Koreans rap? The rest of the world was mostly oblivious to the fact until the dancing horse of the Far East came and crushed the International airwaves with the stupidly infectious pop tune that’s “Gangnam Style.” But let’s hold off on the gimmicky party steps and satirical lyrics for a moment. By rapping, XXL means spitting bars, punchlines, and vivid stories like Jadakiss (gasp), Big L (double gasp), or even Nas (triple gasp). You probably thought Koreans only made syrupy K-Pop records, Samsung cell phones (they’re not Japanese), and nuclear weapons (that’s North Korea). But there’s been an established rap scene for nearly 15 years. While it’s not quite yet an industry, whether as a contender in the pop market, or a successful indie genre, in Korea, hip-hop and rap are prevalent and well with artists, stars, and heroes of their very own.
With Psy continuously caking off his viral hit, and a Korean-American R&B/hip-hop trio named Aziatix announcing their recent deal with YMCMB, the time is better than ever to introduce the best rap acts from the Land of the Morning Calm.
If you didn’t know, now you know. Look on and discover a set of rap artists you never heard of, but will pique your interest.
Noise MOB (Rhyme-A- & Minos)
Comprise of Rhyme -A-, who’s entrenched with ’90s rap nostalgia, and Minos, who’s known to capture emotional minutiae of everyday life, this project group advocates the “I don’t give a fuck” mentality that’s often left to the wayside in Korean hip-hop. Armed with braggadocious battle raps, the two artists complement each other’s artistry, creating a batch of thumping records that sound better than any of their previous work.
G-Dragon & T.O.P of Big Bang
Why are two pretty boy K-Pop idols on this list you ask? Quite simple. Because if it wasn’t for acts like these two, Korean rap probably wouldn’t have amassed such international appeal that it’s garnering now. Though the two multifaceted entertainers debuted as members of a quintet known as Big Bang, as G-Dragon admitted with XXL, [they'd] “like to be remembered as a rapper.” K-Pop’s currently full of boy bands with designated rapper as a member, and nine out of ten times they’re modeled after these two. Unfortunately, unlike GD and T.O.P, other acts can’t lock in a collabo with Diplo as their single, or have posse cuts with label mates for good measure.
Huck P’s acknowledged as Korea’s most gifted freestyle MCs. But beyond spontaneous rap discharges, P’s an active solo artist who’s also a member of Paloalto’s Hi-Lite records. His collaborative recordings with producer Soulfish, known as Pinodyne, renders well-conceived storytelling projects, dismissing the now international notion that freestyle rappers aren’t capable of creating thorough albums.
Around early 2000, Korean hip-hop landscape was filled with Timb-boots-stomping, boom-bap aficionados. During the height of such verbal spews and neck-snapping music stood Deepflow, whose first output Vismajor, decked with chopped samples and brusque commandments immediately caught the attention of hardcore hip-hop heads. His 2011 effort Heavy Deep retained the classic East Coast golden era sentiments while also uplifting the bravura to an evolved soundscape. Lately, Deepflow heads a crew known as Vismajor and looks to release a compilation album.
Although he is a member of Illionaire Records, unlike The Quiett and Dok2 who are now veterans, Zino’s rise is still relatively new. Since his debut in the late aughts, he’s been praised as Korean hip-hop’s rising golden child, bodying every guest feature he hops on, and unleashing the widely lauded solo debut 24:26. Quickly becoming a star of his own, his humorous storytelling abilities—stylistically reminiscent of early records from the Native Tongues posse—are attracting the mainstream fan base, as well as earning the respect from rap heads. Despite the similarity in the name to Boston rapper Benzino, threatening magazine writers or running hate campaigns is not part of his math.
Around mid-2000, Korean hip-hop was heavily influenced by the sounds and style of Korean-Americans that relocated back to their motherland. Out of the batch, Swings stood out as the most talented, with a clear understanding of his stylistic approach. In Korea, he’s known as the key figure who made the concept of punch lines an accepted and understood element of rapping. Of course, long before Swings’ arrival, many rappers applied the rudimentary technique in their verses, but no one did it quite like the squiggly MC, who made punch lines his muse, living up to his self-claimed boast as the “Punch Line King.” Whereas a bulk of Korean rap concentrates on the message, Swings made the art into a sport, outshining his peers with pure wit and skills. Minus all the politics and glittery packaging, Swings’ talents are above and beyond more than 90-percent of his peers. Including many on this list.
Don’t let the Californian charter city name confuse you. Paloalto (also known as Palo) is nearly 10 years deep in the game as one of Korea’s most respected hip-hop artists. Since his humble underground debut in the early-2000s, like a worker bee, Paloalto strived for a level of consistency that’s only matched by few in the game. After departing from Korean hip-hop legend Tiger JK’s Jungle Entertainment imprint, he set off to establish his own label Hi-Lite, which quickly developed itself as the country’s premier indie label. His most recent output Behind the Scenes, a collaborative project with label mate Evo, has also garnered much fanfare.
