Brace yourself…provocative thoughts in this one.
XVI. Korean Hip Hop – 1TYM and Drunken Tiger
In 2008, I was 21-years-old and still a novice to life and the way of the world. One of the many things I claimed ignorance to…was the significance of hip hop. The appeal of it was lost on me.
Even when I was a kid, I wasn’t very fond of hip hop music. It felt like every asshole and bully I’ve ever met was influenced by hip hop. They called me names and picked on me, and the one thing they all had in common was their love for hip hop, the culture, the music, the fashion. Even in pre-school, I remember two girls who used to attack me while singing, “Momma Said Knock You Out!”
So yeah…I hated it.
And probably the main reason why I hated it so much was because it seemed like there was something wrong with me for not liking it. As a black kid growing up in the south, it was unheard of. Everyone else was into Tupac and Biggie and the Wu-Tang clan…meanwhile this chubby light-skin kid over here who was super emotional and threw temper tantrums was into groups like the Backstreet Boys and Nsync.
I couldn’t help it. I tried. As a kid who wanted to make my dad happy and fit in with the rest of the other kids, I tried so hard to fall in love with hip hop. But to my ears, it was just garbage. It didn’t move me. I couldn’t relate to what they were talking about nor could I grasp the gifts they possessed. That’s not just with hip hop, but also R&B. It just didn’t do anything for me. Felt inadequate. So I wanted nothing to do with that world.
Flash forward to 2008…and suddenly I’m listening to hip hop acts like Drunken Tiger and 1TYM. Doesn’t make sense does it? Do I really hate the English language so much?
The answer is yes and no. Allow me to explain. The answer is “yes,” in that I can’t stand lyrics that glorify and encourage bad behavior. This sounds a bit contradictory considering I listened to Slipknot or Dir En Grey, but life’s like that.
Personally, it hurts my soul when I hear of black on black violence, of gang violence. I’ve seen friends get jumped for the sake of fun. I’ve seen fights where a dude got the shit kicked out of him just because the other guy wanted to show how hardcore he was. You can tell me all day that hip hop music isn’t to blame for this, the glorification of thug culture, leading to more children being born out of wedlock, the seeking of money and materialistic things.
Yes…there was a deep resentment for hip hop back then. Still is in some ways. But the difference between now and then is that I understand it. Much like I understand how one would be driven to theft or robbery if they feel that’s the only choice they have to survive. Doesn’t make it alright. But at least I understand. Proverbs 30: 7-9, tells us not to want riches or poverty. If you get too rich you may be tempted to stop depending on God. If you get too poor, it could lead to you profaning the name of God. (by breaking his commandments just to survive)
The answer is also “no”…in that I didn’t dislike American hip hop solely because of its lyrical content…I just never had a gateway to it.
For instance, it’s not like I just rolled out of bed and liked head-banging metal music. Nah. I liked action films. I was obsessed with martial arts that often had a rock soundtrack. Even my favorite Michael Jackson songs as a child had the sickest guitar riffs in it. Ever heard of “Beat It?” Or Dirty Diana? Or Black or White.
The best of “Black or White” for me was the break down where Michael Jackson’s walking through the flames. That’s metal! So when I discovered Slipknot…I was like… “Hell yes! An entire track where the whole song is the favorite part of another song!? Yes, please. I’ll take more of that.”
I didn’t have a positive gateway into hip hop growing up. It was always negative, as I mentioned. So why in the hay would I want to hear more of that?
By early 2008 however…I believe a gateway had manifested from the kpop I listened to. Hahaha! I honestly didn’t even realize it. These theories I’m typing now (in 2019) I wouldn’t fully understand it till later. For well over a year, I’d been listening to songs from H.O.T. and NRG that features heavy rap sections from the members. I’ve been listening to Big Bang that had TOP and G-Dragon spitting lyrics, albeit to dance tracks, not exactly authentic hip hop.
