In an East London basement, a barrage of phones are recording the tiny stage as two South Korean rappers – Okasian and B Free – bounce through the clanging trap beats of this year’s unexpected viral supernova “It G Ma”. They're not alone for long, as the support acts and front rows clamber on stage to pogo dementedly to the music.
Korean trap star Keith Ape might be “It G Ma”’s headline name (and the one who stormed the VFiles runway at New York fashion week) but he was joined by two members of The Cohort crew he belongs to – JayAllDay and Okasian, the latter a prolific artist himself who discovered Keith Ape as a teenager. The track has meant that Okasian (pronounced “occasion”) has caught the comet trail of its 16 million YouTube views, which has propelled his name far outside Korea's borders.
The explosion of “It G Ma” has brought ubiquity and hype, but unlike Korea's other viral track “Gangnam Style”, which was misguidedly presented as K-Pop, “It G Ma” is far more indicative of Korean hip hop – its journey, its potential future, and its long-standing and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with its American counterpart.
While the history of American hip hop is rich and iconic, Khiphop (as it's known) has suffered an identity crisis since the early 90s – rappers lifting US culture then placing it over their own, like a square on a round hole. Although it's widely acknowledged that acts like Drunken Tiger, Verbal Jint and CB Mass brought their distinctive Korean stamp to the medium in the late 90s, while in the 00s, artists such as Epik High, The Quiett and Supreme Team began finding mainstream success, giving Khiphop a ledge to step out onto, away from the perceived American mimicry of the early years.
Perhaps it's ironic, then, that being sat with Okasian is because of “It G Ma” (Korean for “never forget”), which used Atlanta's OG Maco “U Guessed It" as its base, leading to accusations of appropriating black American culture. While the air has been cleared with Maco, who called them out on Twitter ("I didn't have grills or extra jackets and lean cups and shit in the "U Guessed It" video, so why did they? Black stereotypes. Lame as fuck"), the complexities of influence remain. It's something Okasian, puffing on a cigarette, mulls over in silence.
When Okasian performs, his delivery fluctuates between a low drawl and a fearsomely fluid machine-gun flow. Off stage, the 28-year-old is laconic, holding your gaze with huge eyes, his voice gravelly with a smoker's laugh. Born in the States, he was taken to Korea as a baby before returning to America at 16 for high school, where he got into hip hop “through my friends but I think I would have found it on my own. My first Korean album was by CB Mass, and my first American album was by Nas.”
In college, he studied biology before returning to Korea with the idea that “if music worked out, great, or maybe I'd get a job.” The music was to be a continuation of what Okasian says began as a “random hobby, like playing a video game or basketball. It naturally became an everyday thing. I didn't even have a mic or a recording system – I was writing lyrics and rapping to friends and that was it. I'd tried recording a couple of times in America,” he laughs, “but I didn't know what I was doing.”
After two mixtapes with the Cohort – Preseason #1 (2010) and Preseason #2 (2011) – Okasian signed to Hi-Lite, a record label shared with some of the best in Korean's hip hop underground. Early tracks show his flow not as fully developed as it is now, yet the ideas were in place; a gleaming beat here, a hook there to be revisited. By his debut album, Boarding Procedures (2012) and the Cohort mixtape Orca Tape (2013), the sampling was refined, Okasian's delivery pared back to a storytelling style, as seen brilliantly on his effortless hit “Spread The Word”.
“That evolution...sometimes it's natural but sometimes I need to do new things,” Okasian explains, citing a previous influence as A$AP Rocky, and DIY New Yorker Ricky Hil as a present one. “Most of the time you naturally switch your style and it fits, but when I try too hard it doesn't sound good. I don't want to box myself in, so I'm going to keep trying different things and if they sound shitty, well, you won't be able to listen to it.”
Since “It G Ma”, of which he says brought “a lot more opportunities for new experiences”, Okasian has predominantly featured on tracks rather than release his own songs, and he remains secretive about upcoming solo work. “I'm just keeping on making songs and figuring out how to put it out there. It's exciting – I've started working with new producers and they have beats I'm not used to laying tracks on, but I'm trying to make it sound better.”
Unlike Keith Ape, who has not only moved away from Korea but also Hi-Lite to try his hand in the US, Okasian remains rooted in Seoul. “It's hard for me to finish a satisfying song in English. I write better and more in the Korean language,” he says. “If you're having fun, and you don't know the lyrics, that's cool. But you don't need to know the lyrics to "It G Ma" to enjoy it.”
He comes across as a rather reluctant star. His videos tip into the hundreds of thousands of views, which puts him firmly in the Khiphop big leagues, but there's no entourage and no name-dropping. While the popular Korean hip hop talent show, Show Me The Money, draws some of the best underground names in their hope to cross big into the mainstream, Okasian shies away. Friends have auditioned, while colleagues, like Jay Park, Dok2 and Zico, are team mentors. Since Okasian first started out on the Khiphop scene, it seems to have gotten “bigger” (in his words), but has it gotten better?
“Not necessarily,” he says. “But it's good and bad. Those audition programs for rappers have helped. At first, I didn't like them at all, but it does lead to some good artists getting a platform.” And their credibility once they've been on the show? Okasian looks thoughtful. “It's not up to them, it's up to the people. The music should speak for itself. Who cares whether someone comes from a corny show if the music is good?”
“Those who started rapping in Korea, most of them were exposed to American culture and they brought it here” – Okasian
However much “corny” talent shows are often sneered at in the West, they’re an effective way of making it in Korea. Even the biggest names, from Khiphop veteran Tablo to K-Pop superstar G-Dragon, aren't immune. Or there’s the the K-Pop diss, a sure-fire way to get media hype. Okasian's Hi-Lite labelmate, B Free, earned copious publicity for criticising K-Pop group BTS, while Keith Ape too has made a sneering distinction between what he sees as "true hip hop" and those that rap “wearing makeup and dancing up and down onstage”.
Okasian's silence and distance was only interrupted to respond to one of Khiphop's own, Dok2, who in an interview with Complex in July, took a straight pop at “It G Ma” by saying, “It’s not a hit yet if it ain’t making at least $100,000. If it’s popping, you got to get rich off that shit.” Okasian then publicly called Dok2 a “fuckboy”. He grins wryly at memory. The two recently featured on Bryan Cha$e's “Finesse”, so are they fine? “Yeah, we're cool,” he responds. The Cohort's success has, Okasian thinks, caused jealousy. “There must be, it's only natural,” he says. “But I'm not trying to deal with it. I separate myself from it.”
For all of Khiphop's distinctions – the slang, beats and body language (and grills) of American artists arguably remain its backbone – and Okasian is part of it. “I'd say there's still a lot of influence from America, but I think it just happens naturally,” he explains. “Those who started rapping in Korea, most of them were exposed to American culture and they brought it here.”
“I feel like distinguishing Korean hip hop and American hip hop is unnecessary,” he adds. “Korean hip hop's got to grow – it doesn't have specific sounds yet, as that takes time. “'It G Ma' sounded very American but at the same time it sounded very Asian, like the background music in a Chinese restaurant. Things like that are happening naturally and people are gravitating towards it.”
Okasian, despite a rollercoaster 2015, can't say he's 100% satisfied. “But I'm happy that I'm on the way,” he says. What does he want from 2016? “A lot,” he grins. “I want more people to like my music. More music, more love, more shows, more travel, more experiences.” More money? Korean rappers often claim they're poor, but surely you're not broke. A slow smile spreads across Okasian's face. “Not any more.”
Follow Taylor Glasby on Twitter here @_xtgx