Hip-hop is a ubiquitous genre of music that has permeated cultures worldwide, and South Korea was no exception.
South Korea can boast a booming music industry, and the most recognizable example is probably PSY’s Gangnam Style, which hit almost 2.5 billion views as YouTube’s most watched video of all time. It’s also a great example to refer to because PSY’s style of singing in the song can arguably be said to be very heavily influenced by a unique blend of rap and K-pop.
But as we begin to understand the connection that Koreans have with hip-hop — especially amongst Korean-Americans in Atlanta today — we may begin to see that there is more to it than just mere preference, and a correlation may start to unfold that reveals a complex relationship indicating a socioeconomic trend behind our taste in music.
However, to explain that relationship, we need to understand hip-hop a little deeper.
The Origins of Hip-Hop
It is without a doubt that hip-hop began in the Bronx in the late 60s and early 70s. There is much speculation about who it was that truly fathered it, but it may do better to see it as a collaborative effort rather than the motive of a single person, which gives an insight into what hip-hop was truly meant to accomplish. The story, however, would be severely lacking if it didn’t include Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc.
At the time, the only way to get exposure in the music sphere was to simply perform, and so block parties in the Bronx became a frequent undertaking for DJs to showcase their talents, as well as providing an avenue for groups of people to socialize and enjoy music together. DJ Kool Herc is largely credited for being the first to throw a block party that showcased hip-hop in its earliest form. At its onset, rap was simply improvised rhymes spoken over the percussion section of reggae hits that he would spin, and soon enough, these improvised rhymes became elongated by context and inspiration, and thus, rap began to take form.
To contrive transitions and insert frequent interjections, DJ Kool Herc was seen influencing the spinning records to produce a scratching noise. Grandmaster Flash began to explore DJ Kool Herc’s method of turntable scratches, ultimately turning it into an art form that could be improved and perfected through experimentation. In this way, records could be manipulated in the moment to introduce a certain blend of improvisation and spontaneity. Grandmaster Flash’s work, then, became the foundation for the turntablists and the distinct sound often heard in hip-hop music.
Finally, we see a culmination of what had been heavily brewing in the Bronx becoming a genre in its own right when Afrika Bambaataa began to rap over these manipulated sounds, recording his base performances for the world to hear. The unique blend of reggae influences, record scratching, and a new form of narrative-telling caught the world’s attention. This is why Forbes magazine dubbed him “the man who invented hip-hop.”
But what fueled hip-hop? Looking back, there are records that show that hip-hop was not merely about the sound of the music. It was about its content. The early 70s, when hip-hop first started taking root, was a period of unrest and political dissonance in the wake of the civil rights movement. There were groups like The Lost Poets who spoke from a place of passion and social justice, and with block parties being a crucial place for black Americans to congregate, they began to speak over music, infusing their spoken word to the beats of the percussion.
Hip-hop, then, is largely a medium for what to say as much as it is how to say it.
The black community of the post-civil rights era had much to say that were on their minds regarding the oppressed and marginalized status of their race in the late 60s and 70s, and what hip-hop did was to send the message, filled with anecdotes, ideals, and proposals, out to one another and to the world at large. Hip-hop was becoming a way of life rather than a genre of music, and it conveyed itself in all aspects of life.
This can be seen in the fact that hip-hop is not a single form of expression. Rap is one, yes, but hip-hop can be said to be comprised of three other parts, totaling four distinct elements. The other three include disc jockeying, graffiti, and breakdancing, and all four share a crucial character of counter-culture: disc jockeying took what was a relatively passive posture of listening to music into an active performance that rooted itself in the moment; rapping unfurled a narrative that was thick in the movement of the post-civil rights culture; graffiti allowed an expressive avenue all over what was otherwise a sterile canvas in urban areas; and breakdancing broke from traditional trends and steps and used all parts of the body in a hypnotizing performance.
Hip-Hop and South Korea
It wasn’t until the early 90s that the influence of hip-hop began to be apparent in pop culture in South Korea.
Some of the earliest Korean groups that incorporated hip-hop into their music were Seotaiji and Boys, Deux, and DJ DOC. The Korean language, with its syllable-oriented, individualistic characters and syntactically situated suffixes, allowed for it to translate easily into rap form via rhythm and rhyme. Over time, a largely rock and pop genre that occasionally incorporated rap in their music evolved into a hip-hop culture in its own right, and it became a norm for most groups in the Kpop scene to rap, if not exclusively, then heavily in their tracks.
And music isn’t the only sphere that hip-hop has influenced in South Korea. Breakdancing has become a phenomenon in this small country. Since 2002, when they won their first Battle of the Year, South Korea has finished in first place seven separate times at the global breakdancing competition, their more recent victory being in 2013.
And so it comes as no surprise that Korean-Americans growing up in the United States have been heavily influenced by hip-hop as well, especially in the city of Atlanta that brought to the world its own brand of sound.
Hip-Hop in Atlanta
Atlanta can claim its own distinct sound of hip-hop.
Atlanta saw many artists begin to evolve soul into the hip-hop form, but it wasn’t until Outkast began taking the stage in the early 90s that Atlanta could boast of a concretely definitive sound that had substantially infiltrated the music industry. Outkast is from Decatur, located to the immediate east of downtown Atlanta, but there were many other artists from other parts of the metro area. One prominent name is S.W.A.T.S. (Southwest Atlanta Too Strong) which included Goodie Mob, who hailed from College Park and East Point — located southwest of the city — and whose lyrics aimed to change the identity of southern black Americans in a new age.
