In the neighborhood of Korean hip hop, Changstarr (Paul Chang) is the new kid on the block. He hails from Hanover, New Hampshire and came to Seoul, South Korea about a year ago to pursue his passion for music.
Changstarr is also on the fence between two Korean hip hop record labels, Just Music and MKIT Rain. However, he has no problem finding and keeping his balance even when he’s being scouted by Yashxana, directing duo Yasha and Roxana of Pangean Vision, in the hot, “fire beat” filled streets of Los Angeles, California.
When did you start listening to hip hop music?
I started listening to hip hop music when I was ten years old. I was living in Canada back then, and I would listen to Eminem’s “Without Me” over and over again.
I actually started rapping in English before I started speaking in English, and I still remember how all of the kids at school would come listen to me rap “Without Me” during recess.
I started writing my own lyrics in high school. I wrote my first song for this girl, and she and her friends were impressed by it. I’ve been writing ever since then.
What motivated you to pack up your bags and head to your second home in South Korea to pursue a career as a rapper?
After I graduated from college, I was going to go to law school. I was doing an internship at a law firm when I realized that the career path I had chosen wasn’t right for me.
No matter how much money I would make as a lawyer, I would never be happy working the 9 to 5 for the rest of my life. I’m young, and I’m very creative.
I thought about what I was truly passionate about and realized hip hop was something I had immersed myself in since childhood while writing lyrics for fun and getting up on stage whenever I had the chance.
I was motivated to pursue a career as a rapper in South Korea because I wanted to challenge myself and because the scene where I want to start my career as a rapper and hip hop artist is right here.
What kind of hip hop music do you want to make?
My music is heavily influenced by 90s Golden Era hip hop. An MC’s philosophy is everything, and I place a lot of importance on lyricism and put a message in every song I write.
I consider writing a song the same way I consider writing a poem or a novel. It’s all creative writing from the rhyme to the flow to the punchline.
So, I want to make music that is appreciated for its lyricism, but I also want to make music that conveys my philosophy as an MC.
What is your philosophy as an MC?
I’m a hippie at heart. I was born in Austin, Texas and grew up in different, more diverse environments in comparison to Korean rappers who were born and raised in South Korea.
I graduated from Dartmouth, an Ivy League College. Despite that, I gave the middle finger to taking a traditional career path and took a risk by coming here to pursue a career as a rapper.
Korean generations both young and old never take risks. I want to influence them to take risks through my music and through my message.
I believe in freedom and in being a free spirit. I believe in doing whatever the fuck I want.
What kind of music industry do you want to work in?
I want to work in the current Korean hip hop industry. Although there’s not a lot of room for rookie rappers, what sets me apart from other rookie rappers in South Korea is my identity, my skill, and my network.
These days, you don’t really need to be in a record label to get your name out there. Right now, I don’t mind being independent. I want to be independent until I find my own color as an artist.
You recently dropped a mixtape, On The Road Mixtape Vol. 1: The Jazzy Beatnik. Describe one story associated with the awesome cover art.
The entire mixtape is representative of who I am right now. I rap about my life ever since I decided to pursue a career as a rapper here in South Korea and derailed from the professional career path that I was headed towards, becoming a 21st-century beatnik.
Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (it’s the American hippie Bible) is about his own derailment. He went to Columbia and was also headed towards a traditional career path until he dropped out. He decided to become a writer and traveled across the nation for inspiration instead.
I’m on the road right now. I don’t know where I’m headed, but I know I will keep doing my own thing and moving forward.
What song from your mixtape do you recommend international Korean hip hop fans who are new to you listen to?
I recommend the sixth track, “Life of a No Name (Prod. by Verbal Jint).” I wrote the lyrics to this song right after I came to South Korea and had just started settling in and making connections.
At that point, I was learning how to live as an artist. I featured on Swing’s track, “Getting Better,” but I still wasn’t famous. I quickly became depressed. No one was listening to my music. I felt like I was yelling at a brick wall.
I turned my negative into a positive and wrote a song about how I am a no-name now but that doesn’t mean that I have nothing now or that I won’t be able to have everything in the future.
“Download Changstarr’s mixtape with lyrics that have been translated from Korean to English by Changstarr, for you.” — Jennifer (진주), Founder of Slay In Korea
As a rookie rapper in South Korea, what do you like and dislike about the current Korean hip hop scene?
I like the current Korean hip hop scene, especially the underground. The Henz Club and Secret Society 02 host shows featuring Korean and international hip hop artists that not many Koreans are familiar with.
