Keith Ape / Photo by Justin Staple
If 2014 was the year the underground Korean rap scene captured mainstream attention, 2015 was the year it grew so big that even the Pacific Ocean couldn’t contain it. As the hip-hop trend has only gotten deeper in South Korea (and more commercialized), heads from the home country of hip-hop are discovering Korean rap from the same sense of adventure that led pop fans from all over the world to K-pop. For some, the appeal is just the novelty of hearing American-style rap in a different language or the way non-native speakers bend English into new ways. But many of these tracks are just straight-up good songs that anyone can appreciate.
Rap has been present in Korean pop music for a long time now—the first Korean pop song to contain rapping, the Tom Tom Club-esque “Kim Satgat,” was released by rock musician Hong Seo-beom in 1989, and the earliest idol stars like Seo Taiji and Boys and Sechs Kies built their careers on emulating American hip-hop music of the early 90s. There have also been several rap groups who found mainstream success in the mid-2000s, like Epik High and Supreme Team, and since the debut of hip-hop boy band Big Bang in 2006, there’s been a steadily rising number of K-pop idol groups with a similar pop rap sound, like Block B (who debuted in 2011), B.A.P (2012), and BTS (2013).
Last year is when this long-bubbling interest in rap finally peaked, with the third season of Mnet’s rap competition show Show Me the Money, where rappers from all backgrounds compete under the tutelage of more well-known rappers. Unlike previous seasons that mostly flew under the public’s radar, Show Me the Money 3 became a huge hit all over the country, with songs from the show regularly ranking on the national digital charts and quotes becoming memes instantly. As a direct result, over 7,000 people auditioned for the fourth season of Show Me the Money, which aired this summer—4,000 more than the previous season. It recorded the series’ highest ratings yet, along with the show’s first number one singles.
One important thing to come out of Show Me the Money this year is Mnet’s female rapper-focused spinoff, Unpretty Rapstar. Female contestants are notoriously ill-treated on the main show, with their storylines focused primarily on looks rather than skill. Very few female Korean rappers have ever found success in the mainstream or underground scene, and even in the K-pop world, boy groups are more likely to rap than girl groups. The first season of Unpretty Rapstar aired in January, with a cast that included some rejected Show Me the Money 3 contestants, underground rappers, and an idol girl group member, who competed every episode to be featured on a track by a different guest producer. While the show focused on creating conflict between the contestants, and the guest artists and judges were primarily male, it was an instant success, and several songs from the show became top five-charting hits. However, the trend seems to be dying down as quickly as it started: The second season of the show has done much more poorly (none of its songs have charted higher than number 16), and even one of its cast members, Yezi of girl group FIESTAR, criticized the show’s producers in a freestyle during its filming.
Korean rappers aren’t just finding success at home, but overseas, and the trickle-down effect of Korean rap’s new mainstream popularity to international K-pop fans can’t be discounted. Many fans from around the world have jumped on the Korean rap bandwagon after discovering the music and artists through its gradually decreasing degrees of separation from the K-pop world. Even idols who aren’t rappers will regularly feature in hip-hop songs now, whether it’s as a stunt on a show like Unpretty Rapstar or by working with an influential producer like Primary. (With his most recent album, 2, Primary has added AOA’s Choa and BTS’s Rap Monster to his long list of collaborators.)
But some songs have become huge in the old fashioned way: going viral. It happened with the biggest Korean rap song of 2014, Illionaire Records’ “YGGR”, after a video of the song being performed at a music awards show was posted on Reddit, not only because the contrast between the rappers onstage and the audience dressed in suits is hilarious, but because the song goes hard. That similar mix of hilarity and bangability is what made a zero-budget Korean rap song called “It G Ma” blow up on Vine, which Keith Ape’s “underwater SQUAD” slogan seemed made for. (That the song was also historic for featuring both Japanese and Korean rappers is just incidental.) And Internet discovery goes both ways. Considering that Korean rap only realized what internal rhyme was in 2001, it might still be years behind musically if it weren’t for the accelerated pace of Internet discovery that allows the Cohort to hear OG Maco’s “You Guessed It” (or Illionaire to hear Rae Sremmurd) and vice versa. While most American rappers are representatives of their respective genres, some of the most prominent Korean rap albums to come out this year (from Yankie, Olltii, and Jay Park) contain multiple genres, as if they draw their musical inspiration not from the local scene but from a playlist.
