This just in: The best South Korean music to get international play is not K-pop. Sorry. Much like J-pop, and their American cousins, y'know, girl bands and boy bands, K-pop is mostly sickly sweet, overproduced R&B with a smidge of manufactured edge here and there.
But for all the attention it's getting over here lately, you'd think that was all the music South Korea had to offer. Fortunately, under the well-groomed fingernails of that sugary pop scene, there's a thriving, decades-old hip-hop community, and we're late to the party. Benefiting from some solid cross-pollination between Korean communities in L.A., New York and Seattle (and the magic of the Internet), Korean hip-hop has spent 20 years evolving into something distinct. For a country the size of Kentucky, there's a myriad of amazing MCs, DJ collectives, producers. Admittedly we're just scratching the surface (and are relatively new to the scene), but here are five albums we dig so far.
P&Q (Paloalto and The Quiett)
Imagine a beefless Nas and Jay-Z or better yet, a Korean Black Star, and you've got an idea of Paloalto's jazzy, funky flow. The duo is rounded out by The Quiett (aka Shin Dong Gab), a veteran producer known for his extensive collaborations with folks around the country and for his work with the now defunct collective/record label Soul Company. The duo's back and forth is buttressed by guest spots from Tablo, Tiger JK and K-pop diva Tasha Reid, among others.
Heavy Deep, 2011
With the gruff sound of DMX and the fearless posture of Method Man, Deepflow's newest is epic. Switching it up with hard-core tracks like “Heavy Flow” are melody heavy tunes “Close My Eyes” and “Handicap Race.”
Year of the Tiger, 1999
Hailed a classic, this is L.A. native Tiger JK's sophomore effort and his first together with DJ Shine as Drunken Tiger. The standout single, “Do You Know Hip Hop?” is reminiscent of Eminem and samples Sting.
Think of this as Mobb Deep, K-style. Picked as one of 100 “Masterpieces of Korean Popular Music” by the Korean music press, the venerable trio's first album is full of dark beats and (apparently) hard lyrics. The album is most noteworthy for being entirely in Korean, which was a first at the time for K-hop. Notable tracks include “Old Story” (or Ancient Tale?) and the more upbeat “Negative Margins.”
How Bad Do U Want It, 2007
Having much in common sonically with France's NTM, MC Sniper's fourth album is full of recognizable samples and machine-gun, rapid-fire delivery. Sniper has had more tracks banned in Korea than any of his contemporaries — what with his controversial political stance and his slanderous lyrics (or so we're told). Our favorite jam, “Better Than Yesterday,” features a powerful roster of other K-hop stars, Room9, Zenio7, TakTak36, DJ R2, BK and Outsider.
Now you tell us: What else are we missing?