San E and Mad Clown: ‘Real Hip-Hop is About Being Honest’
The South Korean rappers discuss the difference between ‘idol’ and ‘underground’ artists, discovering Indian musicians and their upcoming U.S. tour
“Mad Clown is from the ghetto, he’s got a gun right now,” San E declares with a big grin on his face. His long-time friend and collaborator Mad Clown (who, contrary to his name, seems to be one of the most gentle souls on the planet) looks positively scandalized at the notion. They’re two of South Korea’s leading rappers but their playful banter makes it easy to forget just how senior they are in the industry. That one sentence pretty much sets the mood for the entire Skype conversation between Seoul and Mumbai: a barrage of jokes and bright laughter courtesy Jung San, who goes by the stage name San E, and shy, sometimes exasperated, smiles from Jo Dong-rim aka Mad Clown. There’s just two weeks before their first North American tour, a mammoth coast-to-coast affair which Mad Clown admits he’s excited, but nervous about. “I’ve never performed overseas before,” he says.
Although just in their early thirties, Mad Clown and San E have been in the music industry for the better part of a decade and were prominent figures in South Korea’s underground rap scene prior to that. Mad Clown hit mainstream success after the release of 2013’s “Stupid in Love,” a collaboration with K-pop group Sistar’s Soyou, while San E shot to fame after becoming the first solo rapper to sign with JYP Entertainment in 2010 (labelmates include K-pop acts like GOT7 and Twice.) The two have previously collaborated on several tracks including 2015’s “Sour Grapes” and “Lonely Animals” and have appeared on various hip-hop shows as judges, mentors and guests. They explain that their similar levels of experience positions in the market made it natural for them to pair up.
“It’s like a dream,” San E says about the We Want You tour which kicks off on April 5th in Atlanta. With over 20 dates scheduled, it’s one of the biggest tours conducted by a South Korean act. In addition to local acts who will be opening for them in each city, the duo will be joined by two Korean artists; upcoming R&B singer Sobae and DJ Juice. The setlist will include some of their biggest solo hits, collaborations and their latest single “Butterfly” featuring R&B singer Bumkey which released on March 29th. It’s clever, bright and playful with just the right touch of awkward– kind of like the rappers themselves.
After discussing the tour, we dive into the ‘idol rapper’ vs ‘authentic rapper’ debate that often plagues the Korean hip-hop scene. “It is real,” San E says about the animosity. Entertainment companies ‘teaching’ idols how to rap didn’t sit too well with underground artists who considered hip-hop a lifestyle. He explains many wanted to draw lines to validate authenticity rather than focus on why they make music in the first place. “Back in the day, people just liked music, you know? With music… people cry or they’re happy. But these days people like categories.” On that note, what do he and Mad Clown consider to be ‘real’ rappers?
“It depends on you, how you define ‘real,’” says Mad Clown. “To be honest, this is the kind of question that’s meaningless because to me it’s really simple: if I hear it and it’s good then it’s real. If I hear it and it doesn’t touch my heart or if I don’t like it, it’s not real to me.” Both rappers have collaborated with K-pop idols and underground artists and explain that there’s not such a big difference between the two anymore when it comes to talent. With more idols producing and writing their music and several underground rappers signing with labels, there’s a change in the definition of what hip-hop is. Korean rap reality shows and competitions like Show Me The Money, Unpretty Rapstar and High School Rapper provide platforms to several underground artists with a few also having gone on to become idols later on.
Lyrically, San E and Mad Clown prefer to walk the talk around ‘real’ hip-hop. As more artists take the step to open up, songs about politics, mental health and equality are more visible. San E’s work was especially viewed as controversial due to him addressing politics (“Bad Year”) and mental health and drug addiction (“Counselor.”) He says that South Korea is seeing a change in the perspective around these matters. “Especially since these days lots of people have issues but they’re not talking about having depression or other disorders. I was going through that too, you know?”
They do admit they hesitate before putting something that honest out. “Because in Korea we have to be careful about what we’re saying–especially for celebrities,” says Mad Clown. “If we say something really sensitive about social issues or gender issues or politics, we can be accused by people really easily.” Mad Clown’s 2017 single “Love is a Dog From Hell” drew a lot of attention for its harrowing lyrical take on heartbreak (inspired by one of American writer Charles Bukowski’s books of poetry), but even more so for its music video which features a transgender character (played by Mad Clown’s own brother actor Jo Hyeon-cheol.)
With the Korean music industry’s increasing globalization, several artists are contemplating making the transition to releasing music in English. Could that lead to a loss of what makes Korean hip-hop and R&B unique? “That’s a hard question,” says San E. “I think all these languages when you pronounce them they have their characteristics right? Whether you rap in Korean, Indian languages, Spanish, English… they all have different vibes.There’s gotta be a big change when you’re a Korean artist and rapping in English. There’s a big difference.” It’s the matter of things getting lost in translation and both San E and Mad Clown agree it’s difficult to translate their exact feelings into English. “I never thought about writing my music in any other language than Korean,” Mad Clown adds. “Because I grew up using the Korean language and as an artist I can only express myself in Korean. It’s what I feel most comfortable with and I have all these memories with. It is really important to stick with that.”
There’s also the loss of the allure of different verbal rhythms in various languages. At times the way Korean rappers enunciate could be more of a draw than the actual lyrics. “I do not think you must rap in English to be a global rapper because ‘It G Ma’ (the 2015 viral hip-hop track by South Korean rapper Keith Ape) was poppin’ and everyone knows about ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Despacito,’” San E reasons. Another example of Korean hip-hop that saw viral attention for rhythm and flow was 2016’s “Eung Freestyle” by DPR Live, Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz and Flowsik. Of course Korean hip-hop’s propagation is furthered among newer audiences by artists like BTS, G-Dragon, Zico, Jay Park and more who have blended K-pop idol culture with their passion for hip-hop to create a new narrative. To San E and Mad Clown, the future of hip-hop in languages other than English looks bright.
The conversation moves to the thriving indie hip-hop scene in India and they ask for recommendations, curious to see what local artists talk about. “I hope there’s going to be more communication with Indian artists and Korean artists,” says San E. “India was a country I wanted to go to since I was 20.” His dream came true last November when he got to visit Varanasi, New Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but he’s eager to come back. “I wanted to stay there for like a month but I only had 10 days. After I came back to Korea I told everybody ‘India is special, it’s crazy there and there’s nothing like India.” Would he and Mad Clown ever consider bringing their music here? “Any time!” he declares. “You just call us! I love it there, you know.”
Hear San E and Mad Clown’s new single “Butterfly” below: