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.

Epik High / Paper

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.


The hip-hop scene in South Korea is constantly shifting; what are your thoughts?

What inspired you to start rapping and taking it as a serious career?

The word “hip-hop” — what does it mean to you?

Your legacy — what do you want it to be when you’re long gone?


RYNO (라이노), the first rapper in this video.

RYNO:

I started listening to the first album of Dynamic Duo in 2004. Gaeko had a huge influence on me, and I thought from that point forward it would be cool to become a hip-hop artist. It’s a dream of mine. I’m a lonely person, and have a lot on my plate, swirling with emotions.
Through rap, I was able to mature more — become more alert, control my behavior, and take back my life. I was born into an unhealthy and broken home. My mom lived her life through me, and the constant feeling of being inferior loomed over my head.
To me, hip-hop is the most mundane, raw, emotional, honest type of music. It’s a device in and of itself, a friend to play with, if you will. I want to become a historic rapper, one that conveys the story of my life through rhymes, while expressing the positive, more fun aspects of it along the way.
I want to just pave my own road, and be remembered for my efforts.
The purpose of rapping was broad to me. While I release my emotions, life, and imagination to the world, I feel both satisfaction and stress. It satiates the listeners’ ears, but it also puts me under constant pressure to improve and become more appealing.
Korean hip-hop is a lot better now than I thought it ever would be. There are different styles. Lots and lots of different styles, and in a lot of cases, you can’t compare two artists together (think: underground vs. mainstream).
I want to just pave my own road, and be remembered for my efforts.

HU57LA:

The hip-hop scene in South Korea is getting bigger and bigger every year. There has been a wave coming through Korea with help from this audition program called Show Me The Money — this show helps people who do not understand or listen to hip-hop often to become familiar with it.
The show also narrows listeners’ ears to believe rappers that the product which you see on the television are the nicest [talented, best] rappers Korea has to offer. For Koreans, what shows up on a television screen is reality.
I wish they could listen to more music from YouTube or SoundCloud, rather than looking at the Top 100 Melon charts [Korea’s Billboard] — I feel like some diversity and drawing on smaller talent could be beneficial to Korea’s hip-hop scene. Too many talents in South Korea that are coming up, but I’ve been listening to Changmo lately.
HU57LA with Jessi
Hip-hop is way of life you know? Being free at all times. That’s hip-hop to me.
My introduction to rap was as a battle rapper. It felt great to out-rap someone or make other rapper seem less talented. It was my way of feeling free. Many artists inspired me but Lil Wayne was my largest inspiration.
Hip-hop is way of life you know? Being free at all times. That’s hip-hop to me. No boundaries. Thinking outside of the box. No norms when it comes down to hip-Hop. That’s why we all love it right?
My legacy? I just want people to remember me as a rapper who truly rapped from his heart.

JON:

Current Korean hip-hop is trending more towards alternative R&B than anything, where auto-tuned R&B is mixed with rap. This is good, however, as a lot of underground artists started and were exposed to this type of [genre] music first. On the other hand, this is a negative, as everyone is attempting to bandwagon off this trend, and not having a true genuine deep-seated passion or feeling about the music they are creating.
The reason why I started to rap back in the 5th grade was Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. It just blew my mind. I could agree with and relate to some of the lyrics, and that’s why I got into the tape so much — that’s when I started to take writing seriously, too. I wasn’t the best; it was a start.
To me, hip-hop is something I do to express myself.
To me, hip-hop is something I do to express myself. I’m an extremely quiet person who doesn’t speak much. Friends say they can’t read emotions when we talk, but when I rap, it’s different. I can express myself better, through a different medium, and that’s why I love it.
I want people to search up my name instead of my songs’ names, I want to be known. In other words, there’s a difference — if they search for a song name, it means the song was good, but the artist wasn’t memorable.
I want people to remember me. You feel me?

Catchy Cultural Dissemination

It’s evident that the modern culture of the United States has a very heavy influence on the sound of Korean hip-hop, as alluded to previously. Furthermore, the United States has always had an extreme influence on South Korea’s culture especially — there are many cultural and historical reasons for this, dating back to the Korean war, but let’s save it for a future piece.

As for hip-hop and the cultural dissemination of American culture, this is seen through the more modern mix of R&B as well as trap aspects being integrated into traditional rap sounds (like boom-bap, conscious-ish beats), but the old school sound is fading fast.