They are all dope hip hop artists, and I love the diversity that exists in the underground. There are so many different types of hip hop genres and hip hop artists.
But I dislike the fact that mainstream Korean hip hop music focuses so much on the trends started by Show Me The Money.
“Show Me The Money is a competition and survival show where top rappers and producers from Korean hip hop record labels lead a team of four rappers. Only one team and one rapper win.” — Jennifer (진주), Founder of Slay In Korea
Hip hop culture was not properly rooted in South Korea. It’s just an image, and consumers here assume that the Korean hip hop artists they see on popular pop culture “Korean hip hop” survival shows like Show Me The Money are the best.
They even assume that underground Korean hip hop artists are wack because they aren’t famous, but underground Korean rappers like Hwaji and B-Free are better than most of the mainstream Korean rappers on TV.
What part of you is drawn to Just Music, one of South Korea’s old school hip hop record labels?
Just Music has the most swag. Each artist at Just Music has a completely different style, but they complement each other, anyway. They also have some of the best in-label collaborations.
What part of you is drawn to MKIT Rain, one of South Korea’s new wave hip hop record labels?
MKIT Rain makes the music that I want to make, and MKIT Rain makes the music that I want Korean hip hop to become.
I am always more comfortable listening to Korean hip hop artists from the US because I grew up in the US. Their flow tends to be groovier, and their vibe is much more similar to American hip hop, which is the hip hop that I know best even if it’s not the best.
As Korean Americans, there is a constant battle fought in our music between hip hop and 힙합—between American culture and Korean culture.
Korean hip hop record labels are known for keeping to themselves whether there is beef between record labels and their artists or not. Do you ever feel like your loyalties are divided between Just Music and MKIT Rain?
No. I’m not signed to either record label, and I’m just homies with everyone at both labels.
I’m a hippie. I get along with everyone.
But I have seen rappers who used to be friends join different labels. Then when they see each other they don’t even say hello to one another.
I hate Korean hip hop politics. My philosophy is this. Like Biggie once said, “Can’t we just all get along?”
Who is your mentor or role model?
I am influenced by everyone, but Bill Stax (formerly known as Vasco) of Just Music gives me the most and the best advice. He’s a Korean hip hop veteran, but he’s still standing at the front line.
He doesn’t get old.
But at the end of the day, I am my own mentor and role model. Only I know what I want to do and who I want to become.
Do you want to join their record label?
I don’t know right now. I’m still a rookie, but Just Music is one of my favorite record labels.
What are the biggest internal obstacles standing in the way of your success?
The biggest internal obstacles standing in the way of my success are my Korean parents and Korean society. Pursuing a career as a rapper in South Korea is considered a big risk, but it’s also a big adventure.
I don’t get support, and I don’t have security. I feel pressured to choose a more traditional or mainstream path every day, but I’m happy doing what I do.
I chose my music, and I chose to struggle.
What are the biggest external obstacles standing in the way of your success?
The biggest external obstacle standing in the way of my success is money. I tutor Giriboy and C Jamm of Just Music in English, and I also translate Just Music’s songs, interviews, contracts, etc. to English.
But I don’t make enough money to spend on my art; for example, mixing, mastering, and making music videos.
Do you have plans to audition for the next season, season six, of Show Me The Money?
I’m thinking positively about it, but I’m still contemplating it. I’m still thinking about it.
American hip hop fans are probably wondering about the long-haired Asian guy in Lil Uzi Vert’s new music video for “Ps and Qs.” How were you scouted by directors Yashxana when you were in Los Angeles, California?
I was walking on the streets of L.A. in K-Town with William Hyoung, a good friend of mine and a movie director from L.A. Yasha and Roxana saw us and scouted us on the spot. They said that they liked our style and wanted us to be in the music video.
What was it like to work with Lil Uzi Vert on set?
The set was chill and lit at the same time. Lil Uzi is very easygoing.
Do you think you’ll ever get Lil Uzi Vert in the studio here in South Korea?
I would if I could, but our style is so different that I don’t see a collaboration in the near future.
What are your “Rookie Rapper Resolutions” for 2017?
I came to South Korea a year ago. I’m a very fresh rookie. Not many people know me, although I have made a lot of connections.
I want to find my own color and put out one more mixtape or one more EP. I want to put my name out there. I want Korean hip hop record labels to come to me first.
Changstarr On Social Media
A documentary featuring Korean rookie rapper Changstarr is scheduled to be released this year.