‘Planet Hip Hop:’ The evolution of Korean rap

The World

You may instantly recognize K-Pop supergroup BTS. These boy and girl bands almost always have a rapper or two in their lineup. 

Hip-hop found its footing in South Korea in the 1990s. 

Haekyung Um has written extensively about Korean pop culture. She also teaches global popular music and Asian music industries at the University of Liverpool. She joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about the evolution of hip-hop in South Korea. 

Marco Werman: So, put us in South Korea in 1992. What was going on? What was the scene like when hip-hop kind of landed in Seoul? 
Haekyung Um: Well, 1990 was a very, very dynamic period. Korea became the 10th-largest economy by the 1990s. And then also in 1990, there was the birth of a culture, of popular culture, a new generation, a youth culture, and these teenagers really embraced consumerism and Western popular culture. But at the same time, they also wanted to rebel against the established social and cultural rules. So in this context, hip-hop gained huge popularity among Korean youth.
So, hip-hop kind of grew up as South Korea rebuilt and gained that global economic muscle. There's a rapper named EPIK High, a track called “Lesson 2,” which we can listen to. Tell me about EPIK High.
EPIK High, their rap seems to be very fine and very, uh, poetically, very pleasing if you are [a] Korean speaker. So it's a quite, quite good way to learn about Korean hip-hop in many ways. In comes the rhyme and flow and then comes the lyrical content.
So, this is “Lesson 2,” from Epik High. What is the lesson here? 
[The] lesson is: What is the failing political system and the corruption of the politicians and business and everything? So they're really, really critical about everything that capitalism and democracy can offer, because usually those two things, which are meant to be always a good thing, have been abused by those who are in power.
With the explosion of K-pop in Western countries, it's really put the Korean music industry under a microscope. And Korea's music business has been active in promoting itself around the globe. Some of the reaction often is about Korean rappers and idols getting charged with appropriating other cultures, aesthetics and sounds. What is the perspective of Korean artists?
Oh, this is quite a very, very difficult question. I think there are two sides to it. One is the ongoing problem with the Korean industry, and to some extent, also there's a complacency from the artists themselves. Not all of them, but because there is a tendency of colorblindness, because they really don't see classic Western popular music that they see as American pop, rather than Black music or non-Black music, and that that really exacerbates what [can] already sometimes be quite delicate. And Korea used to pride itself as a homogeneous ethnic group or race. So the idea of a multiethnicity or a multiculturalism is kind of a new idea — new in Korea. In this context, they find that multiculturalism and differences have become kind of something which they don't really ever feel very sensitive to. But this is not justified.
So, just to conclude, I guess, with some music, what does an authentic Korean hip-hop song sound like? And do you have an example?
I was thinking about Tiger JK and RM, their collaboration. This piece is called "Timeless." So it's a quite intricate rap and Tiger K, who was first-generation, really contributed quite a lot to really establish hip-hop as we know [it]. And then RM, who is known to be a rapper, brings it to different generations. So this really makes the music really interesting, kind of a bond to bring people together. And then hip-hop is the link between these two.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: ‘Planet Hip Hop': Senegalese rappers push for social and political change

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