Korean Rappers, American Collaborations & International Success

When Keith Ape dropped ‘It G Ma’, much attention was placed on it due to its similarity to American hip hop, allowing it to transcend a language barrier via familiarity. As the latest attempt from him and his Cohort pals at trying on explosive trap hits, it’s essentially an (improved) rework of OG Maco’s ‘U Guessed It’, revealing how deep Korean hip hop’s fascination with its American counterpart is, which has been an extremely one-sided fascination. However, since ‘It G Ma’, khiphop has started to make its presence felt to western audiences, leading to a growing trend Korean and American rappers collaborating.

The viral success of ‘It G Ma’ demanded that a remix happen, one which united Keith Ape with American heavyweights A$AP Ferg, Waka Flocka Flame, Father (s/o his verse) and Dumbfoundead. It was an attempt to push the viral buzz even further and allow these rappers to prove that they were around at the inception of a growing trend. Yet the  video for the remix only sits at 12 million YouTube views in comparison to the original’s 43 million, which makes it clear that these rappers (barring Dumb) have done little to help grow Keith’s career. Post ‘It G Ma’, Keith Ape has been attempting to plant his career in America with the assistance of 88Rising, who have been instrumental in using their platform to bring East-Asian rappers like Rich Chigga and Higher Brothers international notoriety and often linking them with notable American artists.

While it’s true that Keith Ape hasn’t replicated his initial viral explosion, he’s clearly found a lane he’s comfortable in, given his most recent collaborative partners. Within the internet underground Keith has found a place to play into his colourful sense of humour and love of potent trap beats. His two tracks with Ski Mask The Slump God – ‘Dr. Eggman’ and ‘Going Down To Underwater’ – see them playing with dumb and garish references to familiar cartoons (especially in the latter’s trashy South Park theme sample), which is certainly not the kinda work you’d expect of him if he was of the same stature as A$AP Ferg. ‘Gospel’, his frenetic collaboration with celebrated edgelord XXXTENTACION and Rich Chigga, proves that he still sits comfortably alongside artists with growing internet hype.

Despite the recent rise of khiphop, k pop idols have usually been the collaborator of choice for artists familiar with the hallyu wave. G-Dragon has been regularly working with American artists like Missy Elliot, M.I.A. and Skrillex for years. 2NE1’s CL has spent the last couple of years attempting to launch an American career, and her debut –  ‘Doctor Pepper’ – saw her teaming up with OG Maco and the goddamn butterscotch boss RiFF RAFF. CL’s charismatic hook is a clear highlight, yet working with two artists quite far removed from their career peaks didn’t return the desired results as CL’s solo career is still stalling.

It’s inarguable to call BTS one of Korea’s biggest boybands, and the group’s rapper (a common occurrence for K-Pop groups is to have a designated rapper) Rap Monster has been catching attention in the states with his mixtape, RM, and he has clearly made an impact on Wale. Their eventual collaboration, ‘Change’, is an artistic triumph, despite the duos’ contracting trajectories, seeing both rappers directly confronting the current political climate. It’s a refreshingly bold move, considering K-Pop idols traditionally shy away from these topics, a different audience clearly giving Rap Monster a greater lyrical freedom.

Of all the Korean rappers vying for international recognition, Bewhy is one of the strongest contenders for success, as he’s an artist whose complex lyricism, unique musicality and tight, intense flow can be felt without understanding a word of Korean. He’s made his ambitions about attending the Grammys clear and, following his victory on Korea’s rap survival programme Show Me The Money 5, he has three international collaborations behind him. ‘Like Me’ sees him and his sparring partner Cjamm effortlessly outperforming A$AP TyY, while ‘International Wave’ with Talib Kweili sees him in a smoother, jazzier setting proving his skill in a more lyrical environment. ‘Uno’ unites Bewhy with Big K.R.I.T – two rappers that prove they can match each other in rap virtuosity – over a glitchy, dramatic beat that feels reminiscent of Bewhy’s music yet given an American polish. His choice of collaborators is allowing him to prove his talent internationally without leaving any of his musical identity in Korea.

Aside from two rappers trading bars, other variations of these internationally collaborations exist. Khiphop supergroup Overclass, a group of industry stalwarts like Swings, San-E and Verbal Jint, enlisted Mobb Deep’s Havoc to produce ‘Royalty’, with a boom bap style that throws back for a hip hop elder vibe. While he’s not strictly khiphop, rising R&B artist DEAN is heavily linked to some of Korea’s biggest MCs, and he recently teamed up with The Internet’s Syd for the delightful ‘Love’, perhaps hinting that Korean R&B is on a similar international rise to its sister genres?

These numerous collaborations are leading to wonderful artistic victories that transcend a language barrier. However, it’s clear that they’re not absolutely essential to growing these artists internationally. Khiphop is now its own potent cultural force, further proven by greater demand for Korean rappers to tour abroad and Jay Park’s recent signing to Roc Nation – that boy is about to go worldwide without an A$AP in sight.

Connor Cass

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