Keeping it real: What is authentic about Korean hip hop?
Image: Contrary to what Bobby may believe, it has nothing to do with personal hygiene (or lack thereof).
Keeping it real, representing, staying true to yourself. These phrases, long ago woven into the fabric of hip hop culture, all refer to a key dialogue hip hop is constantly having with itself: what is authenticity?
In the late-90s, music critic turned scholar Kembrew McLeod studied hip hop magazines, lyrics, album press releases and online discussion forums and interviewed a number of hip hop artists, fans and other prominent members of the US hip hop community to find out how the concept of authenticity is constructed within the discourse of hip hop. At a time when hip hop was on its way to becoming a well-established part of the music mainstream, McLeod wanted to discover how the hip hop community was trying to maintain its own unique and authentic identity.
From his data McLeod came up with six different elements, or “semantic dimensions” as he refers to them, each with a ‘real’ and a ‘fake’ component as you can see in the table below.
Authenticity has also found an important spot at the heart of Korean hip hop but, as Korea has created its own hip hop culture and identity, clearly not all these dimensions will apply. However, equally, some can be found frequently in Korean hip hop’s authenticity discourse as well as a number of others unique to this particular scene.
Here I will examine a number of these elements which together create Korean hip hop’s constantly evolving ideology of authenticity. These are drawn from a number of sources, particularly: Myoung-sun Song’s chapter in The Korean Wave, Jamie Shinhee Lee’s chapter in Languages of Global Hip Hop and Haekyung Um’s article on Korean hip-hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’ which are all well worth the read if you want a more in-depth understanding.
Gender and sexuality: Why you act like a bitch?
Hip hop is macho. That’s something that comes up incessantly when looking into what is perceived as authentic in Korean hip hop. Even if you don’t follow Korean hip hop, you might have come across this argument at the end of 2013 when B-Free criticised BTS for ‘cross-dressing’ by wearing makeup and being ‘icons for girls’. This idea that having a predominantly female fanbase makes a musician less authentic is common throughout many genres of music globally and hip hop is no exception.
One artist who has been at the receiving end of a lot of this kind of critique is Beenzino. With his idol-like good looks and eye for fashion, he has attracted a lot of female fans. Swings mentioned him in his Control diss implying that he was only popular with fickle female fans because of his face not the quality of his music.
No one recognizes musical competence, even if your popularity goes up
Don’t overestimate with the influence you have because look at Beenzino.
Seeing him, we know that it can disappear any day when you kiss your girlfriend
-Swings, King Swings (Control)
Beenzino addressed this kind of criticism himself in his verse on Epik High’s Born Hater:
I can’t believe they say my success comes from my looks
You all suck up to [Ta]Blo hyung but he’s right next door right now
So shut up but these kids don’t rest with the gossiping
Man I’m everywhere like oxygen
I’m sorry but even your ex is my fangirl
Although pretty effective as a comeback this is not exactly subversive. He’s not cracking out his favourite Judith Butler quote and questioning why prescribed gender roles should be used as any kind of measure of authenticity. Instead Beenzino plays hip hop’s ‘macho’ culture at its own game – reasserting his masculinity by using his female fandom as a sign of his own virility and accusing his haters of that stereotypically feminine pastime – gossip.
Idols vs. the Underground
Zico’s Tough Cookie received a lot of well-deserved criticism when it was released but it’s a useful as an example of authenticity discourse in Korean hip hop. Like many independent music subcultures, underground Korean hip hop tends to define itself against the mainstream music industry. In his solo debut, Zico tries to prove himself as a real hip hop artist by setting himself apart from the pinnacle of mainstream fakeness: the idol rapper.
Top idol rapper? Fuck I ain’t no snake’s head
My competition is elsewhere, nothing in TV stations
‘Snake’s head’ here is reference to the Korean idiom “A dragon’s head but a snake’s tail” which is used to describe something which has a great start but a mediocre end. The book How Koreans Talk notes that entrepreneurs starting their own businesses rather than working for a large chaebol often say “I’d rather be a snake’s head that a dragon’s tail”. They would rather be an important part of something small that an unimportant part of something big. Zico here is not willing to take such a compromise. He sees being the best idol rapper as merely the best of a bad lot whereas he is a real hip hop artist who can hold his own outside of the inauthenticity of the mainstream.
Respect your hip hop hyung
Age and seniority, as in every walk of Korean life, play a really important role in Korean hip hop. This is so central that it’s hard to pull out specific examples. From Rap Monster wanting to prove he can be both a real rapper and an idol to his ‘hip hop hyungs’ to well established artists like Swings criticising rookies or The Quiett invoking his ‘hyung’ status to give advice to other artists, the standard for what is and isn’t real hip hop is always set by the most senior figures on the scene.
Never stop working
I never stop working, I’m even working today
Eat, sleep, write and spit, I’m Korea’s Little Wayne
If there is no way, I make one
If I have no strength, I find some
– Dok2, Fantom
Unlike US hip hop which tends to place more value on innate genius, Korean rappers often like to show off about their do-or-die passionate work ethic. This is no doubt a reflection of the importance placed on hard work throughout Korean society, a country with some of the longest working hours in the OECD.
Do you know hip hop?
When Drunken Tiger first arrived on the Korean music scene in the late 90s, they had some pretty harsh criticism for the music that was popular at that time.
Close your eyes and listen; the chills that travel down your whole body
Time to stop feeding off of what is given to you
Music that is not worth being called “music” has to be all scrapped
We will change all of your ears, just wait
By 1999, when this song, was released Korean audiences were used to hearing rap in songs but there was almost no actual hip hop music being released, most of it was a genre known as ‘rap dance’. Drunken Tiger were one of the first acts to make ‘pure’ hip hop music and, having come over from LA, their transnational music was considered to be a more authentic as it followed the style of American hip hop more closely.
Since then a more nuanced understanding of hip hop has emerged in Korea and authenticity is understood as being able to find the balance between global hip hop culture and local hip hop culture. As Jamie Lee puts it, “behaving just like American gangsta hip hoppers is not real, but not incorporating some features from the global hip hop scene is not real”. Now a lot more focus is placed on how performers reflect their Koreanness in their music by dealing with Korean social issues and engaging in complex wordplay. In many ways this might be the most inarguably authentic thing about Korean hip hop. After all, who can rap in Korean about Korea better than born-and-bred Korean hip hop artists?
As a culture operating right of the edge of a mainstream music industry authenticity discourse has always played an important role in how hip hop tries to define itself and protect itself from being entirely consumed by the larger mass media culture. Arguably this is even more pressing for Korean hip hop as it does not have the same unique history of US hip hop, having essentially the same early roots as K-pop through Seo Taiji. Because of this, although authenticity is a constantly recurring theme in Korean hip hop, the way it is characterised can be both confused and confusing, contradictory and often problematic. Nonetheless it is a fascinating example of how cultures meet and mix in our globalised world and ultimately it is up to hip hop audiences to decide what authenticity means to them.