It is difficult to discuss the history of Korean popular music without mentioning the name of Seo Taiji. He entered public consciousness as leader and composer of the three-piece boy band Seo Taiji and Boys, who released their self-titled album Seo Taiji and Boys in 1991. Their music was heavily inspired by the new jack swing sound that had been popularised by producer Teddy Riley in the United States, a sound that Korea readily adopted as Seo Taiji became a household name overnight. Their debut album sold 1.8 million copies and over the next four years Seo Taiji and Boys released three more albums covering a multitude of genres and firmly cementing their place in Korean music history. In the years that followed, Seo Taiji himself embarked on a solo career and fellow member Yang Hyunsuk founded YG Entertainment. They were by no means the first Korean artists to explore Western sounds—that began in the 1950s— but the immediate and lasting impact of Seo Taiji and Boys is undeniable.
It is natural, then, that historians will often also credit Seo Taiji with the introduction of hip-hop to Korea. Until recently the discourse has generally grouped hip-hop with pop, or even relegated hip-hop to a footnote within pop, rather than allowing it to exist as a distinct genre. Even among authors who focus specifically on hip-hop, the discussion is usually limited to surface level observations about artists who are more correctly defined as idols with a hip-hop influence rather than actual rappers. There is no doubt that Seo Taiji incorporated elements of hip-hop into his music. So too did Hyun Jinyoung, Deux, Jinusean, DJ DOC, H.O.T, and a whole host of other hip-hop-inspired artists who appeared in the 1990s to try their hand at the new sound coming from the United States. These artists often performed their songs on music shows to crowds filled with scores of adoring young fans, much like the idols of today, complete with elaborate dance routines and, often, lip-synced vocals. It doesn’t take a particularly keen eye to notice the differences between these performances and those taking place in American hip-hop at the same time. The Korean artists wore hip-hop as a costume, borrowing easily recognisable elements and moulding their identities around them. On the outside there are similarities, but hip-hop is more than just a musical genre, it is a culture, and there was no culture here.
Various artists photographed in the 1990s - including Seo Taiji and Boys, Deux, Yoon Sang, Shin Seung Hun, Lee Seung Hwan, and Shin Sung Woo
Elsewhere in Korea, a culture was growing – outside of television studios and entertainment companies, and away from the public eye. South Korean society was very quick to adapt to the idea of using the internet as a place for establishing social connections rather than merely as a tool for obtaining information. It was in these online communities that groups of hip-hop fans congregated to discuss American hip-hop and try to create their own unique brand of Korean hip-hop. A combination of factors, including the censorship of explicit music, made American hip-hop very difficult to access and only available in a few exclusive music stores in Seoul (at an appropriately exclusive price). Communities such as BLEX (Black Loud EXploders) and Dope Soundz made the dissemination of music fast and accessible through regular listening sessions, but they were not without their issues. Dope Soundz in particular quickly gained a reputation for being hip-hop elitists, arguing that only rap performed in English could be considered hip-hop, and disparaging the grassroots Korean hip-hop movement in the process. To add to this, the process of becoming a member was restrictive and membership was a requirement for creating posts, leaving non-members able to read the posts but unable to contribute. As a result, a group of artists who were determined to grow Korean hip-hop broke off and formed another community—Show N Prove—as a direct competitor.
Show N Prove (SNP) only lasted from 1999 to 2002, but among the founding members were names like Defconn, P-Type, and Tafka Buddah, and the community (which subsequently became a hip-hop crew) held monthly performances in a rented room to share ideas and develop their skills in all aspects of hip-hop performance. By 2002, these performances were attracting as many as 100 people and were responsible for introducing artists like Verbal Jint, Wheesung, Jung-in, and Krucifix Kricc to the world, with Verbal Jint releasing his hugely influential Modern Rhymes EP while a part of SNP in 2001. The idea of releasing music under the umbrella of an online community was not a new concept, however. The members of SNP had been inspired by fellow community BLEX, who in 1997 released their compilation album 검은 소리, 첫번째 소리 (Black Sounds, The First Sounds), which is regarded by many to be the first Korean hip-hop album, and followed it up with a second compilation album entitled검은 소리 (Black Sounds) in 1999. Very few of the BLEX members other than Garion managed to achieve long-standing careers in music, but they showed that hip-hop could be done through sheer creativity and collaborative effort. It didn’t need televised performances or a large entertainment company budget to attract an audience.
BLEX’s Black Sounds, The First Sounds - The first Korean hip-hop album
As the audience grew, the need for a permanent facility to host hip-hop performances became apparent. At the same time as SNP were hosting their performances in a rented room, the members of BLEX were performing at a small, recently opened venue called Master Plan, located just off the main thoroughfare in Sinchon. From 1997 to 2002 Master Plan held performances every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to crowds of up to 200 people. With open mic freestyle battles concluding every session, a culture of performance began to form. The list of artists who first cut their teeth at Master Plan is endless: CB Mass, Epik High’s Mithra Jin, Garion, Vasco, MC Sniper, Skull, Kebee, and more, many of whom are still active in the underground scene. Even members of the ‘overground’ scene—like Kim Jinpyo, DJ DOC, and H.O.T—regularly appeared, both as performers and audience members. When Master Plan eventually closed and became a label in 2002, there was a sense of great loss in the hip-hop community. It was not just a venue for performance – it was a place where dozens of artists had built a culture from nothing, every weekend for five years. It was a home where artists who came from all over Korea could feel comfortable, no matter their background. It was the physical birthplace of Korean hip-hop.
Geek Live House, a music venue that exists on the former site of Master Plan. It still sports Master Plan’s iconic checkerboard flooring.