There’s a group of hip hop stars in Korea who love mince pies and recall barefoot childhoods in Auckland’s suburbs. Mava Moayyed reports from Seoul.
South Korea has a multibillion dollar entertainment industry where local artists can earn more money in the market than the biggest international stars. They are adored by hundreds of thousands of fans, launch tours around the world, and have their own reality TV shows. And some of the biggest names grew up in Aotearoa.
Bizzy, Microdot, Sanchez, and Beenzino may have never made the charts here, but in Korea, they’re some of hip hop’s biggest names.
It seems unlikely that from a country of just four million, we could produce so many successful Korean stars, but they say it’s their Kiwi roots that have made them stand out in Korea’s competitive music industry.
Born Bak Jun Young, rapper and producer Bizzy says his family came over to New Zealand when he was nine with hopes for a better life. He remembers moving to Papakura during his school years and loving every minute of it.
“I was like the first Asian male down there. About ninety per cent of the students were Maori, Samoans, Tongans and I actually loved it. The environment and how people treated me - I felt more at home, safe.”
Bizzy was part of the first wave of Korean migrants who made their way to New Zealand after immigration criteria was relaxed in the early 90s. During that time, the Korean population here grew 20-fold, from about 1,000 to over 19,000.
It was down in South Auckland that he began to develop a love for rap. His high school friends inadvertently introduced him to the lyrical form by teaching him about the country. “They were telling me about the history of New Zealand and they were making a rhyme out of it and I thought that was really clever. I got into that.”
But for a long time, his family didn’t share his passion, telling him they didn’t want their son to pursue a dead end career in music. “Typical parents story … they probably thought I had no chance.”
Bizzy worked cleaning beer bottles at a local bar, watching DJs mix and starch tracks all night. He grew more determined and saved his money to enrol in night classes at SAE – Auckland’s School of Audio Engineering.
“Back then I didn’t even sleep, I was so into it. I almost lived there and I got a high grades.”
Despite his success, Bizzy continued to face resistance from his family. He remembers his dad throwing his exam papers at his face saying, “what you want to be, a rapper!?”
He eventually moved back to Seoul in the early 2000s after some of his friends asked him to mix their tracks. Since then, he’s spent over a decade forging a career in Korea’s thriving hip hop scene, collaborating with some of the country’s biggest names.
Bizzy is best known as a member of MFBTY which stands for My Friends [are] Better Than Yours. Rounding out the trio are Korean hip-hop legends Drunken Tiger/Tiger JK and Yoon Mi-rae.
His ties to New Zealand remain strong and Bizzy still reps his roots whenever he can. “I remember I was doing a radio interview in LA and they were like ‘Oh you call yourself Kiwis, huh?’ and my line was like I prefer to be a Maori,” he laughs.
A HIP HOP FAMILY LEGACY
It’s hard to tell by looking at them but Microdot and Sanchez are brothers.
“We were born in Korea in an area called Jecheon. We moved to New Zealand in 1997 or 1998? When Tupac died I recall,” says Sanchez.
Sanchez, born Shin Jae Min, is a vocalist, rapper, producer with an angelic voice and face to match. He’s part of a South Korean hip hop trio called Phantom and last year, their debut album ‘Phantom City’ reached number 10 on the Korean charts.
Before moving back to Korea, Sanchez spent years studying in New Zealand, not quite certain what he wanted to do. He started off in medicine, hoping to make his parents proud, but quickly discovered he couldn’t handle the sight of blood. He switched to law and Japanese at Auckland University but, in the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to make music.
“I was thinking of becoming a lawyer being I never thought of being a musician as a profession. I always thought of it as a hobby.”
A moment of clarity came in about 2009 when Sanchez decided he had to take a risk while he was still young. He dropped out of university, packed his bag and bought a one-way ticket to Seoul.
“Even though Korea was home, it was more like overseas for me because I was raised in East Auckland.”
Success didn’t come easy. All alone in a city of 10 million, Sanchez remembers sleeping in apartments with water leaking over him. Part of his motivation to push through came from his older brother, Tommy, who has also been a successful hip hop artist.
"His stage name was Blasto back in the day when he was a hardcore gangster rapper. Now he lives in Auckland and works as an architect. He still has the fire, that passion for music.”
“He is a big part of our musical life because he influenced us. I began to write songs and lyrics because of him,” says Sanchez.
With two older brothers in the music industry, it seemed almost inevitable that the youngest would get into it too. But Microdot, born David Shin, had an entirely different journey.
By the time he was 10, Microdot had the kind of fame that others could only dream of. After performing with his brothers in Auckland, he was signed to a South Korean entertainment company and, along with rapper Dok2, become a hip hop duo called 'All Black'.
“We toured, we released singles, and we even had our own reality TV show for a few months. It was pretty crazy, it was cool,” he says.
But in 2006, Microdot called it off and came back to New Zealand. He hadn’t seen his parents in years, and remembers being taken out of school most days to rehearse. “I kind of missed out on a childhood. I was way too stressed out. I guess it wasn’t ready but I it was good foundation building for now.”
Now 21, Microdot has been given another chance at musical success. In the heat of the moment this year, he left Auckland and entered into a Korean TV rap competition called ‘Show Me the Money’.
“It was literally like five days before the show started that I decided I was going to come. There were rappers out there that had been practising for one or two years.”
With the help of his brother Sanchez, Microdot crammed in as much practice as he could. The goal was to get to at the third round but he blew everyone away by making it to the top eight.
“The craziest thing ever was that I got to rap in front of Snoop Dogg. He literally said my name then said, ‘that was dope, you went in hard’. That was a huge thing for me.”
His success on 'Show me the Money' propelled Microdot into a whirlwind of success. He’s already had number one singles on the Korean charts and is planning international tours next year.
“I always thought I was going to make it to the USA, I never expected to come to Korea and become a big icon, but the thing is realising the money involved, the shows, the name - it’s exactly the same. I mean, some people earn more money than US artists in Korea. Once I released that, my passion grew bigger to just make my ground in Korea.”
Aside from Sanchez and Bizzy, Microdot has other Kiwi successes to look to for inspiration, like Korean rap golden child, Beenzino.
Beenzino spent most of his childhood in Christchurch before moving to Korea to study. “I lived in New Zealand during elementary school and my friend back then enjoyed hip hop like Tupac or Biggie…that’s when I learned of hip hop, because my friends listened to it I also started listening to it,” he told HipHop Korea in 2012.
Microdot recently had a chance to jump up on stage and perform with Beenzino at a show. “To me, that’s an honour. I’m his biggest fan. To me he’s like a J. Cole, he’s like Kendrick or Kanye - same status. His art form is so complete. He told me he was from Christchurch and I was like whaaaat? I had no idea.”
Despite his growing success in Korea, Microdot's heart remains in New Zealand. He talks of his love of Big Ben pies and his passion for fishing with a beaming smile. “I’m actually an obsessive fisherman. When it comes to Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I’m in the water. I mean, I have my own fishing instagram and YouTube channel.”
While they're miles away from here, these Korean rappers hold strong to their New Zealand ties and while other big Korean names make plans to tour Australia, these guys want to come play to their home crowd.
Bizzy believed all the rappers with roots in Aotearoa - from Beenzino, Sanchez, and Microdot - have something special.
“New Zealand gave me the style that I got. That style is unique, it’s different from somebody else's. I'm proud of New Zealand society. I'm proud of the music.”
This content is brought to you with funding support from NZ On Air and the Korean Culture and Information Service.