Across Hanguk Hip Hop, Myoung-Sun Song seeks to answer several pressing questions about Korean hip hop – made by and for Koreans in Korea for the most part – and one of the ones that has stuck with me is simple, but pointed:
What is real or original about Hanguk hip hop? (6)
It’s a question that I’ve never been able to let go of as I listen to Korean artists, read translated interviews they’ve done, and watched a really large amount of music videos and live performances from a wide range of Korean artists.
It’s a question that has no real easy answer to me.
Because, if you watch Korean hip hop music videos or even the idol rappers work with their groups or forays into solo work, a lot of it sounds and looks like the stuff I’d be able to listen to on MTV or BET if they still played music videos. A ton of it looks like stuff I listened to in my teens.
To this day, a lot of Korean hip hop from underground or independent artists and from idol groups is incredibly derivative. Many of these artists – or their management – seem to think that the only way that they can be authentically hip hop or authentic to what they think rap is –involves them donning the hood cosplay of my nightmares.
And some of these artists do know that!
In personal correspondence with Song, rapper San E said that:
“Sometimes, I feel that doing hip hop in Korea is almost a competition of who can best follow American hip hop. Even that is not an easy thing to do. It is something we cannot escape from because rap is dependent on trends that are led by American hip hop”. (33)
This mimicry and a large lack of originality ties back into San E’s comment about hip hop in Korea best following American hip hop and having a hard time to escape even as they try to branch out to claim their own corner of hip hop as themselves, for themselves.
One of the constants across this project I’ve been doing – from artists, fans, and academics alike – is this hunger for Korean hip hop to be taken seriously.
There is a desire for rappers outside the idol industry like The Quiett, Sik-k, and San E to be seen as hip-hop icons on the same level as Black rappers in their age range or with their level of skill. Among the fans of different idol groups, there’s also a desire for the rappers in groups like Stray Kids or BTS – that utilize hip hop in their sound and visual concepts – to be taken seriously both in the Korean underground and in Western media circles.
And yes, that leads to derivative concepts in Korean hip hop. It leads to some Korean rappers fully jacking flows from established rappers in and out of Korea. It leads to missed opportunities for smaller rappers bucking trends in their work. It leads to all of that hood cosplay because they think they need it.
There are things Korean rappers are doing that Black American rappers aren’t and never will.
The most obvious thing is the organic use of Korean in their music – while many Korean rappers use English terms and phrasing (especially AAVE) in their rhymes, few Black people that are not of Korean descent would ever consider the reverse and utilize Korean language in their songs. The use of traditional Korean music and instruments – like Loopy and Nafla’s “이겨 우리가 어차피” on mnet’s Good Girl and Agust D’s “Daechwita” aren’t things that Western artists are replicating either. (And if they did and they weren’t working with a Korean artist or producer to get the end result? I’d shout about it, actually!)
But, to say that all Korean hip hop is entirely free from being derivative – like we saw kind of heavily implied at parts of TK Park and Yongdae Kim’s brief history of Korean hip hop in 2019 – and well on its way to being authentic in and of itself is… not the full story.
It’s not even the story that the majority of these artists are telling directly – not just in the interviews they do with academics and media outlets, but in the way they perform hip hop and Blackness as one in the same.
Because, in case you may have missed it, Korean hip hop owes a lot to African American hip hop and the artists performing it do know that!
Despite what writers like Park and Kim (and so many other Korean talking heads tapped to talk about Korean pop and hip hop to an international audience) think and tell others, many Korean artists do try to balance their own creativity and interests as Korean artists with what they’ve learned from studying, listening to, and working with Black artists, songwriters, and producers.
Another thing that comes up for me when I look at Song’s initial question of “What is real or original about Hanguk hip hop?: what’s actually real or original about hip hop in the US in 2020?
I’ve talked, read, and thought a lot about authenticity in the context of Korean hip hop over the past year.
One of the constants across my project has been looking at and unpacking how so many artists and producers who make hip hop in Korea are preoccupied with their performance of authenticity in hip hop.
While that’s still very much a thing – think about how idol rappers really don’t get taken seriously in Korean rap circles unless they leave their groups or reject the idol life while still in it – what’s also interesting is that… at the end of the day, hip hop itself is a performance regardless of where it’s performed.
In my piece on Gatekeepers and Idol Rappers, when talking about something that I found interesting about why so many East Asian rappers were drawn to the gangsta rappers of the 90s and hip hop, I wrote that:
If you’ve watched the documentary Bad Rap, one thing that’s obvious across the three male rappers in the documentary and the early part about what drove East Asian teenagers to hip hop in the 90s/from the 90s is how these people were drawn to the masculinity on display from 90s gangster rappers because of what was being denied to them as East Asian men and boys.
The masculinity on display by men like Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Tupac, Biggie, and Dr. Dre was:
1. a type of costume in and of itself considering that these rappers weren’t “like that” all the time even in the case of those who were actual gangsters
2. directly opposite the racist stereotypes about East Asian masculinity that actively (to this day) desexualizes, dehumanizes, and infantilizes these men because those dudes got chicks
Most important is that first bullet point.
For the most part, Black American rappers aren’t like that all the time. There are plenty of posers here, but beyond that, their ultra-hard hip hop persona is just that. It is a performance, and, in many cases, it is also fake as hell.
Remember Rick Ross?
