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February 7, 2020
THE SOUTH KOREAN UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT AND THE WONDER THAT IS THE UNDERWATER SQUAD.
Cue an overly lit, white, modern hotel room somewhere in Seoul’s Itaewon hood. Insert one overly faded, blonde young South Korean dude with grills, safety glasses, a surgical mask, a BAPE jacket, and a bottle of makgeolli rice wine spilling all over his tracks. Insert approx. four other diminutive swaggy Asians (one with matching grills, one with fleeky plaits, one Japanese with neck tattoos, and one Okasian who doesn’t really show his face at all), flashing won symbols, and the word “underwater squad” repeated multiple times. This, the manic “잊지마 It G Ma” music video, is how most of you probably know the young head honcho of Seoul’s Underwater Squad, trap rapper Keith Ape. To be frank, nobody had really heard much about Keith Ape until the release of this video. And shortly after his hit single, the 22 year-old rose to underground fame, constantly referred to as Korea’s answer to A$AP Rocky. His attitude, his level of swag, and his success is matched only by the likes of A$AP. Even the level of purple used in the Underwater Squad’s graphics vaguely resembles A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag” days.
Keith Ape quickly became a rap icon in South Korea and across Asia. It was after this that he went on to collaborate with the likes of Rob Bank$, Brooklyn’s Ken Rebel, and OG Maco. Suddenly, this Underwater Squad (also known as The Cohort) Korean rap aesthetic spread not only across Korea, but also into Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, and other cities. Just recently, the underwater fever spread to Europe, where the squad is starting to collaborate with Parisian fashion killers Andrews Crews. If that’s not enough, Keith Ape also popped up at the VFILES SS16 runway show during NYFW. From that point on, The Cohort officially infiltrated the hip-hop and trap scene. Keith Ape then moved to Los Angeles and re-released “잊지마 It G Ma” with the likes of A$AP Ferg, Waka Flocka, Father, and Dumfounddead. The squad is representative of a raw energy, and they can be credited or showcasing “cool Korean shit” and exposing that part of their culture to the rest of the world.
They easily fit into that category of DIY, Internet-inspired, out-there hip-hop and rap artists who are currently on the international rise. Those artists who are known for being on a whole other level of authentic and weird, who really DGAF what society thinks of them. While many of these cultural tastemakers hail from the Western world, the Underwater Squad’s story is even more interesting, given South Korea’s history of tight traditions and social norms.
The Underwater Squad, or The Cohort’s aesthetic is distinctly underground and unmistakably contraband – keep in mind that being tattooing is illegal in South Korea, and body modification is generally frowned upon. If we look at the mainstream K-pop industry, that’s a more accurate representation of Korean views on beauty, body image, and style. What the Underwater Squad represents is a Korean hip-hop music and fashion subculture. These guys have got big things coming for them over the next year, both in Asia and abroad.