SOUNDBITES 006: Transnational Waves in Korean Hip Hop

I first started this as a list of international Hip Hop collaborations… but if the artist is Korean American, then they are American, and thus my list is redundant. I had to check myself on internalized othering. I will go ahead with sharing the songs I had in mind, and dive into the transnational backgrounds and experiences of the artists in the briefest way possible, drawing out some bigger questions for race, diaspora, and global Hip Hop culture.

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The Korean American Hip Hop scene has always intrigued me as a close-knit community of artists between East coast and West coast, and drawing connections to South Korea as well, as a transnational community of musicians, rappers, and producers. While the conversation and struggle for Asian American representation within U.S media has been ongoing for decades, a handful of Korean Americans have built their success as performing artists overseas in South Korea, becoming recognized internationally as part of the Korean music industry. As the Hallyu wave continues its global takeover of entertainment, music, food, and fashion, we are now beginning to see the influence in more mainstream spaces within the U.S. This week, I hope to draw your attention away from the face masks and k-bbq, and introduce you to a few great artists, who carry a great story to tell.

My general understanding of rap in South Korea is that although a lot of Korean rappers cite Wu Tang, Biggie, and other artists as their influences, Korean rap itself wasn’t widely accepted, taking multiple generations of artists since the 1990s, to introduce and re-introduce rap and Hip Hop through boy bands and girl groups, ultimately building a pathway for today’s visibility of Hip Hop culture, such as the reality-TV battle rap competition, Show Me the Money. Additionally, in K-Pop, within the mainstream pop genre, most boy bands and girl groups follow a type of formula for their group that consists of vocals and at least one rapper. And whether that rapper has a genuine connection to Hip Hop culture, or whether they are merely performing rap, is sometimes unknown. The impact of rap is obvious, and there is a conversation to be had on the topic of appropriation, but we will save that for another day!

While there are many issues within the K-Pop industry— in the U.S as well, to be honest— there are also so many gems. To provide some context, the artists below are considered successful within the South Korean music industry, bear an impact on South Korean music and pop culture, and are internationally recognized. The artists that I have chosen to highlight this week have the following commonalities:

  • the artist has roots in the U.S or North America
  • the story and the work of the artist brings up another important conversation
  • they each built their music careers from the ground up before signing or becoming a label in South Korea.

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Next to Questlove, Korean-Canadian Daniel Armand Lee AKA Tablo is one of my favorite minds in music. Tablo is an author, poet, lyricist, composer, and producer, and one third of Hip Hop group Epik High, with fellow rapper Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz. He attended Stanford University where he earned his BA and MA in English Literature within 3 and a half years, which is a great accomplishment, however, Korean netizens found it hard to believe that he finished in such short time. In 2010, web pages with up to 190,000 followers led to a full fledged case of defamation that destroyed Tablo’s personal life, which included death threats sent to his family. (Google for more to this controversy). His solo album, Fever’s End (2011) captures the chaos that he endured, and was released after this controversy, painting a deeper reflective running theme of having to hold on, pick up the pieces, and find purpose. One of his most personal songs, “Try,” uses soundbites of his daughter, Haru, babbling, and closes on a heartfelt note for hope.

His personal life was thrust back into the public eye when he was casted for a reality-TV show called Return of Superman, where dads watch their kids for 48 hours without mom. Viewers fell in love with his daughter Haru and got to see a softer side of Tablo, away from the Stanford controversy, and more of his charismatic self as a musician. His appearances also gave insight to his time in the studio with Epik High, and how Haru inherited his love for music. In this way, those few years on TV helped Tablo rebuild his relationship with the public, and to move forward.

Following this ordeal, Tablo has also openly discussed his depression, his fear of the public, and suicidal thoughts. South Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide, and it’s impossible to be a fan of any facet of Korean entertainment without seeing news of actors, musicians, and artists who committed suicide due to public pressure and depression. Personally, I find the internet culture of Korean fans and anti-fans terrifying, going so far as impacting the stocks of a record company due to something an artist said or did. That kind of pressure is impossible for artists to carry, and it begs us to question how much we dehumanize artists, or each other, as companies and keyboard warriors. For those of us who rely on the internet to promote our work, there is strategy, image, visuals, etc… and it’s endless. How much should we depend on social media and internet? What is the responsibility of the audience? Are there boundaries? What I’ve personally learned from this is that there is just no way to please everyone; Not everyone will like you, but you can work wonders with those who love you.

