Tiger JK's life has been defined by his sense of never quite belonging. He came of age in 1980s and '90s Los Angeles listening to the traditional Korean folk ballads his grandmother played around the apartment, while outside he was drawn in by the city's bustling hip-hop culture. As one of the few Korean American kids at Beverly Hills High, Tiger (who lived on the outskirts of Beverly Hills) never quite felt a kinship with the 90210 lifestyle. And when it came to being taken seriously as an Asian rapper? He wasn't.
"It was rare to see an Asian dude rapping then, so I got a pass — when I was mediocre, they said I was a lot better than they'd thought," said the artist, who now lives in Uijeongbu, South Korea, near Seoul. "But when I got good, they couldn't admit it."
Now, there's no denying his talent. As MC Tiger JK (he declines to confirm his given name or age, though most fan sites refer to him as Seo Jung-Kwon), he's perhaps the most popular Korean rapper in America, Asia and the world. By reinterpreting the brash appeal of L.A. gangsta rap for Korean audiences, he and his Drunken Tiger crew have alternately scandalized and intrigued their audience for nearly two decades.
Drunken Tiger's Friday show at the Wiltern, "The Jungle Concert in L.A." (featuring an extended bill of Korean hip-hop peers including his wife, Korean American R&B artist Yoon Mi Rae, rap acts Lee Ssang, Bizzy and vocalist Jung In), might codify a scene that thrives at a difficult flashpoint between many different cultures. They want to represent Korea and their genre without pandering to stereotypes about Asian pop, and they want to be taken seriously as rappers in America without relying on their outsider status.
Tiger's cultural background and connections with Los Angeles have given him a unique perspective — and an opportunity to bridge some gaps.
He saw the difference between how he was treated among white and black friend groups — he'd drive peaceably in cars with Anglos, but get pulled over frequently when with his African American friends. After the '92 riots, when tension between black and Korean communities exploded in gunshots and fires, Tiger saw hip-hop as a way to help the communities talk to each other.
"I understood both sides of that," Tiger said. "I felt like I had to mediate and tell those stories. All of that was in my music."
His rapping got noticed in South Korea, where he quickly signed a deal and assembled the crew that became Drunken Tiger: DJ Shine (who left the group in 2005), DJ Jhig, Micki Eyes and Roscoe Umali. The group's first album, "Call Me Tiger," came out in 1992, and its woozy, Dr. Dre-indebted style instantly split Korean audiences with its frank talk about sex and drinking. "The censorship back then was crazy," Tiger said. "It was so hard to get into the mainstream media, with young cats rapping about political problems, others just being totally cynical and X-rated."
As Drunken Tiger grew overseas, they scored a bevy of hit singles in Korea, like 1999's trunk rattler "I Want You" and 2007's piano ballad "8:45 Heaven," and played to capacity crowds of Korean communities in the U.S.
"Hip-hop has its roots in African American culture, but it shares many similarities with Korean traditional music in its rhythm and rhyme," said Joon Ahn, executive vice president of the Music Business Division for CJ Entertainment & Media, the entertainment conglomerate whose television channel Mnet is producing the Wiltern show. "Korean hip-hop musicians mix rhythm particular to Korean traditional music into modern aesthetics to create a culture that is Korean yet universal."
Today acts like Far East Movement, Jin and the Black Eyed Peas have made strides in popularizing Asian American rap.
A major nod came for Drunken Tiger when rap pioneer Rakim guested on its most recent record, "Feel gHood Musik: the 8th Wonder" in 2009.
"The Jungle Concert" is a long overdue introduction of Korean rap to American audiences — and perhaps an attempt to turn the ears of Western producers and MCs. Los Angeles, home to the biggest South Korean population outside of that country, is a logical place to start.
"L.A. is even more critical in breaking acts into the U.S.," said Adam Ware, president and CEO of Mnet. "Hip-hop came through New York and Northeast at first. Korean pop and hip-hop is coming out of L.A. and launching from there."
Tiger's wife, Yoon (together, they're often referred to as Korea's Jay-Z and Beyoncé), has herself faced challenges as a Korean/African American singer. They have a son, and Tiger admits that family life made him want to broaden his career potential in the mainstream.
But those possibilities also leave a bit of a bad aftertaste. As hyper-managed "K-Pop" groups like Girls Generation and 2NE1 have begun to conquer Asia and attract Western interest, Tiger feels a mix of pride that Korean music is succeeding abroad, but somewhat rueful that it's the kind of shellacked pop music he grew up in opposition to. "I'm not a K-Pop artist," he said. "I embrace that it's blowing up, I'm with it, but that music is what I used to be against. I had to play against those stereotypes."
But in a way, his musical roots are more Angeleno even as his lyrics and identity are firmly Korean. Tiger's long lived between cultures in that sense — now he wants to try and achieve new heights in both.
"Today, I can see Korean MCs communicating with American MCs and producers, and I can start to hear people copying little things like our samples or styles," he said. "I want to win a Grammy and say 'thank you' in Korean."