Oscar Holland, CNN and Gawon Bae, CNN
(CNN) — While the hidden bass and syncopated beat of Silkybois’ recent hit “Bomaye” sound familiar to fans of boring music, the pair’s lyrical content might not. Switching from English to their native Korean, the Seoul-based rappers inject plenty of local references into the genre’s typical allusions to street rivalries, cars and money.
The track’s metaphor-rich lyrics recount “swinging” like Korean baseball player Choo Shin-soo, acquiring money like casino developer Kangwon Land, and “stacking cheese” like dak-galbi, a dish of spicy chicken.
Even threats of violence are uttered with a distinctly Korean flavor: “My chopsticks open you up, smoking, leave you lying like a dumpling,” raps half of the duo, Park Sung-jin, who goes by the name Jimmy Paige.
Silkybois is part of a wave of rappers bringing the hard-hitting drill sound, or “deulil” as it’s known locally, to South Korea. “Bomaye”, which means “kill him” in the African language Lingala – and was used by boxing fans to cheer on Muhammad Ali when he fought George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – has amassed nearly 2 million views on YouTube since its release last year.
“I didn’t expect overseas YouTubers to make reaction videos or the song to trend on platforms like TikTok,” said fellow Silkybois member Kim Dae-woong, whose rap name is Black Nut, in a video interview from Seoul. “We just did what we wanted to do in our style. I enjoyed watching people’s reactions, which were unexpected.”
Although exercise originated in Chicago in the early 2010s, the South Korean scene borrows heavily from a British subgenre dubbed British exercise. With equally gritty and provocative lyrics, but faster beats and more melodic gliding bass lines, the sound has since spread from South London to influence stages around the world, including, in turn, the ‘America.
But while drillers in the UK and US have been known – sometimes controversially – for rapping about knife and gun violence, things are somewhat different in South Korea, which has the one of the lowest gun crime rates in the world. References to physical violence are prominent nonetheless, and drill rappers nationwide are uncompromising in their portrayals of urban hardship.
“The lyrics are about city stuff,” Park said. “Good or bad, it has to be facts. Things that happen on the streets, in the neighborhood and in our mentality – it’s all about us versus them.
“To me, exercise is just another (art) form,” he added. “We like tough lyrics… We’re always looking for ways to create tough metaphors and punchlines, and I guess it worked.”
Global interest in contemporary Korean culture has exploded over the past decade, with the so-called “K wave” seeing bands like BTS and Blackpink achieve mainstream success in the West. K-pop has been the country’s main musical export, but there is also a healthy domestic hip-hop scene.
The number of boring artists may be small by comparison, but several of the country’s best-known rappers – including Keith Ape, Changmo and Korean American artist Jay Park – have recently released genre-influenced music.
Among the musicians who have crossed paths is Shin Young-duk, or Blase, who helped propel the drill into the limelight last fall with a performance on South Korea’s hugely popular TV rap contest, “Show Me the Money”. His 2021 self-titled album features an array of genres, from grime to garage — but it’s the exercise-inspired “Peace Out” and “CVS” that have racked up the most plays on Spotify. (“I’m on the road all night working,” he raps in the latter, with a chorus that combines English and Korean. “Don’t close like CVS 24.”)
Shin said he discovered British exercise through the television drama “Top Boy”, which chronicles the difficulties faced by young people in inner-city London. Although initially uninterested in the Chicago scene, he was drawn to the London sound (which he described as a “whole new genre”) and began studying British pronunciation to use when delivering lines. in English.
“The British English I knew came from ‘Harry Potter,'” he said in a video interview. “So I was interested in the difference between rappers’ accents and what I knew. The more I listened to (British rappers), the more appealing I found them.”
The 27-year-old artist’s lyrics are often autobiographical, addressing personal issues – like the struggles he has faced during the Covid-19 pandemic – rather than social issues. To imitate gang or gun-related content from other countries would, he said, be inauthentic.
“Hip-hop is not native to Korea, so when you bring the sound from overseas, sometimes people also bring the feeling (of the lyrics),” he said. “There are cases of (copying lyrical content) but these days, Korean audiences will see it as fake or fanciful. Artists don’t want to take that risk. Rapping a story that isn’t yours doesn’t ain’t cool.”
Drill has become a political lightning rod in the UK, where lawmakers and police have argued that gender directly contributes to gang violence and knife crime. A crackdown in recent years has seen YouTube remove music videos at the behest of London’s Metropolitan Police, while lyrics have been used against rappers in court – despite concerns from some experts that links between music and the crime are poorly proven.
In 2019, British duo Skengdo and AM received suspended prison sentences for performing their song “Attempted 1.0”. London police said they breached a court order banning them, among other things, from making music purporting to encourage gang violence. By performing the song and uploading it to social media, the couple had “incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members”, police said in a statement. statement.
Silkybois’ Kim is also no stranger to the legal ramifications of his words. In 2019, a South Korean court sentenced him to a suspended prison sentence for directing sexual insults at rapper KittiB during concerts and in two of her solo songs. In a statement given to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper two years later, a KittiB representative said she was “the clear victim of a crime” and was still receiving “malicious comments and sexually harassing DMs” from other people share following songs. .
The case sparked debate over free speech, although the country’s Supreme Court upheld the ruling, describing the lyrics as “vulgar and an expression of sexual degradation”.
Kim said rap content is taken “too seriously” in South Korea, adding, “It’s frustrating that people can’t understand your lyrics and perceive them negatively.” His teammate Park also dismissed the possible impact of aggressive music on real life: “If you listen to James Brown, do you feel good right after? .”
Kim’s case aside, the country’s drilling scene has — perhaps due to its relatively small mainstream profile — been largely spared legal troubles. None of the artists interviewed for this article reported any other police restrictions on performing or recording music.
And the lyrical content of South Korean artists makes an official crackdown on the exercise unlikely, Park said, saying rappers from the UK and US have caused trouble by openly discussing crime in their music.
In a genre that often sees artists denigrate the abilities of rival rappers, it’s fitting enough that he thinks the biggest challenge facing the South Korean scene isn’t politicians, police, or even a lack of control. Interest – this is the quality of his contemporaries. .
“They try to make drill songs, but they’ll fail because they can’t rap,” he said. “You have to know how to make bars, that’s the priority in this job.”
Top image: Korean artist Blase.
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