What comes to mind when you think of modern South Korean music — look-alike girl groups? Boys sporting eyeliner?
You’re probably thinking of K-pop, the music trend that has been sweeping across international borders. The Korean pop music industry has always aroused much criticism for its artificiality; giant music corporations select young K-pop idols-to-be and put them through intensive training, eventually ending up controlling everything from the performer’s lyrics to public image. Note: This post is not meant to be a K-pop roast—many idols are truly talented musicians and most of all, the music and visuals are fun. However, many foreigners lump all Korean music under the umbrella category of K-pop, a genre that is actually not as favored in Korea as people may think.
Over the past two decades or so, a new type of music has been emerging in South Korea: hip-hop. While there exists collaboration between hip-hop and K-pop artists today, the genre has managed to separate itself from the pop music bubble. Many of the now-famous Korean hip-hop artists have their roots in the underground, which presents a stark contrast with the highly manufactured K-pop performers. Also, while K-pop idols are limited by their record labels in order to maintain their clean images, independent hip-hop artists do not face these same restrictions, leading to a greater level of “authenticity” in the genre.
The evolution of hip-hop music and culture in Korea is an interesting process: We all know that the US is the birthplace of hip-hop. Thus, this type of music was a cultural import to Korea, and Korean artists initially struggled with making the genre their own. The early Korean rappers of the 90’s lacked flow in their native language, thought of rapping as just talking fast, and associated being authentic with being American, resulting in an outcome that was both unimaginative and underwhelming.
Then came Verbal Jint. He shaped the genre for the better by introducing complex wordplay and internal rhyme schemes to Korean rap, and masterfully mixed English with Korean. He not only helped tear down the language barriers between rapping in English and Korean, but also demonstrated the fact that rap could be uniquely Korean by highlighting the unique elements of the language itself. He also didn’t pretend to be “gangster”, rather focusing on the true essence of rap as a storytelling medium.
This paved the way for other underground artists and incited a renewed appreciation for the Korean language within the hip-hop community. The genre of hip-hop in Korea today has diversified itself— it is a mix of the mainstream and the underground, the soulful R&B lyrical works to the base-heavy party jams. What do Korean rappers rap about? The same things American ones do: grief, hardship, wealth, love, desire, anger, parties. These are all universal emotions and aspects of human life. What is so interesting is that Korean rappers often retain much of their native identity through language or cultural references, while still accepting international influences. The emphasis on the individual, a focus on the art of hip-hop and collaborations with prominent international artists proves that there is more to the country’s musical exports than shiny K-pop groups.
HEAVY BASE TRACKS
“In Trinity” by BewhY
“Domies (도우미)” by Dumbfoundead feat. Keith Ape &
“The Wrong Way” by Swings feat. Dok2
“Yoga Flame” by B-Free feat. Okasian
“Underwater Rebels” (American/Korean collab) by Ken Rebel feat. Keith Ape & JayAllDay
“힐끔힐끔 (Peep)” by The Quiett
TURN UP TRACKS
“No Flex Zone Remix” by Okasian feat. Play$tar
“Mitch as F*ck” by Beenzino feat. Don
“화합” (Unity) by Don Mills feat. C Jamm
“연결고리 (Yggr)” by Illionaire Records
“내가” (Am I) by Dok2 feat. Beenzino & The Quiett
SOFTER R&B LYRICAL TRACKS
"I Get Lifted" by PEEJAY feat. Beenzino
“Pool Party” by Swings
“자니” (Are You Sleeping?) by Primary feat. Dynamic Duo