The secret is out: South Korea is the new hotbed of house. For anyone following the genre, 2019 and 2020 were phenomenal years for artists like Peggy Gou and Yaeji, both of whom hit international stardom virtually overnight and drew in millions of fans as festival headliners around the world.
For a scene that’s been dominated by men for most of its young history—with only a few women like Ellen Alien and Nina Kraviz attaining the same level of success as their male counterparts over the decades—this new generation of house stars is a curious one. Who would’ve thought the daughters of the Asian diaspora would be driving some of the most innovative four-by-four beats in the world?
While already famous for their global exports of K-pop and world-class cinema, the development of Korea’s newest cultural gem has already been aptly coined by Gou herself as “K-house”. Defined by waves of dreamlike synths, minimal beats, and soft, introspective vocals, K-house is also extremely international by nature, demonstrated by its lyrics often spoken or sung in a free-flowing combination of English and Korean.
Contrary to its predecessors, K-house doesn’t necessarily have its roots planted within South Korea itself. Cities like Seoul have always had their own club cultures since the ‘90s (an import from largely American migrants who came to the big city as English teachers), but the majority of this new generation of influential DJs grew up elsewhere as third-culture kids. A common backstory involves spending their early formative years in Korea, before growing up in in the West in cities like Berlin or New York.
It is this sense of relationship to multiple cultures—while maybe not feeling full ownership over any of them—that is the common thread and the common source of inspiration for this new sound.
Having graced every cover from Vogue to Mixmag in the past couple of years, it’s not an overstatement to say that Peggy Gou is the biggest star on this list. Having left Incheon for the UK at the tender age of 14, and eventually choosing Berlin as a home base to pursue her career in music, Gou bounced between a record store job and clubbing at Berghain every week while building up her spinning and production chops.
She’s often spoken out about her experience as an outsider amongst the city’s techno cliques too, in addition to needing to work twice as hard to prove her worth as a woman and an Asian DJ. Thankfully, the frequent uprooting and exposure to different scenes ultimately paid off, as exemplified by her devoted fanbase and critically-acclaimed work, described by many to be a mix of sounds traditionally associated with Detroit, London, and Berlin, but with Korean lyrics.
“I believe that a lot of Korean and K-pop artists, they want to be European,” says Gou when asked about her relationship to her homeland. “But there are so many beautiful things in Korea.”
Another ‘DJane’ with diverse roots, Yaeji has so far split her 27 years of life between Queens, Long Island, Atlanta, Seoul, and Pittsburgh. Known best for her self-titled breakout 2017 EP and honey-sweet persona, the humble musician credits the constant moving and subsequent alienation and introversion she experienced in her youth with her entry into electronic music. Since making the BBC’s Sound of 2018 list three years ago, Yaeji’s rise to fame has been swift; but though she’s moved on from just hosting house parties with her art school friends to playing the likes of Sónar and Coachella, some things haven’t changed—namely her signature seamless mix of pop, hip-hop and house, and the fact that she continues to sing in both English and Korean.
It’s not just Yaeji that sings in Korean, either; anyone who’s attended a Yaeji show knows that the crowd is guaranteed to sing along at the top of their lungs, regardless of their ability to actually speak or understand the language. If anyone needs hard proof that music can transcend linguistic and cultural barriers, Yaeji’s your girl.
While she comes from a slightly less international upbringing than Peggy Gou and Yaeji, Park Hye Jin is proving to be an equally important player when it comes to evangelising the Korean house sound on the world stage. Having left her hometown of Seoul in 2017 to dive into the electronic scene of London, the now LA-based master of understated house has quickly adapted to her North American contemporaries, such as DJ Seinfeld and Baltra (the latter of which she’s collaborated and toured frequently with). With her repetitive, hypnosis-inducing Korean mantras, Park’s deep house vibe and footwork beats are laid over a cushion of soft synths and lo-fi fuzz, quickly garnering her an international following in the process.
It all started when Closet Yi and Naone met at a party in Seoul; the two were independently looking for a musical partner to spin with, and started throwing monthly parties as a way to explore their mutual love of Detroit techno during what they describe as “The Golden Age” of house music in Korea in 2015. A couple of years later, they were spinning together as C’est Qui as part of Boiler Room’s first foray into Seoul. The duo’s trajectory is a prime example of how quickly trends come and go in the hypercompetitive landscape of Korean music—and of how international influences trickle back home at an equally breakneck speed.
Another Seoul Boiler Room alumni, Didi Han’s calling came when she heard a Nicolas Jaar mix for the first time. “It was like watching a movie,” she recalls, explaining that the American-Chilean legend’s experimental selections inspired her to study DJ-ing as a method of “emotional progression”. Using sound effects like approaching footsteps or the fine-tuning of a radio dial to tell stories throughout her mixes, the artist weaves seamlessly between hip-hop, R&B, house and pop to create a beautiful, self-contained sound. While a favourite in her hometown for spinning at clubs like Soap, Modeci, and Henz with the Pute Deluxe collective, Han is already well on her way to global recognition with a recent European tour, alongside her first foray into the world of production with her dreamy Forest EP release in late 2019.
For a scene that’s been dominated by male artists from cities like Detroit, Berlin, and London throughout its short history, this new chapter of house music’s evolution is a welcome change. No matter the city, female Korean DJs are adding a new flavor and layer of diversity to the sound of house from where they are.
Get into these exciting tunes by the Korean women we mentioned in the article on our Spotify playlist now.
Cover Image: Han Myung-Gu / Getty Images
Writer | Cynthia Chou
Cynthia is a Canadian writer and recent transplant to Berlin. She also likes to paint and sing and eat and drink and stuff while traveling the world.