Following the newly founded path, producers like Lil Jon began to perpetuate a distinctly southern sound, often described to be “dirty,” broaching “upbeat, exuberant, club-friendly tunes and simplistic, heavily rhythmic lyrical delivery." Amidst other artists such as Ludacris, T.I., Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and many more, Atlanta has become a hub for hip-hop and rap, and it’s something that the city is rather proud of for its prolific and popular production of music.
Hip-Hop and the Korean-American Community
So this is the context within which the Korean community grew in Atlanta. Growing alongside a genre of music — or rather, a community of people who produced such a genre — has had lasting impacts on the young generation who observed the setting that so widely differed from their immigrant context.
The voices of the Korean-American can be said to gravitate towards hip-hop due to its unfiltered nature. The first artists of hip-hop used the medium to speak without hindrance, and it has afforded a new avenue for artists today. Paul Choi, also known as Pass and is one of three in an Atlanta-based group called The Yellow Boyz — the name arguably turning what can be considered a derogatory description into a self-designating appellation — pursued hip-hop as a passion largely “because it is uncensored… It can be serious, sad, boasting, whatever you feel at the moment.”
Thus, this uncensored nature of hip-hop allows for a certain type of voice. It goes without saying that the far reach of hip-hop is more than just musically appreciated; it is often appropriated for a message. Hip-hop accomplishes something that other genres simply can’t in terms of its scope. Danny Eun, an Atlanta Korean-American and no stranger to the studio and the production of music, says that “on a very fundamental, basic level, hip-hop allows more words to be used,” allowing for specific, tailored messages to be put across through music. He goes on to note that “[hip-hop] accomplishes voicing a segment of America that was unheard of and uncared for at all.”
And that is its essence. Andy Shin, also known as his stage name Akademikz, shares that “hip-hop is the perfect expression of pain and realness. This is why hip-hop appeals to people so much. The hip-hop art form is blunt… People want something to relate to and hip-hop makes it easy.” His songs even reflect this unadulterated expression of his struggles, giving voice to the tension he feels when finding himself at the threshold between cultures and expectations.
However, hip-hop does more than just carry a message — it speaks, but it speaks uniquely. Jennifer Chung, YouTube personality and singer, says that “I think hip hop appeals to some groups of people over others for various different reasons; the top two being 1) able to identify with the context of the rapper's words or 2) the production of the music. For the dance community especially, hip hop has the ability to convey different tones and energy through production alone.”
And over time, it should be noted that hip-hop is as much a culture as it is a genre. People are influenced by it — at its core — through other people, therefore making relationship through music. Edward Sun, a local hip-hop artist who goes by the name Kaptivated, is a Chinese-American, but his music reaches to a broad Asian audience, including Koreans. Regarding his pursuit of hip-hop, he represents this intergenerational relay of culture: “My older brother listened to a ton of hip hop growing up, so it was the only genre of music I was exposed to as a young teenager… After enough time listening to these artists (among many more), I eventually started pursuing hip hop as creative expression.” His pursuit has been deeply influenced by his Christian faith, and it is one more way hip-hop has paved the way for the expressions of passions, including religious convictions.
But the question remains whether the hip-hop phenomenon is a deeply rooted one in the Korean-American community in the Atlanta area. According to the U.S. 2010 census, Georgia is home to some 52,000 Koreans, almost doubled from about 28,000 in 2000. Korean-Americans today are most heavily found in the city of Duluth, about twenty-five miles north of the capital, where they make up about 30% of its population, but they are also found in other affluent areas such as Johns Creek, which has been ranked 3rd in the top fifty places to live in the U.S.
Hip-hop may have been an attractive medium early on, perhaps up to about a decade ago when Korean-Americans channeled their immigrant struggles, but lately, the Asian-American population has put on the image of the model minority. An anecdotal experience is when a local church of the Duluth area held their annual talent show to raise money, and most of their participants into the late 2000s either rapped or showcased a hip-hop choreography. Beginning in 2011, however, a strange trend began to emerge as all of their contestants suddenly changed genres, almost all of them singing over acoustic guitar. Most notable at a glance, their style of dress had changed from large shirts and heavy jeans to more fitting, conservative styles.
It may very well be that hip-hop, when seen from its beginning in counter-cultural and post-civil rights roots, inherently speaks to and is spoken from a place of struggle in the margins of society. Thus, early Korean-American youths of immigrant parents in Atlanta may have found a deep connection to the music and the inner conflict they felt being in between cultures. However, with the rise in affluence and prosperity in the Korean community — an accolade certainly worthy of praise considering many of the previous generation’s immigrant status — could the shift in socioeconomic circumstance have influenced the incoming generation of Korean-Americans and their taste in music?
John Song, a native Atlanta Korean-American, as well as rapper, songwriter, and producer of many years, has noted the changes in the recent generation. “Over the years, hip-hop has propelled itself into popular culture and has become a standard influence for most pop music. I think the interest in hip-hop as a creative outlet has definitely become less popular with the emergence of EDM and electronic music,” he says. He’s watched the industry evolve firsthand, and he believes that ultimately “whatever market in music that makes the most money will dictate the influence in culture and their respective creators.” Still, this hasn’t hindered his taste, and he believes in the artistic expression of hip-hop, continuing to create music in the genre.
Whether or not this is the case, hip-hop is evidently bigger than any single struggle or race, and so it will continue to give voice to the marginalized, telling narratives of struggles and victories through a distinct sound. And, as for the Korean-American community, though there may arguably be less involvement in the production of it, David Song, a local Atlanta producer, aptly puts it:
“Everyone I know loves hip-hop.”