But then, I’ve also been listening to Epik High.
Epik High, consisting of a DJ and two rappers, Epik High has been on the kpop scene since 2003. Consistently, they’ve been dropping albums and hits to maintain their hold on the rap game of South Korea.
Thus…by February of 2008, I was in the mood for new music. Perhaps it was on my forums where people kept trashing Big Bang, saying they aren’t real hip hop like 1TYM or Drunken Tiger, that I decided to give those two a whirl. I can’t remember if this was the cause or not, I just know that I did. And I’m pretty sure it was at the same time.
1TYM and Drunken Tiger had already released a number of albums before 2008, so for me…it was like digging up buried treasure. I actually like that sensation a lot. Instead of finding a band, liking their first album and then having to wait years for them to come out with something new…these old timers already had their material released. And I downloaded it all.
Let me start with 1TYM (pronounced, one-time)…because they were the easiest to get into. They were the easiest to get into because…they didn’t exactly start out with the hardcore hip hop vibe of their later albums. Hailing from YG Entertainment, 1TYM is the big brother group to Big Bang, their predecessors.
Just like with SM Entertainment’s H.O.T in how they found Tony An and eventually Andy An from the United States to be in their boybands…YG discovered the two most influential members of 1TYM from the Los Angeles area.
Danny (lead singer) and Teddy (leader, rapper) hail from Diamond Bar High School out of California, purportedly good friends and all that. It’s interesting actually, but I have noticed a trend when it comes to kpop artists who were raised in the states. If you continue to read this memoir you’ll notice it too. Micky Yoochun of DBSK was raised in the states. Jay Park of future group 2pm was raised in the states. Bobby of future group IKON was raised in the states.
All of these guys…they seem to have a confident swagger about them. Not arrogance, but self-assured. Also, hahaha! They have a way with women. I’ll let you look up articles about them, but from what I’ve seen of Korean culture, young men are very shy when it comes to women. These guys aren’t.
Oh Jin-hwan (vocals and choreographer) and Song Baekyoung (rapper) are the Korean natives in 1TYM and just as talented, although undeniably outshined by the charisma of Danny and Teddy.
And I hesitate to call 1TYM a boyband, because really, they’re a rap group. However, if you see their first couple of singles, you can see how these guys are definitely the generation that comes before Big Bang.
As you can see, it’s not difficult to assume YG was following the trend set by H.O.T when it comes to the style of their music video shoots…it seems to be a stable in kpop, actually. I’m talking about the blank expressions, all wide-eyed and staring into the camera…They didn’t exactly win me over for their visuals, but it was pleasant to the ear. And the two above tracks were the only songs I liked from their first album.
In early 2008…1TYM was definitely a group that eased me into a taste for Korean hip hop. Their second album had more of that rock feel on a couple of their songs, reminding me of H.O.T, and a bit of Seo Taiji. Which makes sense, if you’ll recall YG was one third of the pioneering Korean rock group Seo Taiji and Boys.
1TYM – ROCK SONG
However, two of my favorite songs came from their third album, “One Time for Your Mind.” The song “Nasty” was really easy to follow if you don’t understand the Korean language. But more than that, it was a happy medium for me when it comes to vocals. And what I mean by that, one of the things I have a difficult time admiring about rap artists are their delivery of the lyrics. I feel that if anyone can easily imitate your voice and spit out your lyrics just as well as you…its not that impressive.
Like Tupac…Anyone can learn his lyrics all day, but to perform them the way he did with certain inflections, the angst, and attitude conveyed…not to mentioned his voice naturally sounded good while he spit. It’s impressive. He’s unique. It’s one of a kind.
Around 2007-2008ish I started to hear that more and more in American rap songs, not a lot of difficulty when it comes to the delivery. Rappers have slowed down their flow and gave it more swag. Where it’s just one or two lines, with a pause before going onto the next lines. Kind of like Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” A 5th grader could rap and say his lyrics just like him. Lazy rap, if you’re into that sort of thing. I wasn’t.
