South Korean pop music might have made waves, yet there is talent in Korea that deserves the spotlight. It hides in the underground: vivid street fashion, edgy art styles, and a flourishing rap and hip-hop scene.
Within this hidden world, experimental artists break traditional roles in music and image. Paul Chan Chang — known as Changstarr — is one of these artists.
Chang has lived on the edge of his identity, born in Texas to a Korean family and spending his middle school years in Korea. He returned to the United States for high school and went on to major in Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, a highly acclaimed ivy league school located in New Hampshire.
The plan was law school. Becoming a music artist, let alone a rapper, was something he had only ever considered a dream. In an interview with Kulture Hub, he said,
“Rapping definitely wasn’t even in my vision. It was just something I really liked to do, something I was passionate about, but I never really thought of myself as a rapper. But senior year in college I interned at a pretty big law firm in Korea and I absolutely hated it. No matter how much money I could make out of it, I knew I wouldn’t be happy.”
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Chang noticed the underground rap world in Korea was growing, and after realizing he wasn’t meant for an office, he went on to join the new movement.
Since the rise of hip hop culture in the West, South Korea has shown huge interest in the music genre. Television shows such as Show Me the Money and Unpretty Rapstar, both of which first aired within the past decade, are pushing hip-hop and rap further into the lens of the South Korean public.
The rise of rap and hip-hop in South Korea has opened doors for more creativity in the industry like never before. Changstarr is one of those artists who decided to create his own lane, forming an image that was blended with the hippie, psychedelic vibes of Woodstock with the rhythm and beats of the Bronx.
“I wasn’t really very hippie until senior year in college when I started growing out my hair. I traveled a lot with my friends, and for a graduation trip we drove from Alaska to L.A. During that time I fell in love with hippie culture, and on the road, we took turns reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac in the car. It influenced me a lot in terms of perspective and how I view my life. After that, I just fell in love with the psychedelic lifestyle, and I feel like it makes me a lot more unique.”
Though the Korean underground has been indulging in mainstream hip-hop, Chang admits it’s hard for artists that challenge the status quo. Korea is still new to hip-hop culture and rappers that attack more sensitive or controversial material in their music are often looked down upon.
This has a lot to do with the Korean music industry, says Chang, where pop artists are held to high standards in terms of expression of opinion. The music industry, based mostly on manufactured talent and strategic planning, created a culture of silence where artists no longer have to freedom to fully express themselves. He told me,
“People are very sensitive to the lyrics because they’re not used to the expression used in hip-hop. A lot of lines can sound misogynistic or materialistic, but that’s part of the hip-hop culture. It’s a way of expressing sexuality and personality that normally seems offensive but can be spoken through rap. There’s a lot of things you have to be careful about here as a rapper, especially since there’s a certain way these artists are expected to be. You have to care a lot about what the public thinks because of these standards. Being too different or too unique doesn’t work here, so a lot of it seems artificial.”
In Changstarr’s newest album, Vagabonds, the nuance artist hopes to encourage more expression and individuality in Korean rap. In his album, there is a suggestion of discussion regarding drug culture, something that is highly controversial in South Korea.
“People are going to make choices that society may not accept, but f**k that. If you’re not hurting anybody, then it’s fine. When there are more people getting comfortable talking about it — obviously, you have to be indirect, like we’re doing right now — through music and style, Korea may have a sort of cultural renaissance. People just need to chill out, be yourself, do whatever the f**k you want. In Korean hip-hop, it’s like the exact opposite of what Korean society wants you to be, and so now people are getting a lot more comfortable being themselves.”
In contrast to the overwhelming presence of the major Korean pop music industry, Chang notes that the Korean hip-hop industry boasts expression and uniqueness in their artists.
There is a stronger sense of individuality and freedom, whereas the mass-marketed Korean pop industry places high standards and regulation upon their artists for their commercialization.
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Following the release of his new album, Chang has seen a surge in his popularity, landing a number of gigs across Seoul. Aside from his own music, Chang has appeared in an online documentary called “Lust,” which investigates the Korean underground rap world.
He also has plans to organize a crew for future collaborative works and has been hosting his own event called “Vagabonds Party” to feature other artists and DJs from the underground in South Korea.
Changstarr is one of the many underground artists that is dominating the Korean hip-hop scene, yet he is one of the few looking for a change. He has high prospects for the future of Korean hip-hop, and it’s about time it followed the rest of the music industry West. K-pop made it to the top, and now, K-hip-hop is sure to explode next.