The 21-year-old Korean rapper is coming to America on the strength of his anthem “IT G MA.” But how far can he take his career?
We were the first.
And when I say “we,” I mean us: Korean-Americans.
We were the early adopters of “IT G MA,” in that first week after Keith Ape’s explosive song and music video dropped out of nowhere on New Year’s Day. I don’t have exact YouTube stats on this, but I’d venture to say that people like me—Korean-Americans, a.k.a. gyopos (people of Korean descent living outside of Korea)—dominated the first 301+ of the nearly 10 million views that the video has now amassed. (I do have YouTube stats that show that almost 60 percent of total views originated in America, compared to only 10 percent in South Korea.)
Few of us had heard of Keith Ape before Jan. 1, yet “IT G MA” quickly became an instant share. I found the song to be catchy (and derivative, sure), but it was the raw energy of the video and its cultural signifiers—Keith’s paper mask, the green bottle of makgeolli (milky, carbonated rice wine) he clutches like a 40, the flashing won (Korean currency) symbols—that resonated most. Korean shit. Cool Korean shit. And the phrase “IT G MA” itself: 잊지마. Don’t forget. Fitting.
Ethnic pride is one of the reasons that you’re reading about Keith Ape in Complex and also why Complex produced and premiered the “IT G MA Remix” video. (More on that later.) But it’s not the main reason. Hip-hop circa 2015 has two main tiers: the elite 1 percent of megastars (and those futilely trying to join them) and a huge abyss of has-been rappers. There’s a widening third class, though: an Internet full of enthusiastic upstarts who try to get noticed via novelty, or skill, or simply a relentless DIY IDGAF mentality. The ones who get noticed, like Keith Ape, combine all three.
So Keith and the Cohort crew (Seoul), much as Awful Records (Atlanta) and the Sad Boys (Stockholm) before them, have vaulted from regional obscurity to blogosphere fame. This new class of standouts represents hip-hop’s strange new world, where homegrown creativity and unabashed appropriation incubate on your broadband connection.
And, though I might be biased, I have a feeling that the kid from South Korea will be the biggest of them all.
A whole damn lot has changed. This is what Keith Ape says to me, over the phone, when I ask him how his life is different seven months after the release of “IT G MA.” He’s calling from L.A., where he intends to stay for the foreseeable future as he begins his solo career on the newly formed CXSHXNLY Records.
For one, Keith is speaking sporadic English now—“I’m not studying,” he says, “but I’m trying”—and he’s alone in the U.S., without fellow members of the Cohort, his 10-man squad. Back in April, when I first met Keith on the set of the “IT G MA Remix” shoot, he was accompanied by most of the Cohort on the final leg of an Austin-to-L.A.-to-NYC trip, bookended by Keith’s SXSW debut and a sold-out show at SOB’s. Off stage, he cuts a slight figure in tattered jeans and Chucks, more punk rock than rap, with delicate features and perpetually heavy eyelids. In New York, he seemed a little overwhelmed by it all—the English-speaking members of the Cohort did most of the talking while he dazedly drifted in and out of view.
But then again, how could Keith not be out of sorts? It’s surreal enough for a rapper to have a sudden hit record and immediately become a wanted commodity. Now imagine that happening in a country where you’ve never been and barely speak the language. Keith was still largely unknown in Korea, but here he was, on his very first visit to the U.S., being celebrated not only by hordes of non-Korean fans and media but also by American rappers queueing up for collabos. “꿈 같았어요,” he says now, recalling the whirlwind trip. It was like a dream.
“He’s matured a lot after all this happened,” says Oscar Lee, the soft-spoken 27-year-old who created the Cohort collective and is like the A$AP Yams of the group. “I feel like he saw the responsibility that’s being requested of him.”
Born Dongheon Lee in 1993, Keith is the youngest member of the Cohort, but has actually been recording music the longest. He grew up in Bundang, a sleepy suburb about an hour’s train ride from the heart of Seoul. “I wasn’t doing bad things like smoking cigarettes, riding motorcycles, jacking people’s money,” he says, in English. “But I was a problem child.” Bored by school, Keith, like so many suburban kids, found an outlet in hip-hop. After listening to mostly pop music as a kid, Keith says his ear turned at age 14, when he heard Nas and AZ trade bars on “Life’s a Bitch” (the Arsenal remix, as it turns out). From then on, Keith began working on his craft, mostly by himself, writing rhymes and experimenting with production.
