“We weren’t going to be that popular!” Australian-Korean rappers 1300 hit the big time

lIn director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 neon boy thriller Oldboy, a man is held for 15 years before being stuffed into a briefcase and dragged to an empty field, left alone to solve the mystery of how he got there and why.

Two decades and 8,000 miles away, the members of the hip-hop collective 1300 (pronounced one-three-hundred) smooth their collars, mess up their hair and do their best impression of the character Oh Dae-su and the goons terrorize him for their single, Also known as Old Boy. But where Oh Dae-su stood alone, 1300 mothed the camera like a suit, grinning as they rapped with one of the most impressive deliveries seen in an Australian outfit in years.

1300 producer and singer Nerdie describes the influence of the film – and South Korean culture in general – on the music 1300 is now making in the suburbs of Sydney. “I watched a lot of shitty movies as a kid,” the 24-year-old says. “I had free rein. My grandfather had a DVD store in the garage where you rented illegal DVDs. I just watched all that crazy shit. I watched iRobot on repeat for about a week.”

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He and rapper Rako, also 24, speak to Guardian Australia during a day’s break in the studio. They vape back and forth as they recall meeting their fellow bandmates — rappers Dali Hart, 23, and Goyo, 26, and producer Pokari, 31 — in 2020, after seeing each other floating around the Korean music community in Sydney† “It’s not a big scene,” Nerdie clarifies. “It’s just a few people.”

When they released their breakthrough single No Caller ID in early 2021, it was clear that 1300 had triggered a rare chemical reaction. “You don’t have to speak the tongue to know this is a blast,” Koolism’s Hau Latukefu, the host of Triple J’s dedicated hip-hop show, wrote in a review.

1300 bend and fuse Korean and English in their lyrics, while their production draws on both contemporary references – from SoundCloud rap to house and hardstyle – and the emo and punk pop they consumed as children.

“We all grew up listening to what teenagers would listen to in Australia,” Nerdie says, as he tells Fallout Boy, Panic! at the Disco and Linkin Park, in addition to dance and American hip-hop. “Me and [Pokari.Sweat] are Australian, so there’s an extreme western influence on the production – I think that’s why it might feel a little different to Korean people making western sounds in Korea.”

Rako’s experience was a little different; he grew up in Perth but consumed music from Korea almost exclusively. “The music taste of our five members [vary], and the amount of exposure to Korean culture is also different,” he says. Together they run the spectrum “from non-Korean culture to very Korean culture – and we meet in the middle”.

On their debut mixtape Foreign Language, 1300 really flexes their muscles and refuses to sit in one place for too long. For every slick and smart song like Rocksta, there’s a song like Ralph – listening to it feels like sticking your head in a pinball machine. Like Oh Dae-su heaved himself out of the trunk, 1300 catapults you into the future, leaving you to fill in the blanks about how you got there.

They are following up the record’s release with a series of live shows, most notably a spot in Splendor in the Grass and national dates in support of Confidence Man, following a pit stop at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid.

It’s an important show for a band that a year ago wasn’t sure if Australia had the guts for what they were preparing.

“We never thought that Australian music people would pick up on our music,” says Rako. “You know, we write in korean† We always thought: the language barrier is a pretty big fence to cross.”

“It just doesn’t exist in your head, just like the possibility that it could work,” agrees Nerdie. “Just because you’re a Korean kid. Making weird hip-hop music. In Australia. It just doesn’t make sense like why would people like this? Come on!”

Over time, the boundaries around a genre like Australian hip-hop – a genre that sounded and looked like just one thing for decades – have fallen and new voices have grown louder. “There are two generations,” says Nerdie, “all the classics” he followed growing up, including 360, Kerser, and Hilltop Hoods, and “this kind of new generation of more diverse artists doing afrobeat and all sorts of other things” — among them Genesis Owusu, whose live shows have supported 1,300, Agung Mango and Raj Mahal, both of whom can be seen on Foreign Language.

“It’s just been such a mindset shift,” says Nerdie, of how Australia’s love for 1300s has pushed him and his bandmates to take what they’re doing more seriously. But he might as well be talking about the years of slow, incremental change that led to the point where there are now 1,300, emerging as the most promising and dynamic act Australia has produced in years.

“We weren’t going to be that big, to be so popular. We honestly didn’t think anyone would like it. But there is no limit to where it can go now.”

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