Straight outta South Korea: Verbal Jint returns to his roots in hip-hop

Richmond World Festival headliner Verbal Jint has returned to the hip-hop game he helped invent.

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      Megarespected South Korean hip-hop icon Verbal Jint has never been to Vancouver, but he seems to have done his homework for his first visit.

      Reached at home in Seoul, the 36-year-old notes that past tours of North America have seen him play Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. None of those cities, evidently, has the allure of Vancouver, where Jint will be heading for his headlining spot at the Richmond World Festival.

      “A close associate of mine is from Vancouver and he told me about how freely you can smoke weed in Vancouver,” Jint says, reached at home in Seoul. “If I’m right, the Richmond World Festival is only three years old, and I feel lucky to be there on the year 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canada.”

      That the rapper is correct on all points shouldn’t surprise anyone, because if Jint has proven anything during his 18 years at the forefront of Korea’s booming hip-hop game, it’s that he’s got some serious smarts. That’s been shown by a university stint as an economics major and, later, by his decision to enroll in law school.

      Ultimately, though, it’s been hip-hop that’s had the greatest pull on him. Obsessed with music from the time he was 10, the MC first surfaced at the tail end of the ’90s, at a time when hip-hop was considered a dangerous but temporary trend in South Korea. Early underground tracks like “Big Brag” took a minimalist, hypnotically chill approach. They also showcased Jint as an artist determined to reinvent the rules of Korean hip-hop. As he once explained to the Korea Times, and has repeated often since: “People who came before us didn’t have much interest in rhyming; artists before us were satisfied with talking fast and thinking that it was rapping—and that sold then.”

      Beyond the rhyming, what his fellow Koreans heard in his early work, he suggests, is a kid who was obsessed with American hip-hop.

      “Back in the ‘Big Brag’ days I was listening to a lot of OutKast records, A Tribe Called Quest records, and Q-Tip records,” he says.

      His musical education didn’t start there, however. In the menacingly baroque “My Bentley”, off his 2015 release Go Hard, Part 1, Jint rapped: “I honestly have no idea how many corners/I have turned until I got to this place here/The little child who bugged his parents/Until he had an electric guitar in his hands.”

      The future MC originally went out of his way to learn about alternative-nation acts like Suede and My Bloody Valentine.

      “During my teenager period, there was Bae Cheol-soo’s Music Camp—the only Korean radio show that used to play music from the Billboard Hot 100 back in the ’90s,” he says. “Through that radio show, and magazines, I could listen to various types of music.”

      Verbal Jint, "You Look Good"

      Music got its hooks into him to the point where he began playing in bands.

      “Back in the day—I mean the 1990s—a school band was one of the choices if kids wanted to look cool,” Jint says. “Since my elementary school
      I played guitar and piano, and I realized I could use those instruments to play the music I liked after I became a teenager.”

      His obsession with hip-hop started gradually. “In my teen days, I started listening to Björk, Arrested Development, and Notorious B.I.G. at the same time,” he says. “Basically, I started a band because I just wanted to produce music as a songwriter. In the past there was no such thing as rap or hip-hop culture in Korea. So eventually I gathered musicians to make music with me. Later I disbanded the team and started solo to produce the music that I wanted to.”

      Laughingly, Jint says the first CD he purchased was 12 Inches of Snow by Toronto CanCon rapper Snow, that later leading him to the likes of Andre3000, Pharrell, and CeeLo Green. By the mid-’00s the rapper was an underground force in Korea, his mixtapes and singles inspiring the next generation of MCs. And then he walked away to go back to school.

      Looking back, Jint remembers being burned-out on life as an underground musician. There were also cultural forces at play, given that no parents in Korea dream of having their child grow up to be a hip-hop artist.

      “In Korea,” Jint says, “there is a tendency that people treat you as a normal person if you finish your education, or get a college degree. I didn’t want to shock my parents.”

      In law school, however, he realized once and for all what his true passion was.

      “I decided to show them this music thing actually worked,” Jint notes. “At some point they started to show support.”

      It didn’t hurt that hip-hop was a legitimate cultural force in Korea by the time Jint decided to return to the game. Young MCs that he’d influenced in the early ’00s—San E, Okasian—were starting to surface. Capitalizing on the growing demand, Korean TV began airing smashes like Show Me the Money, an America’s Got Talent–type show where young MCs compete against each other.

      Helping the groundswell was the emergence of YouTube, Bandcamp, and Spotify as easy ways to reach millions of rap-hungry fans.

      “We got platforms,” Jint says simply. “I mean, we got media by our side, so it’s all about how you use it. It’s a much better situation compared to back in the ’90s.”

      Over the past half-decade the rapper has been able to capitalize on that with a series of albums (The Good Die Young, Go Easy, 10 Years of Misinterpretation Pt. 1), EPs, and collaborations that have showcased him as an artist willing to evolve. Often powered by live jazzy drums and chamber-orchestra strings, his work has gone from minimalist to powerfully widescreen.

      Jint today seems like he’d be happiest sitting at the same table as visionaries like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. And considering that, it makes sense that—in stark contrast to the shiny, happy K-pop that dominates the mainstream in South Korea—Jint isn’t afraid to step into the darkness. Consider “My Bentley”, where he laments being a guy who “needs cognac to fight the headaches and loneliness when he’s working”.

      The MC is in an enviable position at home. When not in the studio, he’s in demand as a voice-over actor, and is frequently enlisted to do commercials for products aimed at Korea’s youth market. But the darkness in much of his work is evidently real, that bleeding over into real life.

      “I drink a lot of hard liquor when I’m working,” he says candidly. “It’s usually me by myself.”

      As accepted as hip-hop has become in Korea, Jint says there are things that not even he can get away with rapping about.

      “Weed and casual sex,” he says simply.

      Access to at least one of those things is pretty much guaranteed during his upcoming trip to Vancouver. Even though he’s never been here before, it’s no wonder he’s excited.

      Verbal Jint plays the Richmond World Festival in Minoru Park on Friday (September 1). Attendance is free.