At 17, Keith dropped out of high school with no other plan than to make music. Using the name “Kid Ash,” Keith started uploading music on SoundCloud and making videos with friends on YouTube. “But there was no hope,” he says. If not successful, he was diligent, spending long days practicing at a small recording studio, where he often slept. At home, his father, a music professor, would lament his son’s career choice.
Everything changed in 2012, when the Cohort rapper Okasian, who was already bubbling in the underground, stumbled upon Keith by chance while listening to a producer’s beat tape. One of the tracks happened to have Keith’s vocals already on it. “I hit the producer up, like, ‘Who’s this guy?’” says Okasian. “It was his voice, his flow, his lingo, his accent. He raps like a language. I definitely saw huge potential that’s different from other rappers.”
“In Korea, there was no crew I’d want to be in besides the Cohort. Because you know, Korean rap, it sucks. Bad.”
Numbers were exchanged, and Okasian brought Keith to Oscar and eventually into the Cohort fold. Keith went on to feature, as Kid Ash, on several tracks from Okasian’s first album, Boarding Procedures, and soon became a regular on the Cohort mixtapes. “한국에 Cohort빼고 하고싶은crew 없었어요,” says Keith. In Korea, there was no crew I’d want to be in besides the Cohort. “Because you know,” he adds, in English: “Korean rap, it sucks. Bad.”
It was during this time that “Kid Ash” transformed into “Keith Ape,” as he rebranded himself with a name that nods to both his favorite artist, Keith Haring, and his spirit animal. “Sometimes I’m smart and sensitive,” he says, “and sometimes I feel dumb and reckless.” (“SAVAGEHARING’15” is what he calls himself on Instagram.)
So, by the close of 2014, the newly christened Keith Ape was in a good place as an artist, working with a like-minded crew that had a steady foothold in Korea’s burgeoning rap scene. He was beginning to make a living from his music, and even started gaining his father’s approval. Slowly but surely, things were looking up.
The song that changed Keith’s life forever wasn’t intended to be an international hit. The Cohort crew had been vibing to—you guessed it—OG Maco and wanted to spit on something similar to his frenetic record “for fun,” says Oscar. Producer Junior Chef cooked up the trap beat and the Cohort member JayAllDay, who lived in Japan for several years, enlisted Japanese rappers Kohh and Loota to join himself, Keith, and Okasian on the track, making it a rare Korean-Japanese collaboration. Keith took “IT G MA,” a phrase that the Cohort often jokingly used amongst each other, and flipped it as the title.
The song’s frequent nautical references—“underwater squad,” “killer whales,” and “Orca ninjas”—were already part of the Cohort slang. Around 2009, Oscar and Okasian had met as rap-loving international students studying biology at Penn State University, where Oscar dreamt up the crew name after learning about cohort studies. He began assembling creative friends who wanted to “do something that we love, not what we were pushed to do as a model minority,” says Oscar. In addition to the aforementioned members, the team includes co-founder Kangkook and Swidea, who oversee the Orcawear clothing line; producer Cokejazz; rappers Reddy and Bryan Cha$e; and well-known male model/artist Sung-jin Park. And all of the SeaWorld stuff? “I was just really into killer whales,” says Oscar.
So “IT G MA” was a Cohort song like any other, a free release, something “our fans were going to love,” says Okasian, though Oscar recalls: “Before the video dropped, when we actually performed ‘IT G MA’ for the first time in Korea, people didn’t really fuck with the song.” The official drop of “IT G MA” came on Jan. 1, 2015 via the music video, shot by Keith’s homie Jan’ Qui at IP Boutique Hotel in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood.
Prior to “IT G MA,” 50,000 views was a respectable YouTube count for a Cohort release, but within a few days the video rocketed past that number. Pigeons & Planes got in early, posting the video on Jan. 7 as it moved toward six figures. The Fader writeup followed a few weeks later, on Jan. 23, leading to the next milestone: 500,000 views, which Okasian says is the number that “big rappers do in Korea. I was like ‘Oh, shit, we’re one of them now.’” By the first week of February, when Noisey checked in and it popped up on WorldStar, the video was well on its way to a milli. Korean rap finally had a song and artist with genuine traction in the U.S.
And now back to the ethnic pride bit: As mentioned earlier, “IT G MA” was eagerly shared in that first week amongst Korean-Americans, especially those in creative fields, and especially the very few who rap professionally. Rapper Danny Chung, who was already hip to the Cohort’s organic movement (“They were like streetwear Soho kids, a little step ahead of the usual Korean wave and not farm-raised like almost every Korean hip-hop act before them,” he says), passed the “IT G MA” link via group chat to fellow artist Dumbfoundead, the veteran L.A. rapper who you may remember from Drake’s heavy cosign at the last KOTD rap battle and you should definitely know for murdering his verse on the “IT G MA Remix.”
