From an outsider’s perspective, it would be easy to dismiss South Korea as the land of K-Pop and nothing more. But if you go underground, in search of something a little more provocative, you’ll find yourself faced with a breadth of Korean rappers making some seriously great work that’s worthy of your attention.
While some of the country’s hottest talents are making their name through the reality show route, appearing on South Korea’s own X-Factor-style program of rap competition called Show Me the Money (SMTM, for short), many are simply hustling through the club scene or making their names online.
From potential successors to G-DRAGON to the moseying sad boys of Seoul, these are the 10 fresh acts making a mark on Korea’s hip-hop scene that you’d be foolish to ignore.
A devout Christian who also manages to have one of the most celebrated rap careers in Korea, BewhY rose to fame last summer as the winner of Show Me the Money. His style is notably much poppier than his peers, but he’s got the flow to justify his burgeoning fanbase. BewhY’s been making music since he was a 19-year-old kid growing up in Incheon, just outside of Seoul, but has only recently grabbed the country’s attention with his SMTM win. His latest collab with Dok2, "9UCCI BANK" has solidified his starry status, and it features so much Alessandro Michele-designed gear that it might just make your head spin.
A self confessed “underground rockstar,” Changmo is considered young blood on the hip-hop scene. Now 23 years old, he originally released a debut record under a rookie label before switching to Ambition Musik, allowing him to rub shoulders with rap legends like the label’s founder, Dok2.
His feature on K-Pop star Hyolyn's tropical house single "Blue Moon" was crazily successful, shifting over a million copies and becoming his biggest hit to date. This summer, he was the only Asian act to be nominated for a BET Award, so while he may not be an international household name quite yet, don’t be surprised if he becomes the next rapper to achieve mainstream success outside of his home country.
Another former contestant of SMTM - in the Class of 2016 - 22-year-old Hash Swan has gone on to do some great stuff after graduating from South Korea’s respected TV rap school. Based in Seoul as part of the six-strong Holmes Crew, he’s run with a crowd who admitted to starting to make hip-hop in order to impress girls, and is signed to Dok2’s Ambition Musik alongside Changmo.
As well as being an in-demand feature artist – check him out collabing with Changmo, dressed in SS17 Gosha, on "One More Rollie" – he’s proved himself to be a dominating force in hip-hop going solo too, producing three killer records so far.
Mixing smooth, R&B vocals with a relentless flow, QUAIMO is a young, independent rap staple on the Seoul scene, currently signed to the rookie label Prima Music. He was one of the label’s founding artists, and has grabbed some modest love on SoundCloud for his debut EP, G.U.R.N (Goin’ Up Right Now) that dropped back in January 2017.
Helmed entirely by an elusive, underground producer named Fanxi Plan and making melodic nods to artists like Drake, G.U.R.N is a convincing collection of hip-hop and R&B that would sit well with a wider-reaching rap crowd.
Having started out on the underground scene as a naive 19-year-old back in 2013, H1GHR Music signee SiK-K has gone on to become one of the most active rappers flexing in South Korea today. Working under the helm of industry royalty Jay Park, he’s released two full length albums: 2016’s FLIP and this year’s H.A.L.F.
Often caught donning a Gucci do-rag, his music video aesthetic stretches from the crazy low budget ("Get That Money") to the glossy and expensive, but they always wind up being wild, stylish and memorable.
Taking a much more traditional approach to making hip-hop than many of his pop-tinged colleagues, Unusual is a fairly anonymous young rapper; the only thing we can gauge – based on his SoundCloud – is that he was born in 1994 and that his name might be Joe.
Regardless of his elusive status, he’s pretty damn great at what he’s doing. Rapping over quintessential trap/hip-hop beats, his guerrilla-style video for "Van Gogh" contains sleepy businessmen, crotch shots, and nighttime snooping on LV stores.
Would this list even be complete without at least one act who has undoubtedly drawn some inspiration from everybody’s favorite sad boy, Yung Lean? Seoul-based WET BOYZ, comprised of rapper-slash-producers HOMEBOY and HARUHI, are a product of the meme generation: fascinating, memorable and sort of baffling.
Check out their berry-based collab with fellow Top 10er Zene the Zilla (more on him shortly) above to get a real flavor of what they’re all about, or if you’re in the mood for something a little bleaker, their Yu-Gi-Oh love song should do the trick.
With a mane of orange hair and a brattish style of rhyme delivery, Woodie Gochild is a member of Young Thug Club’s extended crew, and a graduate of this year’s series of Show Me the Money.
His Instagram following might dwarf his musical output right now, but from what we’ve seen of him already, he has the kind of promising flow and left-field aesthetic that Western hip-hop audiences eat up. Expect to hear more from him as he rounds out 2017 with live sets and collaborations with other Young Thug Club artists across Seoul.
They might have been relatively silent recently, but South Korean duo XXX, signed to BANA Records, are one of the most subversive hip-hop products the country (and the music industry as a whole) has been blessed with. Completely forgoing the stereotypical, talent show path, rapper Kim Ximya and producer FRNK work together to produce dark hip-hop with a frenetic electro edge.
Their videos are something special too - animated; imaginative; unsettling; eye-catching; they bring the duo’s vision to life flawlessly. XXX: more of this, please – and soon.
Zene the Zilla
Zene the Zilla, also known as Moneycolored Hair, could be considered a rapper, singer, or an artist based on the quality of his IG game. As part of the Young Thugs Club – alongside Dox-A and Rakon – he’s a cool purveyor of chilled out, dreamily-produced trap pop.
“Maybe I'm a ghost / So I'm writing a diary because I don’t wanna be forgotten,” he warbles over an incongruously chirpy beat on "Ghost," his latest track. This guy’s good for fans of carefree, catchy rap tracks that don’t try too hard to be taken seriously.
For more like this, take a look at our picks for the 12 Australian hip-hop acts you need to know right here.