Korean rappers MCing in mother tongue

By Hong Dam-young

Published : Oct 8, 2017 - 17:24
Updated : Oct 9, 2017 - 15:54

From Jay-Z and Eminem to Kendrick Lamar, the biggest names in hip-hop rap in English – naturally, given that the genre was born in the US.

And as most Korean rappers cite American influence, their style inevitably reflects this, with a lot of their lyrics either being in English or using English words.

But a few are resisting the temptation, writing rhymes exclusively in Korean.

“If hip-hop music starts from wanting to express oneself as he or she is, I thought it was only natural that a Korean would rap in the Korean language,” MC Meta of Garion told The Korea Herald.

Garion, a pioneer of Korea’s underground hip-hop scene, is one of the few hip hop groups who refuse to even use “Yo,” or “What’s up?” -- two of the most well-worn phrases among Korean rappers -- in their lyrics. 

Garion (Garion’s official webpage)

Consisting of rappers MC Meta and Naachal, Garion has been rapping exclusively in Korean for more than 15 years, rather than mumbling badly constructed English phrases that render the lyrics almost incomprehensible.

The duo once had said that the simple reason they rap only in Korean is because listeners can understand the lyrics better and they find Korean lyrics more attractive.

English proficiency is a sign of high status in Korea, even more so in the 1990s when fewer people were fluent speakers.

This held true in music as well. K-pop acts often separately credited “rappers” and “English rappers.” For example, first generation boyband Shinhwa credited its member Jun Jin for “rap” and credited Eric Mun for “English rap” on its album cover.

There were times when most music fans would consider Korean rap less glamorous.

“That perception spread like the plague across the country,” said rapper Kim Ji-hwan, who also raps only in Korean under the stage name PK Heman.

“But there were times when rapping in English was frowned upon. I think it’s a matter of trend, just like the standard of being ‘hip’ keeps changing over time. And I think the controversy has all been settled. Rappers today care more about style or fashion these days.”

PK Heman (PK Heman)

A preference for English rapping is more than just following the hottest trend. Kim noted that English rap holds an edge over its Korean counterpart in terms of phonetics as well, such as rhyming and expression.

“English phrases can have multiple meanings depending on the situation, which allows for a more diverse content within a single beat or a segment,” he said. “Rhyming, for sure, is one of the biggest challenges in Korean-language rapping.”

With hip-hop being a cultural product that originates in the West, it is easy to consider Korean hip-hop as playing second. But Garion said that Korean hip-hop has its own identity and values.

“The popularity of shows like ‘Show Me the Money’ in itself demonstrates Korean hip-hop’s identity,” he said. “But I do think that we Korean rappers have the potential to express more things through music.”

There have been movements to commemorate Hangeul, the Korean writing system, by blending music and poetry that uses exclusively Korean language.

Such was the hip-hop-poetry concert called “Hip-hop Shidae (Hip-hop era)” held last year and broadcast on KBS, to celebrate Hangeul Day, in which local rappers, including Garion, DinDin and Kisum rapped verses written by poets. Hangeul Day, a day celebrating its creation by King Sejong, falls on Oct. 9 each year.

A scene from last year’s hip-hop-poetry concert “Hip-hop Sidae,” which was broadcast on KBS to celebrate Hangeul Day. (KBS)

Rappers like Kim also seek to spread the interest in Korean-only rap through pro bono lessons for teenagers with limited access to learning music.

He said he plans to hold a concert in High1 Resort in Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon Province for teenagers, which would consist mostly of Korean-only rap. This would be part of his ongoing effort to promote Korean-language hip-hop, and the unique value it upholds.

Through such events, Kim and others rappers seek to promote rapping in Korean, which he described was “more beautiful than half-baked English rap.”

“Korean language tends to express things in a more direct way, which means Korean rap delivers less substance in same volume compared to English. In this context, I’d say that the quality of Korean rappers’ lyrics are quite high.”

By Hong Dam-young (lotus@heraldcorp.com)

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The Korea Herald by Herald Corporation