Born Dongheon Lee in Seoul, South Korea, the 24-year-old rapper -- who took his stage name from late graphic artist Keith Haring -- didn’t equate the magnitude of “It G Ma” as a sign of success. “Of course at first, I thought I made it,” Ape tells Billboard in July. He’s relaxing on a couch at his Airbnb in the East Village dressed down to a Billionaire Boys Club t-shirt and red Polo pants. Next to him is Oscar Lee, who is his day-to-day manager. “We’ve been out here for a couple of years, and I’ve ran into issues – not serious – but everyday problems. After going through that, I realized I have a long way to go.”
Those “everyday problems” he speaks of were typical things foreign artists often go through when they’re focused on building their fanbases in America. “To simply put it, living in America as a non-American,” he says. Ape’s first language is Korean, so he’s been learning to speak English fluently with the help of a translator. “Not growing up here, not from here, but trying to live here, trying to work here, and trying to make it in America,” he says, adding that he focuses on the American market because “[Hip-hop] started from America and Americans made it. Hip-hop is American music.”
Back in 2015, Ape’s “IT G Ma,” recorded with JayAllday, Loota, Okasian, and Kohh, became a viral hit, positioning him as the creator of an Asian trap wave taking over hip-hop globally. Dubbed as “the Korean OG Maco” at first, he began to tear down every live show he had in America, changing the perception of that comparison to a gifted rapper who leads South Korea’s burgeoning rap scene. Ape was rowdy and a conductor of mayhem, and his sound was resonating in the States, getting another push when Dumbfoundead, ASAP Ferg, Father, and Waka Flocka Flame appeared on the “It G Ma (Remix).” The video premiered on Complex in July 2015, where the publication wrote, “You are about to bear witness to a groundbreaking moment in convergence culture.”
In subsequent years after “IT G Ma” picked up steam, Ape kept a low profile. He moved to Los Angeles and started to work more closely with 88Rising’s founder Sean Miyashiro, who began to manage him. He prepared to make his return to rap by releasing loosies on the internet, and in particular, linking with Ski Mask the Slump God for a handful of gems (“Dr. Eggman,” “Going Down Underwater,” “Achoo!”). Another one of his collabs that drew excitement was “Gospel” with Rich Brian and XXXTentacion, which dropped in May of last year.
Originally slated to be Rich Brian’s song, Ape thought it would be a good opportunity to create a moment with his 88Rising labelmate. He worked on the song before X’s death, finishing his part sometime in 2016. “I wished I was able to meet him in person. We never got a chance to meet face-to-face,” he says of X. “I have a memory of working really hard on the song. And that song, put me back on, so it is very meaningful to me.”
In the lead up to BORN AGAIN, which released on Oct. 12, Ape scrubbed his Twitter and Instagram pages. “This was a reboot of my image. I wanted to restart,” he says. “Until I release my project, I’ll be putting one photo at a time [on Instagram]. The photos aren’t of me. They are of others things. A fresh new start.”
Before Ape revealed the artwork for “Ninja Turtle,” which displayed piles of U.S. dollars and Korean won with recreational drugs, and announced his first single from the EP was dropping on Sept. 6, he kept a photo of a crowbar on his IG page. The image was reminiscent of Half-Life, and the caption read: “Crowbar Black Mesa Research Facility PC Game STL 3D-model 3D-print Only Digital Prop Cosplay.”
“As far as the caption and the photo goes, I thought it would work well together. It just looked dope. The photo itself is part of my break time. It was my journey of putting myself back together as who I really am,” he says. “I grew up playing Half-Life a lot. And the crowbar is the basic item of it. It’s almost like a new beginning ‘cause you start with the crowbar.”
BORN AGAIN is just that — a rebirth. With his new self comes a re-introduction of Keith as a curator of what he deems cool. BORN AGAIN’s artwork is drawn by manga artist Santa Inoue, known for his Tokyo Tribes series and his iconic SARU tee. For producers on the EP, he worked with Philadelphia-based collective Working on Dying, whose credits include Matt Ox’s “Overwhelming” and upcoming Lil Uzi Vert songs. For guest features, he collaborated with Wifisfuneral, Chief Keef, and Yung Bans on “Ninja Turtle,” “The Ice Ape,” and “The Opium War."
BORN AGAIN ends on “Symphony No. 1993: Escape from Planet of the Apes.” Keith Ape is so dedicated to the influence of Nigo, the creator of BAPE, that he paid homage to “Symphony No. 25910 - Escape From Planet of the Apes” off Nigo’s Ape Sounds album from 2000.
“Escaping is like… planet is a very conceptual thing, [I’m] not talking about a physical planet,” he says of the song title. “Do you know how people will always say, ‘Out of this world?’ The planet could also symbolize my past, so it is moving out of my past and starting my new self.”
It’s all part of Keith Ape’s mission to make his U.S. comeback impactful, shutting down any talk of him being a one-hit wonder. The overarching theme of BORN AGAIN proves he’s on his way to becoming an influential multi-hypenate for the younger generation, following in the footsteps of other cultural disruptors like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. Ape also has a special place in his heart for XXXTentacion and his music, especially after the "SAD!" rapper has garnered comparisons to 2Pac after he was shot and killed in Florida in June.
“I think there are a number of artists that have expanded the spectrum of hip-hop as a music. After Kanye, Pharrell, and Kid Cudi, in like [the] younger generation, I think X is one of the few that I felt that way about the artist,” he says. “I’m not comparing anybody to anybody, but he is one of the artists that gave me that feeling. He’s the artist that had the potential to be one of the greatest, especially these days.”
On the Pier 17 stage, the entire 88rising line-up — Don Krez, Kohh, August 08, Niki, Higher Brothers, Rich Brian, and Joji — return to finish out the night with a medley. It’s past 9 p.m., but the fans are still rocking for these bursts of performances. After their posse cut, “Midsummer Madness,” and Higher Brothers’ energetic “WeChat,” the DJ cues up “Gospel.” Rich Brian throws an X up during XXXTentacion’s chaotic verse as a show of respect. Keith Ape finally re-emerges from backstage, as the final 88Rising member to invigorate the audience one last time.