Monday, 22 October 2012


           We had headed to Busan with intentions of sight-seeing. So how come my life was being threatened in a jazz bar? This wasn’t how Busan was supposed to be. Rob and I were sitting in a jazz bar, chatting to a pretty hostess, like foreign characters in a Murakami novel. We were the bar’s solitary guests, sharing a free bottle of whiskey and a bowl of strawberries gifted by the middle-aged bar owner and his gangster brother. Debating with them who was better, John or Paul? Admiring the gangster brothers’ scars and tattoos, including some fresh ones he got from a recent trip to Japan. Being asked as we were leaving if we were leaving because we were afraid for our lives?. I think we were. That was the second time someone has threatened my life. The first time it was a half crazed Iranian in the middle of Ramadan who pointed a knife at me and asked if I wanted to die that night. In his defense, hunger can drive people to do all sorts of strange things. But this was different. Our bar owner friend wasn’t hungry. He was quite drunk though and he seemed as sincere in his question as we were in our fear. Meanwhile, the girls (Mary and Mel) were having a drink in a ladies only club that they thought was going to be a male revue club but turned out to be a lesbian bar. All four of us had just wanted to find a quiet place to have a drink and all four of us got more than we bargained for. But Busan is the fifth busiest port in the world, so I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that it had a seedy underbelly or that we had stumbled into it. Before the bar episode, we had visited, almost by accident, an area called Texas Street that lies straight across the road from the train station, easily accessible for the majority of travelers who enter Busan by train. Here, for a couple of blocks, signs in Korean and English mingle with signs featuring the distinctive but unusual for Korea, Cyrillic script, advertising a multitude of bars and massage parlours. The ladies standing on this street were all Russian, smelling of cheap wine, bad perfume and desperation. I was a little intimidated by these middle aged peroxide blonds with acne scars and bulging muscles, looking like slightly prettier versions of those “female athletes” from the old Soviet bloc, a more feminine version of disgraced shotputter Nadzeya Ostapchuk. Burly Russian men also stood on the street, issuing promises of a good time to the lonely and curious. This was different from anything else we had experienced in Korea. Mary was petrified, clinging closely to Rob as if his Ukranian heritage could somehow protect her from the Russians. Needing to escape the street, we stopped at one bar for a drink. Inside the bar, the Russians were replaced by Filipino girls, as young and pretty as the Russians outside were old and ugly, who flirted with the mostly American GI crowd. We stayed for a drink and made our way back to our hotel, thankful that we all still had all of our organs. Of course, we were staying in a love motel, the type that you can book for hour-long interludes, the type of place where round beds, mirrors on the ceiling, dildo machines, an extensive pornography collection and condoms at the counter are considered par for course. Love motels are cheap though and you can get a good night sleep, as long as you can sleep through the amorous noises emanating from the other rooms.

