keith ape is making rap history
Keith Ape is South Korea’s first real rap star. Recently moving from Seoul to LA, we chat hard liquor, psychic energy, and 'South Park' with the artist whose track 'It G Ma' made Asian rap history.
Keith wears Jumpsuit Kenzo. Rollneck Diesel. Sunglasses from Palace Costume.
The first time you hear Keith Ape's "It G Ma" it will be ingrained in your brain forever. Tempered by pitchy mandolin stabs, Ape's screeching, yelping vocals punctuate sparse scattergun beats. It sounds, fittingly, utterly animalistic and totally foreign yet somehow familiar at the same time. Heavily influenced by trap — OG Maco threatened to sue Ape for "It G Ma's" similarity to "U Guessed It" — the 22 year old South Korean rapper presents something we know so well in an entirely different texture and tone. It's fascinating. Ape — real name Dongheon Lee — and his killer whale-loving Cohort Crew, which also includes rhymers from Japan — are the first Asian MCs of significance to slowly seep into Western consciousness. But it's Keith's lithe energy, both on record and at his insane live shows, that has drawn people hypnotically to his music. With over 22 million views on YouTube and collaborations with Wacka Flocka Flame, A$AP Ferg, and Danny Seth, is this the birth of South Korea's first global rap star?
Hi Keith, how's life? What are you up to? Life is a roller coaster. Everything is new to a person who was raised in such a small fucking country. Everything I have hoped and dreamed for is becoming a reality. I only hang out with my friends and work. I'm a musician, what else should I be up to other than making music?
You moved to LA last year. How have you found adjusting to life in the US, compared to Seoul? It was hard as fuck. First of all, I spoke no English. I felt like an ape, just like my name. It's really hard to say in a word how isolated I felt. I know my management tried hard to take care of me, but I really felt alone and by myself in the world. I lived in someone's house for six months. It got even worse when my people came over to LA. It was four of us living in a studio. One of us left and promised to come back but never did. However, everything is cool now. I've got my own house and speak better English. And my management is working hard for me. Most importantly, it's dope that my friends and co-workers are artists that I used to listen to.
Some people have used the words 'cultural appropriation' around "It G Ma" but it struck me that it was particularly Korean. To me the video was, if anything, an insight into South Korean culture and the influence hip hop has had on you and other kids there. In Korea, you spend all your teenage years as a studying machine and then you are taken away to the army for two years. Then they just drop you back into society with no preparation. From that point, it's whether you get a 9 to 5 job, or don't fit in and get temporary daily labor job, and drink hard liquor to wash down the pain. In terms of hip hop, there are many good rap artists, but sometimes it's translated improperly, as it's a new thing. For example, colleges that are equivalent to Ivy Leagues in the States have rap clubs.
How much do you intend to rap in English? Do you see the power of retaining your Korean-ness in the rap world? I want to rap in English 100%, and mix it with Korean sources. America has had a crush on Asia — Japan to be exact. Korea and Japan are right next to each other and we have similarities, so I know Korean shit will also work. However, nobody has really perfected that formula yet.
It's hard (impossible) to the majority of your fans to understand what you're saying, but we can understand the vibe. Can you explain how what you do is different to other Asian language rappers? What distinguishes Keith Ape from Jayallday or Okasion for example? Sometimes I feel like I'm possessed by some spirit. I should've been a moo-dang [a Korean Shaman]. Okasian has really good heart. And he's very smart. He's smooth but also sharp. He's a proper man.
Your name is a nod to Keith Haring. How much does art influence your artistry? You're also a Dragonball Z fan — why has animation been so key to your generation? Who said I was a Dragonball Z fan? Fuck that, I'm a South Park fan. Keith Haring has always been an inspiration. Music, movies and art are all the same to me and have a crazy influence on me. I don't know where you heard that I was a Dragonball fan, but I'm not. I don't represent animation, I represent underwater.
Who would you most like to work with next? Chad Hugo, Young Thug, King Krule, and Chief Keef.
Of all the things that have happened to you over the last 18 months, what has been the highlight? They were all shocking. Everything that happens in my life influences me creatively. Whether I really experienced it or not, whether it really exists or not. I'm influenced by everything. I have a responsibility now. I'm one of the young ass, cool ass Asians who is changing the world and art. I'm not saying I want to be like PSY. There hasn't been a successful Asian kid in this predominantly black industry. Most of them have been corny rappers with funny haircuts. I want to make history. I want to be better or at least as good as anybody in the game doing it. I say as good as because I'm still new and foreign to the game. But I don't want to be seen as less than anybody. And I have a chance to make history so I have a responsibility to do it.
What are your ambitions? I want to have the strongest psychic energy in the world.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Jalan and Jibril Durimel
Styling Emilie Kareh
Hair Caile Noble at Jed Root using Oribe
Photography assistance Robbie Coral, Mel Chan
Styling assistance Julian Dartois.