Renowned for K Pop, South Korea has a rich heritage in contemporary music terms, however in this exhaustive guide, Getintothis’ Dominic Finlay takes a deeper look at what’s on offer.
Statues, murals and buskers. You’ll find those in spades on Mathew Street, and likewise on Kim Kwang-seok Street in Daegu, South Korea.
Along the narrow alleyway, filled to the brim with music and visitors, people pay tribute to an incredibly popular musician – yet one barely known outside of his native country.
Kim Kwang Seok was a beloved folk rock artist, active from the late 80s until his apparent suicide in 1996. His delicate acoustic songs captured the hearts of many listeners, and ultimately they remain here, in his hometown, on a street with his name.
Places like this give hints about Korea’s music culture. So too do the highstreet shops blaring out speaker-busting hip-hop, the unavoidable karaoke rooms dotting every row of buildings, and the earworm K-pop tunes with millions of views on YouTube.
There’s a lot to experience here, but the majority is hidden beneath a very big, very loud layer of sound. K-POP is probably the first thing people know about Korea’s music; titan corporations like JYP and CJ Entertainment are responsible for the efficient and consistent manufacture of clean, catchy hits.
Building-size billboard ads in cultural trend-setting locations like Tokyo are just the tip of K-POP’s Asian domination; legions of tourists are undoubtedly swayed to visit Korea purely from their love of the small country’s pop sensations.
So large is their influence that many pop stars from neighbouring countries will come to Korea to make it big, eschewing their own country’s styles for a distinctly Korean one – TWICE and EXO are both ludicrously popular groups with foreign members, to name a few.
Nowadays the megastars have found success worldwide: something Koreans call ‘hallyu’, the Korean wave. Korean artists are no longer strangers to Western popularity – experienced boy band Big Bang have sold out stadiums worldwide, including several Wembley performances.
BTS are a bonafide sensation, appearing on American TV and attracting a rabid fanbase from across the globe.
The underground also seems bound for the same path. Fiery Korean rapper Keith Ape saw incredible success off the back of his tri-lingual trap hit ‘It G Ma’, and followed this up with a string of collaborations with top American rappers.
Even UK genres are on their way up too; one of Korea’s few grime MCs, Damdef, sees big things for the future. “I think grime is the next wave,” he told London-based company Beatcraze Events.
Co-signed by grime figurehead JME, he’s just one of many artists who bridge the gap between the UK and South Korea’s music. The clearest example of this is his single ‘Do It’, which, after a good reception online, prompted a remixed version featuring Korean, British and Japanese MCs.
Liverpool has delved into the Korean music scene, having hosted Korean bands at the Sound City festival and sent British acts to Seoul’s Zandari Festa. More and more, record labels and music journalists are beginning to see Korea as the peninsula full of potential that it truly is.
However, Korea’s current musical victories may come as a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the country. Within living memory, the nation was desperately poor and lacked any kind of music scene. But their economy grew exponentially, and their music followed suit. How did this come to be?
Here’s a short version.
55 years ago, when The Beatles were releasing their debut album Please Please Me, South Korean president Park Chung-Hee’s 18-year regime was in its infancy. His leadership would see the war-wounded country skyrocket into becoming one of the world’s top economies, while simultaneously suppressing the nation mercilessly.
Music was censored or outright banned in order to curb anti-government sentiments and foreign influences. The so-called ‘godfather of Korean rock’, Shin Jung-hyeon, was imprisoned for refusing to write a praiseworthy song about President Park.
Some music did make it out relatively untouched, like the gorgeous psych-rock album ‘Now’ by Kim Jung-mi or the legendary songs of Cho Yong-pil, but for most, it was an awful time for Korean music.
Dance music became the zeitgeist in the 80s and 90s, fusing electronic beats with catchy songwriting. Come the turn of the millennium, a lot of Korea’s current trends were starting to form.
1999’s ‘Sexy Man’, a song by Space A, features an upbeat club instrumental, a rap verse and lead vocals drawing from ‘trot’, a genre it would be remiss not to mention.
‘Trot’ is a type of Korean music that’s often cheesy, but always fun. Hop in a Korean taxi or witness a business meeting turn to a karaoke session and you’ll hear it.
Generally a favourite of older generations, but loved in a way that 80s pop is loved by young Brits today, trot has been around for a long time and isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Noughties saw the start of Korean pop’s rise. More talent, more money, more fame. And in 2018, the ongoing musical trend is undoubtedly hip-hop, which might be a reflection of the current global influences, but I would also suggest that there’s an organic reason for this: the nature of the Korean language is such that it’s perfectly suited to rap.
