Note: This timeline is an attempt on my and Jaeyoung’s parts to show a trajectory and some major moments for hip-hop that potentially put these cultures into conversation.
As a result, timeline does not cover every single event that happened across Black and Korean hip hop history. Otherwise, it’d be book-length and I would be a hot mess from having to wade through my sources even longer.
(Please let me know if you need or want a PDF copy of this timeline and source post!)
While the foundations of hip hop music were laid in 1972/1973, multiple sources claim that the genre didn’t take flight until 1974. Further sources claim that Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins (from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) actually came up with a name for the genre four years later in 1978
1978 – “Rap music” as a term coined in the United States
This source claims that in 1978, the music industry coins “rap music” and shifts from DJs towards MCs. However the etymology of the word “rap” and the African (and African American) tradition of rhythmic speech (often) alongside beats dates back way further and we have evidence of Black artists dating back to the Sixties performing a spoken word style that they called “rap”.
Born in 1957 to a Korean mother and an African American GI, Insooni is a soulful diva that remains one of the most well-known performers in Korea. She’s a still-active singer who performed at the 2018 Winter Olympics. She’s important to mention at this point of the project because she’s also a household name and cultural icon within Korea now and a sign that Black people from Korea are known to the citizens.
1983 – Run DMC released their debut single “It’s Like That”.
Founded by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell in 1981 in Queens, New York, this group would go on to be one of the most influential music acts in hip-hop history. “It’s Like That”, their 1983 debut single, reached #15 on the US R&B charts.
1986 – Ice-T’s “Six in the Mornin'” is released and it’s viewed as the first “gangsta rap” single
Ice-T himself pushes back against the idea that he created gangsta rap, repeatedly bowing his head to Schoolly D’s 1985 self-titled album and his track “P.S.K.” in places such as the documentary Hip Hop Evolution.
1988 – The Summer Olympics were hosted in Seoul.
The 1988 Olympics are notable as a pivot point for Korean culture and history. Tight censorship in media started to loosen, Korean-Americans and other members of the diaspora were coming home from abroad, and the combination of those two things meant that Black-created/popularized musical styles like hip-hop, rap, and R&B became (more) known to Koreans on the peninsula. (Information gleaned from Hanguk Hip Hop by Myoung-Sun Song.)
1989 – Hong Seo-beom’s “Kim Satgat” is released. This song is credited as the first Korean pop song with rapping.
Hong Seo-Beom was a rock musician that incorporated rapping in to his 1989 song about a 19th-century Korean poet.
1989 – Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing is released alongside its popular soundtrack.
My partner in timeline-ing, Jaeyoung, included Do The Right Thing in her own work on the timeline as the film wasn’t just notable for its music, but for its influence on Korean audiences in and out of the United States thanks to the presence of Steve Park’s Sonny, a Korean store owner.
MARCH 1991 – The murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du.
Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old Black teenager who was murdered by Soon Ja Du, a Korean storeowner who initially claimed that the killing was in self-defense, over a bottle of juice that the teenager was supposedly shoplifting. However, witnesses in the store claimed that Latasha was preparing to pay for the bottle before she was accosted. While many people primarily remember the time period because of the Rodney King police brutality video, this murder – notable for how Soon Ja Du pretty much got off with a slap on the wrist – further (negatively) shaped relationships between Black and Korean communities in Los Angeles that were already tense and increased hostilities that would boil over as one of the secondary catalysts of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
This horrific incident inspired Black rappers like Tupac and Ice Cube to create songs explicitly or implicitly referencing Latasha’s murder and/or the antiblackness they witnessed or experienced from Koreans in their communities.
Source: How the killing of Latasha Harlins changed South L.A., long before Black Lives Matter (https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-0318-latasha-harlins-20160318-story.html)
SEPTEMBER 1991 – A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” was released. This album served as a major inspiration for the men behind Epik High.
OCTOBER 1991 – Ice Cube’s song “Black Korea” was released in direct response to increasing tensions between Black and Korean people in Los Angeles.
This song was created and released in direct response to Latasha’s murder and increasing tensions between Black and Korean people in Los Angeles. The song relied on racist language/stereotypes even as it also showed clear anger at the antiblackness that Ice Cube witnessed and experienced from Korean American shop owners.
APRIL 1992 – Seo Taiji & Boys debuted on MBC’s talent show with “Nan Arayo”. This song and group are frequently held responsible for the birth of modern K-pop as we know it.
April-May 1992 – The Los Angeles riots which had violent conflict between cops, African Americans, and the local Korean community.
