Taking pride in Korean hip-hop

When Korean rapper Digiri first heard hip-hop in middle school, he thought it was hilarious. He didn't even think it was real music.

"I thought it was just murmuring. I didn't like it at first because back then, Korean people only listened to hip-hop music with Seo Taiji," he said. "I thought it was just funny. But after I listened to the music of Deux, I felt the rhythm like a heartbeat."

Now, after being in the industry since 1997, he considers himself first of the first generation of hip-hop artists. And he hopes to see the industry continue to develop.

But one thing holding back Korean hip-hop, he said, is the use of English in lyrics. Different pronunciation and strong syllables make rapping in Korean difficult, Digiri said, especially when compared to rapping in English.

"It's very difficult to rap. But some of the new artists, young rappers, they put English lyrics in the middle of the song. It's not really good for the future of Korean hip-hop," he said.

He added that there is already a US textbook on how to rap and that no matter how hard they try, Korean rappers cannot rap in English better than American hip-hop artists.

"No matter how hard we try to rap in English, it's just a copy. It's cheating. It's not good for the development of Korean hip-hop."

Digiri calls himself "hip-hop grandpa." He started performing at the first hip-hop club in Sinchon when he was 18 in 1997, a time when most other first-generation Korean hip-hop artists were still just members of the audience.

"I didn't know anything about hip-hop. I didn't know what freestyle was, but (Honey Family) group member Young-poong and I would rap there, freestyle," he said.

He described his first performance as nerve-wracking, but exciting. There was no preparation, no lyrics, just freestyle. He admitted that he didn't know what he was doing or what he was capable of. But lucky for him, the audience liked what he had to offer.

He went on to join legendary group Honey Family, which he said just came together naturally. He was already performing with members Myung-ho and Young-poong, and Myung-ho owned a bar called Honey where they would perform. Thus, the group's name was born.

He said there are a couple of big differences between the hip-hop from when he started and now. One key difference is skill, Digiri admitted, with today's rappers outdoing the first-generation artists, who had to start from scratch.

"We (the first generation) started with zero. But rappers these days listened to our music and they raised (the level). They grew," he said.

The second difference is the market. In the late '90s, there were hardcore fans of hip-hop in general, but not many interested in Korean hip-hop. Now it's more popular and artists can actually make money from their music. However, even though the market is bigger, it is still eclipsed by the much bigger K-pop industry, Digiri said.

And he has seen that reality force other rappers to give up, when they couldn't make a living despite hip-hop gaining popularity over the years. As for himself, Digiri plans to keep rapping until he physically cannot. He wants to perform until he loses his voice, his body aches and he someday dies.

At the moment he is working on his second solo album, the first since 2004. It's been nine years and he said he dealt with a lot of personal issues during that time, but now he is obsessed with finishing a solo album and making something that is 100 per cent all his.

As for the future of Korean hip-hop, his hope is simple.

"I want hip-hop to replace idols," he said with a smile. He hopes that some day Korean rappers will feature on commercials and TV shows, do concerts abroad and have tons of fans.

But in order for that to happen, there needs to be more promotion and exposure of Korean hip-hop. And having "really, really good-looking rappers" wouldn't hurt either, he joked, since people are human and having a nice face and a lot of talent could attract more fans.

The most important thing to help Korean hip-hop to emerge, he said, is for artists to be on TV. The media only focuses on idols, leaving no space for hip-hop artists. Without that exposure, it's difficult to get companies to invest, such as for music videos.

"The big production companies, they only focus on idols. So that's why hip-hop artists, they aren't in big companies but are underground," he said.

By Emma Kalka (ekalka@heraldcorp.com)