Dumb’s initial impression: “Shit was turnt up! Keith reminded me of some kind of trap anime character,” he says. “I appreciated the low-budget rawness of it opposed to the big-production videos that Korea usually produces.”
In turn, Dumb put his manager, Sean Miyashiro, onto “IT G MA”—literally playing it for him on his phone—and Sean immediately put the wheels in motion to get Keith to America. “It was the way they executed the video and portrayed themselves,” explains Sean, who is of Korean-Japanese descent. “It was a perfectly executed vision, even with no money. If Keith could do that, I was sure he could do a lot more.”
By the time Sean brought Keith and the Cohort to the U.S. for SXSW in March, he had negotiated the remix rights to “IT G MA” and was officially managing Keith (as well as Okasian and producer Junior Chef). To make a long story longer: During SXSW, I got a call about a potential Keith Ape remix video via Dumb and Korean rap whisperer/writer Jaeki Cho. I connected with Sean, deals were made, and that’s how all of this got to Complex. A network of gyopos connecting (or conspiring?) because we all want to see a Korean kid blow up over here.
The challenge now, of course, is for Keith to turn his viral record into an actual career. The remix video, with all of its boldface American rap names, is the first step.
“Assuming we get great music,” says Sean, who heads CXSHXNLY, “he’s gonna be the most transcendent Korean artist that has happened in America.”
But will that make him a true American rap star? Or, a better question: Does that even really matter to anyone but us?
Over the last few weeks, I emailed a random collection of media people about “IT G MA,” curious as to how much the original song had registered in industry circles. The email query was simple: Do you recognize this combination of letters: IT G MA?
Here are their responses:
- Sean Fennessey, Grantland: I do not.
- Peter Rosenberg, Hot 97: Nope.
- B.Dot Miller, Rap Radar: Nah. New to me.
- Jeff Rosenthal, ItsTheReal: Yup, I know what “It G Ma” is (as a song) but have no idea what they mean in Korean.
- Jensen Karp, Get Up On This podcast: Holy shit! I know this!!! It’s the Asian kid Keith Ape’s rap song. [New York Times writer Jon] Caramanica wrote about him and I got kinda into it.
- Rondell Conway, BET.com: I’m lost. Is this some young people slang? It’s all good ma”???
- Cipha Sounds: I just know it as an Asian trap song.
- Dart Parker, Shady Records: Huh?
So three out of eight, which is actually fewer than I expected. It’s clear that Keith Ape—who he is and what he could be—is important to us. I’ve had countless conversations about “IT G MA” over the past year, which says as much about its impact as it does the dearth of entertainment that sates both sides of the Korean-American hyphen. We were waiting for something like “IT G MA” and someone like Keith Ape, for a Korean song and artist that could escape the K-pop playlist quarantine and maybe even commingle on Migos’ Pandora station. But while those small wins might be significant to us, to really be a star here, Keith has to become important to them—that is, the 99.4 percent of the American population that isn’t of Korean descent (check the census!) and could care less what he represents.
Presumably many more will become familiar with Keith (and Dumbfoundead, for that matter) in the wake of the “IT G MA Remix” and as Keith’s career takes shape in the States. His next big project is an upcoming EP fully produced by Southside (the 808 Mafia member behind your recent favorite Future songs), who met Keith through Waka at the video shoot. More U.S. collabos for Keith, secret for now, are on the way.
But even if the hip-hop gatekeepers remain unaware, in 2015 their opinions only really matter if you’re aiming to join the elite—which, if you ask him, is not on Keith’s list of current goals. (He rattled them off, in Korean, in this order: “settle in America, continue making music, bring the rest of the Cohort to the U.S., get famous, make money, and live well.” These are achievable dreams.)
In the end, whether “IT G MA” will be the peak of Keith’s success or merely a stepping stone in a long career is no longer up to “us” or “them,” but instead depends on his ability to successfully navigate the gap separating novelty rapper and legitimate artist. In that journey, Keith has plenty of company, from ATL to Sweden to the entire world over. We can hope all we want, but he’s just a 21-year-old kid with a hit record and a vision, not an avatar of outside expectations and others’ past failures.
“People like the youth going crazy,” says Keith when asked to explain his success thus far. “I’m doing crazy shit, and I’m a young person. And I’m Korean.” Never forget.