There’s a moment right before someone connects on a Zoom call. An anticipation for what’s about to happen next. You wonder if the person on the other end is going to be open, honest. If they’re going to judge you the moment the screen comes on. This anxiety heightens when you realize the person you’re about to speak to doesn’t speak English that well. It’s a tense couple of moments before the conversation begins. And then it does.
That old corny adage, “music is universal,” never holds more weight than in this moment. You know what else is universal? Piss and vinegar. And, honey, Untell has plenty of it.
Anyone who’s had a passing interest in Korean hip hop can attest that the industry is a bit stagnant. With an influx of survival competition shows and artists all gelling into the same amalgamation of a pseudo-Drake and “x type beat” music, it can become draining on the ear. Every once in a while, however, an artist comes along who completely subverts the mainstream, either in tone, delivery, production or message. For every 20 trending artists who follow the common path, there’s one who sets out to create pure and unadulterated art. Those artists who are determined push the craft further, allowing themselves to express their honest selves. With the release of his debut album HUMAN, Oh Dong-hwan, a.k.a Untell, taps into what it means to be really human. The emotional waves of dealing with other people’s expectations and perceptions.
“I’m in my mom’s house,” he says with a somewhat shy laugh. This isn’t the last time his shy nature reveals itself. However, don’t mistake his shyness with lack of confidence or self-assuredness. Though humble, he isn’t afraid to speak freely. (In fact, he reminds me of a certain self-confident R&B singer from the country.) When tasked with introducing himself, he’s quick and to the point: “Hi, I’m Korean rapper Untell. I released my first LP album, HUMAN.”
From the outset, he wants you to associate him with music, and not necessarily just his. The young man wears his influences on his sleeve. While he’s certainly not the first Korean rapper to draw from Western influences, he’s one in a rare few who have managed to mold those influences into his own music, creating something nuanced from it rather than a derivative of it. Some of his musical inspirations are more obvious than others—namely Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Duckwrth. However, there are influences that sneak in that most wouldn’t ever expect. “You know the Stylistics?” Excuse me? “My parents love them, so I know them since I was young.”
It’s a common theme in interviews with Korean artists. Inevitably one of them manages to catch me off guard. Certainly Untell has that kind of effect. His musical tastes aside, the way he’s managed to interweave these various sound profiles culminated in his first (unofficial) release, Soundcloud mixtape UNTAILAND. Hot off the heels of his appearance on High School Rapper, thrust into a public consciousness he hadn’t experienced up until that point, a 17-year-old Untell had one message in his heart at the time of his mixtape’s creation.
“I just want to be loved [by] people,” he says.
While competing on High School Rapper, his unique and aggressive approach to rap gained the attention of some of South Korea’s most recognized names in hip hop. Indeed, many of the mentors, including The Quiett, Code Kunst and Hangzo, touted him as one of the best talents on the show. His remarkably honed skill garnered him a local nickname: The King of Untailand. The moniker, though not untrue, was limiting. “Nowadays,” he says, “I want people to know my truth, my music.”
He continued to create “his truth,” build a world in which people would know and love him, accept him. He took the next logical step in his quest for public adoration: participating in the infamous competition program Show Me The Money. The young rapper made two appearances on the program. His second attempt on season 9 garnered a great deal of attention. BeWhy and Dynamic Duo took him under their wing as his mentors, further allowing him to showcase his range and continual growth as an artist.
Like many who’ve tried their hand at these talent competition shows, the experience was…mixed, to put it mildly. As with every past competitor I’ve spoken to, Untell touts the readily available visibility of such programs, but ultimately the effort put in for the result is oftentimes unbalanced and, quite frankly, not worth it.
But he doesn’t linger on past experiences, insofar as he doesn’t allow them to hold him back from his truth. He certainly doesn’t air out his irritation with his circumstances (especially in a country where an artist has limited options for tangible success). Instead, he funnels his emotions into his craft, creating music that is meant to push the boundaries to their breaking points, if it means getting his point across.
Thus 2022’s HUMAN, the album. Upon first listen, one gets the sense this young man is…frustrated. There’s a pervasive feeling of being fed up—with the industry, with being doubted, with the inauthenticity rampant in the scene.
“I think I feel…” Untell struggles with the word he wants for a moment. A quick tap of the keyboard, and he finds the word in English that captures his complex emotion. “I feel disillusionment,” he says. “Disillusion of people, of mankind. Koreans are harsh on famous people because many Korean people [have] jealousy. Celebrities don’t try to express their Korean style lives because they want to keep the image. But I’m an artist!” he proclaims. “I want to express it freely. So I make my first album.”
Don’t be mistaken; Untell has a huge amount of love for South Korea. After all, he was born and bred Korean; it’s in his blood and something he doesn’t take for granted, something he’s immensely proud of. But as anyone does of their home country, he recognizes the aspects of it that aren’t so great. He sees through the bullshit when so many project a facade to appease some phantom societal overlord who seemingly presides over humanity and dictates who’s acceptable and who should be shunned.
“But I don’t hate Korea,” he’s quick to assure. “I’m Korean. I hate, a little bit, part of the culture. People got too much hate, too much fire. I want to change Korean culture,” he proclaims. “Koreans want a pioneer, but many people have no courage. But I got courage, so I’m gonna be a fucking pioneer. [That’s why] I made the track ‘New pio’ on HUMAN.”
The track is certainly a powerful piece of hip hop. Featuring JP, it makes use of old-school boom bap to drive home Untell’s message. He’s tired of the facade, the liars, the theater of being human. “New rhyme, new sound and new kind. Follow God, I’m new Christ, I’m new pio.” He declares this, the music sounding like a hurricane, meting out destruction to old traditions and rebuilding the world in his vision. All the while aware that there will always be detractors ready to try to take him down: “New Judas, you deny it.” The use of religious symbolism is just as potent as the imagery itself. People cling to tradition like religion. Untell is ready to sacrifice himself to make the world brand-new, even if the public tries to crucify him for it.
