Understanding Asian Hip Hop 101

Listen to our playlist inspired by Asian hip hop here.

Hip-hop has always had a complicated relationship with the commercial. It’s the eternal question: to be or to sell out, to staunchly hold on to authenticity or to bask in all the grandeur, the braggadocio, the utter chutzpah of the genre’s marketability. Authenticity is rigorously challenged at every stage and iteration of rap, from actually living the life you rap to the sounds you sample (remember that one season when Drake just rapped in patois?) With other colonial influences such as dancehall, Afrobeat, and reggaeton, American rappers are forced to consider the politics of appropriation and foundation. Hip- hop is not a monolith; it comes from a diaspora. But diasporic sounds are not fodder to pick and choose from based on trends, and cycles of popularity change at rapid rates.

Enter East Asian hip-hop: an area of the world where consumerism works on warp speed. You’ve heard our stories before (or maybe you missed your compulsory 10-minute lesson on Korea and your 1-week lesson on China): Korea’s Miracle on the Han River, China’s rapid industrialization and development, the new Shanghai/Beijing billionaires (and of course, the most revolutionary work of art to be released in our lifetime: Crazy Rich Asians). Everything moves a little faster. Everything is a little more saturated. The Asian rapper not only needs to translate the movement of hip hop to another language, but they also need to convince their audience that they belong to this movement­–this is the question of authenticity for non-Black rappers. They’re consciously crafting, reshaping, and defining an entire region’s idea of a “rapper.” They’re forming another history, one that runs alongside Asia’s most popular cultural export.

Above: Girls’ Generation, one of the earlier successes of the k-pop genre: the modern prototype, if you will. Notice the matching outfits, the perfect faces, and of course, the legs.

The mechanical nature of the k-pop industrial complex is one of the many effects of the United States’ neocolonial presence in the country. We’ve been living under their imperial thumb for our nation’s entire history, and like all former and current colonies of the White West, our idea of culture operates by the essential tenet of whiteness: obsession with Black culture and violent anti-blackness. Historically, k-pop groups have recruited their designated “rappers” from the United States or abroad–Amber Liu of f(x), Jay Park of 2PM, even Lisa of Blackpink–but in a recent twist, born-and-raised Korean rappers have come back into fashion (most notably, Nam-joon from BTS). But K-pop is anything from an “original” or “authentic” Korean product; it’s still for the American (global) market, and the language of the music is not Korean, but Konglish, heavy on the English (Konglish = Korean + English). Other Asian groups have emulated this formula, signaling that their music is “universal,” a way to spread awareness, offer representation, diversify the cabal of celebrity, and all the bullshit catch-words that lazily veil an unwillingness to creatively push boundaries of hip-hop as a diasporic medium.

From top to bottom left a collage of designated rappers in their respective K-pop groups and their ethnic origins: Namjoon from BTS (born-and-raised Korean), Lisa of Blackpink (from Thailand), Amber Liu of the now-inactive group f(x) (from Los Angeles), and Jay Park, of the also inactive group 2PM (from Seattle).

Solo hip-hop artists in Asia tend to look down on idol (the term for K-pop star) rappers–this goes back to the question of authenticity, of what it really means to be a rapper. Bona fide Asian rappers tend to consider the 15-40 second rap verse on k-pop songs a simple play on pop music; though the designated rapper of any k-pop group has tended to dress a little differently in the past (shorter hair for girl groups, more chains for boy bands), their appearance does not go as far as solo rappers. Aesthetics in these circles tend to get even wilder, because the commercial appeal of rap comes not from prim-perfect beauty like in K-pop, but from camp, from grit, from chutzpah. You see Asian dudes with locks, grills, and all the cultural appropriation no-no’s any good-hearted liberal would turn their nose at. In fact, Asian hip-hop’s cringey aesthetics and appropriation led me to distance myself from the genre, seeing it as shallow, antiblack pantomime. But aesthetics form the foundations of identity; if hip-hop is a new genre, Asian hip-hop has barely entered the universe. It has no idea what it is yet. It looks for reference, but most inspiration can only be found across oceans. In the effort to find some kind of authenticity, some kind of answer to that what makes me a rapper? question, Asian rappers still seem to be looking for answers.