Going into 2016, the question is: can the Korean rap wave keep going, or has it reached its saturation point? At home, the trend has grown so big that it might risk the music’s credibility; earlier this year, a woman wrote in to the talk show Hello Counselor about her 38-year old daughter, who had abandoned her job and her family duties to pursue her dream of being a rapper, and both veteran E-Sens and newcomer Keith Ape have openly expressed their distaste for the larger Korean rap scene in interviews (E-Sens because it’s too obsessed with money, Keith Ape because “it sucks, bad”). The poor performance of Unpretty Rapstar suggests the public is losing interest in rap as a trend, too. But even when the interest goes away, the songs still remain, and the trend that marked much of 2015. Below are six tracks that represent this boom year in Korean hip-hop.
Keith Ape feat. JayAllDay, loota, Okasian, and Kohh – “It G Ma”
It’s hard to think of a more divisive song of the year, and everything its detractors say is true: It’s SeaWorld OG Maco; the hook is a flashing GIF; Okasian sounds dead; it’s like 20 minutes long. But since the video was uploaded on January 1, “It G Ma” has carried Keith Ape and the Cohort to America to shut down New York, gotten Waka Flocka on the remix, and inspired any number of yelping, hashtag-tossing wannabes back in Seoul. If we’re talking about the year of breakout Korean rap, this list might as well end here.
Rap Monster – “Do You”
Rap Monster, the leader of boy band BTS, was one of the biggest Korean rap success stories of the year, going from journeyman idol rapper to Warren G collaborator and grabbing attention from the hip-hop community for his mixtape RM. RM is as interesting for its rhymes as for its selection of beats, chosen from the rapper’s role models: Drake, Big K.R.I.T., Run The Jewels. “Do You” is Rap Monster in peak gymnastic form, outdistancing Pharrell’s monotone rhymes on the original. It’s a standout not only of the mixtape, but of the year.
Diplo, CL, RiFF RAFF, and OG Maco – “Doctor Pepper”
2015 is when the move that K-pop watchers have been awaiting for years finally happened: CL of 2NE1 broke out on her own onto the American market, marked by this multi-artist collaboration. CL reportedly came up with the punchline hook herself while fuming with a soda can after Diplo (a longtime friend of her label, YG) was late to a session. Between this and her latest track, “Hello Bitches,” it’s clear that CL is committed to her mission on both sides of the Pacific.
Jimin – “Puss (feat. Iron)”
It’s not surprising that Unpretty Rapstar’s best-selling song is by a member of a top girl group, Jimin of AOA (who became overnight sensations last year with “Miniskirt”), but it’s also not surprising when you hear the song. It’s a honking, expletive-laden banger that doesn’t sound anything like what AOA would put out. That’s one of the best things to come out of the year’s female rapper trend: expanding on the kinds of music people think women can make.
Incredivle, Jinusean, and Tablo – “Oppa’s Car”
“Oppa’s Car” might be the stupidest song to ever come out of Show Me the Money, and that’s why its success this summer was so awesome. It’s both a punchline that will haunt Incredivle’s career forever and a fun car cruising song that picks up on the 90s rap revival that’s been happening in South Korea (see: Jinusean’s other hit of the year, Kirin’s entire career). And let’s face it: With its constant struggles over who’s the realest, the Korean hip-hop scene can get way too serious. It’s nice that a stupid, great pop song can still be a hit.
E-Sens – “The Anecdote”
This year, former Supreme Team member E-Sens became the first Korean rapper to release an album from jail, where he was being held while appealing charges for drug possession and use (He lost his appeal.) Like its title track, The Anecdote is a deeply lyrical record, full of moody, complex beats that complement the words, not the other way around, with not a single trap-influenced song on it. E-Sens has gone on record about leaving Supreme Team because he didn’t want to make popular music anymore. The Anecdote reached number one on the charts despite that, or maybe because of that.
Madeleine Lee is anxiously awaiting the Korean Ma$e. Follow her on Twitter.