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There are countless ways to find fame within the Korean hip-hop scene, whether that be a catchy viral hit or winning a rap survival show such as, High School Rapper or Show Me The Money. However, there are some artists who have used more creative means to promote themselves and their music, from putting a spin on traditional hip-hop standards to shrouding themselves in mystery. Here are a few gimmicks and non-conventional means which have helped Korean hip-hop artists kickstart and build their careers.
Historically, tattoos have had various meanings and implications; from showcasing tribal status, branding slaves and more recently gang culture. They have been used for varying degrees of identification in the past, yet in the hip-hop community they have become recognised as an artist's signature. With hip-hop artists across the globe donning body art to visually express themselves, tattoos and hip-hop are now synonymous with one another and represent a rebellious artistic statement which questions social and political thought. It has become an unspoken rule that to be classified as a hip-hop artist one must have a few tattoos, but because they have become mainstream amongst the community, some have put a unique spin on the norm, such as Korean rapper northfacegawd. Displaying his commitment to both his music career and the brand North Face, northfacegawd compliments North Face apparel with his distinctive neck tattoo of the brand’s logo. Since entertainment guidelines in Korea request tattooed celebrities cover up their tattoos, either by clothing, tape or make-up when appearing on television, Korean rappers have used other memorable, inventive means to promote themselves.
One such example is Zion.T, who has become associated with sunglasses, quirky hair and statement fashion pieces, but all these factors add to his unique charm and aura. With a discography mostly categorised as alternative R&B and hip-hop, dark tinted sunglasses work to his advantage as they have been associated with many famous and influential artists over the years, including Stevie Wonder, Biggie Smalls and Kanye West. Zion.T once explained the impact of his sunglasses stating he takes off his sunglasses “so that people won’t recognise [him]” rather than putting them on to hide his identity*.
In contrast, donning an eye-catching neon pink balaclava, distinct rap style and somewhat familiar tone of voice, Mommy Son caught the attention of both judges and peers when he appeared on Show Me The Money 777, in 2018. While a mask was the cheapest way to hide his identity, Mommy Son has also explained that it takes on a deeper meaning too by acting as an artistic tool and rhetorical device. Flipping the script on the phrase “living with a mask on”, the rapper feels a sense of freedom when wearing his iconic pink balaclava and even suggests that someone who feels constrained should also consider wearing a mask.
Another gimmick hip-hop artists use is fashion and personas, two prime examples being Lil Cherry and Sokodomo. Lil Cherry has maintained a noticeable theme visually through outlandishly bold fashion, hair and make-up, from the 2018 Sauce Talk album artwork, to her latest music video release “CATWALK”, in which the rapper pays homage to the iconic Catwoman. Similarly, Sokodomo has been building his musical career through obscure visuals to match his “alien” concept and unique discography. Creating multiple personas - such as, ‘Sokodomo’ the turn up ego with positive emotions, ‘LaPamasaka’ the anger and hate ego, and ‘Yang Seung-ho’ himself, who is always tired, calm, and just wants peace - has allowed Sokodomo to freely blend genres like, electro, hip-hop, indie and R&B to produce un-restrained tracks which are in a league of their own. “Merry-Go-Round”, which features the previously mentioned Zion.T, was created during the most recent season of Show Me The Money, and thanks to its simple, sympathetic storyline coupled with a playful, youthful track, the song managed to remain at the top of the Billboards charts for 12 weeks straight. While this is quite a feat, comparing “Merry-Go-Round” to the rapper’s other music it is clear that this song was made to appeal to the public as it is by far his most sonically safe sounding song. Lil Cherry and Sokodomo are but a couple of artists within the hip-hop community and underground scene who have their own unique colours, we can look forward to seeing more weird and wonderful rappers flourish in the coming years, including the likes of Mudd the Student who has created an anti-pop/emo persona to correlate with his grunge-esque music.
While this article has taken a brief look into the various creative means which have helped Korean hip-hop artists build their careers, it is clear that by using niche self-marketing tools, such artists have been able to make a memorable impact to generate hype and interest around themselves and their music.
- Catherine Parker