Make some noise for Korean hip hop!

Written by on August 16, 2012 in Arts, Lifestyle

Korean singer/songwriter/multi-entertainer Psy’s catchy and upbeat song “Gangnam Style” has totally gone viral. The song is being blasted wherever you go in Korea (and even some places overseas, from what I’ve heard) and people are just randomly singing and dancing along; you just can’t escape it.
I’d say the success of Psy’s song lies in being different. K-pop is rather saturated with pretty boy and girl idol groups showing off their mad dance skills or crooning love ballads with wistful expressions, all the while flaunting their perfect selves quite seriously. I adore K-pop, but Psy’s song and music video was like a breath of fresh air with its sense of humor and satire, something which was rather lacking in the current K-pop scene.
However, before Psy’s song completely took over the summer, renowned interest in another musical genre had been budding on the Korean popular music scene: hip hop.
Now hip hop isn’t something completely new to Korea, on the contrary, elements of hip hop have always been in Korean pop music: rap bridges are frequently inserted in songs, K-pop idol groups will always have a “rapper” as a member or a guest rapper would be featured in a song, so on and so forth. Some K-pop songs might even be called “hip pop”, for example.

 *Photo courtesy of

Although hip hop elements had already been present in some pop artists’ work, the introduction of hip hop to Korea would most likely be attributed to the groups of the early 90s; most notably, Seo Taiji & Boys (서태지와 아이들). It is impossible to discuss the history of Korean pop music without Seo Taiji. Before Seo Taiji showed up on the music scene in 1992, Korean pop music was mostly dominated by trot music (bbongjjak), the standard love ballads and candy pop dance music. Rock and other music genres also remained mostly underground.
Seo Taiji, who had been a member of the now legendary rock band Sinawe (시나위) implemented new electronic sounds and break beats to his music, and mixed traditional Korean elements with modern sound. Along with the power break dance moves of the “Boys” Yang Hyun-suk (양현석, familiar known as Yang Gun and currently the CEO of YG Entertainment) and Lee Juno (이주노), they quickly gained huge popularity which puzzled the pop music experts of the time. After four albums and enjoying hysteria level popularity, they suddenly disbanded in 1996.
The video clip is from 1995 when fans mobbed the stage after a live performance. The clip is quite “real”, poorly shot, a bit grainy and jumpy, but you get the idea of how widely popular they were. (Also, it’s always fun to see YG perform as one of the “Boys”.)

*Video from Seotaiji official channel

Among the 1st generation Korean hip hop artists, several found mainstream fame in the ‘90s; Hyun Jin-young, Deux, DJ DOC, Uptown, Jinusean, and Cho PD all had memorable hit songs that were heavily aired. Other hip hop crews with a harder sound still remained mostly underground. Hyun Jin-young (현진영)’s 1992 song “You in my Faded Memory” (흐린 기억 속의 그대) was a megahit and is still hugely popular; even the younger generation knows the dance and I’m pretty sure he is the one who introduced the standard English chant to pump up the crowd with his, “Hyun Jin-young go, Jin-young go!” Unfortunately, he does not have an official video channel. Neither does Cho PD. To introduce some artists of this era who do have official video channels:

DEUX (듀스)
The duo was created in 1993. Lee Hyun-do and Kim Sung-jae started out as backup dancers but were very talented artists. They wrote their own rap and composed their own songs, created their own choreography. Kim Sung-jae tragically died in a controversial accident in 1995 while Lee kept on with his music career as a successful producer and songwriter

Break off the Yoke (굴레를 벗어나, 1995)

*Music video from official MBC K-pop channel

The trio of Kim Chang Ryul (김창렬), Lee Haneul (이하늘) and Jung Jae Yong (정재용) are fondly called “The Rascals” (악동들) of Korean popular music. Full of mischief and with an attitude like kids, they debuted in 1994 and had a selection of hits, but their pinnacle of popularity was in 2000 with the song “Run to You”, which has since become the “absolutely must sing” song at a noraebang (노래방, singing room). Honestly, it’s not a true noraebang experience unless someone sings this. Although I have a sneaking feeling that “Gangnam Style” is the new “Run to You”.

