A month after his 31st Birthday, Kendrick Lamar performed in Seoul. An extremely rare occurrence, and one that will leave its mark on Korean hip-hop culture forever.
Hip-Hop in South Korea is growing faster than any other region outside North America and Europe.
I’ve always seen hip-hop within South Korea as a unique scene, that has seen extremely heavy outside influence from three specific events throughout its history.
Nas released Illmatic in 1994, and changed the level which Koreans digest, formulate, and perceive relativity in rap music, through raw and gritty lyricism and classic 90’s production. A voice to latch onto, that resonated beyond others.
Nujabes performed Modal Soul in 2006, easing tension between two countries — this made Korean and Japanese hip-hop listeners step back and focus on the culture, sacrificing hate for curiosity.
Kanye West performed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 at Naksan Beach, and challenged the Korean hip-hop base to break doors, challenge their own creativity.
The fourth will be Kendrick Lamar’s performance in Seoul this past week.
A mix of all three.
asir “Nas” Jones: Relativity
As an artist, Nas emulates intelligence through the art form of hip-hop; Illmatic is the extract.
That’s, more or less, verbatim of what you’ll hear if you ask anyone in the Korean hip-hop scene about Nas, from the immortal legends and OG’s like Verbal Jint, Tablo, Tiger JK, and others, to the teenage SoundCloud artists emulating white noise trap music.
Nas is one of the most revered artists of all-time in Korea, rap or otherwise — the level at which Illmatic resonated with Koreans’ life situations is, at times, unparalleled by any other piece of hip-hop.
Lyrics of how life is at times a mental prison, preventing creation or positivity, to how difficult it sometimes is to make it in the real world — the resonation which emanated from such rhymes struck the hearts of many Koreans.
Parallels between African American oppression stateside resulted in Koreans drawing lines to the oppression of the Korean psyche, locally — living in Seoul, without a soul.
Jun “Nujabes” Seba: Vibes
Jun Seba, better known as Nujabes, is among one of the most revered producers to ever grace the music scene, especially in Japan and Korea, for the vibes that emanated off his music. A heavenly bliss. Not to mention his cult-like following of Samurai Champloo’s OST.
Lucy Dayman of Culture Trip wrote an incredible piece about how Nujabes shaped the future of hip-hop.
If Korean hip-hop was the ground, Nujabes’ influence on Asian production was a lightning rod.
Nujabes bridged a gap and ease tension between Japan and Korea through his beats; tension that has lasted since 1945, going back to Japanese rule. His music allowed the younger generation of individuals to look past this (and politics), while connecting through a common interest — hip-hop.
This was an achievement that often goes unheard of, and unappreciated, when speaking of Nujabes’ legacy, yet it plays a fundamental part in the construct of what we know today as the Korean hip-hop scene.
Nujabes’ Modal Soul concert in 2006 connected two music scenes, and beyondthat, two countries.
Kanye West: Freedom of Thought
Kanye West. The most polarizing and controversial figure arguably in hip-hop’s history, yet someone who is often considered the most prolific artist of all-time due to his faults, flaws, and honesty.
Now add one of the most critically-acclaimed hip-hop albums ever made.
Now have the artist perform said album at one of the most popular beaches for tourism in Korea.
Enter the 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tour at Naksan Beach.
The result? A hard and heavy grind against the grain of what was known or expected, and opening of doors never before considered. On a beach, with people wiggling their feet into the sand, losing their minds over an artist with a sound and aesthetic never before latched onto.
It’s very rare for the idea of an unrestricted mind to enter into the Korean music scene, as when it does, it’s usually found to have heavy damage control applied, or straight shunned — remember Jay Park’s fallout? Kanye has never been afraid of anything similar, that’s what makes him idolized. In a country where academics and reputation mean everything, Kanye exhausts these aspects, letting people know it’s alright to be different.
In fact, this concert encouraged such behavior, and succeeded.
I started my trek and headed towards the Stadium, taking the 2 line towards Jamsil. Flocks of people could be seen going in and out of the turntables for the subway, as the train approached.
Thousands of people migrating from various parts of Seoul, converging on the 2 Line.
