition of "real" seriously. Any attempt to locate the source of authenticity in a culture that is not one's own would always look ridiculous--at first, at least. Korea's hip hop artists themselves were aware of this, and endeavored to make hip hop their own skin rather than an ill-fitting suit. And the breakthrough would soon come--from the underground.

III.  Inner Authenticity:  Early 2000s to Present

While Korea's overground hip hop artists were engaged in a wholesale air-lifting of hip hop from America, Korea's underground hip hop artists were attempting to grow the foreign seed of hip hop out of Korean soil. The early attempts were crude and grotesque, no better than the cringe-inducing replicas that their overground peers created. But it was from the underground that Korean hip hop found the new path forward.

No K-pop genre owed its existence to the Internet as much as Korean hip hop. Hip hop in America arose organically within the African American communities, which were (for better or worse; mostly for worse) segregated into ghettos. In Korea, it was impossible for a similar community to form, until the Internet appeared.

Korea was always ahead of the curve when it came to the Internet. Already by mid-1990s, the Internet was fairly common in Korea. Although the Internet at the time were not much more than collections of low-tech message boards, the message boards were quite enough to bring together Korea's emerging hip hop minds. Old rap heads of Korea are familiar with names like Blex, Camp Groove and Dope Soundz--the names of the early online hip hop communities that served as the breeding ground for truly localized hip hop.

Member of these communities met offline regularly. They would listen together and discuss the latest rap albums from America. Later, they graduated into creating their own music. Blex, for example, released an album called BLEX: Black Sounds, the First Sounds [BLEX: 검은 소리, 첫 번째 소리] in 1997, making history as Korea's first independent hip hop album. Early pioneers of underground Korean hip hop--such as MC Meta for the group Garion or DJ Wreckx, Korea's first hip hop DJ--were raised through these online communities. While most overground rappers were occupied with looking and sounding black, Korea's underground rappers explored ways to make hip hop Korean, trying to jump over the linguistic and cultural barriers.

And finally, the breakthrough came--from one of Korean hip hop's true geniuses, Verbal Jint.

One comparison* is sufficient to establish the revolutionary character of Verbal Jint's rhyme and flow. Below is the rhyme structure of G.O.D.'s 1999 song, To Mother [어머님께]. The letters in red rhyme:
어려서부터 우리 집은 가난했었
남들 다 하는 외식 몇 번 한 적이 없었
일터에 나가신 어머니 집에 없으
언제나 혼자서 끓여먹었던 라
Now, compare the above to Verbal Jint's 2001 song, Overclass. The rhyming phrases are color-coded and underlined:
90년대 말을 잘 기억해 난
힙합을 말하던 대다수가
거센 말투와
어색한 허우대만
찾으려하던 때 한 명의 팬으로서 제발
어서 그 저개발
상태를 벗어나서 크기를 바랬어
그러나 이 문화는
덧없는 언쟁과 함께 무너져 갔어
우리들 안에서
분명히 누군가는
선구자되어야만 했어
The difference should be obvious. G.O.D.'s rhyme is forced and mechanical. Other than the final syllable of each sentence, nothing rhymes, and no sentence pairs organically. In contrast, Verbal Jint's rhyme is three-dimensional and progressive. Verbal Jint changes speed and emphases of his lyrics to create parallel structures with clauses of different lengths. Each clause-pair evolves into the next set of rhymes, with the previous pair implying the next. Truly, it is not an exaggeration to say that Verbal Jint is the one who unlocked the true potential of Korean language within the logic of hip hop.

That Korea's hip hop artists were finally able to speak hip hop in their own language had massive implications for Korean hip hop's quest for authenticity. The ability to rap organically in Korean language, by its very nature, projected far more authenticity then any imitation of American rap. The heavy anchor of authenticity was gone. Through the medium of hip hop, Korean artists were finally able to speak in their own voice and tell their own stories.

