Rap makes it possible to have one track contain a great amount of lyrics and content, which is why it is perfect for telling a story.
The most famous storytelling track of all time is probably Eminem’s ‘Stan’, a masterpiece that even birthed the at-the-time neologism ‘to stan sb.’ which originates from the fictitious main character ‘Stan’ being an insanely crazy fan of Eminem. So, you have probably listened to this track before and you might have also heard storytelling tracks by Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, or Kendrick Lamar, but what about Korean hiphop? Let’s find out some basics about storytelling and its place in the Korean hiphop scene. First, we will take a look at what makes it so difficult, and then discover its characteristics.
Storytelling has been present in the Korean hiphop scene, especially Kebee and RHYME-A- are known for their storytelling skills, but nearly every artist has released at least one storytelling track: YDG, MC Meta, Verbal Jint, The Quiett, Huckleberry P, Leo Kekoa, Leessang, Epik High, Drunken Tiger, Dynamic Duo, etc.
These days you don’t find storytelling tracks often, mainly because new styles of hiphop have become popular that brought about a change in the topics people rap about. Also, with the short lifespan of albums, artists tend to release more singles than albums. Before, an album would contain maybe one or two storytelling tracks, but now that there are only singles and EPs, storytelling is nowhere to be found. Another reason for its rarity is that storytelling is not an easy task. It is actually one of the supreme disciplines in hiphop, for you have a lot of restrictions: The lyrics have to
- abide by the beat
- tell a story
- sound natural
- be perfectly understandable by ear.
Numbers 1., 2. and 3. are a basic given for any hiphop lyrics. Now, let’s give 4. a try. Let’s say I want to tell a story off the top of my head and make it rhyme:
Once upon a time,
there was a lime
who couldn’t rhyme
so it gave a dime
to the kind
man next door
who dropped it on the floor …
… and so on. Lame, right? Notice how without a set story in mind, the words do not follow the story but the story is lead by the words and their rhymes. This is why a very nonsensical story is created. Do give this a try and see for yourself!
Note however that this is more on the level of writing a poem, because there is neither a beat nor a flow the text abides by, not to mention a preset story that makes sense. Imagine you would have to abide by all the above conditions telling the story you want to tell. You cannot use random words, like one might find in regular hiphop lyrics. Look for example at these lines written by Dok2 in ‘Illionaire Way‘:
Who’s gon’ go and who’s stayin’
Real talk, this is my Saddam Hussein
Always in dark colors, a nectar that doesn’t mix
I’m not a singer or a celebrity, I’m a rapstar
Who’s gon’ go and who’s stayin’
real talk 이건 나의 사담 후세인
늘 배인 짙은 색깔 섞이지 않은 nectar
난 가수 또는 연예인 그 뭣도 아닌 rapstar
The name of Iraq’s fifth president or the word “nectar” seem rather arbitrary in this context. Those words were apparently used to make the lines rhyme, leaving us to figure out the meaning (which is why translating lyrics is rather difficult at times). And this is something one cannot do in storytelling. You cannot just throw in words for the sake of the rhyme because you have to tell a story (4.) and it should sound natural (5.).
The next important point in storytelling is that the so-called ‘delivery’ (6.) should be on point. Are the lyrics properly ‘delivered’ to the listeners? Each word should be understandable by ear without the need to fetch the written text and read along.
The ‘delivery’ is an art that Fatdoo mastered, who rightfully calls his music genre ‘storytelling’. (Tip: In case you are learning Korean, his music is a great and fun place to improve your skills, do some listening or reading comprehension, or both at once by reading along while listening.) Fatdoo only does storytelling: from anthropomorphized animals over horror stories to stories with a political or social statement that will leave you thinking. You can often hear narration in his songs as well as sound effects, and the music videos perfectly accompany the story. The rap is not just rapped but expresses emotions, like an actor would read a script, so each track is like a little audio drama.
Listen and watch Fatdoo’s track ‘I am 41, I love an 18-year-old girl’ (off his 4th album from 2009) which is, as the title says, about a socially controversial relationship.
- Joosuc – Smooth Criminal (Episode 1) (Feat. Supasize, Leftee)
- Defconn – 소멸 [Extinction] (Live Ver.)