Run to You (런투유, 2000)

*Music video from official MBC K-pop channel

Uptown (업타운)
Personally, they were my favorite group back then; I used to go to their concerts whenever I had the chance. Armed with incredible rap skills, they started as a 4 member crew in 1997 with none other than Yoon Mi-rae (윤미래) as their only female member. Due to various unfortunate circumstances, they went through several member changes – Yoon also left in 2000 – and although albums were released with new members until 2010, the group never quite got back their original oomph.

Back to Me (다시 만나줘, 1997)

*Music video from official MBC K-pop channel

Jinusean (지누션)
The duo of Kim Jin-woo (김진우) and Noh Seung-hwan(노승환) were put together by YG Entertainment in 1997. Jinu was a solo artist and Sean had been a backup dancer for Seo Taiji & Boys. After moderate success with four albums, their last being in 2004, they have been hinting at a possible comeback lately. Sean seems to be known more these days as the Korean celebrity super dad and his charity work. Their 1999 remake of the famous Bee Gees song “How Deep is Your Love” was hugely popular, although now when you look at it, it’s hard not to giggle at Sean’s hair.

How Deep is Your Love (1999)

*Music video from official YG Entertainment channel

1TYM (원타임)
Jinsean laid the foundation for another YG group: 1TYM. (Pronounced “one time”.) The four member group composed of Teddy (테디), Oh Jin-hwan (오진환), Song Baek (송백), and Danny (대니) released their first album in 1998. They released their fifth album in 2005 and have been on temporary hiatus ever since, much to the dismay of their many fans.

One Time for Your Mind (1998)

*Music video from official YG Entertainment channel

The following generation of Korean hip hop artists – although we’re talking about only several years of difference – move in “crews”, “movements” and “families”. Several artists with similar philosophies and tastes in music came together to create new sounds and beats; the Korean hip hop scene began to truly develop and diversify.
Drunken Tiger, “T” Yoon Mi-rae, CB Mass, Dynamic Duo, LeeSsang, MC Sniper, Epik High, Verbal Jint, and Double K are familiar names.

Drunken Tiger aka Tiger JK (드렁큰 타이거, 타이거 JK)
Also known as Yoon Mi-rae’s husband. One half of the Korean power hip hop couple. Drunken Tiger was the name of the project group led by Tiger JK. Members were flexible for each project although DJ Shine was the steady member of the group until he left in 2005. Tiger JK is also the leader of the “Movement” hip hop crew which boasts heavy hip hop groups such as Dynamic Duo, Epik High, LeeSsang, Double K, and of course, Yoon Mi-rae.
Tiger JK’s music is greatly revered by his peers. Hip hop is said to be in his essence; he was rapping and creating music since the early ‘90s; spending his youth in Los Angeles and having witnessed the riots first hand, his music naturally contained a lot of social messages and the personal trials they had to face with racism. The “Tiger” moniker is said to have solidified when JK rapped his heart out with the song “Call me Tiger”.
Drunken Tiger has continuously released albums sinced the first official album in 1999, although it’s now just Tiger JK. He has received many awards, including “Album of the Year” in 2010. His last album was in 2009 but it’s still garnering popularity worldwide.

Superfine “Get out of the Way” (비켜가, 2009)

*Music video from Drunken Tiger’s official channel

Yoon Mi-rae “T” (윤미래)

American born Yoon Mi-rae, aka “Baby T”, “Tasha”, original member of Uptown, and the other half of Korea’s power hip hop couple is the best Korean female hip hop artist there is. Let’s face it, the girl can rap. And sing. She’s brilliant, period. MTV has even put her on their 12 Best Female Emcees list.
After Uptown disbanded in 2000, she launched her solo career and got good reviews from her first solo album “As Time Goes By” in 2001. Her last album in 2007 was simply titled “Yoonmirae”. Although a full album hasn’t been released since then, she has been continuously working on music projects, releasing digital singles in 2009 and 2011. Both Yoon Mi-rae and Tiger JK are looking into planning to break into the international music market.
The following music video is for her 2011 single: not only is her rapping great and the music great, the Kill Bill-esque imagery is also quite striking.

