It is the year 1998. The Golden Era of hiphop in the US. Top albums by Beastie Boys, DMX, Snoop Dogg, and Laryn Hill. Over a hundred released albums by major artists.
Meanwhile, December 21st in Korea. As part of a series titled ‘The 3rd Zone’ (제3지대), TV channel KBS shows a documentary that throws light on the very young phenomenon of hiphop, explaining MCing, B-Boying, graffiting, and DJing. It features young people who have found their passion, elderly who do not like the unseemly baggy clothes, graffiti artists who have to make efforts to find walls to practice their art, and rappers craving an audience.
The Year 1998 in Khiphop
In November, the first “hiphop idols,” 1TYM of YG Entertainment, made their official debut with their first full-length album ‘1TYM‘. The question whether their music is “real hiphop” divided opinions already back then. In the same year, several other mainstream hiphop groups released albums: Jinusean came out with ‘The Real‘, an album entirely in English intended for their US debut, Uptown (at the time still with Yoonmirae) released their third full-length album ‘Chapter 3 In History‘, and Yang Hyun Suk released his first and only, “legendary” solo album which sold 220,000 copies. 1998 was also the birth year of X-Teen’s first album, a hiphop group initially made up of four members including Heo Inchang, plus “honorary members” Gary and Gill who now form Leessang. The apparently very first underground Khiphop album was released in that year as well: Gangtholic’s ‘A.R.I.C‘.
‘Do You Know Hiphop?’ (너희가 힙합을 아느냐?) was recently featured at the 2nd Seoul Hiphop Film Festival in October 2016, an event moderated by music critic Kim Bonghyun featuring guest speakers veteran rapper MC Meta, who appears in the documentary himself, and Don Malik of daze alive, who was only two years old when the documentary was on TV (he is giving his first performance outside of Korea at SXSW this month). The three discussed the film and the differences between the scene back then and now together with the audience after the screening, underlining the documentary’s historical importance for showing all four elements of the hiphop culture in Korea.
Luckily for all of us who did not attend the festival, the complete documentary is available on YouTube, though in a humble quality and needless to say without English subtitles. Yet, as curious fans of the scene and its artists we shall discover this important historical film together.
The narrator begins in his dry, matter-of-fact way of talking to introduce the different elements of hiphop culture. We also see several young people declaring their passion: “Hiphop is my life!”
Next, a scene in Apgujeong where hiphop artists are holding a street performance. The narrator describes the audience’s hiphop fashion and says that the song lyrics are fast and “unintelligible,” labeling hiphop as a culture of the youth. “For adults this is not music, it is nothing but noise,” he comments while seemingly critical gazes of several adult passersby are shown. This makes it clear that the documentary targets adults, wanting to enlighten them about their children’s new hobby.
At this point, a lesson in the history of hiphop covers the basics of US-American hiphop and Korean hiphop, naming the 80s and Seo Taiji and Boys as the beginning of hiphop in Korea.
Up next are street dancers in the Daehangno neighborhood in Seoul. In the same area are members of ‘BLEX‘ (short for: Black Loud EXploders), a black music club founded 1995, who are discussing an upcoming performance. We see MC Meta (at the time 28 years old) and Joosuc (20 years old). As the group finally performs though, they are stopped by the organizers due to swear words in the lyrics of their track ‘장유유서‘ (elders first).
The documentary briefly takes us to Uptown‘s concert venue where Steve declares ‘rhythm’ the greatest charm of hiphop music.
From here on, we follow MC Meta who is living at Hongik University due to financial difficulties after leaving his parents’ home. He had a “normal life,” graduated school and university, but then decided to make his hobby his life goal and started pursuing a career as an hiphop artist. Together with members of BLEX, he released the albums ‘검은 소리‘ (Black Sounds) volumes one (1997) and two (1998). The camera accompanies him to a meeting with other hiphop artists who have gotten together in order to advance the scene. They are young, talented, and adept at hiphop, but nevertheless not being acknowledged. We see Seven of hiphop duo Da Crew (the other Da Crew member was Saatan, now known as Artisan Beats, Bullhandang member) and Kim Ban-jang who is now leader of the band Windy City.
As Garion and others practice, the narrator comments: “Instead of becoming famous and earning money, they want to be acknowledged as hiphop musicians. Although their pockets are empty, these young people are rich with passion.”
Luckily, they are getting support. An employee of a company that imports CDs allows MC Meta to listen to ‘forbidden’ albums and explains that the main reason they are forbidden is because of explicit language and sexual contents. This “hiphop missionary,” as Meta jokingly calls him, discusses US-American hiphop with the 28-year-old. About hiphop in Korea, he says: “Millions of those albums have been sold all over the world, so you cannot call the music “underground.” […] However, since our country forbids most of the albums, the genre has become an underground phenomenon here.
Kim Jin Pyo (newer fans of Khiphop might only know him as host of SMTM seasons three to five), who released two full-length hiphop albums in 1998, describes how difficult it is for one or two US hiphop albums out of 500 released per month to get licensed in Korea. He further elaborates on how easily approachable hiphop fashion is since even famous idols on TV wear it.
In between parts one and two, DJ Wreckx is teaching himself DJing and tells of the DJing school he has established.
The camera invites us to young Joosuc’s room where he has a bunch of equipment for making music. At the time, he was a part of the hiphop duo Da Real which later disbanded as the other member (Blexman) quit hiphop. Joosuc’s father was apparently strongly against his making music but once Joosuc cut his hair (his father did not like the long hair that was the trend at the time) he received his support in the form of expensive equipment. In the interview, his mother says that she was convinced her children would never walk around “with their pants dragging over the ground,” until one day Joosuc came to her with a pierced ear and baggy pants, telling her that he was going to do hiphop. “Is that really my son?” she wondered but eventually changed her way of thinking as she was faced with her son’s firm decision.
