Removed from Context: The Unbearable Lightness of Korean Hip Hop

Removed from Context: The Unbearable Lightness of Korean Hip Hop

Youn Kwang-eun
Youn Kwang-eun

While I was surfing the web I came across an image making fun of Korean hip hop: “Typical Korean hip hop.jpg. Rapper gets pissed at nothing.”

(Source: User “Gaedrip” via online community Clien)

Of course, this is a joke. Hip hop is mainstream in South Korea. Plenty of Koreans enjoy listening to it. But this joke bites. As much as Koreans are interested in hip hop, a lot of them also don’t care for the music, because they think Korean rappers come off as posers — pretending to be tough and underprivileged without the grounds to act that way.

It’s been over twenty years since hip hop settled in this land. Why do so many Koreans still show an allergic reaction to the genre?

One reason could be because Show Me the Money, the popular hip hop audition show which first aired in 2012, selectively exposes the more sensational elements of hip hop for “good television,” like diss and swagger.

But the more fundamental cause concerns the problem of “localizing”: transplanting a foreign genre into the local scene.

Lyrics from Korean rapper Swings’ “Tear Apart”:

Dope flow, voice is fuckin so cold

I’m a boss yo, gangsta….

Skinny jeans? I can’t wear that. Homo? Oh no, no….

Name of my language is Moneymaking, get it? Bitch fuck….

I’m the Tolstoy of the rap game….

Everyone humble in front of me, everyone bend yo’ backs

Korean rappers aren’t unique; hip hop lyrics have always been macho and aggressive. The difference between Korean and American hip hop is, the latter has the historical context to justify the text, the context that gave birth to this text.

Hip hop originated in the 1970s in African-American ghettos in the South Bronx, New York City. The ghettos that gave birth to hip hop had crime, poverty and drugs. In so-called “Black Music,” the rapper often reveals his or her experiences through a personal narrative. The genre expresses the fierce realities of the particular locality individual rappers are situated in.

The ghetto and the street epitomize the original identity of this musical genre. Many rappers in the States don’t just talk about death; they grew up watching people get shot to death. They spit out their anger: how much I suffered, how I survived, how dangerous I am as a man. This was the beginning of the custom of praising masculinity and violence.

Those who create hip hop in another national collective or locality must confront a rather difficult question: Do the sounds match the narrative spirit of the genre? South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. There are no drugs, no guns, no ghettos like the Bronx. Most South Korean rappers received allowances from parents and received proper education. They found hip hop on the internet.

In a country that tries to recreate U.S. ghetto music without having no space to call a ghetto, hardcore lyrics are brought in, only to see the spirit of the text castrated. Only the superficial signifiers remain alive as a musical style and cliche.

“Tear Apart,” by Swings. 

No matter how tough Korean rappers try to act, they seem to lack a context for the anger. It looks as though rappers get pissed at nothing. To show anger, they lash out at nothing.

They write incoherent, boastful lyrics. When Jay-Z spits out, “I sold kilos of coke, I’m guessin’ I can sell CDs. I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!” there’s an unapproachable swagger to his words. Korean MCs [another word for rappers, with a slightly different connotation] want that same swagger, but lack the right background to do it authentically. So instead they just open their eyes wide and glare.

I’m not saying all American MCs are gangsters. Think Rick Ross: He boasted about being a drug lord, and it turned out he used to be a prison guard. The title “gangster” belongs only to those who warrant it; but on the other hand, gangster lyrics are also used by rappers to project the right persona. But what I want to point out is this: Even entertainment needs to have the right context to project relevance and become compelling. And South Korea doesn’t have the context necessary to support an authentic hip hop culture.

Korean Hip Hop Before Show Me the Money

Show Me the Money, the audition program that made hip hop mainstream in South Korea. (Source: Mnet) 

So what? Should Korea forget about ghetto music because it has no ghettos? Certainly not. There’s significance in reproducing a musical style, even its cliches; the fact that demand for hip hop in South Korea has grown means there are people who enjoy its appeal, however shallow hip hop is in this country.

But South Korean hip hop is currently skewed too much toward styling and cliches, like macho talks about ghetto swagger and suffering. And the appeal of the style can be projected if the difference in context is skillfully addressed. In listening to many rappers in South Korea, I see no sign that they really thought long and hard about how best to localize the music they’re appropriating.

The mission of South Korean hip hop should be to create music that is both attractive and convincing, one that acknowledges the different local condition and correspondingly transforms the genre, or even transcends the limits imposed by the difference in that condition.

To some extent, this process of local transformation takes place almost inevitably whether the creator intends, indicating that the task isn’t so difficult as it may seem. When the South Korean hip hop scene started to develop in the 1990s up to the mid-2000s, localizing happened quite naturally. In the early 2000s, a rather heated debate took place over how to interpret and handle this unfamiliar music in a “Korean” way.