Get It In – Featuring Tiger JK and Jung In (2011)

*Music video from CJ E&M’s official channel

CB Mass (CB 매스)
“Critical Brain Mass”. Although their first album was released in 2000, the hip hop trio had been together since 1997: Curbin (커빈), Choija(최자), and Gaeko(개코). They had a unique sense of rhyme and beat in their rap and were fairly popular. The group fell apart in 2003 when a scandal broke out regarding Curbin and his management of the group’s finances. After the falling out, members Choija and Gaeko created the new group “Dynamic Duo”. By the way, Psy definitely isn’t the first one to mention Gangnam (the affluent, ritzy district of Seoul) in his music: listen to CB Mass rap about “the ghetto in the middle of Gangnam”.

Once around the Neighborhood (동네 한바퀴, 2003)

*Music video from official MBC K-pop channel

Dynamic Duo (다이나믹 듀오)
A more apt name cannot be put to this duo, for they have been diligently releasing albums and digital singles ever since they started with their new group name in 2004. Recipient of many hip hop music awards, they have an approachable, friendly quality to their music without lacking serious meaning. They also seem to be friends with everybody in the music industry – they’re just a couple of really good guys making really fun music.

Without You (거기서 거기, 2012)

*Music video from CJ E&M’s official channel

LeeSsang (리쌍)
Another “Movement” crew member. These days, the members of LeeSsang may be more known for their variety show appearances: Gil(길) in “Infinity Challenge” and Gary(개리) in “Running Man”, but they’re truly hip hop musicians at heart. Both were working with others until getting together and released their first album in 2002. Although LeeSsang is officially a duo, their guest female vocalists have always played a prominent role in their songs. Jung In (정인) and Ali (알리) both have contributed with their unique voices to create a harmonious balance with the groove and rap of the other two. Their live performances are always on point, and they really know how to work a crowd.

Can’t Breakup Girl, Can’t Breakaway Boy – Featuring Jung In
(헤어지지 못하는 여자, 떠나가지 못하는 남자, 2009)

*Music video from official LeeSsang channel

MC Sniper (MC 스나이퍼)
A member of the “Buddha Baby” crew, MC Sniper was rapping his way underground before surfacing with a successful first album in 2002. He first got noticed by his sharp and observant lyrics dealing with social issues which earned him the nickname “Bard of Hip Hop”. Not only has he been steadily releasing his own albums and digital singles, he has put in most of his skills into producing for the other groups in the “Buddha Baby” crew. I still listen to this song whenever I’m feeling blue on a Sunday. His rapping is awesome.

Gloomy Sunday (2004)

*Music video from official SNIPERSOUND channel

Epik High (에픽하이)
Another prominent member of the “Movement” crew. The trio of Tablo(타블로), Mithra Jin (미쓰라진), DJ Tukutz (DJ투커츠) was formed in 2002. You can write a whole thesis about Epik High, but to keep this brief: they deal with pretty serious issues in their music and their songs are said to be like modern musical poetry. Although they started out with a slow debut album, their following albums in 2005 “Swan Songs”, 2007 “Remapping the Human Soul”, and 2008 “Pieces, Part One” received many awards and accolades. Their 2009 album “Map the Soul” was a “book album”; the CD came with a book written by Tablo, who is a gifted writer. The group has been on a break from making music while the members go through their mandatory military service. Tablo suffered much from the public eye during this period due to no fault of his own; this can be noted in his 2011 single “Airbag”. It’s not available at the official channel, so look it up and have a listen. The lyrics really hit hard.
The following is from the 2008 mini-album “Lovescream”.

One Minute One Second – Featuring Taru (1분 1초, 2008)

*Music video from CJ E&M official channel

Verbal Jint (버벌진트)
Verbal Jint, as his name implies, is a master storyteller. He carries the nickname “King of Flow” and this shows in his lyrics and delivery, which tend to follow no particular rules. He has been continuously releasing EPs and LPs and digital singles since 2001 and mostly worked on collaborative projects with other artists as a producer. He is also a sought after voice actor and has lent his voice to many TV commercials. His direct character has caused some rifts in the hip hop community in the past and he’s been criticized of having an attitude at times, but many say this is just a counter-reaction to his confident demeanor. The following is his most recent release:

You Deserve Better – Featuring Sanches of Phantom (충분히 예뻐, 2012)

*Music video from Brand New Music official channel

Outsider (아웃사이더)
The next generation. A member of “Buddha Baby” crew. The fastest Korean rapper. I don’t think anyone will take his crown for a while. What’s incredible about Outsider is that his enunciation and diction doesn’t suffer for his speed. You can hear clearly what he’s saying, he doesn’t mumble, he’s telling you what he needs to say.
Coming from a musical family background, he has been creating music and performing since young. His first EP was released in 2004, and in 2006 his album fittingly titled “Speed Star” received much attention. He has been frequently featured in other artist’s works as well. His last album was released in 2012 and he is currently doing his mandatory military service. Check out the speed of his rapping here:

Alone (외톨이, 2009)

*Music video from official SNIPERSOUND channel

To take a look at the handful of hip hop artists I’ve just mentioned, you might get the impression that Korean hip hop is thriving as strong as K-pop, but it’s definitely not. To say K-hip hop has gone mainstream would be a long shot. The majority of Korean hip hop artists are still quite underground. Perhaps going mainstream itself would be contrary to the “true” hip hop spirit; I’m not an artist, so I wouldn’t know. But as a fan – I’m totally writing this from a fan’s point of view – I am always glad when hip hop artists get more exposure. I’m happy when more people enjoy the music that I do; the more, the merrier. Going mainstream doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, in my opinion. However, for hip hop to reach a wider audience, they need a wider arena to play in. I always wished TV producers would take that chance. Fortunately this year, someone did take that chance.

A recent TV audition show called Show Me the Money” gave hip hop artists that chance. The show created a buzz by being all about hip hop and rap. It was unique, very different from the many music audition and survival shows which were being broadcast. The show paired hip hop groups with newbie rapper contestants and had them compete against one another, dropping a pair of one group and one rapper each week, survival style. For those familiar with hip hop in Korea, it was a very welcome chance to see the hip hop artists on national television; for those who were not, it gave them a chance to get a taste of what they were missing.
The show featured hip hop groups Garion, Miryo, Verbal Jint, Hoony Hoon, Joosuc, Double K, 45 rpm, and MC Sniper. To elaborate on a few not already mentioned:

Garion (가리온)
Garion is actually a duo from the 1st generation of Korean hip hop. It just happened that they didn’t go mainstream; they were one of the leaders of the Korean underground hip hop scene. MC Meta (MC메타) and Nachal(나찰) got together in 1998 and have worked on and off with several others during the years. Mostly focusing on live performances and lending their talents to collaboration projects, they finally released their self-titled first album in 2004.
“Garion” is actually the name of a legendary white horse with a black mane that lives in Baekdu Mountain, the northernmost mountain in Korea. As their name signifies, they aim to create true Korean hip hop and are known to avoid using English in their rap. Straightforward, sometimes raw, always innovative; their energy and dedication seems to make them the group to whom the most hardcore hip hop fans flock.
The following is one of their live performances on the show with the newbie rapper Iltong (the one not in red). The song was originally featured on their 2012 album but the lyrics were changed by Iltong for the competition.

Top priority (영순위, 2012)

*Music video from Mnet official channel

Double K (더블 K)
A member of the “Movement” crew, Double K (“Killa Korean”) is mostly known as the featured artist you want on your album. He has worked with almost everyone in Korean hip hop although he has only released two albums of his own; once in 2004 and the latest in 2010. He is known to be quite the versatile artist and has quite the fan base. The TV show gave him a chance to show new listeners his songwriting skills, such as the moving song he performed with the newbie rapper Gwon Hyeok-woo (in the baseball cap).

Home – Featuring Jinsil of Mad Soul Child (2012)

*Music video from Mnet official channel

So there you go. I am hoping for a second season of the show, because I know that there surely are some awesome hip hop groups who are yet to be discovered. I know for certain that interest in hip hop has increased a bit here in Korea and I’m hoping that interest would spread internationally, like K-pop did.
And I am also aware that I didn’t mention everyone – it’s impossible. If I have left out your favorite, please forgive me. If you’re curious about the other hip hop artists on the show I didn’t mention, check out the official site:
Happy listening!

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul