Meeting Yuleum for the first time, you see an average South Korean middle schooler. Sporting a bowl cut and navy crew neck sweater, the 12-year-old is shy facing visitors, speaking only a few words. His hobbies include riding his bike with friends and going over to their homes after school. But he can also seem grown-up in an instant.
He was recruited by Swings, one of the most well-known rappers in South Korea, and his current mentor is sAewoo, one of the country’s hottest hip-hop producers. With the help of these music veterans, Yuleum released his latest single “Hero’s Disease” last month, just as he was worrying about his upcoming exams.
He recorded the track inside his family’s apartment in the southwestern city of Daegu. In a small room, you can see all of Yuleum’s favorite “toys.” Instead of LEGOs and video games, there’s a computer monitor, mic, keyboard, drum pad, speakers, and an electric guitar next to a bass guitar. On a narrow shelf in one corner of the room, there are CDs of Nirvana, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and the jazz legend Pat Metheny.
“All of my friends only listen to the most popular K-pop songs, so, if I turn on some Kanye West in front of them, they all give me this weird look,” Yuleum told VICE.
Yuleum's CD collection includes Nirvana, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and Pat Metheny. Photo: David D. Lee
Kanye West is one of Yuleum’s recent discoveries on YouTube, where he has expanded his musicality over the years. He’s fascinated by how West went from The College Dropout to Yeezus, and aspires to also have “many sides as an artist.”
“All of my friends only listen to the most popular K-pop songs, so, if I turn on some Kanye West in front of them, they all give me this weird look.”
Thanks to his mother, a classical music composer, Yuleum was introduced to the YouTube channel OTHANKQ when he was 9 years old. A self-produced EDM and club music artist who uploads tutorials on how to become a producer at home, OTHANKQ’s videos taught Yuleum how to make beats on his mom’s MacBook. And through YouTube’s algorithm, Yuleum eventually discovered iconic live performances by Nirvana and other artists.
“I started imagining performing live in front of crowds before I went to sleep,” he said. “So, I would shoot music videos by myself at home.”
He likes to do things on “his own,” Yuleum said, and uploads these homemade videos on YouTube.
“I feel most comfortable when I work by myself,” he said. “I feel free and want to try new things.”
His first full-length album Masks: Side A, released last summer, has 14 tracks that he produced, wrote, played, mixed, and performed.
Yuleum with his bichon Yulmoo. Photo: David D. Lee
This originality and confidence was what made Swings and sAewoo drive down to Daegu from Seoul in the middle of the night last summer, just to meet Yuleum. He had been hyped-up on SoundCloud after hip-hop artists like Trade L (Who himself is only 17 years old) and hip-hop producer BOYCOLD gave him shoutouts online.
Shortly after, Yuleum became the newest member of Swings’ Wedaplugg Records, a hip-hop and alternative music label, joining artists like sAewoo, YUNHWAY, Jhnovr, and OLNL, all known for their mix of of hip-hop, R&B, pop, and electronica sounds.
Yuleum, the youngest member, describes his music as “hyper pop.” In a lot of his tracks, he uses the deep bass lines of hip-hop, mixes in transitions that are heavy with electronic sounds, and weaves in mostly English lyrics.
“I like to use English lyrics to give off a foreign vibe,” Yuleum said.
His influences are mostly artists from the West, but it’s the rappers in his home country who have opened up the path for young artists like him.
Yuleum practicing with the electric guitar he got from Swings. Photo: David D. Lee
A quick visit to one of the hip-hop community’s online forums will show hundreds of young South Korean rappers hoping to be discovered just like Yuleum. On Hiphopplaya’s Open Mic, youngsters upload mixtapes, covers, and beats to get feedback, spark collaborations, and, maybe, catch the eye of hip-hop labels.
This was not the case a decade ago. Although there were many kids who dreamt of becoming K-pop stars, rappers in the country did not shine so bright in the eyes of the youth. Hip-hop was associated with the underground, literally writing lyrics from the basement and living a life of financial scarcity. But one thing that they had a lot of was pride. It was seen as shameful for rappers to be associated with the K-pop world or to be on TV; they were rappers, not celebrities.
So, when Swings, a tough rapper known for his boom bap style that got him the title “Punchline King,” appeared on the second season of the hip-hop audition program Show Me the Money as a contestant, he created waves for the hip-hop community. Swings went on to finish in fourth place, but his popularity as a “monster rapper” on the show changed the rap game in South Korea. The public discovered the rawness and intensity of hip-hop with its diss battles and explicit lyrics, while rappers learned that appearing on a popular TV show doesn’t always mean selling out.
The next few seasons of the show would see more well-known rappers like C Jamm, BewhY, and even K-pop stars like iKON’s Bobby and Winner’s Mino as contestants. Meanwhile, veteran rappers like The Quiett and Paloalto appeared as judges and collaborators. Eventually, tracks produced on the show would top national charts, sometimes beating out popular K-pop groups. By 2017, Mnet, the music channel that airs Show Me the Money, had come out with a similar show called High School Rapper. Hip-hop was fast becoming the culture of South Korean youth, no longer stuck in the underground.
After appearing on Show Me the Money, Swings went on to become the CEO of three hip-hop labels, the owner of a gym franchise and, most recently, of a building in Seoul—the ultimate status symbol.
“This is the power of broadcast TV,” said Jo Keun-ae, a TV writer who worked on three seasons of Show Me the Money. “Just five years ago, we were like other Asian countries in having a negative perspective towards hip-hop. But the willingness of some of these big-name rappers to appear on an audition program in front of the public made hip-hop mainstream.”
She said that the genre is particularly attractive for young kids: “Anyone can realistically start writing their own lyrics and start making beats.”
Like Yuleum, Im Kun-woo started playing around with his own beats when he was still in school. Now, the 18-year-old spends around 12 hours every day in a rented studio in Ilsan, a city northwest of Seoul, working on his debut album set to release in the summer.
Sitting on the fifth floor of a commercial building that houses various businesses including a massage parlor, comic book store, and motel, his recording booth is one of many in a studio rental establishment. His room is just big enough for two people to sit down comfortably—a desk with a computer monitor, small keyboard, dual speakers, and a mic occupy most of the space.
Im Kun-woo spends around 12 hours every day in a rented studio. Photo: David D. Lee
“My goal right now is to receive a Best New Artist award,” he told VICE. “I’m going to be promoting my album like crazy after it’s released.”
He started sampling beats at the age of 16 and eventually gathered enough courage to DM Qim Isle, a well-respected rapper in the indie hip-hop scene, and asked for mentorship. Qim Isle has taught him how to broaden his music taste and hooked him up with the record distribution company that will produce his first album. Im worked on the album’s 15 tracks for around two years, switching from trap to more hardcore rap in between tracks.
“I’m actually more into house music and funk these days,” Im said. “I think hip-hop is a good entry way for many artists as its beats and arrangements are quite simple.”
Like Yuleum, Im’s parents are also artists by profession. Im’s parents are painters and are now his biggest investors. They play the role of manager, giving feedback about his music. They also allowed him to keep a college education on the back burner, at least for now. This is rare in a country where degrees are given much importance, and where around 70 percent of eligible students are known to enroll to university every year.
Im Kun-woo with his friends in their hometown of Ilsan. They all dream of becoming the next big rapper or producer. Photo: David D. Lee
In the past, it would have been unheard of for parents to allow their children to forego education for a music career. Now, young rappers like Im and Yuleum are gaining recognition for their work. Some even call Yuleum a “genius” for making music at such a young age. He has somewhat figured out that this is a privilege, when many people his age, or even much older, are still trying to find their path in life.
“More than becoming famous, I just want to be an artist who always does what he feels like and doesn’t have to become pressured by somebody else.”
“Whenever I see an online comment that calls me a ‘genius,’ it makes me feel good,” Yuleum said. “But more than becoming famous, I just want to be an artist who always does what he feels like and doesn’t have to become pressured by somebody else.”
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