From top & left to right Members of the Chinese rap group Higher Brothers, G-dragon from Big Bang (yes, he is technically more in the K-pop realm but he’s been doing his own thing recently (like making dope shoes and dating Jennie, living the life), Donutman (an alum from Korea’s top reality rap show Show Me the Money), and Keith Ape

Korean hip-hop started by mixed Koreans, Koreans who grew up in places like Koreatown in Los Angeles, or Harlem in NYC. The search for a “pure” Korean hip hop started with groups like Drunken Tiger, whose debut in 1999 encapsulated the emotive tone and content of American hip hop at the time: explicit lyrics, anti-establishment views, and the amorphous vision of a “gangster.” In their song “너희가 힙합을 아느냐? (do you guys even know hip-hop?)”, Tiger JK starts out with a declaration, a promise to keep to “real music” (a rough translation of the first verse: we’re done with all this music shit that doesn’t even sound like music, we–as in hip hop­–are about to shake things up). It’s unclear if Tiger JK and DJ Shine, along with the rest of new wave Korean hip-hop, wanted to separate from the dominant forms of music of their time and find a distinctly Korean sound: this is a generation of artists born in the aftermath of the Korean war, growing up in the trauma of Japanese rule, under strict U.S. intervention and colonialism, witnessing the stark contrast between abject poverty and rapid development. The popular music scene at the time was a strange amalgamation of Korean ballads by artists like Lee Moon-Sae and foreign disco songs: while Korean music was about melody, emotion, and tragedy, Western pop was purely about the dance (and of course, promiscuity).

Drunken Tiger’s first album, titled “The Year of the Tiger,” released in 1999. Ironically, according to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 1999 was actually the year of the Rabbit.

 Korean hip-hop was meant to be something else entirely, a way to change our expectations of both artist and celebrity. Drunken Tiger explicitly refused to pander to the typical methods of popular Korean music, eschewing choreography and asserting individual, singular personas. The early Korean hip-hop artist became a foil to the industry standard of the K-pop idol: the hip-hop artist was brash, assertive, their media presence was not at all designed to appease, but to provoke. The Drunk Tiger’s very name is a statement of sorts: it takes the tiger, a recurring symbol in Korean folklore, and dirties it. Modernizes it. The name can be interpreted as commentary on the period following the war, in which ruthless U.S.-backed leaders and corrupt politicians did whatever it took to establish South Korea as a capitalist “success.” The tiger was no longer meant to symbolize the past; its future lay in drunkenness–I’m not talking about South Korea’s alcoholism issue (which is very real), but drunkenness as in overabundance, as excess. But the drunken tiger is also able to manipulate language, across borders and diasporas. In their 2005 collaboration 1945 해방,  Tiger JK and YDG, another member of the underground rap scene in the 90s who frequently worked with members of Drunken Tiger, continue to play with the limits of a truly “Korean” rap. Their first track, “음주 Rapping (취중푸념) (Drunken rap/rant)”, opens with Tiger JK and YDG playing on both the celebratory and harmful nature of this intoxication–subtly switching characters between “exhausted” and “insane,” the song is almost entirely in Korean, an exception amongst most Asian rap. While most of their music was censored and banned in the country for profanity, these early rappers continued to focus on employing rap’s rhetorical devices on Korean. They didn’t want to create carbon copies of American rappers; they wanted to push the boundaries of the “rapper.”

Drunken Tiger in the 90’s

 But is language the only standard to innovate hip hop abroad? When it comes to rap in Asia, the contradictory nature between authenticity and marketability comes to a head. In order to sell their songs, there needs to be some kind of translation, be it production or language. What does it mean to translate a culture? Korean hip hop is something of a “jjamppong” [a Korean-Chinese dish filled with mishmash of different ingredients], splitting into stylistic subcategories. Mainstream rappers like Changmo utilize T-Pain-esque autotune and a flow that makes their music sound either like a watered-down Migos track or something DJ Khaled would get his hands on, using Konglish in their verses and exaggerated Korean pronunciations, Korean spoken purposely with an American accent. Meanwhile, Tiger JK and his mentees fall under Korean underground rap, relying less on English and more on counterculture. Then there’s Korean American rap­: Keith Ape might yell “잊지마!” in Korean, but the song title reads “It G Ma”. It reads two different ways based on the spelling; the experience is different based on language: Korean is fast; English, on the other hand, likes to take its time. This might be read as the split experience of living two identities, but it’s also perfectly plausible (in fact, more likely) that the contrast between the two languages just sounds cool. Korean American rappers such as Keith Ape, Nafla, and Owen are each influenced by their own American rappers (Owen’s “Studio Junkie” is pretty much just a Future song with a sprinkle of Korean; the video might even be tribute, with all the double cups and pill bottles). In order to fit Korean verses into ideas around “hip hop,” these artists have found ways to stretch out their vowels, dull their consonants, and soften their r’s (or create an “r,” if you can; that hard “r” sound is a bit of a pariah in world linguistics)–it almost sounds like they’re slurring the words, as if to sound drunk or high. But other artists recognize that American-izing Korean isn’t the only way to innovate: more exciting subgenres are being created everyday, such as the music of BewhY, who identifies his music as “Korean neo-Christian rap” and manipulates Gregorian chants to form beats over almost trance-like Korean verses.

