Something always rubbed me the wrong way about PSY's "Gangnam Style".
Sure, the song and dance were catchy, but YouTube is full of catchy dances. PSY may be well respected in Korea, but his appeal in the US seemed to be a better-curated version of William Hung's brief popularity. We seemed to mostly be into the weird juxtaposition of a wacky Asian dude doing something that only cool black people (okay, sometimes white people) are supposed to do.
I mean, we're in a country where if you're an Asian American actor, the best gig you can get is a part in The Interview, but when it's time to book talent for Ghost In the Shell, a movie based off an anime in which the main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, that part goes to Scarlett Johansson. We still prefer our on-screen Asians as either Long Duck Dong or kung-fu laundromat owners, and Eddie Huang (who, full disclosure, has a show with VICE's food site, Munchies) has to deal with eager questions about whether he'll have chopsticks on his show. So PSY was pretty convenient—we didn't even have to pay any Americans. We realized that we could just import our wacky pan-Oriental stereotypes.
But if there is any justice in the world, PSY will not be the last Korean dude to break into the US hip-hop market.
BEHOLD, YOUR NEW KOREAN TRAP OVERLORDS:
Well, sort of. A bunch of US-based rap blogs jumped on this pretty quickly and called this track the “Korean ‘U Guessed It.’” That’s partially accurate given the sound (I’ll get into that in a moment), but calling this song “Korean” doesn’t make much sense since this track has five rappers: Keith Ape, JayAllday, Loota, Okasian, and Kohh. Only the first, second, and fourth are Korean—Loota and Kohh are Japanese.
Keith Ape might be getting most of the credit for this track, but I talked to JayAllDay, who is the mastermind behind the international collaboration. Jay wandered around a lot as a kid: He was born in Seoul, but he lived in Boston and Philadelphia for six years and Tokyo for four. He got into the rap scene in Tokyo, and he started popping up on Japanese mixtapes before he eventually returned to Korea. So when Keith Ape sent him the beat last month, Jay decided he'd call up some old friends and see if they wanted to jump on it as well.
So it's only appropriate that Jay does the first verse, and even more appropriate that the first line is bilingual:
잊지 마, 잊지 마, 우리가 이찌방（一番）
It G Ma, It G Ma, Uri ga Ichiban.
Don't forget, don't forget that we are Ichiban.
Maybe you've heard the word "Ichiban" somewhere before. It's not Korean—it's Japanese, and means “number one” or "the best."
So, if you're listening to the song and have no idea what's being said, don't feel too bad. Lots of Koreans don't really know what's going on either. When Loota and Kohh (the two Japanese rappers) show up, all bets are off. Overall, the track is about 50 percent Korean, 40 percent Japanese, and 10 percent English, so there's only a very small percentage of people that fully understand what's happening at all times.
Even if you do understand all three languages, you’re bound to get confused somewhere. I don't know a ton about Keith other than what's available on his profile on the Hilite Records label site, but everything I've seen suggests that he's a pretty weird dude. He's the same guy who somehow managed to turn Bobby Shmurda's 'Hot Nigga' into 'Hot Ninja', complete with an 8-bit vaporwave nightmare of a music video, all run through a psychedelic Netscape browser.
That look came back in "It G Ma" courtesy of Artdealer, who Keith met through another of the rappers featured in the track. But this time, they’ve traded in the psychedelics for something that looks like a No Limit album cover run through a codeine Sega Saturn.
IT'S JUST THE KOREAN “U GUESSED IT”!
Well, kind of. “I’m not a liar,” says Jay. “You can say we were inspired, but the thing is, we weren’t like ‘yo, let’s copy OG Maco’s shit!’ you feel me?”. Either way, they haven't made any effort to hide the similarities, and it's pretty obvious that Jay was hoping US rap fans would listen: The title, "It G Ma," ("Don't Forget" in Korean) is written phonetically so as to be easy to pronounce for English speakers.
But Jay and his Japanese counterparts aren't wasting time trying to pander their “Asian”-ness to Americans, either. There are no shots of Seoul cityscapes, and if you're an anime nerd looking for your next AKB 48 fix, there's nothing here for you. It looks like any other trap video, just with more Asian dudes. Everything is one long, overexposed take of a bunch of "orca ninjas going rambo" (whatever that means) in a hotel suite.