A rare example of boom bap and k-pop meshing well, straight from the god of dusty production himself, reaching a mainstream audience.

People like catchy sounds and hooks more than dust; this is something we’ve come to accept more and more. There’s even different takes on what formulas make a song sound catchy. Almost never does an old school underground-sounding beat or song make it into the mainstream of Korea’s radio.

So what’s being disseminated, exactly? That’s a very tricky and controversial question. On the surface level, we can see clothes emulating old school hip-hop tones, from chains to hypebeast name brand outfits, on top of strong shoe game and allusions and slight nods to classical R&B archetypes in videos, intertwining flawlessly with modern-day braggadocio vibes. The class is there to make it smooth and elegant, but so is the confidence and flexing to make it just vague enough to be considered hip-hop in some cases (see: Zion T).

Hard not to think of “Man of the Year” by Q, and the summer anthem steez, when listening.

It’s intricate, it’s thought-provoking if you’re keen on references, and it’s something new — an ingredient into the global hip-hop culture that adds flavor. Crush’s hit “Oasis” with ZICO did exactly this, and was played relentlessly in clubs and through the streets of Seoul for nearly two years.

This is a positive example among many negative ones, but why? The simple idea that if you bite off more than you can chew, your jaw gets tired and you end up spitting out shit.

Biting is an issue, and it’s subjective but serious in nature. More often, it’s seen in Korea than stateside, given the influence of American music.Walking on eggshells, several artists have been accused of biting others. The term “biting” is used to describe an artist emulating another artist’s style blatantly, either by mimicking or using it as their own, sans a nod to the original source or song.

Plagiarism, more or less. Sort of like how Okey Dokey was a decade late biting the ringtone rap aesthetic and sound, or how ZICO got caught up in a beat scandal. Primary was also the suspected of stealing beats. He ended up donating all proceeds after realizing his sampling would be better classified as replication.

Controversy was raised about similarity to Future’s song, Move That Dope. It’s a slippery slope when talking about biting versus influence.
“Young nig-ga, move-that-dope.” — Future
“Nuga meon-jo, kai-bai-bo.” — hook of K.B.B.

It’s usually more just influence than intentional biting. This has raised questions towards the Korean production and rapping scene, questioning at what point does the genuine passion for beats become a balancing act of how much you can extract without being suspected.

The first artist to come into most people’s minds between the ages of 18–25 when someone mentions Korea, “Korean rap,” or the subject of biting/copying in Korean hip-hop is most probably Keith Ape, the notorious up-and-coming “rebel” from his clique, The Cohort.

Most people only know South Korea as the country that pumps out K-pop and plays StarCraft. Korean rap? Never heard of such a thing.

The remix.

Famed for catching tens of millions of views after dropping a song entitled “잊지마” ( ‘don’t forget [about me/my name]’), it broke the internet with a pseudo-race war between keyboard warriors and Twitter fiends arguing about African-American and Korean culture, with the term “cultural appropriation” being thrown around left and right.

Although since supposedly resolved, it sparked a large debate about who owns what, who can claim what, and what exactly a “culture vulture” is — something we saw with Post Malone, as well, which didn’t go over well at all.

As said by AAK, hip-hop is an imported artifact, and the line is blurry when we take a hard look at grabbing culture from a foreign place and attempting to emulate it:

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.

Jonathan Park AKA Dumbfoundead / Noisey

NA and KR: Bridging the Gap Through Sound

Most people in the hip-hop scene, especially the battle rap scene, have at least heard of Dumbfoundead. A rapper coming by way of K-Town, he’s set his mark on the rap scene in numerous ways, but none more mainstream than as of late. Finding fame on YouTube through battle raps, collaborations, music videos, and other projects, it’s been 10 years since we first saw Dumb post a video. He’s the face of Korean-American rappers attempting to break into the mainstream, and has remained so for many years.

Social media is not something to sneeze at — it’s leading the way in the spread (and mixture) of cultures more than ever, and that’s exactly what is slowly bridging the gap between North America and South Korea. This is good, and a net positive.

Coming back to how K-pop sounds catchy — that’s why the majority of people listen. Why isn’t Korean rap popular stateside in comparison? Not many people in America speak Korean, and they can’t understand the intricate lyrics used or references made in the songs. The main reason It G Ma got popular aside from biting OG Maco, was the hard-hitting trap sound. Not the lyrics, but the sound.

Is Korean trap-influenced rap the most ideal, attractive, and accurate representation of Korea’s hip-hop scene and deep roots to the Western world? No, but that’s fine, and that being fine is something that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

Why?

A strong argument would be one that states it (Korean hip-hop, but more specifically, trap) parodies African American culture, pandering and emulating it in a negative way without having proper understanding. Taeyang of Big Bang, one of Korea’s pillars in pop music, did a controversial interview, supposedly mistranslated, regarding the influence of black culture.

It is still extremely evident that the emulation of so-called “blackness” attracts attention, views, listeners, and ultimately, clout within the music scene.

Dreads have always caused racial controversy. We see Dok2 rocking them with confidence here.

A question arises — is trap music simply influencing the global hip-hop landscape?

This all aligns with the general consensus that conscious rap is dead (sans Kendrick Lamar), and it’s more about sound than lyricism. That’s not a negative thing, however; just a fact of what hip-hop’s current state is, and how Korean hip-hop has caught on quickly.

Collaborations overseas while being bilingual put Dumbfoundead among others such as Year of the Ox (composed of Lyricks and JL and stylized as YOX), the voices of Korean hip-hop in America, at the forefront of the movement to spread Korean culture through rhymes.

This is important and something that we, as a hip-hop culture, should look forward to seeing unfold. YOX has a very peculiar-yet-successful formula to their music. Trap influence in their songs can sometimes be heard, but still sticks to the roots of heavy lyricism and incredible flow along with boom bap.

People sometimes say YOX relies heavily on boom bap, as they’re too “lyrical miracle” — I say, if it worked for Pun, it can work for them. References that are more relative to American hip-hop history while maintaining a connection to Korean hip-hop and the scene overseas is incredibly vital and overlooked. This allows for two things: first, it allows for the audience stateside to give a nod to the bars and their references; second, it allows for YOX to establish a fan base overseas for their content being spit. Referencing both South Korean and American culture and history, they eloquently deliver through a crystal clear narrative, giving gravity and significance to what’s being said.

Once shunned, Jay Park redeemed himself within South Korea,. The former bad boy idol is now one of the leading forces of hip-hop’s scene in Asia.

Looking Ahead, Closing Thoughts

Korean culture is spreading very rapidly throughout the world, and a major catalyst is music. The Korean Wave is something that seemingly can’t be stopped, and a large segment of that wave is Korean hip-hop. Although deep-rooted and intricate, it is with growth that we sometimes have to look past the conscious details and accept modern trends to see something succeed, always holding those original foundation-level values close, both recognizing and respecting them, while enjoy the new sound. This applies to all types of things. Below, an excerpt of the Eung Freestyle:

Lots of real nice bilingual bars in this; a major reason (on top of Apple’s plugging) why this got huge. Everyone loves Scarface references.
1 in the 오후 still drunk as 고주망태 feeling like I’m Tony Montana 
민식이 다빈 영신이랑 나 flow 형 we so veteran 
Throw-throw-throw-throwing mmm cypher 한국인 버전 who’s drilling now? Rich Chigga?
귀 열 시간 알겠지 누가 왔는지 Ovadoz, wack mc killa

The future looks bright and powerful, with aforementioned artists putting on stateside, and large movements happening overseas and around the world. New social media platforms and websites allow for numerous conduits through which an artist can both market and spread their music.

It is something that is both aged and in its infancy — the roots of where Korea’s modern rap cliques began, and what it has evolved into within the last half decade. Although the pop influence may always be intertwined with the hip-hop scene in Korea, it’s something to latch onto more than stray away from — it is a critical and important cultural aspect. Maybe that’s what makes Korea’s hip-hop unique.

Meshing both worlds flawlessly.

There’s 50 million people in South Korea. Being generous, that’s 15% of America’s population. Their impact may not be as large on the global scene, and the issue of still relying heavily on Western influence may be relevant, but it’s no doubt the scene is progressing and blowing up faster than we have ever seen.

There’s no doubt that the rhymes have shifted with societal structures and trends. I welcome this, as it allows for a more broad audience to enjoy and be introduced to something we call Korean hip-hop culture.