Underground rappers at Soul Company, an independent label, wrote lyrics about the agony of creation and lives of South Korean youth. Musicians belonging to the Movement, a hip hop crew led by Drunken Tiger, rapped about such relatable themes as life and love, at times self-deprecatingly, at times optimistically, gaining a following.

“Pojori,” by DJ DOC.

Some things in hip hop have been relatively easier to appropriate and localize. Think about hip hop group DJ DOC’s 2000 single “Pojori.” [Editor’s Note: The title is based on the word pojol, or a soldier-policeman in the Joseon dynasty.]

The DJ DOC single can be seen as an attempt to recreate the combative spirit of American hip hop vis-à-vis police, a spirit epitomized by N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police.” This legendary 1988 single was created out of resistance against police brutality and racial profiling of African Americans. The song was heavily censored at the time, banned from public libraries, radio, and retail chains, and condemned by police unions.

DJ DOC’s “Pojori” carries this spirit of resistance, but its portrayals of the police are more South Korea-specific. In the song, the South Korean police is demeaningly called jjapsae (literally, a bird that catches thieves), and is mocked as incompetent and corrupt.

Hip hop’s spirit of resistance lies essentially in the sense of identity that African Americans had as a racial minority, in their rage against oppressive white America.

South Korean rappers have adopted this spirit differently; their resistance comes from a more generally relatable perspective, without the distinctive class identity in American hip hop. They have sung about labor and democracy movements (MC Sniper’s “Sol, Sol, Oh Blue Sol”), criticized the government’s unconstitutional practices (Jerry.k’s “Ha-Ya-Hey,” which calls for Park Geun-hye’s resignation following the Choi Soon-sil scandal), and critiqued other general social issues (UMC UW’s “Media Doll” series and Jerry.k’s “Call Center”).

Jerry.k’s “Call Center” narrates the perspective of a female employee at a call center. “It wasn’t easy, having to smile all day. You used to cry a lot. You stopped doing that. You used to be expressive. You started forgetting all that.” 

In South Korea, the internet has functioned as the hub of hip hop, much like the ghetto was in the U.S. for American hip hop. The internet became more important in the mid-2000s; at the time, the central figure in this movement  was Verbal Jint. He pointed not to “the street” as his theater of suffering, but to online hip hop communities like Rhythmer, DC Tribe, and Hip Hop Playa. The famous Korean idiom “haters in the room corner (bangguseok hayruh),” now a cliche in rap, was invented by Verbal Jint and refers to anonymous online trolls.

With the opening of the Show Me the Money era in 2010, South Korean hip hop started to become thoroughly Americanized. Concepts like hustle, swag, money, women and phallus worship were imported indiscriminately.

Among contemporary South Korean rappers, Illionaire probably worships American hip hop most fervently. Since 2010, when swagger hip hop was still unfamiliar on the South Korean scene, the group rapped consistently, boastfully about making money. Hip hop was still largely outside the current of mainstream music at the time; and Illionaire was only making 100 to 200 million won ($90,000 to $180,000) each year. Naturally, they couldn’t avoid criticisms from listeners, who asked how much they really earn, pointing out that they’re not G-dragon nor Jay-Z.  

All this changed after audition program Show Me the Money turned rap into a billion-won industry and made swag the defining standard for South Korean hip hop.

Interestingly, despite his preoccupation with hip hop from the States, even Illionaire, one of South Korea’s most famous hip hop artists today, didn’t (or couldn’t) identically reproduce the music he idolized. To be sure, Illionaire-esque lyrics about money still create discomfort in a society where humility is emphasized, and material greed discouraged from being expressed. But compared to American rappers, who unhesitatingly boast about spending money, doing drugs and the like, Illionaire comes off more like a diligent young entrepreneur than a hustler from the ghettos.

Swag and Cliches

Swagger hip hop didn’t just mean using similar themes as American hip hop. The topics and expressions in Korean hip hop imitated its cliches; sentences sometimes seemed awkwardly translated. More Korean rappers started yelling about their hometowns. It’s one thing for American rappers to sing about Brooklyn, Compton, and Watts. These places have strong historical connections to hip hop. But in South Korea, where hip hop is not defined by a geographical origin, lyrics about representing a locale often end up sounding meaningless.

Hip hop group Rhythm Power released an album in 2010, which basically pioneered South Korean hip hop’s current emphasis on rappers’ birthplaces, in this case, Incheon. “The Battle of Incheon,” one of the tracks in the album, successfully employed specific regional codes to portray places like Wolmido Island. But in interviews with Hip Hop LE and Hip Hop Playa, member Boi B said the group’s emphasis on Incheon was inspired by American rappers. “It’s my hometown, but I don’t attach a huge meaning to the place,” he told Hip Hop Playa in May 2017.