Busan at night.
We visited Busan, Korea’s second largest city, a few times, usually taking the KTX (Korea’s answer to the bullet trains) down from Seoul. The KTX operates magnetically, in essence levitating its way through the Korean countryside at speeds greater than 300 plus kilometers per hour, leaving only a small opportunity to snatch glimpses of life through your window.  At these speeds, it really is blink and you miss it. One of our main reasons for visiting Busan was to visit the UN war cemetery. A visit to the cemetery, seemingly macabre, completed our trinity of war related visits-first we had visited the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between the North and South, then to the Korean War memorial in Seoul and now finally, the United Nations War cemetery. Busan had been the last stronghold for the South Koreans and allied forces in the early part of the Korean War and was the only major city not to fall to the communists. Maybe because the Korean War was the first major conflict that the United Nations was involved in, this cemetery is the only one in the world maintained by the U.N. It seems to be a responsibility that they take seriously, with immaculately groomed lawns and well-pruned trees. The cemetery lies on a plateau above the port, a peaceful but poignant last resting spot for bodies of many of the soldiers from many of the countries involved in the war. Mary and I made our way to the New Zealand section to honour the 45 New Zealand soldiers that had died during the war. Thirty-four of them had found permanent residence here. A memorial commemorating those New Zealanders that had died during the conflict had been erected in 2005. Its inscription is trilingual, written in English, Maori and Korean. The design was based on a moko (tattoo), seen as a sign of adulthood, an indication that the wearer was able to bear pain and take on responsibilities. The moko personified New Zealand as the mother of all of those who served (and died) during the war. Along the sides of the memorial are 45 cuts into the stone, each one representing the loss of a New Zealand serviceman during the conflict.
New Zealand's war memorial at the UN war cemetery.
The visit to the cemetery made me contemplative, thinking of the sacrifice of those men who had served and in many cases died overseas and thankful that I hadn’t had to do something similar. A trip to Beomeosa Temple, one of South Korea’s largest temples, is a great place to contemplate. It lay in hills of dense (for Korea) forest. A tall bamboo grove grew beside the main temple. Mist and low cloud added to the clichéd Asian look of the temple. Cliché isn’t always bad though. Sometimes finding a place exactly as you pictured it is as exciting as discovering something new. Beomeosa is a functional temple, with a small community of monks living on site. The temple offers overnight temple stays for interested foreigners; a tradition that I think had started about the time of the 2002 World Cup and had continued ever since. We were interested in doing this, especially after looking around the temple grounds as well as offering something more pure than staying in a love motel. We approached the temple office to enquire about doing a stay but this is when things turned a bit pear shaped. For a start, no one at the office spoke English; none of us spoke Korean. When we eventually managed to communicate what we wanted, after a long discussion and exercise in advanced body language, we discovered that the cost was exorbitant, three times more than we were willing to spend on accommodation. So we had to spend another twenty minutes explaining that we were too cheap to take up their once in a lifetime experience and that we were awfully sorry about wasting their time.
 Buddhists being Buddhists though, they were pretty relaxed about the turn of events and just to show there were no hard feelings, they invited us to enjoy a cup of tea and apples with the head monk. He happened to speak good English (where was he during the overnight stay negotiation process). We talked about all the usual things foreigners are asked when meeting a Korean for the first time, like “do you like kimchi?” and “do you like Korea?”. A potentially embarrassing situation turned out fine, and we were able to leave Beomeosa with a pleasant taste in our mouth (and not just from the tea and apples).
Tea and apple with the head monk.
Busan is famous, or at least world famous in Korea, for many things but it’s maybe best known in Korea for Haeundae Beach, a pleasant but relatively nondescript looking sandy beach for anyone who comes from a country with decent beaches. To Koreans though, Haeundae represents beach nirvana. Described on Wikipedia as one of the world’s greatest beaches, Haeundae lies largely dormant for all but two months of the year. Come the start of beach season though, which seems to be a randomly-generated, pre-determined time sometime in summer, Haeundae is cluttered with up to two million souls, all determined to enjoy their small part of sand that they can call their own. Umbrellas and beach towels fill up every available inch and people wallow in a small swimming area that only goes up to your waist, patrolled by a surplus of over zealous lifesavers. And then on the first day on non-beach season, it goes back to be largely unused. We went there at the start of May and then again at the start of July and there were no more than 10 people on the entire beach. If we had went back weeks later, the beach would have been packed. As it was outside of beach season when we went though, we could command a nice slice of prime beach real estate for ourselves, in between taking dips in the ocean.
           Just off Haeundae lies the Busan aquarium that offers interested people a chance to go diving with sharks, of the impressively big but hopefully not very aggressive type. Our instructor told us to keep our hands close to our sides and to not try and touch the fish or the two grumpy sea turtles that were also present in the tank. No need to worry about that, I thought. I valued my hands and had seen the size of the teeth of the sharks we were diving with. Teeth that size are not to be messed with. Our dive lasted for about 45 minutes. For the first 20 minutes, I forget about the sharks, I was so intent on making sure my breathing was right. But then, one beast swam right over my head and caught my attention. All of my attention. They must have been well fed. The sharks could have taken half of me in one go but didn’t. Sharks may be one of the most feared animals in the world and you could argue either way if that reputation is justified but there is no argument that they are majestic creatures. Diving with sharks, even in a controlled environment such as this, was pretty special.
Shark diving.
      You would think that diving with sharks would be the most dangerous thing we did that day. Wrong. The taxi drive back from the KTX station back to our apartment proved to be much, much more dangerous. Nothing suggested that this driver was part of a racing team. His taxi wasn’t a Ferrari or painted racing red or complete with fiery streaks. Nonetheless, I made a fatal mistake. Exuberant from our diving, I asked the driver to go quickly. My mistake was that I didn’t know how to say go slow in Korean. And Korean taxi drivers do not need a second invitation to go fast. Road rules are mere suggestions to them; stop signs are ignored, red lights approached with a blast of the horn, a slight decrease in speed before the car rushes through. If you dare to attempt to put on your seatbelt, they treat it as a personal affront, as if you should put 110% trust in their crazy driving. There seems to be one unmistakable truth about Korean taxi drivers: they are all borderline crazy and this one was a certified, escaped from the loony bin, crazy. We watched as the speedometer approached 200 kilometers per hour. He laughed at Mary, who was sitting in the front, watching the road, hands over her eyes, peering through the gaps. Michael Schumacher didn’t respond to our groans, our ooh ahhs. Close misses seemed to be missed by him. But they were all too apparent to us. The only positive about the speed he was driving at was that it dramatically cut down the time it took to get home. Just as our moods were turning from a feeling of fear to one that knew and accepted that we were all going to die, the trip come to an abrupt end. On a day that started with shark diving, who knew the real adventure sport would be the taxi ride home. And the first chance I got, I learnt how to say go slow in Korean.

