xxx korean duo highsnobiety
Highsnobiety

XXX’s Kim Ximya and FRNK came together in the most modern of ways – through an online forum – but their role in the burgeoning South Korean hip-hop scene harkens back decades to artists like Public Enemy and N.W.A. At the core of their work, which includes November’s kinetic debut album Language and this February’s Second Language, the pair is calling attention to the flaws in their country’s rap culture, which produces readymade superstars at the expense of a thoughtful middle class of artist. With Second Language, they’ve capped a three-year run that has made the duo one of Asia’s most acclaimed groups in the genre – at least outside of their home country.

“The Korean hip-hop community is built off of this reality audition program [Show Me the Money],” Ximya explains. “The underground scene was there, and then the audition program blows up and the whole underground scene went to audition for that show and very few were left. The underground scene just disappeared as a result.”

With the duo’s propensity for incorporating genres like house and IDM into their sound, along with their commitment to honest, insightful lyrics, XXX is blazing its own trail. The two are thriving in a space that feels as removed from the reality show sheen of Show Me the Money as it does from the early, unhinged work of Keith Ape and The Cohort. Once Ximya and FRNK began working together, they suddenly found themselves with plenty of time to collaborate when the other members of their newly formed crew had to deploy for mandatory military service.

xxx korean duo highsnobiety
Highsnobiety

“I became part of the collective, and then the other crew members actually went to serve in the army, so that’s when we started making music together,” Ximya recalls.

They have come a long way from their first release, 2016’s KYOMI EP. FRNK’s beats used to be harsh and serrated, with violent synths and drums, but on Language and Second Language, he’s shown an ability to smooth his sound out, which makes the jagged bits cut even deeper when he needs them to. Songs like “Ooh Ah” have a Kaytranada-esque bounce, while others like “Arranged” are guttural and confrontational, recalling the production work of JPEGMAFIA. Often, Ximya’s vocals are pitch-shifted, diced to pieces, or otherwise manipulated, something that the rapper says takes place only after he’s recorded atop a more skeletal iteration of the beat.

“FRNK starts making a loop, just a simple loop. Then, I write on it, then I record it, and then FRNK turns it into a full-length song, which has a lot of drops and chopping of vocals and everything is actually post-produced,” he says.

XXX thrives on the unpredictability of its sound, as a song like “We Are” starts off with warm synths and bouncy bongos, only to give way to rumbling sub bass and distorted vocal snippets. It’s a far cry from what they made when they first began working together, back when Ximya was struggling to get a bar in edgewise atop FRNK’s more soulful instrumentals.

xxx korean duo highsnobiety
Highsnobiety

“Originally FRNK was making an R&B and jazz album. I had maybe two or three verses on it, but then I complained about how small of a part of the album I was, so we decided to make another one,” Ximya says with a laugh. “It was all me rapping, the beats became more hip-hop. I think that was when we actually started making hip-hop music.”

FRNK says the group is “quickly moving towards a different style,” though he chooses not to define exactly what that will be. He cites the pair’s strong chemistry as a key reason that they can make sonic pivots without worrying about the results, and notes that in the streaming era it’s much easier to find a receptive audience to left-field music online.

Though released months apart, Language and Second Language clearly share an alphabet, as XXX was so enthused after finishing the first album that FRNK and Ximya simply stayed in the studio and continued to record.

xxx korean duo highsnobiety
Highsnobiety

“We just made another one back-to-back, right after we made Language. Then, Second Language was done, so we were still desperate and the albums still weren’t coming out, so we just made some more,” Ximya says. “We could just say that we made 26 tracks on the spot, it was not like a separate work.”

That urgency comes across in Ximya’s blistering delivery, and his technical skills are consistently on display as he finds pockets within FRNK’s unconventional percussion. On songs like “Bougie,” his cascading flow is slightly reminiscent of Chance the Rapper, while on “Scale Model” his staccato delivery recalls Eminem. Ximya’s rapping is pointed and deliberate throughout, so that even a listener with no knowledge of Korean can feel the weight of his bars and grasp some central themes through the occasional English line. As Pitchfork wrote in their positive review of Language, “XXX cuss in two different languages to get the point across.”

Ximya started speaking English in kindergarten, and has a knack for picking the perfect spot to switch languages for emphasis as he does on “Ooh Ah” (“Now I’m out this motherfucker/ I’m done with stats and numbers”). Still, he says that his message remains consistent in both tongues, a pointed critique of Korean rap’s infrastructure and status quo, including Show Me the Money, which has spawned many popular rappers like Hangzoo, Bobby, and Loco since its first season in 2012.

xxx korean duo highsnobiety
Highsnobiety

“I think I’m pretty much saying the same things, how the system is rotten and it should be broken and everything,” Ximya says. “I always have tension with other rappers.”

While it seems like a steady reign in the Korean underground is all but assured, XXX recognizes that they’re in a position to bend the definition of their country’s most ubiquitous musical export, K-Pop, to potentially include their singular style. But they know that change on that scale won’t come by sneaking in the backdoor of a nearly $5 billion industry, and Ximya compares the impact they hope to have to an artist bucked by the very sound of rap’s birthplace, only to become one of its biggest stars.

“It’s like when A$AP Rocky first came out. He took shots about how he didn’t sounds like he was from New York, but he became one of the biggest just by doing what he wanted to. He still carries the title of ‘New York rapper,’ but I think he was one of the first artists to change how people think about New York,” Ximya says. “I think [with more of] these types of rap artists doing whatever they want, [there won’t be the] stereotypical, ‘This type of rapper makes this style of music.’ These kind of come together in mixes, so if our music could be defined as K-Pop, then the cultural definition behind K-Pop could change, and be defined differently right now.”

  • Photography: Bryan Luna
Words by Grant Rindner