In a freestyle session, Changmo stresses the marginality of his hometown Deoksori. He sneers at “the dweeb suckers in Seoul,” who apparently told him to stop characterizing his birthplace as Harlem. They have a point. Deoksori is no Harlem. It’s a suburb of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province. Wasn’t Changmo privileged enough to take piano lessons since he was five? How can he rap like he’s been marginalized, when everyone knows all he did in his youth was commute between school and hagwon, or cram schools, and started rapping after buying a home-recording mic one day?

“Yes Yes Y’all,” by MC Meta, rapping in his regional dialect. The original Korean title is “Muggaggihai,” or a word from Gyeongsang Province meaning “stupid.” 

There have been successful attempts to inject local flavors into South Korean hip hop, like JTONG characterizing himself as someone from the “South Side” (Busan). Particularly impressive was MC Meta, who rhymed in his Daegu dialect (which sounds very different from standard Korean) in the single “Yes Yes Y’all.” But these sporadic attempts didn’t become a consistent current.

Woo Won-jae

Woo Won-jae, a rising star on Show Me the Money, is one of the rare examples of a rapper who successfully localized the original spirit of hip hop, while remaining conscious of his specific background.

The clock is round, but its seconds sharp

Their hands wounding my hours

Everyone’s in a rush taught

To compete at whatever’s done

We have no choice but escape

To our own time zone

Outside that door everyone goes

“Hey, you gotta get up early to succeed, ain’t that right?”

These lyrics are from “We Are,” Woo’s 2017 single. He provides a mature example of localizing a foreign genre; listen to how he recreates the spirit of “hustle” in American hip hop. It’s easy to see how Woo’s approach to hip hop is different from other Korean rappers, and why the public has taken an interest in him.

Hustling often portrays the act of earning money, regardless of the means (including illegal activities, like selling drugs). Hip hop was created out of the reality of African Americans, who often lacked the means to overcome poverty other than through individual ability. Hip hop was seen as the saving rope out of Harlem.

In the era of Show Me the Money, hustle is as much of an imported cliche as swag. The South Korean hustle is limited to describing moneymaking through music, without integrating specific local realities.

“Earn money, earn money.” “Imma rest after I’m dead.” “Money pile gettin’ bigger, money, money, money pile!” Lyrics like these aren’t narratively persuasive; they’re hackneyed and repetitive. It’s understandable that the public is getting tired of South Korean hip hop, which many think sound generic and pretentious.

“We Are,” by Woo Won-jae.

Woo Won-jae’s “We Are” takes the essence of hustle, which is to focus on specific tasks, and weaves in lyrics that describe his own reality. He’s not an imaginary drug lord in the ghetto, traversing the streets with tattoos all over his body. He’s a college student, hiding his tattoos before going to the lecture hall in the morning, because of his professor’s scolding.

He hustles too, but what Woo is resisting isn’t imported poverty from the American ghettos nor the American police. He’s resisting against South Korea’s lifetime system of examinations, which demand that everyone’s hours be fitted to one, standard pattern of time.

In a society where “you gotta get up early to succeed,” Woo deliberately switches around his schedule, while dreaming his own dreams. He is in fact talking about being a member of a hip hop student club at his university, but the spirit he expresses is relatable for others. Many young people in South Korea probably have the experience of having to live unnaturally, working at night and sleeping during the day, because of burdens like school assignments, exam preparations and part-time jobs. In fact, isn’t this a society where people over-consume energy drinks to artificially induce insomnia?

“I’m living on Paris time, whereas others pay money to go to Paris,” raps Woo Won-jae, consoling listeners by equating their hardship to traveling around a romantic destination.

When rapper Changmo says, “I come from a vinyl greenhouse, hustler stealin’ some money,” I think, “Seriously? You?” When Okasian says, “Imma die if I don’t earn sweet money,” I think, “So what?” When Swings disses “lazy rappers” and boasts that he’s living the sweet life, I think, “Good for you.” But when Woo Won-jae raps, “I’m going home on the first train of the morning on line four,” listeners are able to ruminate on their own lives.

That’s what hip hop can do best — somehow creating the miracle of universality when the individuality of the creator connects to the individuality of the listener — because the convention calls on the rapper to compose his or her own lyrics.

Too many South Korean rappers, already feasting on the pile of money, show off their hustle in past perfect tense, and seem angry “for no reason.” But Woo Won-jae uses present continuous, to laugh at the world and simultaneously acknowledging his own vulnerability while overcoming it.

He raps not in a physically violent ghetto, but in a country with a high suicide rate, intensive emotional labor and psychological violence. His honesty complements his narrative talent, and puts soul into the empty self-boasting when he raps, “Everyone laughed at the noise from the East. But now that noise rings around the whole country.”


This article was translated and edited from the Korean by Haeryun Kang. The full original was published on Facebook on Sep. 12.

Cover image: Show Me the Money. (Source: Mnet on YouTube)

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