XXX Talks New Album 'LANGUAGE' & the State of South Korean Hip-Hop: 'We're Very Angry'

Courtesy of BANA
XXX

South Korea's hip-hop scene has grown immensely over the past three decades. Since its inception in the early ‘90s, South Korean hip-hop has helped popularized the country’s vibrant culture in the international market as part of the diffusion of Korean culture also known as the Hallyu, or simply, the Korean Wave. Artists such as Jay Park and DEAN contributed to the growth and crossed over to the American market, paving the way for a new generation of Korean rappers to follow suit.

XXX, a rapper/producer combo from South Korea, appear to be the next act to follow in the footsteps of their elder statesmen. The young men behind XXX, Kim Ximya and FRNK, found each other in an online hip-hop community where amateur musicians uploaded their music. FRNK, who was a rapper at the time, came across Ximya’s music and admired the content he was putting on the site. “I wasn’t very good at rapping and I didn’t really want to rap full-time,” FRNK tells Billboard about their first encounter. “But I thought Ximya was really good at [rapping]. I figured I’d produce and we just joined forces.”

In 2016, XXX made their introduction with their debut EP KYOMI. The seven-track effort was a step away from the traditional Korean hip-hop sound, as the duo fused rap with elements of electronic music to create a sound that Korea had never heard before. Ximya’s no-nonsense lyrics of real-life stories and FRNK’s innovative, distorted beats on KYOMI made XXX one of South Korea’s most experimental and daring musical exports. It was only a matter of time before the world took notice of the rebellious twosome as their creativity caught the ears of several music outlets, including Maison Kitsuné, HYPEBEAST, and SXSW.   

Their newly released sophomore project, LANGUAGE, is even more daring than its predecessor, as Ximya and FRNK continue to elevate Korean hip-hop with an upgrade to their groundbreaking sound. The 10-track project is a direct opposition to the established formula of making music in South Korea and it has spread the XXX name even farther across the globe. The standout single “Sujak” was included in The New York TimesThe Playlist and the group has received praise for the confrontational, aggressive approach on the album.

With their name buzzing on American soil, XXX is hoping to leave their mark while disrupting the music norm back in their homeland. Billboard sat with XXX to discuss LANGUAGE, South Korea’s hip-hop scene, getting recognized by The New York Times, and why they’re angry with the way artists are making music in South Korea. Check it out below.

Who are some of your inspirations and how did you guys discover hip-hop?

FRNK (via translator): My inspirations are J Dilla, Radiohead, James Blake. My youngest uncle loved music. Whenever I'd go to his house I'd find all these CDs and just listen to them. That's how I found hip-hop.

Ximya: Jay-Z, Eminem, Yelawolf, and Isaiah Rashad. In middle school, one of my friends who was a drummer had access to music, mainly Korean hip-hop. For me, it was actually me discovering Korean hip-hop first and then American hip-hop later.

What’s the story behind the name XXX?

Ximya: We put together a mixtape before we got signed to our label. The mixtape was called XX. When we got signed, we needed a group name and we just somehow added another X to that mixtape title. That's really it. We know if you type XXX into Google you’ll see explicit content but it wasn’t a problem that occurred to me that we should change our name.

We're in the start of our career and I didn't think it was a big deal to change our group name because back home in South Korea, they know us but here they don't. I thought about it, but I don't know. The name doesn't have any kind of meaning behind it. If it becomes a real big problem then we'll think about another way to approach the United States. But if it's not a big deal, I don't think there will be a change.

What’s the hip-hop scene like in South Korea?

Ximya: It's commercially successful but if you look at it as a genre where the history matters and the legacy matters, I don't think it's heading in the right direction. We are making music that the label has done plenty of work to redirect the aim towards but it's really hard because big corporations have the most power.

I don't know about other genres in Korean music, but for hip-hop, there was an underground scene. There's this show called Show Me The Money that took the underground scene and made it overwhelming by making a ton of money off it. I don't think there's actually an underground scene right now. The previous one got too mainstream and no one is coming back. They're staying in the mainstream.

It feels like that’s the reason for XXX’s opposition to what Korean hip-hop has turned into. You guys are angry at how commercial the culture has become.

Ximya: Yes. We're very angry. When I started making music, specifically hip-hop music, I learned that when you write lyrics, it should be what you have done or felt. It has to be specific to the writer who wrote the lyrics. It can not be a lie or a fraud and for most of the Korean rapper population, I feel they did not write about what they actually felt or what they were actually doing. They were making music they thought people would like to hear.