Monday, 1 October 2012


With the ubiquitous Gangnam style making waves around the world, I’ve started to reminisce about my small contribution to Korean music courtesy of the Kimchi Crew. What we did wasn’t exactly K-Pop, more ex-pat indie hip-hop. A legacy of two studio albums, a collection of B-sides and demos and a gamut of mostly mediocre free-styles. The Kimchi Crew grew from a modest start- two guys with a dream and ended as it started, modestly not much more than a year later. The crew was my first (and probably last) experience at being a part of any type of band, (in the loosest sense of the word), but I was hooked. All my spare time was spent, thinking of rhymes, free styling not only in my head but also to bemused kids I was teaching, trying sometimes unsuccessfully to edit out the swear-words. I listened to the rough takes we had done, often. Every weekend and some weeknights, we arranged a crew get-together, sometimes just to freestyle (which I did poorly), sometimes to record tracks that we had wrote. We rhymed about a variety of topics, from frivolous to issues of social importance and even a short-lived enviro-rap crew called Secret of Elephants that ended after one of our crew ate whale in Japan. We had the cliché weed track, rhymes animating inanimate objects, tracks expressing our love for our new and improved microphone (a 40,000 Won microphone moved us from Stone Age to Iron age in recording terms). Nothing seemed out of our range. We talked up our importance. Our friends and partners went through several stages of caring and supported followed by annoyance, apathy and ending in downright hostility. We made up a rival crew, the Bulgogi Boys, a fictional group from the city of Busan. We needed an antagonist so we could write diss tracks, (even if our beef was with a fictitous rival). The Bulgogi Boys would soon loom large in the Kimchi crew mythology. At times, we might have even dreamed that there was a niche market for five kimchi loving ex pat hip hoppers to light up the charts in Korea.

First day in the studio.
The crew was initially made up by five rappers; David, “General Refuse”; Tarek, “Bongo 3”; Nixon “The Wack MC/Golden fleece”; Aaron “Luke Warm” and myself, with a number of guest appearences (Janine “J9 the Hookmaker; Justin “Chopsticks Tactix”; Chris, “Bruno the modern relic” and Christine “C-Rex”). I gained not one but two stage names, in the System Disrupter (which in turn gave its name to this blog) and the Marvel of Invercargill. System Disruptor was spawned from a comment about the habit of some people on a bus to push forward from the back of said bus thus impeding the flow of those sitting up the front who are frustrated in the bid to get out, in other words, system disruptors.  More obviously, the Marvel of Invercargill was a reference to my hometown. After two or so months of our collective output, we found ourselves with about a dozen songs of varying quality. The pick of the bunch so far was Nixon’s and David’s collaboration “Will rap for Kimchi”, an ode to food, kimchi and all things edible. It was the first of our songs to have a good hook, an uplifting “I will rap for kimchi, I will rap for food, I will rap for anything that puts me in the mood”. This moved us away from our previous ethos of fuck the hook, into more listener friendly sound-scapes (not that we sold out).