“Just because they want to make hiphop music, they are seen as bad children.” The narrator repeats it once more; the problem at the time was notably the lack of information and acceptance. “People are biased,” Blexman says, “friends at university look at me strangely and tell me not to dress like this.”
The documentary moves on to the next element of hiphop: graffiti. We meet Sungrae Noh, at the time a member of ‘Who’s The Man?’ together with Blexman and A.Jay. Under the name of MAcho, Sungrae Noh was (or is?) co-CEO of the recently revived hiphop label Hallyangsa. Together with MC Meta who he met at BLEX, he shows the camera crew one of his artworks on the wall of a hiphop record store that was however wiped out by a fire.
Another artist the crew meets by chance says he got into graffiti because he likes hiphop and the idea of expressing oneself through letters. As suited “canvases” are limited though, he has unwillingly been at the police station several times.
Seoul National University. The hiphop dance crew HIS (Hoofers in S.N.U) practice in the university corridor in lack of a room. Several members are also part of another dance crew, Kick It Up, which was formed online. From beginners to experts, the members show off their skills and create dance routines together. One of them even demonstrates his beatboxing skills for the camera.
Sinchon. The famous club Master Plan that later turned into a label and is now part of MPMG (Master Plan Music Group) together with indie sister labels Happy Robot, Mint Paper, Paraid, and The Park.
It is the day of Garion’s concert but nobody has come. When a possible audience of two people leaves the side street where the club is located, MC Meta lets out his frustration on the wall. “There are few people who come to see an unknown hiphop group.” Just after this comment by the narrator, a small crowd enters the club and Meta happily welcomes them with applause. Even in front of the scarce audience of about a dozen people, Garion and soul funk band VINYL with Kim Ban-jang perform enthusiastically. “That day, Jaehyun (MC Meta) earned 20,000 won,” so the narrator, which is about 17 USD.
Jaeyoo Choi, who was part of Garion as DJ J.U until 2004, is a composer who has become an expert in European hiphop music during his stay in Germany. However, it was not MC Meta and Naachal’s intention to learn US-American or European hiphop from J.U, but to find and make Korean hiphop music that would be acknowledged worldwide.
J.U apparently had similar struggles as Joosuc: his father, a priest of the Angelican church, was against his son’s plans. “My dad thought I’d become some cheap entertainer, but I think he’s changed his opinion now.”
Joosuc names all the walls the pioneers have to overcome: “It costs a lot of money, we need our parents’ permission, and many more little things. The most difficult is finding like-minded people, colleagues to work with.” – “I think the biggest problem is that people do not see us as musicians,” Kim Ban-jang states. Curbin, once a member of CB Mass together with Choiza and Gaeko, emphasizes the need of underground artists to improve their skills in order to be acknowledged.
The underground culture is like a cockroach. You can trample over it all you want, it won’t go extinct.Kim Ban-jang
Next up we are in the car with Gangtholic member Taehyung Lim (artist name: Tyung).
The hiphop duo were Catholics and made gangster rap, thus the name. Their lyrics contained slang and swear words and in their songs they complained about themselves, society, and mainstream music.
Since his colleague Doyoung Kim (artist name: Doboi) has gone to military service, Taehyung has been holding a rap contest (‘Yo! Midnight Rap Contest’) on the radio where teenagers can show off their rap on air. Although Gangtholic’s album was not a big hit in the music scene, the fact that it was loved by avid hiphop fans gained him a place on the radio show (‘Sunwoo’s Midnight Land’).
That teenager on the radio sounds familiar? Yes, it is no other but Verbal Jint (at the time 18 years old) who coincidentally participated in the show the very day the documentary team filmed there. The song he performed is called ‘How High School’ (only a remix version is still available online).
The radio hosts are amazed by his lyrics and rapping, and Taehyun gives thorough feedback.
Back to club Master Plan. At the end of each weekly group concert, BLEX invite the audience on stage to freestyle. That day, members of DJ D.O.C (the narrator naively reads it “DJ Doc”) are at the club and take their thoughts to the mic. For the members of BLEX it was a special event to have such famous artists with four released full-length albums and regular TV appearances visit the small club.
Finally, the documentary jumps to the Hip Hop Street ’98 concert from the beginning. It takes place outside of a department store, and graffiti artists got busy to create the appropriate background for the performers. On stage, MC Meta proclaims that hiphop is truth: “Disregarding age, being truthful to oneself means living the hiphop way.”
“Within hiphop, they are trying to create something. Even though nobody knows what that is yet, this new culture will bear its fruits among the youth.”
this documentary was a reminder of just how young the Korean hiphop scene is. Seeing those first-generation rappers struggle to build the fertile ground that is now flourishing more than ever left a great impression on me and made me want to share it with all of you. I feel that everyone who loves the scene should have seen this film, or at least know its contents, so that they can understand the value of the scene’s current situation. Many artists who appear in the documentary do not make music anymore, which is sad but also cause for an even greater respect towards those who are still active.
By the way, my favorite scene is Joosuc and Blexman practicing freestyle at the riverside because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Check that 90s/early 2000 flow! Quite epic is also MC Meta hitting the wall and the narrator calling Garion an unknown hiphop group. How things change!
Last but not least, in some way, I also believe that the film has brought me closer to the answer of what Korean hiphop really is.
What are your thoughts? We’re curious to hear how you’ve seen the documentary and read our article. Which one was your favorite scene? Let us know!