Part of what makes Korean popular music so interesting is its bringing together of various cultures and musical traditions. Primarily, K-pop borrows sounds and styles from Japanese pop and Western pop, along with their own Korean musical heritage, and while this often makes for eclectic, idiosyncratic music, it also raises red flags for those concerned with authenticity in music. This is especially the case in hip-hop, where authenticity is perceived to be of paramount importance. But the history of hip-hop in South Korea is fascinating in that many of its founding figures grew up in America during hip-hop’s golden years before bringing the style back to the Eastern Hemisphere.
Tiger JK was born Seo Jung-kwon in Seoul, South Korea, but was moved to the United States when he was 12. As a teenager in Los Angeles, Jung-kwon witnessed the 1992 Rodney King riots, which largely targeted the Korean-American community in Los Angeles. Still, he felt part of the hip-hop community. “I grew up on it. I’m not trying to come off like I grew up in the hood, [but] back in the day if you met someone else who was into hip-hop it was like an instant bond. It was something like a secret. It was something bad.”
While attending community college in Santa Monica, Jung-kwon and his friends became more involved in the hip-hop scene. “In the auditorium they would have open mics and shows. I saw Tupac before he really became a star. [I saw] The Black Moon, Artifacts, great artists. We grew up seeing these guys performing in person and we were part of this culture. I think it kind of shaped my style or my definition of hip-hop.” Though he didn’t initially have aspirations of becoming a rapper himself, JK found himself forced into cypher circles and grabbing the mic at parties. He realized how at home he felt in hip-hop. “Growing up Korean-American or Asian-American, there are a lot of stereotypes: we’re safe, we’re good at math, we do this and that, or whatever. But what really got me about hip-hop was that you could be yourself.”
By the late ’90s, Tiger JK along with fellow Korean-American DJ Shine, debuted the duo Drunken Tiger and effectively brought “authentic” Western hip-hop to South Korea. Throughout the ’90s, hip-hop had been gaining popularity in South Korea, but it was often expressed in tandem with more mainstream pop music, as in the case of Seo Taiji and The Boys. Drunken Tiger’s debut album Year Of The Tiger managed to bring the values of underground Western hip-hop, including socially conscious and provocative lyrics, into the mainstream.
Yoon Mi-rae, another early innovator of Korean hip-hop, comes from a similar background.
Born Natasha Reid — and often called Tasha in her music career — was raised in Fort Hood, Texas by a Korean mother and an African American father. Her dad was in the U.S. military, but was also a DJ in his free time. “I just grew up listening to it,” she remembers. “Not just hip-hop but R&B and jazz and pop.” Her love of music grew while bonding with her father. “One day we were watching music videos together and Slick Rick came on and I just lost my mind. To this day if you ask me what artist I want to work with I always name Slick Rick.” After she was signed as a vocalist, a producer asked her if she wanted to rap on a song. “I didn’t consider myself an emcee. The producer at the time said, ‘We have this track and I think it would be dope if a female dropped a verse on it. Would you like to give it a try?’ I gave it a try and fell in love and I’ve been hooked ever since.” First as a member of the group Tashannie and then as a solo artist, Yoon Mi-rae pushed boundaries in Korean hip-hop while emphasizing her American and mixed-racial background.
Though she’s careful to specify that what she and artists like Tiger JK were doing wasn’t better than the work of other Korean rappers, “[It was] Western music that we were, listening to and trying to put our style into what we thought Western music should be like.” Her and JK, now married with a son, stress that the authenticity of their music comes from representing who they are and how they grew up, not from a specifically “Western” style.
Well over a decade into their career, however, who they are has changed. Together with fellow internationally-bred emcee Bizzy, who was born in New Zealand and spent much of his time growing up in Washing D.C., the couple have released their first album under the name MFBTY (My Fans Better Than Yours). Rather than the straight hip-hop and R&B style that the three artists have produced together or separately throughout their careers, Wondaland is a fun, eclectic album. Yoon Mi-rae explains, “I don’t want to come across as if we didn’t care what the fans wanted, but we wanted to focus more on having fun making music and not put ourselves in a box as to what we thought the fans wanted to hear or what we thought was gonna sell more albums. I think that’s why we ended up with so many different genres and so many different sounds on this album. We wanted to think outside the box. At the end of the day, regardless of record sales, we can look back and say, ‘We had a really good time, we’re proud of the album, we love it.'”
The resulting album shows influences from pop, R&B, and hip-hop along with rock ballads and Hindustani music. The lead single, “Bang Diggy Bang Bang” prominently features the latter. The song features samples of Hindustani music that Tiger JK was sent by the brother of their road manager, who lives in India. “I stumbled onto some Konnakol, the Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally, almost like scat singing. I got hooked right away when I heard that. What got me really intrigued is that I found words that were similar to Korean, and it made perfect sense. [I heard phrases that mean] “bob your head” and “jump around.” So we just took the part that sounded Korean and started it from there.” Layered on the Konnakol and tabla drumming samples are live drums and extra percussion, as well as sitar, which reminds JK of the traditional Korean instrument the gayageum. The chorus adds heavier electronic drums, referenced by Tasha in the hook: “Here come that bass, that 808.”
While making Wondaland, this kind of collaboration was key. The exciting sonic palette emerged from the coming together of these personalities: the three members along with many other collaborators. Tiger JK describes, “We all shape and mold our sound a different way and when we collided, when we actually met, something different came out.” On the dynamic of working with a married couple, Bizzy quips, “I’m looking for a fourth wheel right now.” But JK is quick to defend Bizzy’s integral role in the creative process: “In interviews he tries to come off mysterious and quiet, but don’t let him fool you. He’s our fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh wheel.”
Being parents, though, has affected Yoon Mi-rae and Tiger JK’s music. They brought elements of “authentic” Western hip-hop to South Korea and Korean rap has steadily been growing ever since. It’s now a major player in the country’s music industry, an alternative to the pervasive idol system typically associated with K-pop. But JK and Tasha feel they don’t necessarily fit in the scene they helped create. Instead, they continue to forge their own path. JK says, “You don’t have to rap about struggles or something hardcore. To reflect and express what we’re feeling right now, that didn’t sound authentic, it didn’t fit. We couldn’t make a hip-hop record that’s relevant to the scene. Not that we’re into being relevant, but it just didn’t fit. So we took a detour and made more of a pop album and had fun with it. We’d rather make a pop album than a hip-hop album that’s not authentic.”
Not to say that Wondaland is “pop” in the way that most mainstream K-pop albums are. It’s more pop like a Black Eyed Peas record: hip-hop and rap are still at its core, but the beats are big, the themes are universal, and the energy is fun. “What would we rap about, dropping molly?” JK continues. “It just don’t fit, it’s not real.” He also adds, “Our son loves it.” In fact, their son Jordan is featured on the album, speaking the intro of “Bang Diggy Bang Bang”.
Yoon Mi-rae concludes by emphasizing the power of the album’s various styles: “It’s not just a hip-hop album. There are hip-hop tracks, but it’s an eclectic album. I think there’s a song for everybody on this album whether you understand the language or not. Music is colorblind.”