If you’ve read my intro, then you know that one of the reasons why I like listening to a foreign language is because I see voices as a unique instrument. When you don’t understand the words, the vocal cords become the same as the riff from a guitar or the tune from a harmonica to me. Every voice is unique. And when it comes to 1TYM’s third album, “Nasty” and “Make it Last” really made me a fan for their vocal ability, not just with rapping but singing as well.
Funny story, real quick, but I was kind of an asshole when I was delivery driver one night. I can’t remember why, but that night it was me working with my female friend who I had affection for. And every time I stopped by the restaurant to handle my business before my next run, I’d play “Make it Last” on the boom box. One time she got mad at me. Because she was listening to Alicia Keys “No One” and I cut it off in the middle of her song. Hahaha! She had every right to be mad. I was such a jerk. But I remember. That 1TYM song always reminds me of her. It’s a beautiful song and fitting for her, because she was beautiful in my eyes at the time.
Then…There was Drunken Tiger.
Before I even listened to their music, I read that Drunken Tiger was mainly a duo consisting of an old-school kpop rapper named DJ Shine and a younger edgy rapper named Tiger JK who spent some time in the states between Miami and Los Angeles. In fact, I read that Tiger JK was present during the 1992 Los Angeles riots which had a profound impact on him wanting to create a bridge between black and Korean communities.
Just a brief refrain for people who don’t know, in 1992, the tension between black people and the Los Angeles police, particularly in South Central was at an all time high. And after Rodney King was filmed getting beat within an inch of his life by a group of officers, those officers were acquitted (got off with no jail time). This sparked massive riots and looting with a lot of innocent people getting hurt.
And the relationship between Koreans and Blacks weren’t exactly the greatest either. Koreans were hard working industrious people who set up shop and owned businesses within the black community. Not to mention there’s the tragic case of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot in the back of her head by a female Korean store clerk while she attempted to flee the store with stolen goods.
When the 1991 riots went down, I know in particular of a case where a young Korean male who was killed when he went to join his brethren to protect Korean businesses from looting. And dude…protect they did. Not sure if I mentioned it but in Korea they have a mandatory military service for all males to enter the service before they turn 28. So picture hardened veterans armed with pistols and rifles patrolling their businesses from the parking lots and roof tops…and you’ll have the situation that was LA in 1992.
DRUNKEN TIGER – 04 WEE DEE HAN
All of this…I didn’t learn until I was 28-years-old. So, back in 2008 when I heard of Drunken Tiger, I truly couldn’t appreciate the significance of their music or their perspective on an industry that’s dominated by black people.
Because I’ve heard it before. Back before 2015’s calls of “appropriation” and how that’s apparently wrong, I had heard that it was messed up for Koreans to be copying Black people and Americans in our style and musical arts. But personally…as an African-American, I’ve never saw this as a “bad thing.” I saw it as a form of accreditation. They’re imitating or trying to do what you’re doing because they love and identify with it in some form. Don’t get me wrong, there are some who straight up swagger jack strictly for the money and that’s very unfortunate.
However, the beautiful thing about being an American was that we’re one great melting pot. Sure, there are communities that refuse to assimilate and stick to their old-world customs from whatever lands they immigrated from, but most of us borrow elements from other races and cultures all the freaking time. To say, one group shouldn’t do this because it belongs to another race is just silly in my opinion. And when it comes to hip hop in particular…I say, if you got a problem with someone from another race doing what you’re doing and apparently doing it better, then elevate your game.
If your argument is “racism” because people are only listening to a white rapper because he’s white with no superior talent over a black artists…I guess I can see that argument, but I’d hate to settle on it. The point being, the reason why white rap artists are making more money and appear more popular is because whites make up a majority of the consumer base. Meaning, if you want to be the richest and the most popular, you have to appeal to the majority consumer base. And whites outnumber blacks. I say, “I’d hate to settle on it…” because personally, I’m like, “so what?” If that’s the way it is, que sera, sera. Don’t hate the game or the consumers.
