Korean underground hip-hop

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Last Friday my girlfriend and I went to Hongdae, the cool, student and artist neighbourhood in central Seoul. I had heard very little of substance about Korean hip-hop: there was Psy, and the impossibly cool people milling around Hongik University dressed in Adidas and shiny things, but not much else. Of course, every K-pop star worth her salt can rap, but I wanted the real thing. Hip-hop is more than a music style, it’s a lifestyle combining art, dance, music and performance. Take it from the 39 year old white guy: before you can really understand the street, you need to watch Wild Style and Style Wars. What does that look like in Seoul? We were about to find out, at 5th Rappers Night.

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A caveat: in lieu of analyzing the skill and complexity of the artists, I recorded iphone videos so you can do it yourself… if your Korean skills are better than mine. Occasionally my girlfriend would explain what some of the stage patter or lyrics meant, which added a lot to the experience. But I’m still just gleaning a small piece of what were clearly well-thought-out performances. Music is universal, but I regret not being able to understand the call-and-response, even if I could mouth the phrases phonetically. I can’t even tell you most of the artists’ names, though I welcome IDs in the comment box. (I also regret not having a better recorder – iphones don’t capture bass very well.) That said, it was a great evening. Almost all the performers were high-energy and, I later learned, highly sarcastic and funny. They weren’t imitating; these guys had studied and internalized contemporary hip-hop flow.

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It was literally an underground club, two flights down. Like Prism, where I saw the hardcore shows last summer, it was impeccably clean – possibly because the space was rented. The crowd was small, though larger than the metal one. I feel a little badly for Korean subcultures: if you’re not pop, you’re not anything. Though I guess being on the margins is a badge of pride for subcultures.

The first performer always has a tough job at any show, and I thought he did all right:

After this he re-interpreted a traditional Korean folk song, adding a beat and waving a huge Korean flag. Everyone knew the words. I found the overt nationalism a little much, even as I understand why Koreans feel touchy about their national pride. The next duo picked up the pace:

The next group were a little more lyric-based and observational. No, I couldn’t understand the observations. But their diction was clear:

The next act was my second-favourite of the evening, due to the dancing and tiger-striped hoodie. Also, note the backing track includes lyrics. No group had a DJ, despite a band telling us at one point to ‘drop it’. But they rapped anyway over more widely-known tracks, just like early Jamaican DJs.

Hapkie had a strong novelty factor in his favour: he was the biggest Korean man I’d ever seen and inhabited the gangsta role with panache, right down to the sneering:

But despite my healthy appreciation for old-skool gangsta rap (or even terror rap), it wasn’t my thing. He pointed a lot but didn’t dance, and he spent a lot of time directing the crowd to rap. People duly obliged but I felt it was more out of politeness, or just fear that he’d crush us like a bug. He took a girl’s hat, wore it for a while and returned it; the second time he tried to take it, she hung onto it. I thought he could’ve followed the other performers by being less macho and taking the piss out of himself a little. Still: points for style.

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The sixth group had been on in the number 2 slot, but returned with a guest, the skinny guy with blonde hair. OK, they’re all skinny. But they had the pugnacious attitude and smooth flow that marks all good MCs:

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Rapper 7 was a little less animated but good-natured. He also brought his girl/friend on stage to sing the chorus; she had a fine voice but didn’t rap. Speaking of which: where were the female rappers? I know they exist.

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The headliners were the Korean LMFAO. High-energy, smiling, swearing, their music sounded more like party-rave than hip-hop, and they still managed to rap and dance at the same time. My phone ran out of storage space at this point, which is a shame because I would’ve liked to capture their whole performance.

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A Korean friend of mine said that his culture is kitsch. Having been erased by the Japanese occupation and then the US-backed military dictatorship, authentic Koreanness is dredged up from the distant past and sold to tourists and Koreans alike as a glorious past, one that says more about the grandiloquent designs of contemporary governments than it does about the social history of the Korean people. But Korean hiphop is not kitsch. It’s a decades-old form that Koreans have assimilated and made their own, in a range of styles. Psy is bringing Korean music to new audiences, but hopefully his greatest impact will be encouraging people to search out the Korean underground. Pop culture is way more than K-pop, and it’s a lot more fun too.

Update:

Here is the first break-out act of k-pop: Seo Taji (서태지) and Boys, with Nan Arayo (I know). Before this, I’m reliably informed*, Korean music was countryfied ballads for middle-aged men. In 1992, Seo Taji broke it wide open. Skip ahead to 1.11 to see his skills:

Sure, it’s still imitative: he’s doing MC Hammer. If memory serves, that style of b-boying peaked in 1990. But maybe it took them two years to practice the moves, because that’s some of the best Running Man I’ve ever seen. I feel badly that they have stand there, stockstill and sweating, while the host casually discusses their act. But it shows that hip-hop was present at the birth of k-pop. So the guys at 5th Rappers Night aren’t riding the Hallyu wave, they helped invent it.

* (Anytime I’m informed about Korean culture and don’t reference my sources, it’s my girlfriend, who has reliably informed me that I have to learn about the birth of k-pop if I want to understand Korean music.)

 

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