Korean hip hop

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Korean hip hop, also known as K-hip hop, is a subgenre of hip hop music from South Korea. It is widely considered to have originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s[1][2] and has since become increasingly popular, both in Korea and abroad.[3][4][5] In 2016, the Korea Foundation cited Korean hip hop as a new trend in the Korean Wave.[6]

In addition to music, Korea's hip hop culture includes a vibrant b-boying scene.[7][8]


Late 1980s to Early 1990s: Origins of Korean hip hop[edit]

Hip hop first emerged in Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following the end of authoritarian military rule in Korea, the loosening of state censorship of popular music in the late 1980s and the arrival of 1988 Seoul Olympics brought global musical styles like hip hop, rap, and rhythm and blues through the Korean diaspora.[9] Rock musician Hong Seo-beom's 1989 song about a 19th-century Korean poet, "Kim Sat-gat," is credited as being the first Korean pop song to contain rapping.[1][5][10]

Hyun Jin-young, a rapper who debuted the following year with the album, New Dance, is considered to be the first Korean hip hop artist.[1][11][12]

DJ DOC performing at Cyworld Dream Music Festival in 2011

The debut of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 with the song, "Nan Arayo," marked a revolution in Korean popular music. The group incorporated American-style hip hop and R&B into their music, a move that was so influential that they are considered the originators of modern K-pop, and their explosive popularity paved the way for both pop and hip hop artists in Korea.[2][13]

Other popular groups who helped spread hip hop into the Korean mainstream in the early 1990s include Deux and DJ DOC.[14][15]

Late 1990s-2010s: Mainstream popularity and underground innovation[edit]

The Korean hip hop scene grew considerably in the late 1990s and early 2000s due largely to a growing hip hop club scene and the influence of the internet.[3] While K-pop groups continued to incorporate rap into their songs, this time period also saw the emergence of pure hip hop groups, notably Drunken Tiger, "the first commercially successful true hip hop group" in Korea.[16][17] The group's single, "Good Life" topped Korean charts in 2001, despite the fact that the group was considered controversial due to the explicit nature of their songs.[18] Hip hop duo Jinusean, who were signed to former Seo Taiji and Boys member Yang Hyun-suk's new label YG Entertainment, also found mainstream success during this period with their songs "Tell Me" and "A-Yo," among others.[19][20]

In 2001, then-underground rapper Verbal Jint released his first mini-album, Modern Rhymes, which introduced an innovation to Korean hip hop: rhyming. Prior to this, Korean hip hop lacked rhyming because it was seen as too difficult due to the grammatical structure of the Korean language. Verbal Jint's method for creating rhymes was widely adopted by other artists.[21][22][23] Rap duo Garion also made an impact on the underground Korean hip hop community with their 2004 self-titled debut album, notable for being entirely in Korean.[21][24][25]

More Korean hip hop artists experienced mainstream popularity and success in the 2000s and 2010s. Dynamic Duo's 2004 album, Taxi Driver, sold over half a million copies, making it the best-selling Korean hip hop album ever at the time.[26][27] Epik High topped music charts in both Korea and Japan in the mid-2000s and reached the #1 spot on the Billboard World Albums Chart with their 2014 album, Shoebox.[28][29][30] Rap duo Leessang's album, Asura Balbalta, topped Korean charts just one hour after it was released in 2011, with every song from the album simultaneously charting in the top ten on several real-time music charts.[31]

2010s-present: Show Me The Money and international popularity[edit]

Korean hip hop's profile was again heightened in 2012 with the debut of the TV reality series, Show Me The Money. The show, which features both underground and mainstream rappers, is credited with increasing the popularity of hip hop in Korea.[4][6][32] Interest in the series has since spread abroad, with rappers who participated in the show's fourth season performing in the United States in 2015. The show also held auditions for its fifth season in Los Angeles in 2016.[4][33] In 2015, Unpretty Rapstar was released as a spin-off of Show Me the Money. This music competition focused on female rappers including Season 1 runner-up Jessi, who the following year starred in KBS 2TV Sister’s Slam Dunk. It also featured Tymee who is known to be the fastest female rapper in Korea. Other Korean hip hop artists, including the rosters of popular record labels Illionaire Records, AOMG, and Amoeba Culture, toured the United States in 2015 and 2016.[34][35][36] Epik High also held a North American tour and played U.S. music and film festival SXSW in 2015 before becoming the first major Korean group to play U.S. music festival Coachella in 2016.[37] [37] Epik High became one of the most talked about artists with #EpikHigh as one of the most used hashtags at the festival. Tablo in an interview with NBC news explains why hip hop and rap are resonating with a lot of people nowadays stating, “…rap is an art form that is very welcoming of youth culture and youth idea.” [38]