The image of all these rappers shift according to their subgenres, but drug use is typically used to supplement the more general identity of “rapper.” Hip-hop is by far the most criminalized genre of music; its policing does not stop at any borders. In Korea, where drug laws are incredibly strict, celebrities, most of them rappers, have been sent to jail as a result of drug use–Tiger JK and the members of another underground group, Uptown, did time for the use of methamphetamine in 2000. More recently, T.O.P. of the k-pop boy band Big Bang was caught on marijuana charges and was even taken to the hospital for an overdose in 2017; the list goes on and on. The real issue, however, is not just the drug usage (I mean, who cares if a k-pop idol smokes a joint?). Korean celebrities, especially Korean male celebrities, wield incredible power. In 2019, the country was horrified by what’s now known as the “Burning Sun Scandal”: a member of Big Bang, Seungri, had opened a club called “Burning Sun,” and it was not too long before allegations of sexual assault, of drugging and filming young women, and leaked messages in Kakao chat rooms (Kakao = Korean Whatsapp/WeChat/iMessage) sharing all of this illegal content. Korea has been struggling with this “molka” (hidden camera) issue for a long time, making campaigns and various efforts to change our patriarchal ideas around consent and access to one’s body. While these crimes are not directly related to American hip-hop, the hypermasculine roots of the genre, mixed with hypermasculine idea of power in Korea, have the potential to bring out some of the worst in these Korean rappers (scandals extend across Asia, as well).

Korea is not only figuring out its relationship with hip hop; it’s questioning the position of the celebrity, as well. Scandals such as Burning Sun not only point out the skewed justice system when it comes to male celebrities; they also show the incredibly vulnerable positions of anyone who is not a male celebrity in the industry. Young trainees are routinely harassed or assaulted; the structure of the k-pop industry lends itself to predators taking advantage of trainees who start out as young teengers. Hip-hop has brought an alternative to the behemoth of the k-pop machine: groups like Drunken Tiger have gone on to found their own independent labels, which are smaller and less restrictive. Aspiring rappers don’t need to start in training programs as preteens, because rap does not involve the intensive choreography, media training, and perfectionism of k-pop. And yet, rappers continue to be more targeted by the law in Asian countries; headlines of drug usage and arrests pop up frequently, while larger entertainment companies like SM and YG are able to sweep their crimes under the rug. 

Pictured here: Big Bang–my first concert ever, btw–in their early days (the aughts). While T.O.P. (far left) and G-dragon (middle) were the rappers, Taeyang, Daesung, and Seungri were the vocalists. Big Bang was supposed to represent a new wave in K-pop, with their label YG embracing a more “authentic” (meaning less plastic surgery and more “hip-hop) kind of aesthetic. While all the other members have moved on (I guess T.O.P. got in trouble for some weed), Seungri (often deemed the most “useless” member of the band) has been booked for his involvement in the Burning Sun scandal.

It is this combined element of crime and persecution–the image of the “gangster”–that gives hip-hop its revolutionary origins and potential, its authenticity. There’s no pro-law enforcement rap; not in the U.S., not in Asia, not anywhere. The best Asian hip-hop doesn’t simply copy Black rappers; it uses the structures of the genre to answer questions around essentialism, citizenship, origin, and so-called “rights.” Hip hop is storytelling; it is history. Any adaptation of it in an international context requires an understanding that this is a genre with something to say.

Cue the Higher Brothers, a Chinese rap group affiliated with the famous 88rising mass media company founded by Sean Miyasharo. I first heard Higher Brothers’ song “Made in China” as the credits rolled on an episode of Silicon Valley (following a devious Jin Yang plotline, of course), and I was hooked. There’s nothing particularly shocking or different about the production or sound of the song: it’s catchy, it’s got a hook, nice ad libs, the works. But it’s the main hook, its insistence on origin–“all made in China”–that makes the song truly great. Similar to most Korean rappers, members of Higher Brothers are primarily influenced by American rappers: 50 Cent, Lil John, Lil’ Wayne, and Ludacris. The song includes various English lyrics, but the majority of the verses are in Chinese. In the music video, the characters are subtitled at the bottom, along with lines of English underneath. The members of Higher Brothers dance around in matching red jumpsuits, play Mah-jong, perform on stage, and rap at the camera in the most Oriental room I’ve ever seen (there’s a huge fan, some bamboo, porcelain vases…everything).

