San E & Mad Clown Discuss the State of Korean Hip-Hop Ahead of U.S. Tour

San E, Mad Clown "Sour Grapes"
Courtesy Photo

San E and Mad Clown, "Sour Grapes"

Some of Korean hip-hop’s biggest names are heading stateside next month. Beginning on April 6, San E & Mad Clown will be hitting up several U.S. cities in their first American tour. As two of the most prominent rappers in Korea today, expectations are high for their tour, which will follow the release of their new song “Butterfly” featuring Bumkey on Thursday, March 29.

“The song is pretty much about spring, because it’s springtime here,” San E tells Billboard over a video call from Seoul. “Lots of colors, yellow, pink… It’s a danceable song.” The pair's last collab, 2015's "Sour Grapes" was a similarly colorful track, with a playful music video showing the duo’s humorous nature.  

But not everything out of the two artists is brightly hued. Both artists have used their music to address issues they see in the world around them, touching on mental health issues, societal concerns, and politics, though it could potentially end their careers. When San E released his song “Bad Year” in Nov. 2016, he stayed inside his home for five days. “Everybody was [messaging] me, ‘Don’t come out.’ I just wanted to be safe,” he recalls. “It was a joke, and then overall for safety issues,” explains Mad Clown.

A homophone in Korean for “bitch,” the tongue-in-cheek “Bad Year” was released amid political upheaval in the country, which led to the ousting and eventual arrest of former president Park Geun-hye, who had a blacklist for artists. “It didn’t really risk my career, because lots of people supported it, but it’s true that there are a lot of artists who try to avoid it because it could be really risky.” According to San E, Eminem's recent take on President Trump is the opposite of reality in Korea, resulting in the pair laughing at the mere idea of being able to be so straightforward in political criticism: “I dunno what would happen. Next day, somebody’s going to knock on my door maybe.”

For Mad Clown, making and listening to music is curative. “I have been through some hard times when I was young and I couldn’t get sleep without music,” says the artist. “I always played music when I was sleeping, and also when I went to school, after school... I have always been listening to music all the time in my ear, and it really helped me to stay strong and stay alive. And that’s why lyrics are one of the most important things for me when I’m making songs. So yea, as a listener when I hear some lyrics that are telling me my life story… It makes me feel good and alive, and less alone.”

Both Mad Clown and San E speak English, but predominantly rap in Korean. To San E, who grew up in the States, that used to mean that he’d never be able to consider breaking into the stateside market -- but recent shifts in the American music market have given him hope. “‘Gangnam Style’ was in Korean, and BTS is in Korean, and ‘Despacito’ is in Spanish, right? People just like a good vibe. They like to feel it. Lyrics are important, too, but if it has the vibe… I think we still have a chance, as long as it’s good music.”

Existing in the Korean hip-hop space as prominent artists for several years now -- San E signed to JYP Entertainment, known for K-pop acts like TWICE and GOT7, in 2010 after gaining success as an underground artist, and Mad Clown rose to fame in 2013 with the release of "Stupid In Love," a collaboration with SISTAR's SoYu-- the pair have seen how things have changed ever since the genre became mainstream in the country, largely in part due to the rap competition series Show Me the Money. In its sixth season now, each of the men have appeared in different seasons of the show as judges and producers, and credit it for hip-hop’s mainstream popularity in the country. But it’s also resulted in less of an underground scene in Korea, leading for less opportunities for unknown talent.

“The local scene of Korean hip-hop has almost disappeared,” says Mad Clown. “There were many small shows in Seoul before Show Me the Money, but now there are no shows. People go to see hip-hop shows only if the lineup has artists who have appeared on Show Me the Money.

The commercialization of hip-hop has also benefited K-pop, shirking off generation-old industry stereotypes according to the two. “Back in the day, if you were an idol rapper you were just ignored,” he comments. “You didn’t really rap well. But these days, they’re almost on the same [level], or better-skilled than the underground rappers.”

“They write lyrics, they make music, they sing well, they rap well, they dance well,” adds San E. “We can do nothing. We can’t dance, we can’t sing. All we can do is rap. I don’t think people have those stereotypes no more these days. If you’re good, you’re good.”  

Along with “Butterfly,” 2018 is set to see not only touring but new music from each of the pair. “I don’t have to make a hit,” says San E. “I just want to write a lot of songs and write down what I’m feeling about different stuff. My different perspectives.”

According to Mad Clown, being relative seniors in the field enables them to explore their artistry more earnestly “There’s no pressure of doing well on charts. I wasn’t happy when I released my music [in the past]. I was always looking at my phone, checking my charts. These days I feel more comfortable by not doing that so I can concentrate more on my music. And be more happy. I’m more happy now.”