Among the smell of sweat and cigarettes, I walked past the lone mart on the way to the stadium entrance. Vendors left and right selling fake merchandise, and not hiding the fact that it was fake either. Regardless, they were selling it out like hot cakes. Plain black shirts with DAMN. written in green seemed to be the crowd’s favorite.
Finally, I was in. Well, sort of. I was in essentially a human holding tank, the main stadium used in the ’88 Seoul Olympics, waiting on staff to sort us out to migrate us over to where SiR was opening up.
Beyond that, everyone was hyped up. SiR name-dropped Kendrick a few times to get the crowd energized, and assured them after one more song, the King would be coming out. Everyone was ready.
After a few commercials on the boards, it was time. Kendrick appeared. It was quite a surreal experience — to actually see the guy who made the albums I had listened to on repeat non-stop throughout all of high school and university.
A larger-than-life and seemingly godlike figure within the hip-hop scene was standing just a few hundred feet in front of me on one of Korea’s largest stages. I knew that his performance was about to shift the way people look at hip-hop in Korea, especially the people attending live.
The Recognition of Real Rhymes
Through his masterworks, Kendrick has become an iconic figure of music on a global scale. Through the relativity of his raps, the vibes by which he carries those raps, and the way he killed the conscious rapper by, in part, challenging the way we think about ourselves and the world, questioning whether or not we’ve pushed our own limits of creation and expression.
As I listened to Kendrick rap, it was evident the crowd didn’t know the lyrics, unable to rap along with him — except they did know the lyrics. They just couldn’t speak the lyrics — many wonder how this is possible — this is largely in part due to a separate issue, dealing with the exam structure and methods of teaching English within Asia, showcased in part within this video.
As some of his most known and famous bars were spit, audible “ooh’s” could be heard. This may seem like a small and worthless detail, but the subtle influence builds upon itself over time. It adds up. From fashion and music, to societal constructs and product design, Western influence has always been massive in Korea.
A Perfect Blend
Once the foundation of Nas’ influence with Illmatic was marked, an artist’s influence was constricted and limited if they did not come to Korea to perform. Why this has gone without an objective answer, but is supported by the general trends that the local scene has seen. Perhaps, everything was compared to Illmatic, and without a gross or stark contrast, was panned. Until Kendrick and good kid, m.A.A.d city.
The thematic, yet linear story of GKMC caught Korean listeners by surprise. A height of relativity that hadn’t been seen since Nas in ’94, with a more modern sound and different story. A refreshing take on what hip-hop could be, and insight into real life external struggle, outside of mental imprisonment.
We have not witnessed a 7-year+ reign of the hip-hop scene in Korea which Kendrick has held, as an outsider, since Nas. I would argue that although Kanye’s influence is massive, it is dwarfed in Asia by Nas’, due to his relativity.
Although his first performance in Korea, Kendrick has left his mark, with a 75-minute set that rattled the brains of listeners, and left them star-struck.
Despite technical glitches and record heat, as reported by the Korean Herald, the lasting impression left will not be scratched. He is cementing a legacy that will forever be ingrained within the annals of hip-hop, as a global superstar that ascended beyond and all expectations.
He has done what is seemingly impossible, and given the trifecta of aspects to Korean hip-hop, and meshed them together in an orchestra of art — his music, and has blasted that art literally and metaphorically as loud as humanly possible to the masses, hoping to soak into the ears of his fans.
Kendrick Lamar comes out on top.
He is the voice Koreans have been seeking out for 25 years in hip-hop, a voice not to replace, but rather run alongside Nas’ — a refreshing take on what kind of world we live in, and inspiration to take the leak when we are unsure of ourselves, to achieve our dreams. Told through the eyes of a kid from Compton, California.
In a society where many people work countless hours a week to support their families, birth rates are among the lowest in the world, and suicide rates are off the charts, Kendrick Lamar’s music gives hope to the hopeless. His music speaks to those out there who are not living, but rather, existing day-to-day.
As we see a paradigm shift in Korean hip-hop, we should appreciate that we are witnessing something never seen before by a foreign artist. The fourth event, from an outsider, to shape Korean hip-hop.
Kendrick Lamar, the soul of Seoul.
Korea, we’re in a historic moment right now. I want you all to know that.