In fact, I’d eventually learn that as I grew up and accepted that my own blood relatives will never support me as an author. I had to learn that they are individuals and I can’t expect them to care about my craft as much as I do. It would be nice, sure. I see other families supporting their siblings and offsprings all the time, buying their works, promoting it to others, congratulating them openly. It used to hurt deep inside to know my family wasn’t like them. But that’s their choice. That’s their free will. And I still love them regardless. So I had to learn to let go of expecting anything from anyone and produce works solely because I simply wanted to. Because I love it.
Sorry…kinda got off track there…but hopefully this helps you to understand a perspective of why Koreans or Japanese or even Mexicans don’t just stick to their native forms of expression, but adapt and borrow elements from a culture that originated in the burrows of Harlem, New York. It’s not just with hip hop, but also rock, metal, and even pop. However, like I say, the best artists are the ones who admire others, seek to imitate them, and eventually do what they did better. Like, Michael Jackson surpassing James Brown.
When I got into Drunken Tiger, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that it wasn’t just Tiger JK and DJ Shine rapping on their songs. It wasn’t a duo. Instead, I learned that Drunken Tiger was more like a collective of underground hip hop artists and that…I definitely loved.
DRUNKEN TIGER – 01 ENGLISH RAP
If you hear the above song, you’ll notice its very reminiscent of the legendary Wu Tang Clan. Hahaha! I confess…in 2008 when I was listening to Drunken Tiger…I’ve never heard a Wu Tang Clan song. I’ve heard of the group, but never an actual song until 2016 when I downloaded their first album and was like…yep…sounds like Drunken Tiger. I know, that’s sacrilege for my Wu Tang fans out there but if anything, this gives me some perspective when I hear people short-sightedly say “This group is the best” when they hadn’t even heard of the best. They’re young and ignorant in that aspect, which, in 2008, I was as well.
And speaking from a place of ignorance, I can say that in 2008, Drunken Tiger was hands down the best rap group I had heard in Korea. Actually no…even up to 2018, I’d learn about the Jiggy Boys, Illionaire, Just Music and a slew of rappers from “Show Me the Money”…but when it comes to the collaborative effort where the group sticks to authentic hip hop, no group comes close to Drunken Tiger.
Even their English lyrics…hahaha! They’re pretty impressive. If you hear Korean rappers in idol groups where the rappers were born and raised in Korea, you’ll notice the cringe of the way they roll their “R”s so it sounds like there’s an “L” sound in it. But with Drunken Tiger, they had elite MCs like Micky Eyes and Roscoe Umali that elevated their songs to another level. In a simple track like “Beat,” most of the song is in English and I felt so confident about how it would stack up against American songs, that I let my cousin listen to it.
While 1TYM and Drunken Tiger were perhaps my favorite when it comes to old school Korean hip hop, they were far from the only acts. Entities like DJ Sniper, Psy, Honey Family, DJ Doc and Cho PD were on the scene. And one can never overlook YG’s own Jinusean who were said to be the pioneers of hip hop in Korea as YG’s very first signed talent.
But in the end, it really was 1TYM and Drunken Tiger that stretched out the walls of my tolerance, to create space to like something else other than pop and metal. It wasn’t intentional. Liking and listening to real hip hop wasn’t something I was keen on doing. But it just happened. Very much a pleasant surprise. But if you’ve read all of my chronicles up to this point then you should know…that the best music in world are genres that blend, using the best elements of multiple genres to create something new.
P.S., this chapter was the hardest to write. The others, I easily wrote within a few hours of each other. This hip hop chapter took two weeks. Just goes to show how much writing can help with self-development. Because it wasn’t until this chapter that I really stop to think about why I never connected with hip hop in the first place.