That made me angry because I felt I was sacrificing some stuff to write these kinds of lyrics. If I wrote lyrics that have a good response with the public, all these rappers do is just write something based on my experience that’s getting a buzz that they haven’t experienced and that's how pretty much everyone is making music back there.

What was Korean hip-hop like before this era it’s currently in?

FRNK: The Korean hip-hop history was mostly started by a lot of the Korean-American rappers (Korean rappers who used to live in the USA) or rappers who were rich enough to afford albums or CDs from American rappers. Those are the guys who basically started the whole Korean hip-hop scene. As the internet took over the new generation's lifestyle, they would have more access to rappers in the states and opportunities to change the genre.

Ximya: When the internet generation kicked in, it was quite similar to the US. Everyone was doing the same thing over and over again. It got to be too much. But before then, Korean hip-hop had a period of time where people were actually writing about what they felt. I don’t think we're trying to necessarily bring that back. I don't think it's about what kind of music we're making, it's about what we just like to make.

What was different on LANGUAGE compared to KYOMI?

FRNK: Sonically, as a producer soundwise, I used a lot of the commercial, mainstream sound sources. Those that are kind of friendly to the audience. With those relatable sounds, I made it into something fun that the public could experience. For this album LANGUAGE, it was kind of the other way around. I took non-commercial, very fresh new unique sounds that haven't been heard before and took that into something friendly and approachable for the audience.

What made you want to incorporate a more disruptive, aggressive sound?

FRNK: I believe all tracks haven't been made this way. But, in general, as a producer behind the group XXX, it was my way of conveying the message I wanted to bring to the public through unique beats that you can hear on the album. The message I want to convey is anger, depression, darker elements. There's a lot of personal experiences I have that are combined and expressed through my beats.

What are some of the things you rap about on this project?

Ximya: It's pretty much about how I finally got to see the actual system and how the system works in Korea.  I’m seeing how painful it is and knowing how the system goes while people are ignoring it. It's like if you're lactose intolerant but you love cheesecake -- you just eat it. If you like cheesecake so bad you're going to eat it. I think it's about me loving cheesecake but I'm lactose intolerant. I love South Korea but the system is not good. It's also more about how hard it is to earn fame and wealth the right way. I really don't like the system back home but I really don't like being poor more than I hate the system.

Are there people who don't like how rebellious your music is?

Ximya: Yeah. We respectfully ignore them, though. Before the previous album, we were checking all the comments and everything but it wasn’t really good for our mental health. For this one, we went through the comments and there's actually a lot of compliments. But we tend to not look at the negative comments. If the older, elderly are musicians, I guess it's a different story. But if they're just listeners, I guess just like everyone else, we should listen to what we like and leave others in peace.

What was going through your minds knowing you guys made The New York Times Playlist?

FRNK: I couldn't believe it. I didn't grow up in the states but I've heard about the influence and the impact The New York Times has. It took me some time for the reality to hit. But I'm grateful and I would like the song to be exposed to a wider audience hopefully through The New York Times.

Ximya: For me, it was actually a sad moment because I wanted to blow up back home first and then come to the states. But the order wasn't right. If the states had interest in our music, it's obviously a good choice to come here and start a career. We did what we had to do but it's not a totally comfortable choice. I really wanted to break the system first back home but other than that it's an honor and really surprising.  

You guys are potentially being a role model for the kids in South Korea who are also fed up with the system. What’s it like knowing that?

FRNK: I'm grateful to see more people wanting to break the system with their music but I'm hoping those that would like to change it or break it, I hope they are wealthy because money will get involved. Those who can not afford to change the system would give up pretty quickly. Thank you for those willing to do it.

Ximya: It's not about being rich, it's about being born rich. You gotta stay in the game. They gotta be wealthy.

What impact do you guys want to have?

FRNK: The good thing about hip-hop is that it can pretty much blend, absorb, fuse any other music style. I want to show that hip-hop isn't limited to just one genre, it can be blended with anything. It's the widest, most spread out genre.

Ximya: I guess I want to erase people's prejudice and stereotypes about K-Pop. Obviously, I'm not a pretty guy but people think K-Pop is all about being pretty and dancing and being perfect. So back home some artists don't like the word K-Pop because it has the stereotype about making factorized music and music that has absolutely no meaning. But I think we should not avoid using the word K-pop but change the image and impact that it has.