There were multiple elements that led to the confrontation, but the primary one was the acquittal of the four cops that beat Rodney King mercilessly around the time that the video of Latasha Harlins’ murder was released. Secondary, as mentioned before, was Latasha’s murder and the weak punishment Soon Ja Du received as a result with a significant amount of ire turned towards Korean storeowners in predominantly Black neighborhoods. This incident serves as a scar across the Black and Korean American communities to this day and has to have impacted Korean (and Korean American) views of Blackness.
1992 – Tiger JK – often credited with the mainstreaming of rap in Korean popular culture outside of K-pop – was a student in California at the time. He credits the Los Angeles riots with his desire to be a bridge between Black and Korean communities that sparked his turn to hip-hop.
1994 – Nas’ Illmatic, one of the most influential rap albums of the early 90s, is released
“It Ain’t Hard to Tell” is the first music video from this album:
1995 – Yoon Mi-Rae is discovered. This leads to her joining Uptown, a hip-hop group that debuted in 1997 when Yoon Mi-Rae was 16.
JANUARY 1996 – Seo Taiji & Boys announces that they’re disbanding.
September 1996 – H.O.T. debuts as the first “idol group” in South Korea.
MARCH 1997 – The Notorious B.I.G. is murdered.
I’m gonna be real here, I included this because it was the first major moment of hip-hop history I knew of. My sister will die angry about Biggie’s murder and I remember it was something that impacted her as a fan of his work and his style.
1999 – Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the first rap album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year
1999 – Yoon Mi-Rae joins Tashannie – a hip-hop duo that only released one album
LATE 1990s/EARLY 2000s – The Korean Wave begins to take form.
From Hanguk Hip Hop: Global Rap in South Korea:
A conversation on K-pop cannot be properly articulated without an understanding of the Korean Wave or Hallyu. Hallyu is a term first coined by Beijing journalists in the late 1990s to describe the unprecedented popularity of Korean popular culture—mainly television dramas—in Asia. While the first wave of Hallyu focuses on K-dramas, the so-called second wave is largely credited to the rise in K-pop.
2000 – R&B singer and dancer Rain is scouted as a teenaged trainee for JYP Entertainment.
Rain was first scouted in 2000 and worked as a trainee for JYP Entertainment. Prior to his solo career debut in 2002 with Bad Guy, he was part of the disbanded boy group Fanclub.
2000 – Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP is released. It remains one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century.
2001 – Epik High comes together on the South Korean underground hip-hop scene.
While Epik High formed in 2001, they didn’t release their debut album Map of the Human Soul until 2003. Their work would go on to inspire future generations of Korean rappers as they introduced new styles of rapping and lyric construction to the masses.
2001 – Yoon Mi-Rae makes her solo debut with “As Times Goes By”
2001 – Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Nas, and Eve release albums which were the most well-reviewed albums of the year.
February 2004 – Outkast’s “Speakerboxx/The Love Below” receives the Grammy for Album of the Year.
2004 – SE7EN’s “Passion” is released in Korea. It has a remarkably similar beat to Usher’s “Yeah” – released that same year.
February 2004 – Kanye West’s debut “The College Dropout” is released to critical acclaim.
2005 – Epik High’s “Swan Songs” is released. It was intended to be their last release as a group.
This album was praised by pretty much everyone and further boosted the group’s careers not just at home in Korea (including the mainstream public), but in Japan and the US. (The release “Fly” was featured in the video game FIFA 2007.)
2006 – Big Bang debuts as a B2K-inspired hip-hop group from YG Entertainment
2008 – Lee Myung Bak becomes President of South Korea.
The decade this occurred (from 2006 to 2016) was a difficult time for any young, creative, or progressive Korean and this era would have been/be formative for young(er) idols currently active.
2008 – Barack Obama is elected president of the United States.
As the first Black president of the country, this was supposed to mark a more progressive turn for the US. I’m gonna be real here… It didn’t really.
2009 – Hyuna debuts in 4minute, a girl group with an edgier style and dance pop and hip-hop focus.
I had to include Hyuna because her style of rapping (especially the nasally twang of her voice) is oft-copied among current girl groups. And you know… the PCA presentation that I went all Wine Academic Aunt on back in April.
MAY 2009 – Epik High and Far East Movement go on tour throughout the US – as well as in Seoul and two locations in Japan. Many of the concerts sold out.
JUNE 2010 – Drake’s debut album “Thank Me Later” is released
2011 – Wiz Khalifa tops the Billboard 100 with “Black and Yellow”.
April 2011 – Rapper Zion.T releases his debut single “Click Me” featuring Dok2
2011 – MC Meta (currently part of influential hip-hop group Garion) and Wreckx release “무까끼하이” in satoori and are censored by broadcast stations.