Changing the flow.

It was around this time that we decided that we should lay down our tracks in a studio. Enquires were made and we found a studio that would cost about 20 dollars an hour with a studio technician who knew his stuff. We all concurred that it sounded like a good plan. Better than good. We asked Janine if she could ring up and organize the studio for us. She did and the date of destiny for the crew was set. We set off early one Saturday morning, headed for Hongdae. The subway ride was one of nervous anticipation. We listened to our demos, wrote out and read our rhymes, repeating them to the beat, making changes where necessary. Talking was at a bare minimum, we were in the zone. We arrived at the studio, buoyant. We handed our beats to our producer, Hyun Ho. He probably didn’t know what to expect. He had told Janine that we would be the first hip-hop group he had produced. So new territory for all involved. Hyun Ho knew what he was doing even if he didn’t know much English. We tended to skip between takes by going backwards and forwards between cuss words, the universal language of rap. Hyun Ho put the beat on for Beef Bully Bitches, the Bulgogi Boys diss track and Luke Warm was the first to step up to the plate. “There’s no more fucking around because you’ve got to believe that I’ve got mad beef with these fine strips of beef”. Soon, it was my turn to step up to the mike. Donning the headphones for the first time was surreal. I stood in the booth, oblivious to everything apart from the beat. When it dropped, I was there. A couple of takes was all I needed. It felt good, it felt real. We were the kings of this, the burgeoning ex-pat kimbob hip-hop scene. The first song was completed in about 30 minutes. We all got through our verses, we were feeling good. No guns allowed though, hookers and blow substituted for Cass beer which flowed freely in the studio. My next time up at the mike, it was time to drop my solo track, ‘Ajumma’s lament”, an ode to all the unappreciated, suburban wives of Korea. Over a looped J Dilla beat, I poured out my thoughts in one take, without cutting. It was half rapped, half sung, 100% heart felt and probably not very good. I was starting to get over my nerves and feeling relaxed in the studio. During that first studio session we got through eight songs and a higher number of pitchers. After that first experience, we were itching to get back to the studio, armed with expectation and a few new tracks. 

Spitting a rhyme.

The next time we visited the studio, we brought Janine aka J9 the Hookmaker, partly for her Korean language skills to ease communication with Hyun Ho. But mostly, we had her there because of her great voice. She sang around Seoul with different groups. While we didn’t bring much, she bought the talent to the crew. This time, J9 helped out with some hooks. We felt like the real deal now, going over and perfecting rhymes and flow, doubling over some tracks, putting on some effects. We recorded a total of 19 tracks for our CD “Fermentin” plus nine tracks that Nixon and Justin did in a day and that was later released as the Shiwa Syndicate EP.

Artwork care of Eric. The hands spell out Kimchi Crew.
In between studio visits, as a surprise for the kids who had stayed at English Village for the month, David, Aaron and myself decided to do a lunch-time concert for them. We had talked up the crew all month to the kids so our show was highly anticipated. We were under some pressure to perform. Could we talk the talk? I was really nervous, practicising the song I was going to perform which was “Ban on the side dish”, a paean to commiserate the banning of kimchi from the 2006 Asian games in Doha. I knew it back to front, I practiced all morning. I was agitated, nervous. We met backstage, General Refuse, System Disrupter and Lukas F Warm. I’ll let the General describe the scene.

My bandana was becoming saturated with sweat. My entire body trembled in nervous anticipation. This was the culmination of so much planning, so many dreams. I was decked out to the max: green basketball shorts emblazoned with gold stars, a white muscle shirt accentuating nothing in particular, and the bandana – my blue gangster doo-rag – was wrapped around the circumference of my head. In my left hand, I tightly clutched a microphone. Beyond the stage and on the other side of the curtain, I could hear throngs – well, at least two hundred faithful – of fans screaming and jumping, urging us on to the stage.

“This is it boys. They want us now,” Keith’s words resonated through me. He was energized and confident. His stage name was System Disruptor, a moniker that altered his mindset and allowed him to slip into a world of phat beats and dope rhymes. In his regular life he was a geneticist from Invercargill, New Zealand, but now he was all hip hop; in the moment, the stage and the fans were all that mattered.

