It would be easy to dismiss South Korea as the land of K-Pop and nothing more. But if you dig deeper in search of something a little more provocative, you’ll find yourself faced with a breadth of Korean rappers making some seriously great work that’s worthy of your attention. And because I love a good subgenre as well as an artist with a great fashion sense, here is the list of, in my opinion, top notch Korean rappers with the brazen talent and style to boot.
G-Dragon has a special place in my K-heart and that's why he scores the first place in this list. G-Dragon made his mainstream debut with the music group Big Bang after having spent six years prior as a trainee under the group’s record label, YG Entertainment. Though initially he wanted to be a singer, he took up rapping after discovering Wu Tang Clan. When it comes to style, G-Dragon has always been highly experimental, consistently being described as the “most fashionable” member of Big Bang. In 2015, Business of Fashion voted him among its 500 Global Fashion Leaders.
No matter what certain netizens say, CL (née Lee Chae-rin) was, is and forever will be the queen of K-Pop. CL’s first introduction to the adoring masses came courtesy of the above mentioned G-Dragon and his band, Big Bang. CL was featured on an intro for the group in 2007 before going on to be placed as lead rapper in the girl group 2NE1 (hey Peter). CL was always incredibly stylish and if you haven't seen the campaigns she did with Moschino or Alexander Wang, please do yourself a favour and start googling. You can spot CL in anything from varsity jackets to high-couture gowns; the common factor is that everything has an ultra-sexy street edge.
Dok2 doesn't need a special intro. You probably heard of Dok2 before either through Illionaire label, which he co-founded, or maybe you came across a blog post I wrote about him last year or you probably made it to his Vancouver concert. A long time student of rap music, Dok2 has collaborated with everyone from Drunken Tiger, Bobby, G-Dragon and more. His personal flow seems to favor Southern rap and his fashion sense isn’t far behind. You’ll find him in snapbacks, hoodies and jerseys, complete with chains, rings and more.
The leader of one of South Korea’s most prominent boy bands, Block B, rapper and producer in one Zico first delved into hip-hop during his early teenage years, promoting South Korea’s underground rap scene under the name “Nacseo.” After joining Block B in 2011, Zico would go on to achieve massive mainstream success thanks to his demanding stage presence, crossover writing skills and bubbly personality.
Splitting time between the band and his own solo work, Zico is also a distinguished fashion week fixture thanks to his bold, urban-influenced style and gender-bending, slightly effeminate flare – something that fuses his underground reputation with his commercial boy band appeal.
When this YG Entertainment signee isn’t exchanging lyrical barbs with fellow emcee Rap Monster, he is one of the members of the idol group iKON. In 2016, Bobby formed a sub-unit with Mino under the name MOBB. Bobby is best known for finishing in first place on Mnet's Show Me The Money 3.
Style-wise, Bobby has proven to be a bit of a chameleon, boasting a look that ranges from positively schoolboy-esque to a dapper GQ suiting.
/// KEITH APE
Give it up for Keith Ape: the grill-wearing, BAPE-loving emcee whose viral hit “It G Ma” was the talk around the cyber cooler in 2015. The song, along with its raw video was an instant YouTube sensation in North America and boosted Ape’s status from niche underground act to buzzy mainstay. The song’s popularity later spawned a remix video that featured the likes of A$AP Ferg, Father, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka, eventually leading Ape and his fellow Cohort crew collective (aka the Odd Future of South Korea) to embark on several tours across the U.S. and Canada.
Aside from his outré rapping style, which fuses Korean and Japanese lyrics with Southern trap music, Keith Ape’s sartorial swag is defined by face masks, tattered denim, metal tees and a slew of hype staples – BAPE, Supreme and Palace, in particular – all while frequently clutching a bottle of makgeolli.
A worthy shoutout should also be given to another one of the “It G Ma" song's collaborators, Okasian (pronounced “occasion”). Also a member of The Cohort, Okasian, who actually discovered Ape as a teen, has been a significant game-changer in K-Rap’s underground for years. Having spent periods of residency in both the U.S. (where he was born) and Seoul, Okasian’s style bridges the gap between contemporary American and Asian rap landscapes, producing a sound that mixes American rap with an authentic rawness that’s strongly rooted in the rapper’s Korean ethnicity.
Okasian’s style is slightly more esoteric than his Cohort counterparts. Whether it’s ratchet goth crooner in a vintage Marilyn Manson tee, normcore noob in a baseball cap, Burberry scarf and pinstripe grandpa sweater, Okasian’s getups are almost always cause for boisterousness.
If Beenzino sounds eerily similar to Benzino, that's because the name is indeed a parody. However, the Illionaire-signed emcee’s career is still alive and thriving (no shade to Benzino). While he frequently collaborates with labelmates Dok2 and The Quiett, he’s also not afraid to do his own thing. When it comes to Beenzino's fashion style, he mixes it up too, and has been spotted in everything from Supreme to custom Illionaire snapbacks, BBC, Saturdays, SOPHNET. and much, much more.
/// THE QUIETT
The Quiett is yet another seasoned emcee with quite a lot of experience under his belt. As co-founder of Illionaire records, he has been on the forefront of the South Korean hip-hop movement.
He’s also arguably on the forefront of style. Quiett frequently blends high-fashion looks with more streetwear-centric styles, proving that one can indeed be a gentleman in Timbs.
/// SAN E
Born in South Korea and raised in Atlanta, Jung San, known professionally as San E, first landed notoriety after winning the “Best Hip Hop Song” accolade at the 2010 Korean Music Awards for his hit track, “Rap Genius.” After becoming the first solo rap artist to sign with JYP Entertainment, San E’s success would spear through the South Korean charts.
The rapper ultimately left JYP in 2013, now releasing music via Brand New Music where he continues to churn out hits, drop bars and capture fans with his “clean”GQ-meets-suburban mall kid style.
If South Korea crossbred Justin Bieber with Usher, the end product would be the pomade-haired, cross tattoo-bearing pretty boy known as TaeYang. After being recruited by YG Entertainment at the tender age of 12, TaeYang (meaning “sun”) would go on to make his big debut as a member of the boy band Big Bang in 2006. Predominately a rapper in the beginning of his career, the artist would later abandon emceeing in lieu of a more pop/R&B style of singing.
In 2010, TaeYang dropped his first LP, Solar, which landed the number two spot on iTunes’ Top R&B/Soul albums chart in the United States and number one in Canada’s, making him the first Asian musician to do so. Four years later, TaeYang’s global stardom would reach new levels when his second LP, RISE, hit number one on all charts in Korea as well as on iTunes’ Top R&B/Soul albums chart in over 19 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Russia, Hong Kong and Denmark. TaeYang is a seasoned fashion icon that has worked with some of the biggest fashion houses out there. The most memorable collab was the one he did with Fendi for a Daisy-Heavy Collection.
Another collaborator on “It G Ma” and member of The Cohort, JayAllDay’s name is maybe not one buzzing around too much yet, but keep watch. JayAllDay is paving his own way in the Korean rap sphere, dropping a few praiseworthy solo efforts including the infectious trap banger “Sirens.” The rapper’s style holds an original street aesthetic on par to his fellow Cohort bros.
That's a wrap Soju fam. Did I miss someone? I'd love to hear from you. Currently I am contemplating to create yet another list but this time the focus will be on emerging Korean rappers. Should I go for it? Let me know in the comments. 😉
GIF Art: aesthetnik