That being said, Untell isn’t unaware of the effect his words might have in the grander scheme. He worries his readiness to set the world ablaze might be too much for the listening public to handle, that his message might get lost in his fire. “My emotions were overcrowded,” he says. “When I [made] my album, I [had] too much fire. But these days I look at the work of Jack Sibley,” he reveals. Another surprise from the introspective young man. A Texas native, Sibley has built his career on using life experience to create inventive narratives. The focus of Sibley’s work, no doubt, provides Untell an example of how to use one’s emotions to build a focused, precise narrative. “If I make the album again I can make it a little more clearly,” he says.
Despite his belief that his first LP might have had “too much fire,” he’s not at all apologetic. He meant every word he said. “It’s not regret,” he says, “just a reflection. People had a lot of bad comments [at] first on YouTube and Instagram, Facebook,” he reveals. “At first I was very scared, but gradually I turned into a fire,” he says with a bit of a haughty chuckle. “People think I’m complaining about racism. But it’s not. What I wanted to express…I wanted to talk about why Korea is following the USA. So I made ‘I’m from.’”
It’s a biting track. Taking cues from Kendrick Lamar, using melodic production (compliments of Korean musician protonebula, an artist Untell worked with on SMTM 9) and emotive delivery. Layers of vocal explosions in the background not unlike the mental gymnastics Lamar plays with himself on track "U." Untell powerfully expresses the exasperation of a young Korean man confronting judgment and, yes, racism, from those who loop all East Asian people together. Who ignore the tumultuous relationship between the largest nations therein. Untell is both astute and fearlessly honest. He uses his art to express his grievances and give people an unguarded interpretation of the history of his people.
“Japanese occupation was a time when Japan ruled Korea. Korea has a tradition of wearing white clothes, but the Japanese sprayed ink on the clothes of my ancestors to destroy Korean tradition. So the song ‘I’m from’ is a song with a poetic expression about color. White and black.”
This is what’s so impressive about HUMAN, why it’s so easy to connect with it. I identify with that constant battle, being othered in your own country by outsiders who’ve decided they have the right to take what doesn’t belong to them. “We got [the] same trauma,” Untell says. An edge of something dark, powerful adds conviction to his tone. This trauma of intrusion, of being stripped of who we are because of who we are. That is the thread that connects us. More than anything else, I believe this is why so many Black people are so readily drawn to Korean music. Underneath it all, we share a similar generational PTSD. We aren’t the same, and sharing pain does not give license for mimicry or misappropriation. However, we do understand each other through our collective pain. Untell understands this, seemingly better than most of his peers. It’s no wonder HUMAN made such a deep impression.
“Did you know that we were occupied by Japan because we could not quickly embrace the culture of the United States? Because we did not quickly accept American culture?” he says “This is historical trauma. So I want to make a song with such a message. This is the human I wanted to express.”
Throughout the conversation he bemoans his minimal English. An almost obligatory “I’m sorry” precedes many of his answers. Despite his limitations, Untell speaks his mind freely, openly and without any pretense. He might not know every word in English, but he knows exactly what he wants to say and says it with his entire chest. He’s frighteningly intelligent, surprisingly introspective and observant. A question many younger hip hop artists probably haven’t had to honestly confront, Untell answers without breaking a sweat: What makes good hip hop?
“Ah, so hard question,” he says. His chuckle is low, but not nervous. If there is any uncertainty on his part, he doesn’t show it when he speaks once again. “I don’t think about what hip hop is,” he begins. “These days, I’m thinking about the human being. Live [your] own life. It’s [such an] important thing, the main thing. I think the way for hip hop is to truly, truly live [your] own life without imitating anyone.”
See what I mean? Freakishly smart.
“There’s no need to be cool. [Hip hop doesn’t] mean to be cool. It [doesn’t] mean to be famous and more sexy. Just live [your own] life. I think that’s it. People try to act cool, but it’s not their [nature]. So being honest is the best.”
This young man’s future is bright. He continues to work on more music, honing his craft with longtime collaborators willnotfear and 918. He’s currently working on the first part of a two-part EP project. He also has plans to come to the States in October to meet with Vermont-based hip-hop collective 99 Neighbors. “They contacted me for a feature,” he reveals. “When the CD is sold out, I’m gonna hold my concert.” Most certainly, things are moving fast for Untell, and he seems more than equipped to handle the nuances of his ever-increasing notoriety.
Oh Dong-hwan is an incredibly intelligent young man. As artist Untell, he’s used his sharpness and the broadness of his vocabulary to give weight and scope to his emotions. While the masses gravitate toward artists who best mimic the most popular trends from the West, an artist like Untell will light a fire under Korea’s stagnant hip hop scene, and he’ll either be loved or hated for it.
“As I said before, I think it’s because Koreans look out for each other a lot. But I don’t give a fuck!” he says, the words almost yelled into the camera. “I don’t care. I don’t care [about] other people’s opinions. I just make the music that I want.”
Korea needs Untell and other artists of his ilk to move its culture forward. The scene, if you’ll forgive me, has become boring. Everyone sounds the same, and most don’t understand the history behind the culture they’re attempting to imitate. An artist like Untell can shift the tide, shake some damn tables and get things moving. The future is bright for this young man, and for Korea, if he continues on his path of speaking, living and being his truth.
“It’s not a concept,” he says. “It’s my belief. That’s why I’m learning English. I want to be the future of the world. I’m 22, in Korea; I’m 20 in the USA. I got so many possibilities. I can do it.”