- RHYME-A- – Story About K
- Drunken Tiger – 편의점 [Convenience Store]
- CB Mass – 구해주오 [Please Save Me]
- I.F – 어느 토요일 [One Saturday] (Feat. Junggigo)
- Fana – 시간의 돛단배 [The Sailing Ship of Time] (Feat. 있다)
- RHYME-A- & Mild Beatz – 추격전 [The Chase]
- Dynamic Duo – 그 남자 그 여자의 사정 [That Man, That Woman’s Situation] (Feat. Bobby Kim)
- Pinodyne – Nightingale Film
- B-Free – Adam and Eve
- Soul Company – 의뢰인 [The Client] Translated Lyrics
- Garion – 비밀의 화원 [The Secret Garden]
- Minos – God Loves Ugly
- Kebee – 백설공주 [Snow White]
In the CB Mass track ‘구해주오’ (translates roughly to: Please Save Me), Gaeko, Curbin and Choiza take up the role of a man who marries a woman that cannot forget her first love. By chance, the man finds out that his wife is in contact with that very first love again and when he comes home one day, a surprise awaits him. Listen to the track below!
Storytelling tracks have certain characteristics that you cannot find in regular hiphop music. In the following, these are listed and explained with the help of a few example tracks.
Sometimes, artists use themselves as the main character to tell a story, yet fantasy is the preferred choice so characters are made up, some of which might even be a fusion between reality and fiction, as in Soul Company’s ‘The Client’ where you can meet “the master fixer and bomb expert The Q” and “bomb hunter Dr. K” (Kebee). An artist might take up the viewpoint of several characters or make use of featurings so that each rapper is in charge of one character, just like in ‘The Client’, or I.F’s ‘One Saturday’: nuck’s role is that of a married white-collar employee stressed by his dull and tiring life and Bizniz raps as a rich man who has become a drunkard because he does not see meaning in his life anymore. Each character tells his story in separate verses until the two meet in the end due to tragic circumstances and converse by rapping alternately.
Story topics range from personal issues over reinterpretations of fairy tales or myths to horror stories. They may be told in sequential order, backwards, or contain a flashback or other means you may find in any regular story. The way a story is told depends on the characters too. In ‘The Client’ for example, the story flows sequentially while every character’s part connects to the next. In ‘One Saturday’, the two characters’ storylines flow in sequence but separately until they collide. Anything is possible.
Very often, stories have several parts, like Epik High’s ‘Scenario (피해망상)’ with featurings by Junggigo, MYK, and TBNY, or Outsider’s ‘피에로의 눈물’ [The Clown’s Tears] with featurings by Moowoong of Baechigi, Gilmi, and Rimi. Both series span over three tracks. A phenomenon that you can only experience with Fatdoo is that one whole album is made up of stories that are linked. Take for example his second full-length album ‘토끼와 잉어 + 내 삶과 죽음이 담긴 일기장‘ [The Rabbit and the Carp + The Diary of My Life and Death] where tracks 6-15 in sequence tell the story of a boy, starting from his death until only his soul remains.
While basic storytelling skills like a good narrative, broad and descriptive vocabulary, and other things are necessary, a story needs elements that make it interesting. Be it an unusual topic, fancy characters, a plot twist, etc. Remember that these are songs, so they need to appeal to the listener greatly enough for them to listen again and again. One appealing method is to tell a true story or a story that is based on true events or facts, like MC Meta’s ‘하몽 (夏夢)’ [Summer Dream] which addresses the role of DJs in Korean hiphop, or Pinodyne’s ‘Nightingale Film’ in which Huckleberry P tells his life from the viewpoint of his mother. One can also tell a very relatable story, like Dynamic Duo do in ‘어머니의 된장국 (Feat. Ra.D)’ [Mother’s Soybean Paste Soup]-most people know what it’s like to miss a warm, home-cooked meal.
This article is titled ‘Nightingale Film’; below is a live version of this very emotional track which includes narration by Huckleberry P’s mother. The lyrics read like his mother’s diary about her son and range from the rapper’s birth until the present.
This is an important question: Why is a story being told? Simply to entertain, to throw light on a certain topic, to deliver an emotion, to give a thought-provoking impulse, or something entirely different? It can be anything, and a good story obviously has a clear purpose. Take for example Kebee’s story ‘Ghostwiter’ (track by Loptimist) and its sequel ‘그림자’ [Shadow] which tell the story of Kebee writing lyrics for someone else and being torn between money and ethics. Or listen to Fatdoo’s latest track ‘피해자는 죽고 가해자는 웃었다’ [The Victim Dies and the Perpetrator Laughs] whose topic are random killings of the kind that recently occurred in Korea.
And finally, if you prefer something entertaining, check out Soul Company’s suspense drama ‘The Client‘ and enjoy Drunken Tiger’s crime thriller ‘Hollyhood‘ (Both have sound effects!) while reading the translation along.
Everybody loves to hear a story, and it is sad that there are less and less storytelling tracks in Khiphop. Yet, there are many epic old ones to catch up with, so why not start with the ones in this article?! (If you know Korean, do check out the below sources for more song recommendations and information!)
Meanwhile, we can only hope that more talented rappers come forward and bless us with their storytelling skills.