As American consumers watch this video, they are simultaneously reminded of their distance and their proximity: while they may be physically in the United States, China is around, underneath, and on top of them. Way back when, in the post-WWII haze of foreign relations, Americans began to view Japan as the image of Asia-as-future; meanwhile, China was relegated as the invisible manufacturer, the worker whose labor comes cheap, fast, and does not require humane protection.

As David S. Roh writes in the revolutionary essay “Technologizing Orientalism,” “Japan creates technology, but China is the technology. In the eyes of the West, both are crucial engines of the future: Japan innovates and China manufactures.” While attitudes have certainly changed with China’s growing international power, the legacy of the invisible android Chinese assembly-line worker persists, as does Asia as future, Asia as android. Higher Brothers, 88rising, and other Asian rappers continue to push against this image through their allegiance to hip-hop aesthetics, though again, there seems to be some kind of confusion about what that means. Why does Masiwei have dreads? Why does damn near every contestant on Show Me the Money–Korea’s rap reality TV show and the starting point of many a rapper’s career–have some kind of Black hair? The emergent Asian rapper starts out on defense mode: asserting their right to be in the genre, in the country, in popular media. The hair and the blackfishing is a kind of overcompensation, a plea to be accepted into hip hop for those who are unsure of what they have to offer beyond translated J Cole songs.  The most competent Asian rappers recognize that blackfishing and appropriation only detract from the value of their art, and that their sound must be different: in Beenzino’s “Being Myself,” he raps, “어느새 뚜벅인 커서 2Pac이 돼있지 / 근데 대한민국에서 2Pac이 되기 힘든 이윤 / 총 맞을 일 없는 홍대의 safety.”

Pictured above: Beenzino with this white gf, visiting him during his military service. I don’t love his recent music, but damn is he cute.

He’s gotten big, and in Korea, maybe even as big as his idol, 2Pac. But as he says in his verse, you can’t be Tupac in Korea. Why? There’s no reason you’d ever get shot in the streets of Seoul. Hence, the moniker “Korea’s 2pac” is a kind of oxymoron. It makes no sense, and at the end of the day, Beenzino can only rap his own truth. He’s stated as such; he’s made a commitment.

(Minus the hairstyles) The Higher Brothers understand this relationship with truth and rap: “Made in China” is by no means a nationalist anthem, but it is a statement of ownership, of authenticity. The point is not to celebrate that all things are “made in China”; rather, it’s a reminder that if everything is made in China, rap can be, as well. In the video, Famous Dex is blurred out, pixelated, with captions such as: “Dexter couldn’t make it to China” and “This video is not available in your country.” By choosing to blur out the song’s link to the U.S. market, Higher Brothers establishes that this was not just rap, but Chinese rap (It’s also just a good joke about censorship/the experience of trying to access U.S. content abroad). Access is limited. That’s part of their story, and as such, that’s part of their music.

Where’s Dex?

 As a revolutionary genre, as a genre that incites action, emotion, and power, hip-hop needs to be explored to its roots whenever it takes a new shape. Like everything else in this world, Asian hip-hop wants to sell. As a close neighbor and sometimes collaborator of the most commercial, mechanical, and powerful Asian cultural export (the k-pop), Asian rappers need to tread carefully. Their genre does not, and should not, operate under the same rules as K-pop: bubblegum hooks, heavy endorsements, and formulaic looks keep consumers locked in (and it works…I could stare at Jennie’s face all day). K-pop isn’t about Korea. It’s not about anything really, other than making money. K-pop sounds and aesthetics will simply change according to whatever gets people most addicted, what sells best. There’s no ideology or baseline to it, at least not in its most modern iteration. Hip-hop is an American art form that is inherently anti-America and anti-imperialist. It is the mode and music of diaspora and decolonization. Mainstream Korean hip-hop is dangerously close to approaching K-pop’s emptiness, constantly performing a balancing act between the origins of their genre and its marketability. But as subgroups and new sounds flourish, I find myself more excited about innovations in Asian hip-hop that allow for radical Asian futures, an authenticity that is central to our story. It is a path I hope will follow in the footsteps of the recent wave of Asian authors in speculative fiction: opening worlds and questioning neocolonialism, creating worlds and personas to challenge the very label of “Asia.”

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