From Sun Jung’s article “Shifts In Korean Television Music Programmes”:
The changed media environment also affected music programmes not only in terms of the music itself but also in regard to the fact that dance and artists’ appearances were all strictly censored under this strengthened censorship. The young post-democratization generations were dumbfounded by unclear censorship processes. Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop” was banned by network television because the dance was lascivious, while MC META and DJ WRECKX’s album MC and DJ was banned due to the use of dialect in their rapping (D. -H. Lee 2011).
NOVEMBER 2011 – Dumbfoundead, a Korean- American rapper who got his start on the underground scene, has his debut album DFD released with Transparent Records.
Dumbfoundead’s body of work is technically sound and really fascinating. He’s used his platform as a rapper to call out the way East Asians in the US are (under) represented and stereotyped in popular culture in the video for his song “SAFE“.
On a critical note: the decision to use a (likely Korean-American run) beauty supply store in his video for the song “Mijangwon” is well… a choice considering the still-complicated relationships between Korean-Americans and Black Americans in the US. (And don’t get me started on the unfortunate antiblackness of East Asian beauty supply store owners/managers as someone that actually has to frequent them…)
2011 – Hip-hop idol group Block B debuts with rappers Zico and P.O
2012 – Show Me The Money begins airing on television.
2013 – Hip-hop club Club In2Deep opens in Seoul.
JUNE 2013 – Small company Big-Hit debuts BTS, a hip-hop themed boy group, with 2 Cool 4 Skool.
This image from their 2014 reality show American Hustle Life (which Song also talks about) shows article titles about the group’s supposed impact on hip hop at that point.
BTS was created to be a hip-hop group that basically provided teenagers with “a hero who can lend them a shoulder to lean on, even without speaking a single word”. Myoung-Sun Song talks about BTS a bunch in her monograph (which I love) particularly the chapter on authenticity and idol rappers, but I think what’s very relevant to my timeline lies in this quote from the book:
During the training period, Big Hit Entertainment sent Son and a BTS member to train at a dance center called Movement Lifestyle in Los Angeles. “Because BTS is hip hop, we were able to pick up the culture—not just the dancing— but the lifestyle, like how people walk and talk, their gestures, etc. We only went for a month, but we learned a lot” (Son as cited in Cha and Choi 2013c). His answers warrant caution and raises questions of how far mimicking gestures or movements and “picking up a lifestyle” in a month can be interpreted as “real” learning.
The idea that BTS was able to authentically represent hip-hop (and in essence, Black people) after spending brief periods of time engaging with Black people in our natural habitat was a problematic one that shaped the group’s early look and sound.
2015 – Unpretty Rapstar begins airing as a female-oriented version of SMTM. Truedy wins the second season.
Like Show Me The Money, Unpretty Rapstar is a reality survival show focusing on rappers. The winner of the show’s second season, Truedy, has been referenced once already in this project. I talked about her on the video for cultural appropriation. Her concept is basic blackface and her idolization of Afro-Korean rapper Yoon Mirae dehumanizes her in the process. “How Truedy Killed Yoon Mirae’s Black Happiness“, the author writes that:
Truedy grew up seeing Yoon’s performances and listening to her references of blackness and the discrimination she experienced. She then took Yoon’s musical and physical performances and debauched them into her own performance of what she perceives as “black” and “hip hop style”. Yoon’s mixed background is not one that is by any means secretive in Korea, nor are multiracial Korean artists uncommon in Korean entertainment. However, anti-black sentiments in Korea manifest through the erasure of the non-Korean, non-”American” experiences by people like Truedy. Truedy has darkened her skin, crimped her hair to look like natural hair, creates thick double eyelids through the application of makeup, and also wears clothes she perceives as “hip hop” clothing. Her music and references to black people in combination with the physical performance of blackness is essentially minstrelsy.
2016 – YG Entertainment’s hip-hop girl group 2NE1 disbands.
2NE1 was one of the first girl groups I’d been invested in and it was partially because of their hip-hop aesthetic and sound. (I don’t want to be all “this was the end of an era” because that’s a bit silly, but when I heard the news, I definitely felt it hard.)
2017 – Forbes reports that hip-hop/R&B (classified by the same genre by Nielsen SoundScan) is the most widely consumed musical genre in the US.
2018 – Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer Prize in music for DAMN. This critically acclaimed album is the first rap album to win a Pulitzer.
The Pulitzer Prize site calls DAMN, “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”.
Rap music is a young genre, but an influential one, and the fact that Kendrick Lamar has received one of the highest honors for his rap music says volumes about the role of rap in modern culture.
There’s no way for us to have covered every single bump along this 40+ year timeline, but we covered moments that were important to us and/or to the industries were covering.
Have a moment that you think was super important, but that didn’t make it onto this timeline? Share it below because it’s still valuable! I just literally didn’t have the time to put together the massive timeline that these industries would’ve required if we went for 100% coverage.