Since 2003, with eleven studio albums, Epik High has always been unafraid to cast criticism, address social issues, be emotional, and explore their range of sounds. They have a knack for poetic honesty and perhaps that’s why their careers have lasted this long. I witnessed their amazing stage presence, charismatic personalities, and charm, in May 2015, when Epik High performed in San Francisco at the Warfield, and despite language barriers, the group altogether rocked the house with their energy and humor. As a fan, I’ve followed Epik High on their journeys through dealing with the public, growing into fatherhood, joining and leaving labels, evolving with and through music, and playing a badass memorable concert. Here are some of my favorite Tablo collaborations with other artists, including other Korean rappers, Korean American singer Eric Nam from Atlanta, rising artist Gallant, and Joey BadA$$.

Tablo & Joey BadA$$— “Hood” (produced by Code Kunst)
This track is a straight up struggle anthem. Brought me to tears the first time I heard it.

Tablo, Eric Nam & Gallant— “Cave Me In”

Epik High— “Born Hater,” ft. Beenzino, Verbal Jint, Mino, Bobby, and B.I. The song’s inception started first with then-19-year old B.I, before it became a full track featuring some of Korea’s most prolific emcees and newest rappers to enter the industry from underground rap.

TABLO/ EPIK HIGH: YOUTUBE

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The story of Above Ordinary Music Group (AOMG) is an inspirational one, with roots going all the way back to Seattle, Washington. As the CEO of the Korean independent Hip Hop label AOMG, Jay Park first started out as a bboy in Seattle, long before embarking on his journey through the K-Pop trainee system in South Korea. He debuted in 2008 as a member of boy band, 2PM, under the JYP label. However, Park’s career as a 2PM member was cut short due to a mistranslated comment. I won’t get into this one either, so Google it if you must. In short, he was booted from 2PM, and in this case as well, the Korean internet played a huge role in the shaming of Jay Park, despite Park’s apologies and remorse. But even after this ordeal, and what seemed like the end of his career, none of this stopped him from continuing to pursue music. At this point, Park already had the training, the skills, and the experience of the industry. The ball was in his court and damn did he hustle: from starting up his own YouTube channel with viral covers, to teaming up with singer-producer Cha Cha Malone, who also shares roots in Seattle with Jay as members of AOM bboy crew. They went on to create hit after hit over the last few years, as Jay Park launched back into the Korean entertainment industry with creative collaborations, guest appearances on television, and his label, AOMG, which boasts a roster of artists topping music charts across Asia.

I don’t think anyone expected Park to bounce back after such a sour turn in his career, however his hustle speaks for itself. Now CEO of his own labels, nurturing and growing some of South Korea’s most talented rappers, judging on Asia’s Got Talent, and recently signing to Roc Nation, I daresay Jay Park barely “follows” Jin as the second Asian American artist to get signed to a major label; while Jin’s career was a milestone for Asian Americans in rap, Park makes formidable history as an Asian American artist to get signed to a major label while running one of the most successful independent Hip Hop labels overseas in Korea. As far as the global market goes, there’s no one else who has a firm footing in both Asia and the U.S. So for folks who question whether Jay Park is too K-Pop for American rap, or too American for Korea, it’s these blurred lines that give Jay Park his advantage— why choose when you embody both?

Jay Park — “So Good”
One of my favorite Jay Park x Cha Cha tracks, with heavy Michael Jackson vibes:

Over the last few days, Park was recently criticized on Asian American Twitter, for “giving a pass” to Lil Pump who made racist anti-Asian statements. Park isn’t the most active or well-versed when it comes to politics and he has never tried to come off as such. Like his unapologetic personality, Park didn’t give much of a stance on the subject, except that Lil Pump has much to learn ahead of him. Herein lies the question of responsibility— whether or not we expect or require all artists who are Asian Americans to defend and advocate for Asian Americans. The year 2018 marked the return of nazism, and at the same time was a pivotal year for Asian Americans in U.S entertainment, where people took to social media to participate in both topics whether to debate, denounce, or celebrate. In this storm of politicized social media activities, when it comes to artists and musicians with a platform, there is an expectation to speak up, because silence is equally deafening. With Jay Park’s position in the U.S music industry, is it now his responsibility to call out racist rhetoric?

Yes and No. While Jay Park is a prominent Asian American figure in the music industry, we cannot prop him up to be the sole Asian American representative. While I do believe that his influence is great, and that a response with his platform to any anti-Asian racism would be impactful, I don’t believe that it’s his obligation to call out racist sh*t… it falls on ALL of us— as fans, consumers, artists, listeners, academics, whoever. As Asian Americans, we are politicized beings, and we also have a right to excuse ourselves from having to educate people on racism. So while Park didn’t set up his platform for this type of dialogue, it does beg the question of responsibilities that an artist carries, and what that means for artists to reflect the times that they live in.. IF they even believe in that idea (Nina Simone).

