Tasked with describing Korean hip-hop, you would find the genre as nonconformant to generalizations and as elusive of labels as its American counterpart. It is shaped by every kind of music, by Korean politics, by American media, by the syncopations of its native language, and by the personal narratives of that language’s speakers.
Korean hip-hop has a dense history dating back to the late 1980s, when American hip-hop began finding national and international appeal. Interestingly (and perhaps problematically), the genre’s growth in popularity was not driven primarily by the music; it was the culture that lay adjacent to hip-hop that pushed it through those early, wayward years. Rap beats were incorporated into a burgeoning B-boying scene, and many Koreans got their first taste of the music in dance clubs in the 1990s. For the next decade, hip-hop as Americans would recognize it lay dormant in Korea, more an underground community, and mainstream pop acts incorporated a sugary, benign version of it that continues to this day with groups whose music raise pressing questions of Black cultural appropriation.
Then, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, with hip-hop reigning supreme in American pop culture, the underground burst open. Was it the Internet? The intense commercialization (and appropriation) of “urban” street style? Regardless of the answer, by 2015, Noisey was talking about the “Korean Invasion” being led by golden grill-wearing rapper, Keith Ape. Two years later, Roc Nation had signed Jay Park, a fixture of mainstream Korean hip-hop.
But these milestones were just the beginning. With streaming services increasing accessibility to foreign-language music, Korean hip-hop is finding a home in American clubs and on Spotify playlists. For those interested in exploring their music, we’ve put together a list of essential Korean hip-hop artists. To guide your introduction, and as a reminder of where the cultural origins of hip-hop lie, we’ve listed corresponding American artists whom their music is reminiscent of.