That's not to say that there aren't some little cultural hints here and there—you just have to know where to look. Jay says that at the last minute, they decided to throw in a little flavor via the universal languages of money, music, and alcohol. Kohh, a Japanese rapper, raps an extended meditation on The Blue Hearts (a Japanese 80s punk group) while he grips a can of Cass, a Korean beer—all while framed by Yen and Won symbols.
And check the bottle that Keith is waving around like it was an expensive bottle of Dom. It's not champagne—it's a cheap plastic bottle of Makgeolli, a cloudy, unfiltered Korean rice wine that until a few years ago, fashionable people wouldn't be caught dead drinking. Jay prefers to spell it "mack gully", which not only makes it easier to pronounce in English, but makes it sound about 200 percent cooler.
But by the looks of it, Jay and crew's newfound international fans don't really care where these dudes are from or what they're drinking. This track has gone big overseas purely on the merit of how absolutely insane it is. Within a week or so of the track dropping, the #itGma tag on Vine started filling up with people filming themselves turning up in the kitchen or yelling into the camera:
SO, WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?
A lot of hip-hop tracks that feature people from different languages or cultures end up trying to be a mini-"We Are The World." But there's no waxing poetic about Korean and Japanese people coming together for peace through music here. They're mostly yelling about money, clothes (one of Keith's lines is literally just him screaming "Bape" five times), and weed.
That was a little odd to me at first because if anyone could use that touchy-feely sort of track right now, it would be Japan. The recent Korean pop culture boom in Japan hasn’t done much to stem a general, decade-plus long trend of anti-Korean racism in both the mainstream and the underground. Actually, things seem to be getting worse. Over the past few years, right-wing groups have taken to marching through ethnic Korean neighborhoods in Japan, bearing signs that say "Good Koreans, and Bad Ones; Kill 'Em All." Message boards frequented by teenagers are hotbeds of anti-Korean sentiment, and while there’s no specific beef between the rap scenes of the two countries, even Japanese hip-hop occasionally gets pretty xenophobic.
So naturally, I wanted to know what Jay thought about this. I asked him a long, drawn out question about the political background of his track, which he pretty much blew off.
"We have a history behind us," he said, "but I don't give a fuck about it. I think it's better for our generation to do positive things together. It's not about a country. It's all about a person."
Or, in Kohh's (Japanese) lyrics:
Kako no hanashi, sunno dasai kara
Mukashi no koto wasurechattara ii
Talking about the past is lame so
Forget about what happened long ago!
But that doesn't mean that Jay isn't aware of what he's done. Shortly after "It G Ma" hit half a million views on YouTube, he jumped on Twitter to say that "Azn boys [in US, UK, and Europe] been hitting me up like 'yo u and yo squad r my hero. All the girls in school look at me different now'."
I hit him up to ask him about this, and he dashed off a quick response via his iPhone: "If you really think bout it, Asian sisters get mad love wherever they go, but not Asian boys. You feel me? Glad to change minds to make em see Asian guys differently with that It G Ma hit. Ha"
In retrospect, it's probably sort of dumb to ask for a specific political statement from the genre that brought us OT Genasis and Bobby Shmurda. Or maybe ignoring the racists and acting as though putting five rappers from different cultures and languages on a track together is the most natural thing in the world, is a political statement. I mean, on one side, you’ve got Korean-based Hilite Records, which is no joke—and on the other, you’ve got Kohh, who is a legitimate superstar and has been completely dominating the Japanese scene for the last year or so (VICE Japan did a documentary on him a while back). Regardless of the lyrical content of the track, rap heavyweights crossing borders in Asia like this has never happened on this scale. Jay definitely needs credit for engineering not just the "Korean 'U Guessed It'" but something historic. All we need now is for everyone to follow their lead.
And aside from the Asian situation, we’ve probably got a little to learn from this track back home. Keith, Jay and crew have managed to flip decades of our emasculating Mr. Miyagi stereotypes and break into the southern trap sphere on their own terms—all without official American connections or a deal.
Somebody get these dudes on the phone with OG Maco for a remix. They might not be able to bring world peace, but they can probably make the trap explode.
Follow Dexter Thomas on Twitter.