“This is what we have been working towards. We’re like Eminem in Eight Mile,” Aaron said. He was the crew’s motivator, our level headed crutch and he calmed our nerves. Aaron also gave us new and interesting similes to ponder.  Today, he was Lukas F warm – straight up gangster, a pure rap aficionado. The elementary school teacher from Edmonton had morphed into a pants-hanging-so-low-that-you-could-not-help-but-see-his-ass kind of rapper, a gold chain weighing him down while upping his gangster quota big time.

The fans were growing restless – “Kimchi Crew, Kimchi Crew!” Their chanting increased in intensity; great waves of sound thundered throughout the middle school gymnasium, bounced off the walls, echoed all around. The stage was calling. I was the first member of the crew to take the stage and when I did I was struck by a wall of sound. Screaming Korean middle school students became drunk with rapture, no longer able to contain the excitement welling up from within. “Good afternoon. How y’all doing today? Did everyone have a good lunch?” I asked, sweat beading from my brow. “My name is General Refuse and we are the Kimchi Crew!!”

The fans – they were not so much fans as they were our students for the month who were given no choice but to watch the show – went nuts.  The beat kicked. Hands went up and began bouncing; the roof was being raised by the masses…… We were rappers.”

Some adoring fans.

It was true. We were rappers, rappers with a professionally cut CD to show off and some nicely done artwork. If a review had appeared, it may have read something like this.

Apparently the Kimchi Crew are popular with middle school kids in Gyeonggi-do and I can’t for the life of me see why. The quintet rhymes are dense with similes and metaphors and dripping with post modernism and pop culture references that seem to be so far beyond the English ability of your average 15 year old Korean school kid as to make it impossible for them to even understand anything they were rapping about. Yet, to the listener whose native language is English, these devices serve to keep you hooked, if left feeling a little bewildered at times. What the hell does dressed as a goat at a toga party mean? With a varied display of producers on board (9th Wonder, J Dilla), the crew jump from topic to topic with an admiring earnestness. For five guys living in a foreign country, their situation lends itself to stories about life as they saw it in their adopted country. This was reflected from the pseudo-gangster track “Bootlegging”, an ode to the curious practice of ddongchimm in “Verbal Ddongchimm” * and even “Ajumma’s Lament” a touching song to dis-satisfied married women in suburban Korea (which incidentally all feature hooks from new talent J9 the Hookmaker). Not surprisingly, given their moniker, this first up effort has a strong emphasis on the fermented muse, especially the Wack MC who rhymes on “Kimchi Clout” that he would give up sex for a taste of the ‘chi. And you know that he would. The album kicks off with fan favourite “Will Rap for Kimchi”, which sees senior member General Refuse and Wack MC rhyming about their favourite foods without a touch of irony and actually making it sound good (how many other songs do you know about food that are good). There’s the obligatory diss track "Beef Bully Bitches" directed towards the South Coast Rivals, the Bulgogi Boys. Flowing over the beat, the crew casually tear strips of the beefy boys, explaining why the Busan based crew are the most wack ex-pat crew found in Korea. You get the impression that maybe they didn’t need to perform it-the Bulgogi Boys are well below their level, but rather that they enjoyed unleashing their poison tongues on these unwitting and unwilling victims.

The five have distinct but complementary rapping styles. Luke Warm rhymes are concise 16 bars, pumped up with name checks, check out 69 personalities to see what I mean “you be hearing my sounds, like DB Cooper I’m unknown, effects like Malcolm X, I’m aware of my skin tones” and bravado. Wack MC tears up the tracks with a rhyming canter, somehow managing to get in aid, tirade, brigade, grenade, shade, blockade, homemade, trade, charade, masquerade, laid, swayed, weighed, unpaid, portrayed, decade, invade serenade and fade in a sprawling verse without managing to sound, well, wack. Bongo 3 is the post modernist, spraying his rhymes “like a bad aimer at a urinal.” jumping around from topic to topic, best shown in Steve Jobs where he describes about 40 odd jobs he may or may not have had. General Refuse makes great use of imagery “in the cinema of my mind” although you would have to ask him exactly what he meant by pooper jam while the System Disrupter seems to be conflicted, varying between telling the Bulgogi Boys about his relationships with their mothers to a warbling touching rap concerned with the day of a life in a typical suburban wife.

