Rap music is no foreign genre in South Korea. Since the ‘90s, many Korean artists have established their careers by echoing early American hip-hop, with many achieving substantial commercial success by fusing rap bars with the infectious, radio-friendly sounds of K-pop.
But there’s a new wave of emerging emcees who are currently changing up The Land of the Morning Calm’s rap game in a big way. Fueled by the potency of social media and youth internet culture, these artists have been amassing global recognition thanks to their experimental street-meets-east aesthetics, penchant for au courant rap trends and dazzling visuals.
While many of these artists are considered pop deities in their native land, fans across the Atlantic have increasingly started to regard them as not just novelties, but legitimate members of the rap community.
Because we love a good subgenre as well as an artist with a no holds barred fashion sense, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite Korean rappers with the brazen talent and style to boot.
Spearheading the recent K-rap boom is none other than Keith Ape: the grill-wearing, BAPE-loving emcee whose viral hit “It G Ma” was the talk around the cyber cooler in 2015. The song, along with its raw video that pierced into the zany zeitgeist of South Korea’s rap scene, was an instant YouTube sensation in the United States and boosted Ape’s status from niche underground act, to buzzy blogosphere mainstay. The song’s popularity later spawned a remix video that featured the likes of A$AP Ferg, Father, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka, eventually leading Ape and his fellow Cohort crew collective (aka the Odd Future of South Korea) to embark on several tours across the U.S. and Canada.
Aside from his outré rapping style, which fuses Korean and Japanese lyrics with Southern trap music, Keith Ape’s sartorial swag is defined by face masks, tattered denim, metal T-shirts and a slew of hype machine staples – BAPE, Supreme and Palace, in particular – all while frequently clutching a bottle of makgeolli. Ape’s steez has managed to twinkle the retina of the fashion community, too; the rapper made his New York Fashion Week debut at the VFILES SS16 show where he performed his global call-to-fame single, “It G Ma.”
You might recognize CL (née Lee Chae-rin) as one of the faces of Alexander Wang’s #WangGang. In fact, only a few days ago, the songstress revealed the brand’s SS16 campaign she’s currently featured in. Yet CL’s first introduction to the adoring masses came courtesy of another fashionable musician, namely G-Dragon and his band, Big Bang.
CL was featured on an intro for the group in 2007 before going on to be placed as lead rapper in the girl group 2NE1. Aside from her love of Wang, you can spot her in anything from varsity jackets to high-couture gowns; the common factor is that everything has an ultra-sexy street edge.
While Keith Ape may be the headlining name behind the viral supernova “It G Ma,” a worthy shoutout should also be given to another one of the song’s collaborators, Okasian (pronounced “occasion”). Also a member of The Cohort, Okasian, who actually discovered Ape as a teen, has been a significant game-changer in K-Rap’s underground for years.
Having spent periods of residency in both the U.S. (where he was born) and Seoul, Okasian’s style bridges the gap between contemporary American and Asian rap landscapes, producing a sound that, while heavily tinged by the genre’s Stateside forefathers, preserves an authentic rawness that’s strongly rooted in the rapper’s Korean ethnicity.
Okasian’s style is slightly more esoteric than his Cohort counterparts. Whether it’s ratchet goth crooner in a vintage Marilyn Manson tee, cross earring and fur-lined black parka, or normcore noob in a baseball cap, Burberry scarf and pinstripe grandpa sweater, Okasian’s getups are almost always cause for Instagram raucous.
If South Korea crossbred Justin Bieber with Usher, the end product would be the pomade-haired, cross tattoo-bearing pretty boy known as Taeyang. After being recruited by mammoth Seoul-based company YG Entertainment at the tender age of 12, Taeyang (meaning “sun”) would go on to make his big debut as a member of the boy band Big Bang in 2006. Predominately a rapper in the beginning of his career, the artist would later abandon emceeing in lieu of a more pop/R&B style of singing – though he still occasionally peppers rap verses in his tracks from time to time.