Supreme Team (Simon D & E-Sens)
While they’ve both grown into nationally recognized celebrities—thanks to their appearances on variety shows and top-40 rap singles—both Simon D and E-Sens started their careers in the underground, and were considered as the country’s top rap prospects. Even now, Simon D, who has amassed pop star status, is still acknowledged for his sharp rap assaults, and E-Sens, thanks to his latest reflective ode “Poison,” is praised for his storytelling aptitude.
Alongside veteran MC P-Type, Verbal Jint is noted as the key figure that mastered the art of rhyming in Korean. Merely 12 to 13 years ago, due to the grammatical difference Korean has from English, it was perceived that rhyming was too difficult to be done accurately. As a result, raps that had no rhyme patterns whatsoever unwillingly became the status quo. During such periods of underdeveloped raps, Verbal Jint presented a formula, applying basic Korean grammar to create actual rhyme schemes that have since been accepted as a standard. The current generation of Korean rappers can all attribute to Verbal Jint’s efforts for officially mandating a method of rhyming in Korean. Still active as one of the scene’s most celebrated MCs and songwriters, VJ continues to out rap up and comers, but won’t hesitate to serenade female fans with sugary ballads.
The Queitt & Dok2 of Illionaire Records
The reason these two well-established artists are branded as a unit is because of their collective development behind the sensational rise of Illionaire Records. As a hip-hop label, Illionaire Records—both in terms of financial wealth and influence—boast the highest level of triumph in Korea. As their international following quickly expanded with their affiliation with K-Pop artist Jay Park, the clique of Dok2 and Quiett (who have both amassed prior success as solo artists) saw an immense growth in their fan base. Their shows are sold out within 10 seconds after they go on sale, completely breaking the old notion that it’s impossible to wield success solely off rap in Korea. In the purest sense, Dok2 and The Quiett are Korea’s first real, rap superstars. Young, rich, and getting it, is an adequate mantra for these two indie rap bosses.
Tasha a.k.a Yoonmirae
Throughout the 1990s, Tasha served as a member of a Korean-American K-Pop imprint Uptown, and quickly stood out as the cream of the crop. She soon excelled on a successful solo career, and notably, her first hip-hop album Gemini earned rave reviews from both critics and peers. Her role in modern Korean music, especially for female rap artists, serves as a dividing point. It’s not an overstatement to say that those who came after Tasha, have all been influenced by her style. Along with her husband Tiger JK, the couple’s a reigning tour de force in the Korean music scene, and it appears like it’ll continue on for years to come with their latest project MFBTY gaining international momentum.
Garion (MC Meta & Naachal)
Started as a group in the mid-1990s, Garion and Naachal are widely known as pioneers of Korean rap. Though their outputs are scarce considering their years in the game (two full-length LPs), the quality of each project attest to their talents, not their OG status. Their approach to sampling and rhyming stood out early on, for mainly flipping traditional Korean records, as well as strictly using the Korean language. Even Garion is a name derived from a mystic horse that according to legends, dwells in the holy terrains of Mount Baek Du. In 2011, for the first time as hip-hop musicians, they took home the honor of Album of the Year at the annual Korean Music Awards.
Epik High (Tablo & Mithra Jin)
Despite some setbacks, and diluted pop records, there’s no denying this duo’s exceptional lyricism. When it’s properly focused, the sharpness in their rhymes are overwhelming. Tablo’s somber storytelling, and double entendre, combined with his partner-in-rhyme Mithra Jin’s compact—yet equally—in-depth subject matter, beg for repeated listens. Even though their musical edge has smoothed over to gear for mass appeal, there’s no questioning the two MCs’ gifts as master storytellers.
Dynamic Duo (Choiza & Gaeko)
Consists of Choiza and Gaeko, the two childhood friends embarked on a rap career that’s now nearly 15-years strong. Although it took two previous groups (K.O.D. and CB Mass) for the duo to set off on their own as Double D, the process helped both members to acquire superb production chops and expert delivery. What’s truly unique about the duo’s music is their distinctively homegrown lyrical contents, which they have few peers in capturing. In addition, they’re never late on trends, and execute them without mimicking the styles of their American counterparts. With all aspects combined, Dynamic Duo—on top of their newly established Amoeba Culture imprint—stands as the country’s number-one rap personae. At this point, it appears their legacy will only continue to grow.
Tiger JK of Drunken Tiger
When Tiger JK released his solo debut, Enter the Tiger, in 1995, the public quickly dismissed him and his music. Four years later in 1999, with a partner in rhyme (DJ Shine), JK returned with a vengeance as a member of the now celebrated Drunken Tiger imprint, unveiled Year of the Tiger, and openly raised the question to the Korean music market via the single, “Do You Know Hip-Hop?” Now, nearly 20 years, eight albums, and multiple hits after his initial efforts, Tiger JK and Drunken Tiger’s impact reign supreme in the Land of the Morning Calm. Not only has JK pushed the boundary of the art and played an essential role in elevating the culture, but he also did it without forsaking its authenticity. Recognized internationally as a star, Drunken Tiger remains as the face of Korean hip-hop and few—if any—can dispute that claim.
It should work now
Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho) and Bong-hyeon Kim (@kbhman)