Seoul Man: Anderson .Paak in Korea

FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Seoul Man: Anderson .Paak in Korea

South Korea's capital is fertile ground for hip-hop and there's nobody better placed than .Paak to play the messenger.

V-Hall is located across from the Taco Bell in Seoul's Hongdae-dong ("dong," as any foreigner snickering at a map of the city inevitably discerns, means "neighborhood" in Korean). It's around the corner from a convenience store, down five stories deep in the basement of an anonymous-looking building. My friend, who was getting married nearby and was the reason for my journey across the Pacific, called it "a fire hazard of a venue." Anderson .Paak, who performed in Seoul for the first time there late last month, called it a "little-ass space." But .Paak said so in the context of making sure the crowd was enjoying every moment down there together: He just seemed thrilled to be on any stage in South Korea at all. "I've always wanted to come here," he said early in his set. "I don't know when I'm gonna be here again."

Advertisement

It must have been strange for .Paak to be playing in Seoul, especially to a crowd so enthusiastic and receptive. .Paak, whose ascent to internationally-renowned superstar rapper, singer, and drummer has occurred only in the past year or so, has deep ties to the Korean community. His mother was born in South Korea, an orphan of the Korean War adopted by American parents and raised in Compton. His wife and the mother of his child, whom he met as a student at the Music Institute of Hollywood, also hails from South Korea. He owes much of his early success in LA's underground music scene, when he was still performing under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy, to collaborations with Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead. He even lives in Koreatown, a 2.7 square mile LA dong packed with the types of bars, barbecue restaurants, and karaoke spots that can't be found many places outside of the Korean peninsula. "Slim & Healthy" chain restaurant Dr. Robbin, Tom N Toms coffee shops, and an endless supply of bulgogi and soju are all within stumbling distance. So even though .Paak has never performed in Korea before, he's been connected to and surrounded by the culture his entire life. And yet, he's simultaneously so distant from it. Korea is a relatively homogenous country, and .Paak's skin tone immediately distinguishes him from the majority. LA's Koreatown is the largest such ethnic enclave in the US, but it pales in comparison to the massive sprawl of Seoul. My friend's Korean fiancé tells me that the LA neighborhood where .Paak lives is "like 80s or 90s Korea." It's dirtier, dingier, and stuck in the past, whereas Korea itself is aggressively modern.

Advertisement

Although evidence of ancient history exists and old traditions live on, Seoul is a technologically-forward, globalist place. The split between the two Koreas is one of the last holdovers from the Cold War, and, as a result, South Korea's capitalist experimentation has been taken to extreme levels. In contrast to their northern neighbors, and even to the rest of the world, they're constantly pushing forward into the future. Coffee couldn't be found here five years ago, for example, and now there's a café on every corner. But there's no better evidence of the nation's modernity (and of the effects of globalism, in general), than a basement full of Koreans exuberantly singing together, in perfect English, "Your heart don't stand a chance!" Aside from one unreleased song, the crowd responded similarly to almost everything .Paak performed. The set list culled primarily from this year's breakthrough Malibu, and the presence of guitar, bass, keys, and a DJ in .Paak's band The Free Nationals did justice to the fullness to that album's sound. .Paak traveled back and forth to his front-of-stage kit, drumming while rapping and singing on meandering tracks like "The Season / Carry Me." He also played "Glowed Up," his contribution to Kaytranada's debut 99.9%, and a cut from his debut under his Anderson .Paak moniker, Venice. Even in the smaller confines of the club, the stage presence of his almost instantly classic Coachella set remains. He bounces around with an unending energy, like Bruno Mars without the schmaltz. He plays like it's half time at the Super Bowl, in an alternate universe where the NFL has a hip audience. He engages with the crowd, occasionally speaking to them in their own language. In Seoul, he addressed the crowd with the Korean equivalents of "Hello" and "Thank you," the only two phrases besides "dong" that I picked up on my short trip to Seoul. .Paak also shared the bill with a few local hip-hop acts. After a warm-up DJ set of funk vinyl by Soulscape, Part Time Cooks took the stage. The crowd was out for the duo, comprised of North Carolinian Saul Goode and South Africa's Black Moss. Though both members are foreign born and rap in English, they're based in Seoul and sprinkled a few Korean phrases into their music for the audience. They also brought out two guest Korean rappers, as well as Goode's North Carolinian friend Well$, for a rowdy, unexpectedly entertaining performance. Between acts, much of the crowd made the five story climb out of the venue and back to street level, where they swarmed the nearby convenience store and reemerged to sip beers, smoke cigarettes, and pass around bottles of soju. No booze is sold inside V-Hall, and when I asked the bouncer working the door if we could bring in beer from outside, he replied with a decisive "No." Then he stuck his hand inside his jacket and covered it, explaining, "Hide it." That's how we ended up with a communal bottle of soju just in time for the start of rising local luminary Beenzino's set. He raps almost entirely in Korean over throwback beats and a laid back stage presence. If his set was short, most of the audience recognized all of the songs. It's unclear whether or not his Korean fans also recognize that his name is a play on the American rapper / Source editor Benzino, but that doesn't seem to matter. Hip-hop has flourished in South Korea since the early 90s, and at this point it's so firmly established in the culture that it feels like an entirely different genre from the American one from which it was derived. It is its own scene, and that's all the country needs.

Hip-hop, both Korean and American, is pervasive throughout Seoul right now. I heard Lil' Wayne at the juice spot, Korean rap blasting at shops and restaurants, and "Gin & Juice" blaring out of one apartment window. During a stop at Seoul Community Radio Station to check out my friend The Fortune Teller's set, I heard beats being broadcast from the online station's underground studio. Not all of it translates. I tried to talk to one guy at the show wearing an In N Out T-shirt and a Compton snapback with the sticker still on it, but he either didn't understand me or found me annoying. .Paak has acknowledged the racial complexities of Koreans and their love of the kind of music he makes in the past, such as this tweet from 2012 regarding liberal use of the n-word. But those out for his V-Hall debut—with the exception, maybe, of the guy behind me who kept banging a stick against a metal plate in excitement—were respectful members of the international hip-hop and music community. Towards the end of the show, .Paak told them in Korean that he loved them, and my Korean friend laughed at his pronunciation. After the show, back up the stairs and across the street at Taco Bell, I asked an American student living Seoul in line behind me; he said he'd really only been at the show for Beenzino. I asked if he could understand Beenzino's lyrics: "No, it's too fast. But the vibe is cool." I grabbed my food and walked back out onto the street, where fans remained sipping beer and passing soju. I looked at the bright lights and the traffic of Seoul whizzing by, took a bite of my bulgogi taco. The student's response annoyed me—What's the value of an art form like rap if not the meaning behind its lyrics? Did the audience even understand the stories behind the .Paak lyrics they recited?—but it also speaks to Seoul as a whole. The city is too fast, but the vibe is cool, and it's a lot cooler now that Anderson .Paak has played here. .Paak may not know when he'll be back again, but at least he can return to Los Angeles with the experience of that night down in the basement, in the country that's informed so much of his life's path, and with fans from the place his family was born singing along. Whether they understood what they were singing, or .Paak understood what they were saying to him, is besides the point; he's an artist defined by his refusal to pick a lane, and at a set comprised of outsiders, that's precisely what helped us all feel right home.

Will Hagle is home now. Follow him on Twitter.