Yuleum is the next big thing in Korean hip-hop. He is 12 years old.
Upon meeting Yuleum for the first time, you see an average South Korean middle schooler. Sporting a bowl cut and a navy crew neck sweater, the 12-year-old is shy around visitors, saying only a few words. His hobbies include cycling with friends and going home after school. But he can also look grown up in an instant.
He was recruited by Swings, one of South Korea’s best-known rappers, and his current mentor is sAewoo, one of the country’s hottest hip-hop producers. With the help of these music veterans, Yuleum released his latest single “Hero’s Disease” last month as he worried about his upcoming exams.
He recorded the track at his family’s apartment in the southwestern city of Daegu. In a small room you can see all of Yuleum’s favorite “toys”. Instead of LEGO and video games, there’s a computer screen, microphone, keyboard, drums, speakers, and an electric guitar next to a bass guitar. On a narrow shelf in the corner of the room are CDs from Nirvana, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar and jazz legend Pat Metheny.
“All my friends only listen to the most popular K-pop songs, so if I turn on some Kanye West in front of them, they all give me this weird look,” Yuleum told VICE.
Kanye West is one of Yuleum’s recent discoveries on YouTube, where he’s expanded his musicality over the years. He’s fascinated by how West went from University dropout for Yeezusand also aspires to be “multifaceted as an artist”.
“All my friends only listen to the most popular K-pop songs, so if I turn on some Kanye West in front of them, they all give me this weird look.”
Thanks to his mother, a classical music composer, Yuleum was introduced to YouTube channel OTHANKQ when he was 9 years old. A self-produced EDM and club music artist who uploads tutorials on how to become a producer at home, OTHANKQ’s videos taught Yuleum how to make beats on his mother’s MacBook. And thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, Yuleum finally discovered iconic live performances from Nirvana and other artists.
“I started imagining performing live in front of crowds before I fell asleep,” he said. “So I was shooting music videos by myself at home.”
He likes to do things “on his own,” Yuleum said, and uploads these homemade videos to YouTube.
“I feel more comfortable working alone,” he said. “I feel free and I want to try new things.”
His first full album Masks: Side A, released last summer, has 14 tracks he produced, wrote, performed, mixed and performed.
This originality and confidence drove Swings and sAewoo to travel to Daegu from Seoul in the middle of the night last summer, just to meet Yuleum. He had been fired up on SoundCloud after hip-hop artists like Trade L (who himself is just 17) and hip-hop producer BOYCOLD gave him shoutouts online.
Soon after, Yuleum became the newest member of Swings’ Wedaplugg Records, a hip-hop and alternative music label, joining artists like sAewoo, YUNHWAY, Jhnovr and OLNL, all known for their mix of hip-hop, R&B , pop, and electronic sounds.
Yuleum, the youngest member, describes his music as “hyper pop”. In many of his tracks, he uses the deep basslines of hip-hop, mixes heavy transitions with electronic sounds, and weaves in mostly English lyrics.
“I like to use English lyrics to give a foreign vibe,” Yuleum said.
His influences are mostly Western artists, but it was the rappers from his home country who paved the way for young artists like him.
A quick visit to one of the hip-hop community’s online forums will show hundreds of young South Korean rappers hoping to be discovered just like Yuleum. On Hiphopplaya’s Open Mic, young people are uploading mixtapes, covers and beats to get feedback, spark collaborations and, possibly, get the attention of hip-hop labels.
This was not the case ten years ago. Although many children dreamed of becoming K-pop stars, the country’s rappers did not shine so brightly in the eyes of young people. Hip-hop was associated with the underground, literally writing lyrics from the basement and living a life of financial scarcity. But one thing they had a lot was pride. It was considered shameful for rappers to be associated with the world of K-pop or to be on television; they were rappers, not celebrities.
So when Swings, a tough rapper known for his boom bap style that earned him the title “Punchline King,” appeared on the hip-hop audition program’s second season. show me the money as a contestant, he created waves for the hip-hop community. Swings finished in fourth place, but his popularity as a “monster rapper” on the show changed the rap game in South Korea. Audiences discovered the brutality and intensity of hip-hop with its diss battles and explicit lyrics, while rappers learned that appearing on a popular TV show doesn’t always mean selling out.
Future seasons of the show would see better-known rappers like C Jamm, BewhY, and even K-pop stars like iKON’s Bobby and Winner’s Mino as contestants. Meanwhile, veteran rappers like The Quiett and Paloalto appeared as judges and collaborators. Eventually, the tracks produced on the show would top the national charts, sometimes beating out popular K-pop groups. In 2017, Mnet, the music channel that broadcasts Show me the money had come out with a similar show titled High school rapper. Hip-hop was quickly becoming the South Korean youth culture, coming out of the underground.
After appearing on show me the moneySwings has gone on to become the CEO of three hip-hop labels, the owner of a gym franchise and, most recently, an apartment building in Seoul, the ultimate status symbol.
“That’s the power of TV broadcasting,” said Jo Keun-ae, a TV writer who worked on three seasons of show me the money. “Just five years ago, we were like other Asian countries in having a negative view of hip-hop. But the willingness of some of these great rappers to appear on an audition program in front of the public has made mainstream hip-hop.
She said the genre is particularly appealing to young children: “Anyone can realistically start writing their own lyrics and start creating beats.”
Like Yuleum, Im Kun-woo started performing with his own beats while still in school. Today, the 18-year-old spends about 12 hours a day in a rented studio in Ilsan, a city northwest of Seoul, working on his debut album, which is slated for release this summer.
Sitting on the fifth floor of a commercial building that houses various businesses, including a massage parlour, comic book store, and motel, his recording booth is one of many in a studio rental facility. His room is just big enough for two people to sit comfortably: a desk with a computer screen, a small keyboard, two speakers and a microphone take up most of the space.
“My goal right now is to receive the Best New Artist award,” he told VICE. “I’m going to promote my album like crazy after it comes out.”
He started sampling beats at the age of 16 and eventually mustered enough courage for DM Qim Isle, a well-respected rapper in the indie hip-hop scene, and asked for mentorship. Qim Isle taught him to broaden his musical tastes and put him in touch with the record company that would produce his first album. I worked on the 15 tracks on the album for about two years, switching from trap to more hardcore rapping between tracks.
“I’m actually more into house music and funk these days,” Im said. “I think hip-hop is a good entry point for a lot of artists because its beats and arrangements are quite simple.”
Like Yuleum, Im parents are also artists by profession. Im’s parents are painters and are now his biggest investors. They play the role of manager, giving feedback on his music. They also allowed him to keep his college education on the back burner, at least for now. This is rare in a country where diplomas are of great importance and where it is known that around 70% of eligible students enroll in university each year.
In the past, it would have been unthinkable for parents to allow their children to give up education for a musical career. Today, young rappers like Im and Yuleum are gaining more and more recognition for their work. Some even call Yuleum a “genius” for making music at such a young age. He has understood a little that it is a privilege, when many people of his age, even much older, are still trying to find their way in life.
“More than becoming famous, I just want to be an artist who always does what he feels and doesn’t have to be pressured by someone else.”
“Every time I see a comment online that calls me a ‘genius,’ it makes me feel good,” Yuleum said. “But more than becoming famous, I just want to be an artist who always does what he feels and doesn’t have to be pressured by someone else.”
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