Hav­ing earned the re­spect of his par­ents, Rich­mond World Fest head­liner Ver­bal Jint has taken his place as a Korean hip-hop ti­tan.

Rich­mond World Fes­ti­val head­liner Ver­bal Jint has re­turned to the hip-hop game he helped in­vent

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY MIKE USINGER

Me­gare­spected South Korean hip-hop icon Ver­bal Jint has never been to Van­cou­ver, but he seems to have done his home­work for his first visit.

Reached at home in Seoul, the 36-year-old notes that past tours of North Amer­ica have seen him play Los An­ge­les, New York, and Toronto. None of those cities, ev­i­dently, has the al­lure of Van­cou­ver, where Jint will be head­ing for his head­lin­ing spot at the Rich­mond World Fes­ti­val.

“A close as­so­ci­ate of mine is from Van­cou­ver and he told me about how freely you can smoke weed in Van­cou­ver,” Jint says, reached at home in Seoul. “If I’m right, the Rich­mond World Fes­ti­val is only three years old, and I feel lucky to be there on the year 2017, the 150th an­niver­sary of Canada.”

That the rap­per is cor­rect on all points shouldn’t sur­prise any­one, be­cause if Jint has proven any­thing dur­ing his 18 years at the fore­front of Korea’s boom­ing hip-hop game, it’s that he’s got some se­ri­ous smarts. That’s been shown by a uni­ver­sity stint as an eco­nomics ma­jor and, later, by his de­ci­sion to en­roll in law school.

Ul­ti­mately, though, it’s been hip-hop that’s had the great­est pull on him. Ob­sessed with mu­sic from the time he was 10, the MC first sur­faced at the tail end of the ’90s, at a time when hip-hop was con­sid­ered a danger­ous but tem­po­rary trend in South Korea. Early un­der­ground tracks like “Big Brag” took a min­i­mal­ist, hyp­not­i­cally chill ap­proach. They also show­cased Jint as an artist de­ter­mined to rein­vent the rules of Korean hiphop. As he once ex­plained to the Korea Times, and has re­peated of­ten since: “Peo­ple who came be­fore us didn’t have much in­ter­est in rhyming; artists be­fore us were sat­is­fied with talking fast and think­ing that it was rap­ping—and that sold then.”

Be­yond the rhyming, what his fel­low Kore­ans heard in his early work, he sug­gests, is a kid who was ob­sessed with Amer­i­can hip-hop.

“Back in the ‘Big Brag’ days I was lis­ten­ing to a lot of Outkast records, A Tribe Called Quest records, and Q-tip records,” he says.

His mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion didn’t start there, how­ever. In the men­ac­ingly baroque “My Bentley”, off his 2015 re­lease Go Hard, Part 1, Jint rapped: “I hon­estly have no idea how many cor­ners/i have turned un­til I got to this place here/the lit­tle child who bugged his par­ents/un­til he had an elec­tric gui­tar in his hands.”

The fu­ture MC orig­i­nally went out of his way to learn about al­ter­na­tive-na­tion acts like Suede and My Bloody Valen­tine.

“Dur­ing my teenager pe­riod, there was Bae Cheol-soo’s Mu­sic Camp—the only Korean ra­dio show that used to play mu­sic from the Bill­board Hot 100 back in the ’90s,” he says. “Through that ra­dio show, and mag­a­zines, I could lis­ten to var­i­ous types of mu­sic.”

Mu­sic got its hooks into him to the point where he be­gan play­ing in bands.

“Back in the day—i mean the 1990s—a school band was one of the choices if kids wanted to look cool,” Jint says. “Since my el­e­men­tary school I played gui­tar and piano, and I re­al­ized I could use those in­stru­ments to play the mu­sic I liked af­ter I be­came a teenager.”

His ob­ses­sion with hip-hop started grad­u­ally. “In my teen days, I started lis­ten­ing to Björk, Ar­rested Devel­op­ment, and No­to­ri­ous B.I.G. at the same time,” he says. “Ba­si­cally, I started a band be­cause I just wanted to pro­duce mu­sic as a song­writer. In the past there was no such thing as rap or hip-hop cul­ture in Korea. So even­tu­ally I gath­ered mu­si­cians to make mu­sic with me. Later I dis­banded the team and started solo to pro­duce the mu­sic that I wanted to.”