Overall, a sprawling first up effort from the self-proclaimed kings of the kimchi scene sees a major new player arrive in the ex-pat kimbob hip-hop scene of Gyeonggi-do. They seem to have all bases covered, as well as three continents. It might even inspire me to rap for kimchi”.

Live capture.
We were pumped and ready to do more. Sometime around this time, we had a received an  email from Talib Kweli's lawyer that asked us not to use a beat (we had “borrowed” a beat he had used for one of our demo tracks which we had posted on Myspace). That made us feel even more big-time. Unfortunately, Nixon couldn’t stay and continue with the crew, leaving to return to New Zealand. His departure influenced the direction of our second album, “Post\Hummus”, a concept album with a tighter, darker and more focused direction than our debut. The concept, ridiculous in hindsight, was that the Wack MC had been killed by a dodgy batch of hummus given to him by the Bulgogi Boys. With hindsight, it was at this time that the crew descended into a myopic fantasy world of diss tracks and revenge dreams but it made for a rich seam of inspiration. Soon, only a couple of months after finishing Fermentin', the crew (minus Nixon) returned to the studio with twelve new tracks to lay down. Another review follows.

Post\Hummus starts off with an AFN news broadcast of Sgt Chris Fish, highlighted by General Refuse’s heartfelt paean for the Wack MC. This sincere plea sets the scene as the crew is clearly trying to work out exactly where the disappearance and presumed death of the Wack MC leaves them. Rivals, the Bulgogi Boys, are clearly in the crew’s sights, with another harsh diss track “Hummus Wars” as well as several references in other tracks featuring on the album. Second track Senior Vs Junior shows it isn’t just relations with the Bulgogi Boys causing friction but that there are serious internal divisions as well. This battle for the heart and minds of Korea isn’t just between the North and South but also in the crew itself. Luke Warm expresses his doubts about the leadership that the General is exhibiting, urging a strong retaliation. General refuses to lay blame at the feet of the Bulgogi Boys, instead believing that the Wack MC is merely missing, not dead and expresses that he is hopeful that the Wack MC would be back soon. This theory is expounded on “Sure lock Holmes” a collaboration between the two senior members, Bongo 3 and General Refuse, who propose that the Wack MC fled back to New Zealand after staging his death as he was concerned that the crew would sell out and leave behind their kimchi inspired roots. The other members, Luke Warm and the Marvel from Invercargill, clearly believe that the Wack MC is gone for good and seem set to take retribution (that is if they can get over their country bashing track Kiwilish). The General seems insecure with the division in the crew, complaining about a crew with two faces. Only Bongo seems unperturbed about the loss of Wack MC, saying if he hears one more word about the subject he might crack. While the crew does seem overly preoccupied with Wack MC, the album isn’t all doom and gloom and is lightened by a number of tracks with a less serious outlook. The album starts off with a welcome back track called unimaginatively “We’re Back”, that features a bizarre sounding chorus that seems to have been inspired by either Mickey Mouse or a fondness for abuse of helium. There are tracks celebrating kimchi, life in Korea, luck and bizarrely, an extended discussion about battling a robot. J9, a sweet singer of hooks who had a few guest appearances on Fermentin’ finds herself with an enlarged role on a couple of tracks, especially “Fresh Produce from the Village”, which gives an exhibition of her singing talent if not her rhymes, which are at times curious.

Post/Hummus cover.
The story of the Kimchi Crew mostly ended here. The rest of the story consists of a few half-baked ideas and unfinished tracks, and an abortion of a live performance. People left for homelands and collaboration proved more difficult than expected, even with the advantages afforded by the internet. Despite the promises of on-going collaboration and commemorative side-dish tattoos, the crew has fallen by the wayside. I’m not even in touch with most of the other members anymore-creative differences maybe. Our Wikipedia page fell into wikibin for not being notable enough. But what is left are the memories and a couple of albums, probably only on the iPODs of 10 people worldwide and some sort of legacy. 

* For an explanation of ddongchim- see