Back in 2008, the website The Smoking Gun discovered evidence proving that rapper Rick Ross was actually a correctional officer in Dade County in South Florida. This was a man whose entire persona – like his literal stage name, y’all – came from a notorious drug kingpin (“Freeway” Rick Ross) – fully faking it for clout.
A lot of the rappers that Korean rappers would go on to identify with and even mimic in some ways… aren’t that hood. Honestly. Because they were playing characters.
Across watching Hip Hop Evolution on Netflix, one thing across many of the icons of hip hop here in the United States made very clear was that they often adopted personas or characters to tell a story they thought would sell and sell big.
I mean, look at Drake who basically shifts his personality and persona depending on what he wants to sell at any given moment and who actually is many Korean rappers’ listed influence.
However, beyond that: plenty of rappers claim gang affiliations they’ve never had, confess to crimes they’ve never committed, told their audience about guns they’ve never shot, and made up all kinds of shit when it comes to the sex they swear they’re having.
Whether you call it acting, or, like Billie Eilish in her Feb/March 2020 Vogue feature, “posturing”, performance is very important to hip hop –
But it’s something that makes it hard to think of hip-hop as “real”.
Which is weird, because the entire thing about hip hop that draws folks to it and that sets up this back and forth, is “keeping it real” as the basic background of these artists’ experiences.
But as Aaron Williams points out in “What Does Authenticity Mean In Today’s Hip-Hop And How Much Does It Still Matter?”, “keeping it real” has shifted away from its original meaning to a standard that orients itself around a frustrating form of hypermasculinity that is actually performed endlessly:
““Keeping it real” has long been not just a feature of hip-hop music and culture, it’s been the foundation that both are built on. Rap audiences — and consequently, the major labels and media outlets that purvey the music to their potential consumers — have long insisted on authenticity as the cardinal rule of hip-hop. In hip-hop, “keeping it real” is a badge of honor, a prerequisite, and code of ethics all at once, supposedly. Over time, the definition has shifted to mean so many different things, but over the course of hip-hop’s 45-year history, it came to be associated with a very particular attitude, a persona of violent hypermasculinity that resulted in videos like those described above becoming the standard, not an exception.”
Across this part of my project – the parts on authenticity in hip hop and pop flavored by hip hop– one recurring fascination I’ve had is with how masculinity plays out across the performance many Korean artists (regardless of gender) put on. The guns-gangs-girls fixation that many Korean rappers put on in their videos is the same hypermasculine performance that rappers in the United States put together to make money.
There’s hella hood cosplay on display in the expected visuals for “The Purge” from Jay Park, pH-1, BIG Naughty, Woodie Gochild, HAON, TADE L, and Sik-K, but a strong hint og hip hop performance in the song’s lyrics like where they say “H1GHR ganging call on us killaz for hire”. It’s also present in Sik-K’s “YeLowS Gang” featuring Herr Nayne and Woodie Gochild – a video that shows the rapper in question waving around a rifle and throwing up gang-adjacent signs at different points.
In the publicly released auditions for Show Me The Money 9, many of the rappers auditioning referenced guns-gangs-girls (and sometimes drugs), things that they… probably don’t have any real knowledge of – at least for everything but “girls”.
They include these things that are essentially nods to “authentic” Black/hip hop culture because they think that’s what they have to do to be taken seriously (by their peers, by producers, by fans) even though it rarely fits them.
To gesture back at my quote on masculinity in hip hop, the masculinity on display from these rappers is to grasp at a performance and a place they felt that they were denied not just by racist stereotypes about their masculinity from white Western media, but even within hip hop from their Black/brown peers.
Bad Rap really is one of the best ways to get a grasp of some of what Korean rappers deal with because it will show you how, unlike many non-Black rappers, Asian rappers in and out of the United States are often viewed as automatically inauthentic… even when they have the same experiences as Black and white rappers in their neighborhoods by being in gangs, running the streets, and literally just… living in the hood around folks who can turn what they experienced into respected rap verses while they can’t.
Think about how despite Dumbfoundead grew up in Los Angeles and participated in (and won) rap battles as a younger rapper, he’s not seen as authentic to the industry. Tiger JK was a young adult in the same city during the Los Angeles riots – which did shape his interest in rap and desire to connect Korean and African American communities – but… I don’t think anyone ever puts his work in conversation with the Black rappers that were his peers or that he learned from.
And we’ve already talked about female rappers in this project, but I will say that in my review of m-net’s Good Girl, one of the things that I liked about the show was that many of the women involved in the main cast seemed to be interested in making their own space in hip hop. I want more of that.
Williams closes out his interesting article on authenticity in hip hop by writing that, “Keeping it real still seems to be the critical function of hip-hop, but the goal should be staying true to oneself, not a manufactured idea of gangsta, street credibility.”
And you know what? At the end of the day, in 2020, almost everyone in the game is faking authenticity in hip hop because they’re doing the latter thing, not the former.
Regardless of whether they’re raised in Seoul or Seattle or Compton or Liberty City, they’re probably faking something in order to make it big in show business because that is what the entertainment industry anywhere requires of its performers.
In this case, they’re trying to be authentic to the hip hop industry’s worldwide trends, not authentic to themselves in hip hop as they take the music across oceans.
Which makes it all fake as hell.
To me, at least, which clearly doesn’t mean it lacks value to me or anyone else listening to it.
It does mean that perhaps these artists should consider that we know what’s going on behind the curtain and put on a more ironclad performance –