In 2010, the singer dropped his first LP, Solar, which landed the number two spot on iTunes’ Top R&B/Soul albums chart in the United States and number one in Canada’s, making him the first Asian musician to do so. Four years later, Taeyang’s global stardom would reach new levels when his second LP, RISE, hit number one on all charts in Korea as well as on iTunes’ Top R&B/Soul albums chart in over 19 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Russia, Hong Kong and Denmark. Now, several record-breaking feats and hairstyles later, Taeyang continues to reign as one of South Korea’s leading pop figures.
Seoul-born rapper, singer and songwriter G-Dragon made his mainstream debut with the music group Big Bang after having spent six years prior as a trainee under the group’s record label, YG Entertainment. Though initially he wanted to be a singer, he took up rapping after discovering Wu Tang Clan.
Style-wise, G-Dragon has always been highly experimental, consistently being described as the “most fashionable” member of Big Bang. In 2015, Business of Fashion voted him among its 500 Global Fashion Leaders. These days he can be spotted rocking grills and posing with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld (while swathed in Chanel) to one of his own musical idols, Pharrell Williams.
The leader of one of South Korea’s most prominent boy bands, Block B, rapper/producer Zico first delved into hip-hop during his early teenage years, promoting South Korea’s underground rap scene under the name “Nacseo.” After joining Block B in 2011, the rapper would go on to achieve massive mainstream credibility thanks to his demanding stage presence, crossover writing skills and vivacious personality.
Splitting time between the band and his own solo work, Zico is also a distinguished fashion week fixture thanks to his audacious, urban-influenced style and gender-bending, slightly effeminate flare – something that fuses his underground reputation with his commercial boy band appeal.
When this YG Entertainment signee isn’t exchanging lyrical barbs with fellow emcee Rap Monster, he is one of the members of the idol group iKON. Style-wise, Bobby has proven to be a bit of a chameleon, boasting a look that ranges from positively schoolboy-esque to dapper suiting a la GQ. Apparently, the sartorial world is his oyster and he’ll wear what he pleases.
If Beenzino sounds eerily similar to Benzino, it’s because the name is indeed a parody. However, the Illionaire-signed emcee’s career is still alive and thriving (no shade to Benzino). While he frequently collaborates with labelmates Dok2 and The Quiett, he’s also not afraid to do his own thing. Sartorially, he mixes it up too, and has been spotted in everything from Supreme to custom Illionaire snapbacks, BBC, Saturdays, SOPHNET. and much, much more.
Born in South Korea and raised in Atlanta, Jung San, known professionally as San E, first landed notoriety after winning the “Best Hip Hop Song” accolade at the 2010 Korean Music Awards for his hit track, “Rap Genius.” After becoming the first solo rap artist to sign with JYP Entertainment, San E’s success would spear through the South Korean charts. The rapper ultimately left JYP in 2013, now releasing music via Brand New Music where he continues to churn out hits, drop bars and capture fans with his “clean” GQ-meets-suburban mall kid style.
Another unsung collaborator on “It G Ma” and member of The Cohort, JayAllDay’s name is maybe not one buzzing around too much yet, but keep watch; the rapper’s notoriety is burgeoning in a big way. Though he may have been caught in the comet trail of the song’s 20 plus million Youtube views, JayAllDay is paving his own way in the Korean rap sphere, dropping a few laudable solo efforts including the infectious trap banger “Sirens.” Recently featured in LA label C2H4’s “A Fucked Up Collection For a Fucked Up World” lookbook, the rapper’s style holds an avant street aesthetic on par to his fellow Cohort brethren.
Dok2 may be young, but that hasn’t stopped him from establishing his own indie hip-hop label, Illionaire, with fellow rapper The Quiett. A long time student of rap music, Dok2 has collaborated with everyone from Drunken Tiger, Bobby, G-Dragon and more. His personal flow seems to favor Southern rap and his fashion sense isn’t far behind. You’ll find him in snapbacks, hoodies and jerseys, complete with chains, rings and more.
The Quiett is yet another seasoned emcee with quite a lot of experience under his belt. As co-founder of Illionaire records, he has been on the vanguard of the South Korean hip-hop movement. He’s also arguably on the vanguard of style. Quiett frequently blends high-fashion looks with more streetwear-centric styles, proving that one can indeed be a gentleman in Timbs.
- GIF Art: Dominik Schulte / Highsnobiety
- Carousel Image: InStyle Magazine