CB Mass

This breakthrough allowed Korea's underground hip hop musicians to cross over into the mainstream. CB Mass, for example, became a mainstream sensation as they were able to combine their superb Korean rap with compelling story-telling. As the wall between overground and underground hip hop eroded, the mature Korean language rap began to infiltrate all the way to the ranks of Korea's idol pop. Not even the most "produced" boy band in today's K-pop raps like G.O.D. did in 1999.

As Korean hip hop artists tamed and domesticated the foreign genre, the question of authenticity became more internal. "Realness" in Korean hip hop became the question of expressing authentic experience and emotions--as it should be. Since the early 2000s, Korean hip hop as a whole has showcased the full range of pain, rejection, anger, joy, party, love, finally becoming true to the artist's inner self.

IV.  What's Korean about Korean Hip Hop?

Can Korean hip hop ever be "real"? Many American hip hop aficionados, who zealously guard their own ideal of "real," may scoff at the idea. And they are not without a point. Clearly, hip hop is not of Korea. It is a cultural artifact that Korea imported. And surely, hip hop in Korea is still in the process of becoming localized. Although Korean hip hop has come a long way in the last two decades, there is still no stand-alone "hip hop culture" as one exists in America. Idol groups that use hip hop as a mere device significantly outnumber those who pursue hip hop as a craft. So--if the definition of authenticity is narrow enough, it would preclude Korean hip hop from being real.

But what would be the point of that definition? Find me a part of the world that American pop culture has not touched. Is it not enough to say realness only requires the expression of true inner self? If the artist can successfully operate the vehicle to her desired destination, does it "really" matter where the vehicle comes from?

To hell with the snobs, I say. True authenticity requires no justification, because it justifies itself. Today, Korea's foremost rappers express their genuine selves through intricate rhyme and flow. Listen for yourself, and tell me it's all a lie. I dare you.

-End Notes-

* This comparison comes from 한국 힙합: 열정의 발자취 [Korean Hip Hop: Footsteps of Passion] by Kim Yeong-dae [김영대] et al. (2008).

** In fact, being too American became Yoo Seung-jun's downfall, as he used his U.S. citizenship to avoid Korea's military draft. The public backlash was severe, and his career was over. More background here.

*** The last piece is Poison [독] by Primary, featuring E-Sens of the group Supreme Team, from 2012.

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  1. Nice post. I'll buy it since I can't have too much of an opinion not being able to speak or understand Korean. I can understand bits and pieces only. I will say that Verbal Jint sounds amazing just to listen too, without fully understanding. My ear can certainly detect the difference.

  2. I'm a fan of Korean hip hop myself. I'm also a black female fan of black hip hop. I love them both.

    I will say though that there is resistance from some of my peers about the authenticity of Korean hip hop, and it has little to do with the music at all. Even in 2015, a social rift between black Americans and Korean Americans exists, either due to race, class, or both. I don't look down on anyone based on race or class, but I have been looked down upon by Korean Americans because of my race and (perceived) class (I say "perceived" because not one person who looked down on me actually knew my socioeconomic status, whether upper or lower). I know that Korean Americans =/= Korea-born Koreans in many cases, but (for better or worse) just as black Americans who travel to Korea, Korean Americans are perceived as kind of "ambassadors", and we think we know how are perceived by Korea-born Koreans by how we interact with Korean-Americans.

    I know that there are probably a million things wrong with that, but it is what it is.

    So in that way, some of my peers see Korean rappers and see yet more people who are willing to adopt and adapt forms of black American creative expression to their own voice (which I have no problem with) and yet do not embrace the experiences of black people. I don't mean that everyone has to like all of us--impossible, since everyone is different! But how about not condemning us as a race if a group of black people does something you don't like? And I'll speak up when someone around me replaces their Ls for Rs just for giggles. That's a fair starting point, I think.

    Even though it's "just music", we humans are social beings, and don't consume in a vacuum.

    And I will say I'm completely shallow when it comes to music and am a fan of mostly looks and tone of voice. I could listen to Simon D all day. Am I even "real" enough for this discussion? Lol.

