Since its formative years, hip-hop has been recognised as one of the central mediums of artistic expression within the Asian community. Having grown exponentially over the recent past thanks to labels like 88rising and Def Jam Recording Southeast Asia, the Asian rap scene is finally being afforded the global spotlight it deserves.
Remember a time when tuning into Asian hip-hop was akin to discovering a unicorn? Yet unknown to many, the community had long been making music and finding a receptive audience for their music in breakdancing, DJ-ing, streetwear, giving a platform to emerging rappers with outsized influence within the scene.
Despite the genre’s massive boost in global popularity in recent years, the artists have managed to stay true to their art, especially in terms of the language they use, all the while borrowing elements from the culture of hip-hop. Although Asian hip-hop is still in its early stages, it has already exhibited an impressive range of adaptability towards the many cultures throughout Asia.
The early Tokyo rap scene feared that their Japanese lyrics would not flow as well, so they tended to translate their lyrics to English even though they could not speak the language. Hip-hop eventually boomed in the '90s, and eventually, artists started rapping in Japanese to distinguish themselves from their global peers. Tokyo-born producer Nujabes pioneered a Japanese hip-hop style known as lo-fi hip-hop, which is an atmospheric instrumental genre for easy listening. Now, Japan boasts one of the most exciting scenes for hip-hop music, to the extent that even North American rap is taking notes from their peers on the other side of the Pacific. From Jinmenusagi's poignant flow to the fire-spitting Awich, this new breed of rap artists from the land of the rising sun are as fearless as ever.
We cannot talk about hip-hop without touching on Korea, where the genre has embedded itself into K-pop music. From BTS to BLACKPINK, rap is an essential formula that makes K-pop so exciting. To underline this point, in every bor or girl band there is always at least a member or two who is well-versed in rapping (whether it is good or not, that is another topic). Hardcore hip-hop fans who may not necessarily see the polished K-pop idols as someone to admire often gravitate to Jay Park, who began as a K-pop idol before creating his hip-hop labels AOMG and H1ghr Music that champion rap acts from Korea to the world. There will always be a blurred line for Korean hip-hop and its relationship with pop—but one thing is for sure, it’s here to stay.
Speaking of K-pop, one can not ignore the Chinese rap scene in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Many of the most well-known artists within the community have superstar status in their respective countries. Whether they rap in Mandarin or Cantonese, artists like the iconic Higher Brothers group from China to rising star Dough-Boy from Hong Kong are holding the torch for a new era in Chinese hip-hop. Through mainstream success, it has opened the door for Chinese rap artists to get their messages across while showing off their culture to a global audience.
Another big name that has made a significant impact in the global hip-hop scene is Indonesian artist Rich Brian, who blew up when his single "Dat $tick" went viral upon its release in 2016. He has gone on to work with many incredible artists such as Jackson Wang, Skrillex, Dua Lipa, Diplo, and many more. Rich Brian is signed to 88rising, a label for Asian-American and Asian artists in the U.S. alongside the likes of Niki, Joji, and Keith Ape. The collective is one of the most groundbreaking crews in music to help introduce Asian artists to the world.
Heading down to Singapore and Malaysia, hip-hop has always been evident in the two countries' underground scene but has finally found its voice in recent years, to the extent that it has become a significant component of their respective countries’ music scenes. What's most exciting about these two countries is how they encompass various languages like English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. This has elevated the credibility of the region's hip-hop scene, which led to the launch of Def Jam Recordings Southeast Asia in 2019 to support acts from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The legendary hip-hop label’s presence in Southeast Asia is an indication of how dominant rap has become in the region and is a true testament that language holds no barrier.
What's next for Asian hip hop? Who knows? But one thing is for sure, they are not stopping for anyone, and they are heard loudly across the globe for sure.
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Writer | CK Yeoh
CK is a writer from Malaysia who is in a serious relationship with music and YouTube. He is also casually dating Kindle and having a fling with podcasts.