A tendency for consonants to politely stay away from each other and let vowels end the majority of syllables results in rap verses that flow almost effortlessly from line to line (check out Keith Ape’s incredible guest verse in Chinese rap group Higher Brothers’ ‘WeChat’ to hear this in action). There’s a deep roster of rap talent in Korea, and it only seems to be growing.
Many Korean rappers have been swayed by the charts, which can sometimes be a bad thing; the UK grime scene became watered down and stale when labels began relentlessly signing MCs to fish the next big hit, and the same could happen in Asia.
The UK scene was resuscitated by a small core of forward-thinking artists though, and Korea is not lacking these dedicated youngsters.
Pop/Rap crossovers might simply be Korean genre fluidity and only time will tell how this develops.
This being said, hip-hop seems to be one of the few subcultures in Korea that has managed to gain traction. While metalheads, punks and goths seem almost non-existent, walk the streets of Seoul and you’re bound to see some of the most expensive, flashy hip-hop attire in the world.
Elsewhere, the amoebas EDM draws many to to festivals like ‘Ultra’, but has yet to divide neatly into the numerous genres that the UK hosts in their own separate clubs, venues and compilation albums.
Fashion and identity, then, are a few things that are different between our country and theirs. Korea likely has fewer people who fervently follow, and exclusively listen to, just one area of music.
Given South Korea’s youth as a nation, and its music’s freedom being even younger, the scene is still growing. Watch some Korean DJ sets and you’ll feel a raw passion and exuberant energy, a sense that it could go in any direction.
“It’s not as tribal as say the UK scene,” says Edward Povey, a Seoul-based Brit who runs the ‘Future Sounds from Korea’ podcast. He continues:
“In the UK we’ve had decades of different music scenes, each defined quite clearly in terms of geography, venues, fashions, demographic, etc. When I was growing up, these different scenes were very segmented. But in Korea, the scenes seem a lot more fluid and interconnected. I can’t imagine tribalism and animosity between these scenes here.”
One reason for the lack of animosity is the country’s undeniably tight sense of community. That said, there are occasional tensions within the scene: one of the few being the relationship between the chart-oriented, manufactured groups and their smaller counterparts.
Rapper B-Free is well aware of this; after a rather inoffensive exchange of words with a few of supergroup BTS’ members, he suffered the wrath of the so-called ‘BTS Army’, that is, their fans.
B-Free’s music videos were flooded with dislikes and negative comments: on his song ‘Hot Summer’, one reads, “Hot Summer? What’s your next song, Cold Winter?”
Ouch, they got him good. It’s a sad sight when megastars’ fans attack, and possibly stifle, growing talents. This might be why, when answering my question, “Where do you see the Korean music scene headed in the next five years?”
Povey responded with:
“Hopefully more crews, more producers, and more infrastructure. I’d like to see more people playing out live rather than DJing and a more unique sound in Seoul. Also, less K-pop and young people turning away from corporate music.”
Whether or not pop music directly inhibits the development of smaller scenes is an issue that many countries surely discuss.
For South Korea, it’s a more pertinent problem given its youth. That said, the constant exposure to musicians and singers in Korean media, whether it be a simple appearance on a variety show or a full-fledged music programme like the omnipresent rap competition ‘Show Me the Money’, has gotten young people thinking that there might really be something to the music business.
Given time, the attention that these stars enjoy might trickle down to others. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Korea’s independent bands given some airspace through platforms like Liverpool’s Sound City. It’s not as easy to find and research Korea’s indie bands as you might think, so the efforts of Sound City are simply brilliant.
So there’s something in the air on the Korean peninsula – whether it be the sparks of a coming storm or the lingering energy of the past – and the new generations are the perfect people to harness it.
These kids, grandchildren of war and poverty and brutal regimes but raised in the arms of the internet, are passionate, proud of their country and poised to make their mark on the world. Their sense of community and work ethic are two factors that help ensure they will.
Dip your toes in: 5 recommendations for a broad vision of the past, present and future of South Korean music.
- “Haenim (The Sun)” – Kim Jeong-mi / Shin Jung-Hyeon
Released in ‘73 during the depths of an oppressive, censorious presidency, the aforementioned rock legend Shin Jung-Hyeon and the silky-voiced Kim Jung-mi create a moving vision of a better world.
- “Turning Thirty” – Kim Kwang-Seok
A slow-burning, wistful song from the legendary Korean songwriter mentioned at the beginning of this article.
- “Woodstock” – Swiimers
Pristine and chillingly ethereal Korean indie tune. Swiimers have previously visited Liverpool as part of Sound City.
- “The Villains” – VMC
Golden age hip-hop posse-cut chock full of killer verses and a head-bob inducing hook
- “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” – Peggy Gou
Signed to Ninja Tune, Peggy Gou has been making waves in the world of house music with her signature blend of European and Korean stylings. Her casual vocals meld with retro grooves to create something that feels both old and new.