The allure of Jay Park is not limited to his silky smooth R&B singing, dancing, and rapping— his blunt personality, mindset as an underdog, and unmatched hustle makes him unstoppable. Having attended an AOMG concert in 2016, which was also held at the Warfield in San Francisco, there is no doubt that the synergy that we all witnessed onstage between the artists, is reflective of their work ethic as a collective label. They had killer energy and rocked the stage like they were still at day one and hungry for it. And I can’t wait to see them again.

AOMG will be in Los Angeles in January during their North American Tour! See this link for tickets.

Jay Park— “Soju” ft. 2 Chainz.
One of Jay Park’s first releases as an artist under Roc Nation:

From AOMG label, rapper LOCO and rapper-producer Gray, “No Manners,” performed with Jay Park and Ugly Duck.
Tell me this track ain’t hella hyphy though:

JAY PARK: YOUTUBE

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TIGER JK is essentially the godfather of Korean Hip Hop, and has two decades of music under his belt. Tiger JK was born in Seoul, Korea, moved to the U.S at a young age, and lived in Los Angeles until he landed a record deal in Korea. I first learned of him through his trio MFBTY (an acronym for “My Fans are Better Than Yours”), which was formed in 2013, and his label, Feel Ghood Music, through their appearance on popular Korean variety show, Running Man. Although he is regarded as an OG of over 20 years in Korean Hip Hop, his career was riddled with mismanagement and battles with greedy label executives, which led him to create his own label. He remains highly critical of the industry, and treads a hard line on not becoming a stereotypical K-pop group.

As hyper-managed “K-Pop” groups like Girls Generation and 2NE1 have begun to conquer Asia and attract Western interest, Tiger feels a mix of pride that Korean music is succeeding abroad, but somewhat rueful that it’s the kind of shellacked pop music he grew up in opposition to. “I’m not a K-Pop artist,” he said. “I embrace that it’s blowing up, I’m with it, but that music is what I used to be against. I had to play against those stereotypes.”

— August Brown, L.A Times, 2011

As I wrote my senior thesis on the intersection of Hip Hop and Asian American politics, I further learned that Tiger JK spent his teen years in Los Angeles in the 1990s, which overlapped with Sa-I-Gu, when Black and Korean communities were violently clashing.

“[Tiger JK] saw the difference between how he was treated among white and black friend groups — he’d drive peaceably in cars with Anglos, but get pulled over frequently when with his African American friends. After the ’92 riots, when tension between black and Korean communities exploded in gunshots and fires, Tiger saw hip-hop as a way to help the communities talk to each other.”

— August Brown, L.A Times, 2011

Tiger JK, then known as Drunken Tiger, also wrote a song, “Call Me Tiger,” in response to Ice Cube’s 1994 racially charged song, “Black Korea,” and although Tiger JK was still generally unknown at the time, his response is still an important mark in Hip Hop history because it is a means of discussing Hip Hop’s role in race and politics— whether we discuss by means of Hip Hop, or we discuss what’s happening within Hip Hop. Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up this track from anywhere. (If anyone has this track, please send it!)

Tiger JK — “Mantra”
Newly released, November 2018

His wife, Yoon Mirae, aka Tasha, aka QUEEN of Korean Hip Hop, is a mixed-heritage Black and Korean singer, song-writer, and emcee from Texas, and has an endless catalog of songs, ranging from her own solo work to soundtracks for movies and dramas. For me, Yoon Mirae’s most memorable tracks are her works around acceptance as a mixed-race Korean with darker skin tones. Her songs have turned into anthems for self-love, deconstructing beauty standards and challenging cultural norms.

Yoon Mirae, aka Tasha— “Black Happiness”

Together, Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae are regarded as heavyweights of Korean Hip Hop who paved the way for the current generation of rappers on the come up now.

“Today, I can see Korean MCs communicating with American MCs and producers, and I can start to hear people copying little things like our samples or styles,” he said. “I want to win a Grammy and say ‘thank you’ in Korean.”

— Tiger JK; August Brown, L.A Times, 2011

Their musical style as MFBTY and solo artists are reminiscent of classic boom bap, 90s rap, and 2000s overlap of rap and R&B. They have stayed true to their sound and still shine amongst rising trends of trap and mainstream K-Pop. Feel Ghood is going strong, and growing, with labelmates Bizzy, and Ann One, and Junoflo, all creating soulful Hip Hop and R&B.

Tiger JK ft. RM of BTS— “Timeless”
Most recently released in November 2018, bringing it back to the classics:

MFBTY— “Angel”

TIGER JK: YOUTUBE
Source: August Brown, Interview with Tiger JK, L.A Times, 2011

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I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my fellow fans who spend their free time TRANSLATING interviews, tv shows, music videos, and songs. Without their help in breaking the language barrier, the impact of K-Pop and all Korean entertainment wouldn’t reach this far.

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I’m taking submissions for SOUNDBITES!

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