Crammed into a room on the third floor of a church, rapper DumbFounDead spits freestyle rhymes with six other emcees while about a dozen 20-somethings bob their heads to the music.
It’s not just the music that makes the scene notable; it’s the rappers. DumbFounDead, whose real name is Jonathan Park, is Korean-American. The others include three blacks, two Latinos and another Korean-American.
Park is part of a thriving Korean rap scene in the city’s vast Koreatown, where concerts and impromptu rap battle sessions occur in churches and cafes, and aspiring lyricists swap songs and jabs on MySpace.com.
The music is allowing young Korean rappers to build bridges with blacks half a generation after thousands of Korean businesses were torched in one of the country’s worst race riots.
In doing so, Korean rappers, who dress, strut and rhyme in street-tough fashion, are defining their own Korean-American experience in a way their parents couldn’t.
Los Angeles County has more Koreans than anywhere else in the U.S., nearly 200,000, most of whom live in Koreatown. While most Korean rappers are too young to remember much from the race riot, they feel its effects.
“The riots definitely have a big impact on the K-town rap scene,” said Brian Kim, or Oddsequence, a 26-year-old who is part of the group Yello Belly Bastids. “Those race relations still affect how I’m seen when I’m chilling in South Central.”
The riot was so traumatic for the Korean community that even today many parents don’t allow their children to listen to rap, or “black music.”
But there was no keeping the vibes away from young Koreans’ ears, especially in a city that has produced many of the country’s best rappers.
By the late 1990s, a handful of Korean-American rappers had achieved commercial success, but mostly rapping in Korean and selling their music in Korea.
The first annual Asian Hip Hop Summit, inaugurated on the 10th anniversary of the riot, was created as a way for Koreans to reach out to blacks and Hispanics, and to solidify an already growing Korean rap movement.
There still is prejudice toward blacks in older Korean generations, said Kublai Kwon, who founded the summit. “But with all the Koreans doing hip-hop, I don’t sense any prejudice,” he said.