Laugh­ingly, Jint says the first CD he pur­chased was 12 Inches of Snow by Toronto Can­con rap­per Snow, that later lead­ing him to the likes of An­dre3000, Phar­rell, and Ceelo Green. By the mid-’00s the rap­per was an un­der­ground force in Korea, his mix­tapes and sin­gles in­spir­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of MCS. And then he walked away to go back to school.

Look­ing back, Jint re­mem­bers be­ing burned­out on life as an un­der­ground mu­si­cian. There were also cul­tural forces at play, given that no par­ents in Korea dream of hav­ing their child grow up to be a hip-hop artist.

“In Korea,” Jint says, “there is a ten­dency that peo­ple treat you as a nor­mal per­son if you fin­ish your ed­u­ca­tion, or get a col­lege de­gree. I didn’t want to shock my par­ents.”

In law school, how­ever, he re­al­ized once and for all what his true pas­sion was.

“I de­cided to show them this mu­sic thing ac­tu­ally worked,” Jint notes. “At some point they started to show sup­port.”

It didn’t hurt that hip-hop was a le­git­i­mate cul­tural force in Korea by the time Jint de­cided to re­turn to the game. Young MCS that he’d in­flu­enced in the early ’00s—san E, Okasian—were start­ing to sur­face. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the grow­ing de­mand, Korean TV be­gan air­ing smashes like Show Me the Money, an Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent–type show where young MCS com­pete against each other.

Help­ing the groundswell was the emer­gence of Youtube, Band­camp, and Spo­tify as easy ways to reach mil­lions of rap-hun­gry fans.

“We got plat­forms,” Jint says sim­ply. “I mean, we got me­dia by our side, so it’s all about how you use it. It’s a much bet­ter sit­u­a­tion com­pared to back in the ’90s.”

Over the past half-decade the rap­per has been able to cap­i­tal­ize on that with a se­ries of al­bums (The Good Die Young, Go Easy, 10 Years of Mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion Pt. 1), EPS, and col­lab­o­ra­tions that have show­cased him as an artist will­ing to evolve. Of­ten pow­ered by live jazzy drums and cham­ber-orches­tra strings, his work has gone from min­i­mal­ist to pow­er­fully widescreen.

Jint to­day seems like he’d be hap­pi­est sit­ting at the same ta­ble as vi­sion­ar­ies like Ken­drick La­mar and Kanye West. And con­sid­er­ing that, it makes sense that—in stark con­trast to the shiny, happy K-pop that dom­i­nates the main­stream in South Korea—jint isn’t afraid to step into the dark­ness. Con­sider “My Bentley”, where he laments be­ing a guy who “needs cognac to fight the headaches and lone­li­ness when he’s work­ing”.

The MC is in an en­vi­able po­si­tion at home. When not in the stu­dio, he’s in de­mand as a voice-over ac­tor, and is fre­quently en­listed to do com­mer­cials for prod­ucts aimed at Korea’s youth mar­ket. But the dark­ness in much of his work is ev­i­dently real, that bleed­ing over into real life.

“I drink a lot of hard liquor when I’m work­ing,” he says can­didly. “It’s usu­ally me by my­self.”

As ac­cepted as hip-hop has be­come in Korea, Jint says there are things that not even he can get away with rap­ping about.

“Weed and ca­sual sex,” he says sim­ply. Ac­cess to at least one of those things is pretty much guar­an­teed dur­ing his up­com­ing trip to Van­cou­ver. Even though he’s never been here be­fore, it’s no won­der he’s ex­cited.

Ver­bal Jint plays the Rich­mond World Fes­ti­val in Mi­noru Park on Fri­day (Septem­ber 1).

Ob­sessed early on with gui­tar bands like My Bloody Valen­tine, Ver­bal Jint even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered hip-hop through acts like Outkast and Phar­rell.

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