San E and Mad Clown Bring Korean Hip-Hop to Chicago

South Korean rappers San E and Mad Clown spoke with the Maroon about touring in the U.S. and the differences between Korean and American rap.

By Liana Fu, Contributor

The University of Chicago sits adjacent to Washington Park, where rapper Chief Keef grew up. Just five miles south is Chance the Rapper’s hometown of West Chatham. San E and Mad Clown, two rappers from South Korea, performed one of the last shows of their North American tour, titled “We Want You,” 15 miles north of Chatham at Park West.  

Chicago is no stranger to hip-hop. Along with Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper, other acclaimed artists such as Common and Vic Mensa claim Chicago as their home. And in recent years, Chicago’s grown familiar with K-pop and K–hip-hop artists. Just last year, K-pop groups and solo artists such as Hyuna, Taeyang, GOT7, and BTS all stopped by Chicago. And on April 27, the same night as San E and Mad Clown’s concert, girl group Red Velvet performed at Rosemont Theatre.  

“Audiences in the States are more energetic,” Mad Clown (Jo Dong-rim) said in an interview before the show.  

“He needs to get drunk to speak full English,” San E (Jung San) said with a laugh. “Couple of vodkas, please?” 

The two play off of each other’s personalities perfectly, so it’s no surprise that they’ve decided to stick with each other for a tour with over 20 shows and to collaborate on multiple songs, such as “Sour Grapes,” “Lonely Animals,” and most recently, “Butterfly.” 

Mad Clown’s quiet demeanor reflects the thoughtfulness of his lyricism. He rose to mainstream success after he collaborated with Soyou (of former girl group SISTAR) on a song titled “Stupid in Love,” which won a popularity award at the 2014 Gaon Chart Music Awards in South Korea. 

“As an artist, I want to tell something about social issues,” he said. “And the way I want to do it is by just expressing myself. I don’t want to use big words or ideas—I want it to be easy to understand and direct.” 

San E, whose extraversion is accentuated by sitting next to Mad Clown, thrives off upbeat energy and feel-good vibes. His surge to fame earned him the title of “Rap Genius,” and he’s won multiple Korean music awards. Most recently, his collaboration with Bolbbalgan4, “Mohae,” hit the top 10 for singles on the Gaon Music Chart. 

The show kicked off with Sobae, an up-and-coming K-R&B artist, introducing Prism Kru, a K-pop and hip-hop dance crew that also opened for Hyuna’s 2017 tour in Chicago. Sobae (who graduated from Northwestern) and DJ Juice have been touring with San E and Mad Clown since their first show in Atlanta. Sobae performed her new single “Homegirl” after the dance act. 

Several times during the concert San E and Mad Clown asked fans to come on stage. After a dance-off where fans could win merchandise such as hats and T-shirts, San E asked one of the winners who should perform first—San E or Mad Clown. “Mad Clown should go first,” she said. “So we can save the best for last.” 

Mad Clown, who had appeared reserved during the interview, erupted with passionate rapping. Before performing “Love Is a Dog From Hell,” a song inspired by a Charles Bukowski novel by the same title, he asked the crowd who was married. He was married in 2016, and he told the crowd how a fan had messaged him the other day saying “Love is not a dog from hell, love is love.” He said he nearly cried. “Stupid in Love” had everyone singing sadly along. “I listen to this song when I need a good cry,” Sobae said after singing Soyou’s verses. 

San E performed next. He was met with glowing phone screens held from overstretched arms and deafening cheers—probably not unusual for him. The energy was infectious. Every song had the audience singing and rapping along, but his more well-known collaboration with Baek Yerin, “Me You,” and his 2014 single “Body Language,” which was nominated for an Mnet Asian Music Award for Song of the Year in 2014, had everyone dancing too.  

Before the show, I asked San E if he presented himself differently depending on what role he was playing. Along with rapping, he’s hosted, judged, and MC-ed for competitive rap shows in Korea such as Show Me the Money and High School Rapper. 

“There is me, but it changes little by little,” he said. When he MCs for shows, he tries to be more composed, but he lets himself go more on ones like Show Me the Money. 

“Show Me the Money is closest to the real me—it’s a reality show, and it’s the genre of music I like the most and I’m good at.” 

When asked what his perception was of hip-hop in America, he said: “It’s about being yourself and accepting others as who they are.”  

Hip-hop emerged from South Bronx in the ’70s and was influenced by social conditions at the time. “Hip” means “in the know,” which has been part of black vernacular since the late 19th century, and “hop” literally means a hopping movement, so the term hip-hop can translate to something similar to a “social movement.”  

San E lived in Atlanta for 10 years, where he was first drawn to hip-hop as a way to cope with living in a new country where he was resisting racism.  

And now two Korean hip-hop artists from some 6,500 miles away from Chicago have the ability to perform for American audiences, speaking to the globalization of hip-hop. It also suggests the need for a careful balance between the historical influence of American hip-hop and the modern-day consumption of Korean hip-hop. 

“It’s a difficult question,” San E said. “I think Korean hip-hop now has a unique color that differentiates it from American hip-hop. As a genre, I think there’s a bright future. We hope this tour will be a good example for Korean artists touring in America.”  

Toward the end of the show, a stage crew member brought a glass of alcohol to Mad Clown, who chugged it down to a chanting crowd. I imagine he felt much more comfortable afterwards. And as the crowd danced to their final song of the night, “Butterfly,” they knew the duo would fly back to South Korea very soon. As for when San E and Mad Clown will return to America, it’s only a matter of time. And a few thousand miles.