What started off as Korean ‘dance rap’ – dance music with rap played over it – has now evolved into a wide Korean hip-hop scene. Influenced by American hip-hop and Black culture, Koreans have established their own forms of hip-hop.
Artists such as Drunken Tiger and Seo Taiji are nowadays recognized as Korean hip-hop artists, but were referred to as ‘dance rap’ back in the day. Dance rap is the first known Korean hip-hop style, with the first song of this kind being Kimsatgat by Hong Seo-Beom in 1989. Fundamentally, it was dance music with some rap lines over it, much unlike the typically very lyric-based American hip-hop.
Undeniable is the role Korean dance clubs played in the development of this hip-hop style. Clubs in the Seoul neighbourhood Itaewon that were originally only meant for American soldiers, opened their doors to the Korean public around 1985. Dance competitions were held and ambitious local dancers used this as an opportunity to see if they had what it takes. Moon Night is one of Seoul’s notable dance clubs where names like Seo Taiji, Deux and Hyeon Jin-yeong first found their stages.
Even though it was not the first time a Korean artist had used this combination, Seo Taiji’s 1992 song ‘I Know’ proved of great influence. The mix of singing, dancing and rapping all in one song was adopted by many mainstream pop and hip-hop artists and still continues to be fruitful, as seen in modern K-pop.
Only in the late 90’s did Korean rappers start actually identifying as rappers, and did the public start recognizing them as such. The introduction of the internet made it possible for hugely influential underground hip-hop communities to form, listen to American hip-hop together, and eventually create their own music. Through this phenomenon Blex released the first underground Korean hip-hop album, and DJ Wreckx became the first Korean hip-hop DJ.
The first attempts at making hip-hop music from the underground scene were much like what was going on overground, with artists feeling the need to appropriate Black culture in order to confirm their ‘authenticity’. However, from the underground scene also arose a new movement that found authenticity in their Koreanness and used this to develop their own sound. In 2001, Verbal Jint completely changed the game with his EP ‘Modern Rhymes’. It showed everyone just how much potential the Korean language had within hip-hop music, using complex rhyming structures that had never been used before. It showed the entire scene what it really meant to be authentic as a Korean hip-hop artist. This also allowed the division between underground and mainstream to fade.
ZICO’s Bermuda Triangle is a good example of how modern Korean hip-hop has come together regarding authenticity. Both the song itself as well as the music video visuals show the roots in American hip-hop coexisting with Korean culture-specific topics, creating an authentic oneness.
The use of traditional Korean and Asian instruments is prominent in a notable amount of Korea’s hip-hop songs, which to me is another sign of the scene’s developed own form of authenticity. In 1993 Seo Taiji already implemented a solo of the Korean conical oboe in the song ‘Hayeoga’, and underground hip-hop artist MC Sniper made heavy use of multiple traditional and religious instruments, art and symbols. This mix of modern hip-hop and traditional instruments and references is still embraced in todays Korean hip-hop scene at all levels. Good examples are Agust D’s 2020 track ‘Daechwita’ and BTS’ ‘Ddaeng’, which was released in 2018.
Rapping in regional dialects and about culture-specific topics and dilemmas are furthermore part of the strong identity that Korean hip-hop has formed. Seo Taiji was a pioneer in this, speaking up against the challenging educational system in his 1994 song ‘Classroom Ideology’.
With the help of dance clubs and the internet, various kinds of Korean hip-hop could emerge parallelly. American and Black culture have been a great influence on how the genre developed. Korean artists managed to take American hip-hop and give it their own twist in terms of authenticity, culture and formatting. This creativity has turned Korean hip-hop into a leading genre nationwide.
Article By: Guusje Hulsbosch
References available upon request