In a short span of five years, K-pop has gone from a relatively unknown music scene that made everyone look at it with “Gangnam Style” to harboring arguably the biggest boy group sensation in the world, BTS, who now break Billboard records with every release and are regular figures in U.S. media. Last year specifically turned out to be a key moment in music history. Not only did BTS, who sings in Korean, beat Justin Bieber for a social media award, but “Despacito,” a song sung predominantly in Spanish, tied for the longest-reigning number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 at 16 weeks.
As the local music market slowly opens itself to artists from other countries and different languages, Korean acts are at the forefront of the movement. And while K-pop gets most of the attention, Hallyu (the Korean wave) has also expanded in the last few years to include other genres, most notably hip-hop. So at a time when more and more K-pop acts are holding arena tours around the U.S., Korean rappers have started to make waves of their own.
While prominent in the ‘90s with acts like Tiger JK, rap music’s popularity waned down in Korea and only became a mainstream genre less than five or six years ago. The few rappers that have achieved mainstream success though, have become household names. Rappers Mad Clown (real name Dong-rim Jo) and San E (San Jung) have reached commercial success, being regulars on the Korean charts with hits like “Stupid Love” and “A Midsummer Night’s Sweetness.” They’ve also regularly participated as judges on American Idol-type of competition shows for rappers like Show Me the Money, Unpretty Rapstar, and High School Rapper, which they both credit as part of the reason behind the normalization of hip-hop in Korea.
They’re mad humble about it, though. “What role do we play [in Korean hip-hop]?” Jung asked himself over a video call with the Weekly. “Do we even play a role?” he laughed off. “Not anymore!” replied Jo with a laugh too, sitting right next to Jung in Seoul.
Both born in 1985, San E and Mad Clown have been in the game for about 10 years, but didn’t get a number one record until 2013, when hip-hop in Korea’s mainstream music first exploded. Their friendship has taken them to collaborate in 2015’s “Sour Grapes” and this year’s “Butterfly.” They’ve also embarked on the We Want You joint tour this month, which will hit 19 major cities in the U.S. — one of the longest tours for a Korean act and the longest for a rap one.
“We’ve made lots of music that we can enjoy and have fun with people together,” Jung explained. “Nothing too difficult, but something catchy and something that when they listen to the lyrics they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve felt that way, I’ve been there. I’ve had that experience,’ those types of songs. Am I right?” Jo agreed.
Mad Clown and San E have different record labels, different flows, different styles, and starkly different personalities. San E says that Mad Clown is “The Korean Eminem,” focusing on his lyricism which is often laden with anger. “One thing that I noticed while we were practicing our show [was that] lyric-wise, we both talk about love and breakups in our songs, most of the time,” Jo pointed out. “But one big difference that I just noticed is [that] he is doing [the] bright side of love in his lyrics and I’m doing the exact opposite. I always get mad in my songs.” “That’s why he’s Mad Clown,” Jung added.
But that’s not to say San E’s story is all rainbows and sunshine. When he was 13, he moved to Atlanta, GA with his family not speaking English. He didn’t have any friends and was bullied for being Asian, so after coming back from school every day, he’d watch MTV and BET and developed a connection with the hip-hop he’d see on TV.
“I just came home and listened to music and I didn’t really understand the lyrics, but I felt like rap was representing what I was feeling inside that I couldn’t speak,” he said. “I was angry all the time cause people would make fun of me and I couldn’t even talk back cause I didn’t speak no English, so I’d come home and listen to like Pac and stuff, and he’s angry about something. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s angry about something. So I printed out his lyrics and translated them and it felt like, ‘I’m angry too.’ And he’s talking about unfairness, about something that needs to be changed, and there was a big connection. I thought hip-hop was talking about me. So it was a blessing to live in ATL and grow up with the music.”
While both rappers speak English fluently (Mad Clown was born in Chicago, IL but grew up mostly in South Korea), their music is in Korean. With K-pop, the language barrier is not a hindrance to its popularity abroad, but with hip-hop, one would assume that understanding the lyrics would be essential. And yet, fans of Korean hip-hop in the U.S., like with K-pop, often don’t speak the language and rely on translations online to understand the messages.
“In Korea, you go to a club and they turn on America rap music and most people don’t exactly understand what they’re saying, but they just like the vibe. It’s the same thing,” Jung explained. “And also, the trend of hip-hop music is moving from lyricism to more like a vibe,” added Jo. Jung expanded, “It used to be all about lyrics, but these days it’s [mumbles in triplet] the mumble rap, people are loving it.”
But as the globalization of hip-hop and its culture begins to thrive outside the U.S., the cultural appropriation vs. appreciation conversation is inevitable. Just last year, San E drew some backlash from non-Korean fans for wearing dreads— a frequent occurrence with Korean artists who see the hairstyle as cool and don’t fully understand the nuances behind it. Mad Clown, however, seems more conscious. “As a hip-hop artist, it’s really important to know where it came from. So I’m always thankful of those pioneers of hip-hop music, like KRS-One,” he said. “It’s also our role to teach the roots of this culture to younger generations who want to be hip-hop artists in Korea.”
In 2015, “It G Ma” by the Korean rapper Keith Ape shook the blogosphere for its zany spin on OG Maco’s “U Guessed It.” The track knocked open the doors for K-rappers like Mad Clown and San E to amass recognition on U.S. soil, which has now manifested in a full-fledged tour. “In Korea, we’re doing lots of performances and we can say we’re used to crowds singing along to our songs together,” Jung said. “But like, I went to Canada and the U.S. and some other countries [previously] and there’s people who know our songs and we’re singing together. Music making us one, you know? It feels amazing, [and I’m] impressed and so thankful.”
Mad Clown and San E will be performing in Los Angeles at Union on Apr. 20. They promise they’ll perform all their hit songs, which according to San E, are about 20 to 30 songs. He counted.