    1. You must be a Californian.Because I don't think the Korean communities on the east coast have experienced the same kind of racial strife that occurred in LA. The Washington DC area has the most rapidly rising Korean community in the country now. Unless there's something there going on I haven't heard of it. So being Korean American doesn't mean you have to be from Koreatown and carry around all that racial strife baggage. California is a great state but it's not the only state and it's not the only way Koreans experience being American.

    2. I agree with you 100%. Not to sound like I am using the "I have black friends" card, but I do have Korean friends, so I know not every Korean or Korean-American is like that :) But, just like everything else in life, I've had both good and bad experiences, so have my black friends, and we all deal with it in our own ways. Like I said, everyone is different.

      I'm in the eastern U.S. (I've only been to California once in my life) so I didn't experience the riots, but I'm just old enough to remember the coverage of it (but I was still pretty young). I will say that how the tension between black and Korean people was portrayed by the media seems to still affect even people who weren't actually there, as media coverage tends to do.

      But anyway, I'm a Millenial, I don't mean to be pessimistic, but I still do acknowledge that there are people who still think in stereotypes--if not us, then our parents, whose opinion we sometimes pretend not to care about, but actually do ;) Even though it doesn't seem that way, I'm actually *optimistic*, but just as hip-hop isn't about mincing words, I did want to say a little something about the social complexity that is black-Korean/KoreanAm relations.

    3. wow.. what a nice post. as it is too long for me to cover with my English command.. sorry i could read it all. but I love Korean Hiphop as well. even if it sounds like transformative, Korean hiphop made its history on it won as other black hiphop

  3. Minor point, but Yoon Mia-Rae's real name is Tasha. Albeit an American nicknamed version of Natasha, but just as real.

  4. Now, I like rap music and the whole hip-hop sub-culture kinda thing, but to be honest I don't really follow the scene. Anyway, having bands such as Public Enemy in mind as the example of "true", I'd say Korean commercial hip-hop is not much different from half of the American scene in terms of lyrics, judging from the songs I randomly hear every now and then. I say half, because, while American rappers include gangsta stories and the drugs and sex attitude, Korean mainstream rap is more about love relationships and personal thoughts, like... reflexive poetry. Or there are parodies and humorous lyrics.
    I personally like what 용감한녀석들 The Brave Guys did (and I absolutely LOVE 신보라 Shin Bora!!!!! )

    What I am more curious about is the independent underground hip-hop scene in Korea. I think there might be some good true stuff to be found there. Got a lot of Punk stuff already. I better go searching.

    Anyway, two examples of a wrong perception of hip-hop in Korea are the following.

    1. Gag Concert. While this show produced the previously mentioned Brave Guys whose songs I still love hearing, later they started a hip-hop contest kinda corner which seemed to depict the hip-hop culture as "show me the money", I mean, in a way "money's cool, yo". I get it that it's just parody, jokes and all, but it doesn't feel too satirical to be honest. Anyway, nice corner, fun, those comedians do a great job, but I hope people watch it with more awareness.

    2. Now this is totally wrong. Once on a conversation classes (linguistics major, not important exactly) in this Korean university that I'm a student of, there was a topic about music, so in class we divided into groups and discussed each-other's musical preferences. My colleagues said they like hip-hop. And another colleague asked which group. And they said Big Bang. ......... And everybody's attitude towards this was as if Big Bang were naturally hip-hop artists by default. Why didn't I say anything about it? Meh, dunno, I was lazy maybe, maybe we had no time to start debates, anyway....
    While I do appreciate Big Bang as one of the most successful pop bands in modern history, people, they are this - POP! Not hip-hop.... And yes, pop can contain rap parts too, as many European and American songs of the 1990's did, but nobody considered that hip-hop.

    All that said, don't ask me to define hip-hop or true hip-hop. There's no definition, there's the feeling.

  5. Apologise for double posting, but...

    "The very first piece of K-pop that may be considered "hip hop" appeared in 1989. Hong Seo-beom [홍서범], a moderately popular rock musician, recorded a song called Kim Satgat [김삿갓]."

    So rap in Korea started by a rock artist. Just like in England! (Clash, I'm looking at your Magnificent Seven)


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