Cultural Diversity / In English / Portraits

Korean rap wave sweeps foreign shores

The Korean-American rapper Okasian began on November 17th and 18th his first European tour. He evokes his future plans with the mainstream South Korean scene and the different appreciations of trap music genre across the world, causing him to experience most of his success outside South Korea. 

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Okasian (Photo via Instagram/chrt_okasian)

The Currency Exchange Tour #1 marks the beginning of the international journey for Korean- American rapper Okasian. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kim Ji-young aka Okasian now lives in South Korea, the country of his forebears. The rapper was introduced to rap music while in the USA: “ I started to listen to American rap during my sophomore years. I went through phases. I first started with Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa. Later one, I started to dig into underground New York rap music.” It is therefore logical to find heavy American rap influences in Okasian’s sound and clothing style. Yet, despite his US influences, the Seoul based rapper is a member of the Seoulite hip-hop crew, The Cohort. This collective is mainly composed of South Korean artists who firmly claim their Seoulite and Korean identity.

  Okasian’s American journey

Fluent in Korean and English, Okasian mixes eastern and western influences in his music and style as well as English and Korean lyrics. This clearly appeals to foreign listeners. Right after “It G Ma” became an international YouTube sensation, cumulating nearly 16 million views, it was revealed that 60% of its total views were from the United States. Right after his success, Okasian multiplied collaborations with American artists. Last March, along with other members from The Cohort, they became the first Korean rappers invited in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest music festival, one of the biggest of its kind in the world.

       Korean trap music pioneer

One specific particularity in Okasian’s sound is his unconditional love for a mainstream American rap genre called “Trap music”. This type of rap music born in the south of the United States started to emerge in the 90s. Relying heavily on 808 kick drums and melodic synthesizers, Trap music is principally listened to in United States, Canada and France. These circumstances cause Okasian to face limited success in South Korea.  “The standards are different in every region across the world but we are doing okay out here, even though it is not as good as we wished. Trap music is not mainstream here but Koreans are now catching up.” says the rapper.

 Against the traditional rap tide

By its unique sound, Okasian can be considered as the trailblazer of the Korean trap music in the Korean rap scene. Indeed, this American rap genre is not common in the Korean rap scene. In a country where K-pop rules the music industry with an iron fist, the Korean rap scene struggled for years in order to get exposition and media coverage in the peninsula. While the 90s represent the golden era of rap music in countries such as the United States and France, this decade coincides with the emergence of a small Korean rap scene. For a long time, rap in Korea was composed of a few true rap groups and rappers such as CB Mass and Drunken Tiger, who were listened by a very small niche audience. Because some K-pop bands have used rap in their songs and appropriated hip-hop codes within their style, it partially disrupted the development of a real Korean rap scene. Thus, for a long time, the only rap available on TV and the radio was a soften version of rap music mixed with K-pop and electro. Nonetheless, in the year 2000s, a new wave of Korean groups and rappers started to emerge and found mainstream success. One of the most iconic, Dynamic Duo, is a rap band composed of two rappers and producers, Choiza and Gaeko. Through the years, they have multiplied artistic collaborations with K-pop stars and bands. Nonetheless, unlike Okasian, Dynamic Duo never experienced international success. It seems that the band prefers to keep a sound and an identity strictly intended for their domestic market.

 From basements to spotlights

Despite a slow start from the 90s, hip-hop culture has been recently expanding in South Korea. A good example of this development is the broadcasting since 2012 of the popular hip-hop talent show, “Show Me The Money” on national TV. This show gathers a handful of underground rappers battling each other with the purpose to hit the lottery and to turn into the mainstream world. Despite his recent fame, Okasian never attended the show in the past. Yet, like every rapper in the country, he has kept an eye on it. “I’ve seen the show. Some of the rappers look really funny but some are real. Some dudes can rap. They can talk about real life story and have a real talent. They are not a lot but few of them.” 

Staying true to himself

Mixed success in South Korea does not seem to have altered Okasian’s mind as he does not plan on changing his style to fit the Korean public. He started his underground rap career in 2010 with his first solo project, “Preseason 1”. He signed a record deal the same year with Hi-Lite Records, a pretty small Korean independent music label.“I could change but it has to be natural. I could naturally be inspired by anything like other music or people I meet but I am not going to be like: ‘okay from this day on, I am going to change my style because I want to be this kind of rapper or that kind of rapper.’ If I change, it got to be through inspiration, not through the head but through the heart,” he confesses.

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Okasian (Photo via instagram/chrt_okasian)

 K-pop? Why not…

Thanks to collaborations Okasian and The Cohort keep adding new stones to the Korean rap edifice. By introducing Korean rap to the world, they are going where no Korean rappers have ever been before. Okasian and Cohort rapper Keith Ape both recently signed management deals with Los Angeles record label, CXSHXNLY (pronounced “cash only”), a premiere on the Korean rap scene. Despite his recent notoriety on the international rap stage, the Korean American revealed that he is still open to working with K-pop stars. I’m down to work with them but only if the song is dope. It is definitely a big move for me. That would be a blessing”. More than a blessing, if a collaboration with a major K-pop star is confirmed, the song would act as a benediction for numerous Korean music fans showing that Korean cultural wave just does not limit itself to K-drama and K-pop.

            

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