The incorporation of trap music in Korean hip hop has become a major factor to its growing success overseas. Though less popular in his native Korea, rapper Keith Ape became a viral sensation in 2015 with his song, "It G Ma."[39][40] The song is credited with helping expand Korean hip hop's audience abroad.[3][5][41] He has stated in a Complex interview, “It’s important to me to be acknowledged by the birthplace of hip-hop culture and I’m thankful for everything that’s happened. Many Western people who don’t speak Korean now know the phrase ‘It G Ma’.” The following year, Eung Freestyle (응프리스타일) performed by DPR Live, Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz, and Flowsik gained attention with the help of Youtube’s Music’s Ad Campaign.[42]

The World DJ Festival annually held in Seoul is giving more opportunities to rappers. Underground rappers who never even thought of signing with labels are considering the idea due to the promise of rising profits in the genre. [43]

In early 2017, the very first Korean Hip Hop Awards was presented by two of the largest Korean Hip Hop webzines HipHopLE and Hiphopplaya. Some of the awards included Rookie of the Year, Producer of the Year, Hip Hop Track of the Year, Hip Hop Album of the Year, and Artist of the Year. The winners being JUSTHIS, Groovy Room, BeWhy’s “Forever”, Nucksal’s The God of Small Things, and Jay Park respectively. In addition, the awards included a category showing which artists to look out for, such as Live and Mac Kidd. [44]

On July 20, 2017, Jay Park officially became part of Jay-Z’s record label Roc Nation. He posted on his Instagram account stating, “This is a win for the Town, this is a win for Korea, this is a win for Asian Americans…” [45]

In 2016, the Korea Foundation cited Korean hip hop as a new trend in the Korean Wave, the term commonly used to refer to the recent spread of Korean pop culture throughout the world.[6][46]

Fashion wise, many Korean youths prefer the hip hop taste. Hip hop, urbanwear, or streetwear usually goes hand in hand with the K-hip hop scene, now becoming mainstream. YG Entertainment, one of the biggest hip hop promoters in Korea, does a few sponsorship deals in clothing. YG artist, Jinusean's Sean started his own clothing company called MF (Majah Flavah). [47] On June 28, 2012, YG made an agreement with Cheil Industries to launch their own fashion brand catering not only to Korean teens, but also to the global fashion market. The first NONAGON store opened on September and sold out within 3 days. YG artists Bobby and B.I. also promoted the brand by wearing the clothing to SMTM3. [48]

Relationship with K-pop[edit]

In its early days, most Korean hip hop fell into a category called "rap dance," where artists mixed rapping with pop music.[1][49] There are still many K-pop artists who incorporate rap into their music, including popular groups Big Bang and Block B.[5] Some K-pop rappers, commonly known as "idol rappers," are active in the hip hop scene, including Bobby, member of boy band iKON and winner of season three of Show Me The Money, and Rap Monster, a member of boy band BTS whose 2015 mixtape was included in Spin magazine's list of the year's best hip hop albums.[50][51][52][53]

Many Korean hip hop artists have also collaborated with K-pop artists.[54][55][56] Successful collaborations include "Some," a 2014 song by Soyou of girl group Sistar, R&B singer Junggigo, and rapper Lil Boi, that was Billboard's K-pop Hot 100's longest running #1 hit of 2014;[57] "A Midsummer Night's Sweetness," a 2014 collaboration of After School's Raina and rapper San E, that topped ten Korean music charts shortly after its debut and went on to win several major year-end awards;[58][59][60][61] and "I," a 2015 song by Girls' Generation's Taeyeon featuring rapper Verbal Jint, that topped eight Korean music charts after its release.[62] Song Minho from boy group of WINNER from YG Entertainment also previously active as underground rapper as well with Zico from Block B.[63]

B-boying scene[edit]

Yoon Mi-rae and Tiger JK performing at LG Electronics' CYON B-Boy Championship 2010 finals

B-boying, also known as break dancing, was introduced to Korea in the 1980s by dance clubs in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul, which were frequented by U.S. military personnel and other foreigners.[64] But it is wasn't until 2001 that Korean b-boys received international recognition, when the dance crew Visual Shock won "best show" and fourth place at Battle of the Year, the biggest b-boy competition in the world. Korean crews went on to win either first or second place at the competition for the next several years.[65]

In 2007, the Korean Tourism Organization founded an international b-boying competition called R-16 Korea. The event, which draws tens of thousands of spectators to Seoul each year, is also highly profitable for the Korean government.[65][66] Korean hip hop artists, including Jay Park, Yoon Mi-rae, and Drunken Tiger's Tiger JK, have performed at R-16.[67]

B-boying has also experienced popularity in Korean theater, including, notably, the musical, Ballerina Who Loved a B-Boy, which premiered in Korea in 2005 with performances in other countries, including Singapore, Japan, China, Guam, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The show was still staged daily in Korea as of 2013.[68]

See also[edit]


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