A Look Into Korean Hip-Hop Culture
South Korea’s hip-hop scene is among the fastest-growing in the world. After 30 years, the world is finally starting to take notice — why?
A phenomenon and part of the Korean Wave sweeping the West, Korean hip-hop is something that has won over the hearts of millions in recent years.
Although always on the map, it’s now bigger (and growing faster) than ever before in the West. Modern trends within the Western world of hip-hop are still very evident in content and aesthetic, while Korea strives for its own scene — by itself, of itself.
On top of that, several artists have been putting on Korea for a decade or longer, and it’s finally starting to look up. What’s with the surge in attention? What sort of influences do these artists emulate and promote in their music?
Many appreciate the Korean hip-hop culture for the flows and production, but its roots are much deeper. The story of Korean life, through rhymes an rhythm.
Origins of Korean Rap
The origins of Korean hip-hop have been written at length and covered numerous times, namely AAK. It tells stories through rhymes, just like the hip-hop we all know and love out of North America did the same in the 80’s, just in a different language. Not so foreign, but unknown to the Western world. The topics were similar, but different in their own right, representing social and political waves in Korean culture.
As stated by T.K. (AAK’s creator), Hong Seo-beom is widely-considered as the first example of a well-known artist creating hip-hop music within South Korea.
The origins are more objective than they are stateside, arguing about OGs and pioneers, as the scene was incredibly small and tight-knit, resulting in less argument and wiggle room when making a case for which individuals were the foundation of the Korean hip-hop scene.
However, I’d argue Seo Taiji and Boys’ influence on Korean hip-hop culture (as well as the music scene in general for Asia) was much stronger than anyone historically in Korea, even when pitted against Hyeon Jin-yeong and Wawa or the Deux duo, despite not sticking to hip-hop alone.
Seo Taiji and Boys were to Korea in the early 90’s what Dipset was to Harlem in the early 00’s — bigger than life itself. A state of hegemony over the scene, hip-hop or otherwise.
Their dominance of Korean media during their reign was a spectacle in itself, while their split after four years saddened many.
What Is “Real” Korean Hip-Hop?
There’s a weird chasm on both sides, perpetually arguing about what hip-hop is, and what “real” hip-hop represents.
As I see it, hip-hop is a culture, something larger than a genre of music. It encompasses many things, fragments of life at the time of its creation, into an art form which anyone of any race, ethnicity, skin color, or origin can enjoy.
Hip-hop has no bounds, has no real form, and it’s open to anyone that wants a piece of it — those that want to critique, create, enjoy, or detest.
Although it’s agreed upon that South Bronx is the birthplace of the culture and movement, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon and is not limited to a certain subset or group of people, to any degree.
Which raises the question among elitists and old school hip-hop heads — what exactly is real in Korean hip-hop? The answer lies within the rhymes. Although the idea of spitting rhymes about a harsh ghetto or difficult childhood in a crime-ridden part of the city may not apply to South Korea as often as stateside, there are other topics that are just as real.
“Real” hip-hop has no binary qualifier, and anyone is able to make it. The most important focal point is self-expression. The ability to convey a message to the world.
Never before, especially in the age of social media, have the people of South Korea been able to express their inner emotions and feelings through rhyme as openly and widespread as today, even compared to half a decade ago.
Straight From Seoul — The Artists Speak
It’s very rare in mainstream media within the West that we see Korean rappers have their own say, or a conduit through which they can express their thoughts on the Korean rap scene. Most news that we digest are reports from large media outlets which filter what rappers say through translations that are tweaked and molded for ulterior motives, sometimes business-related. I wanted to step away from that.
I reached out to several people in the rap scene on the come up, those that have no voice, but are on their way to being heard by many more people around the world. It always bugged me that when Korean rappers were interviewed stateside, the topics were never asking the questions everyone wanted to know — how they got into hip-hop over there, why they got into it, and what it means to them on a personal level, beyond all the promotional baggage.
Due to very tight schedules and the time needed to translate accurately, I asked all individuals I reached out to the exact same questions, shown below.