At every corner is a fluorescent neon light — a night in Seoul is never dim. If you’re in need of some youthful energy, grab some Myeongdong street snacks in Hongdae, the go-to district for students. For a more eclectic taste of music, Itaewon is for you. If you have stacks of cash to throw at bottle service, head over to Gangnam, the Beverly Hills of Seoul. Whatever your vice, you’re spoilt for choice in South Korea’s capital city.
Before club culture took off in Seoul, young Koreans frequented “booking” clubs, a venue for dating. South Korean society still maintains strong links with its conservative past; social hierarchy matters, and there’s a certain formality to meeting members of the opposite sex. At a booking club, this stiff formality is breached. Men go in with their male friends, and the ladies do the same with their girls. They each sit at their own designated table. The waiter, acting as a middleman and matchmaker, would pair women to men and invite them to sit together (sometimes forcibly). The introduction was forced, but both parties are free to leave — or stay, drink and talk — as they please. To some extent, a night out was about hooking up.
With the birth of mega-clubs that started in Gangnam, this changed. The nightclubs people once only saw on their television sets were suddenly accessible. The incredibly powerful influence of celebrities in South Korea also helped the club scene to take off. There’s a word in Korean (Sasaeng) for obsessive fans that go the extra stalker mile. Fans would flock to the clubs where their favourite celebrities had been spotted — and thus, the popularity of clubs rocketed.
Underground club culture can be traced back to Western foreigners who came to Seoul to teach English. In the late ‘90s and ‘00s, many of these teachers would dabble in DJing and promotion as a side hustle. Many musical South Koreans also travelled abroad, picking up new sounds along the way and spreading them back home.
Worldwide, it’s common to see a woman or two on club and festival line-ups, but if you were to list the number of male and female musicians side-by-side, the numbers wouldn’t tally. In Seoul, on the occasion that you do find a female DJ playing at one of the larger commercial venues, her music is often supplementary rather than the main agenda. Often, South Korean female DJs are considered to be entertainers more than serious musicians. Seoul’s female DJs are often questioned about competence, or find that emphasis is placed on their looks rather than their skill. You wouldn’t ask a male DJ if they know how to mix, so why would you question a perfectly capable woman?
Women that are in the game for the music want to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts for DJing or producing. Despite the weighted playing field, a handful of female DJs are defying expectations by staying true to themselves and producing great work. Whether it’s through carving a niche in the industry or being a fundamental role in the history of Seoul’s club scene, here are four female DJs who are paving the way for greater equality.
You find yourself in a quiet lane, away from the crowds. There is no indication that you’ve arrived at your destination, but improbably, you have. A spiralling staircase leads you down to the four concrete walls of Club Vurt, an underground techno club. “The interior in other clubs are too fancy. There are too many things. It’s distracting and people don’t focus,” says Suna, clad in a head-to-toe black ensemble. She doesn’t just discuss this ethos, she lives it — her club operates completely on an analogue lighting system.
Her entrance into club culture is like most, as a clubber. She was friends with DJs, who then helped her when she wanted to get into the industry. When asked if she has ever been treated differently for being a woman, she shrugs and mentions that she’s never thought about it before. After a pause, she adds “maybe”, and concludes: “Eventually, it’s your talent that makes you keep it up, just like any other DJ.” But, having an understanding of the experiences of a woman, her dance floor is sacred. “I don’t want a broken-up dance floor like other clubs where it’s just a place to meet girls.”
Previously, Suna was a resident and guest DJ in various clubs around Seoul, but grew tired of the distorted, money-driven club culture. “For an artist to develop, they need a sincere environment to play their own music, and to communicate with the audience who listens to their music.” I was this sentiment which led Suna, along with her husband DJILOGUE, to open Vurt in 2014.
At that time, there were only five or so female DJs who were garnering recognition for playing techno. Following in Suna’s example and with her encouragement, more female techno DJs began to come up. “The underground culture in Seoul is only just beginning. Some might disagree with me, but this is what I think.” There is no doubt, however, that Club Vurt is laying the foundations for Seoul’s techno scene.
Along with Suna, DJ Sin was part of the second-wave of female DJs in Seoul. “The first generation were only a handful of women, perhaps four or five. They got married and stopped DJing,” Sin shared. In her previous line of work as a fashion designer, Sin would find herself at a club most weekends. “It was just about dancing and drinking. One day, there was a DJ playing a set. As I listened to the music, I started to cry because I was so happy. And I thought to myself, WOW! AMAZING! DJs ARE AMAZING!” Armed with a mixer and CDs, Sin set about channeling her enthusiasm into a fledgeling career as a bedroom DJ.
Sin, Suna, and Mario (another DJ, who has since left) formed Triple House, the first ever all-female DJ crew in Seoul. “All our parties were designed by us. We did party concepts and decorations. We did it every month, by ourselves, for three years,” Sinn proudly reminisces. All eyes were on them. As Sinn explains: “It was easy to show people the difference between actual female DJs and the rest. The generation after us became known more for looks. Visually-appealing ladies. The DJs that really focused on music took a step back.”
However, the present generation of female DJs and musicians (known as the fourth wave) are presenting a more alternative sound. Through the internet, these young musicians are sharing their talents with an audience that surpasses geographical boundaries.
17-year-old Jiwoo decided she wanted to join the ranks of South Korea’s young female DJs when she saw a particular DJ working the deck. This DJ was an uncommon sight — a high school girl. “I looked at her and thought, I could do that.” Representation matters, and now, three years later, Jiwoo has the same effect on other girls. She’s plays regularly at Henz club, a budding music venue, as well as Seoul Community Radio, one of Asia’s leading internet radio stations that provides an alternative to commercial music. Hailing from Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, she moved to Seoul to truly pursue her musical aspirations.
Working under the unforgettable name, Hardcore Girl, Jiwoo encapsulates the spirit of Seoul’s modern music scene. Her music is soft, girly and colourful — adjectives you might not readily associate with someone going by the name “Hardcore Girl”. However, her work is unapologetic, and reclaims the female body and sexuality.
Neighbouring country Japan serves as a point of inspiration for Hardcore Girl. Growing up, she would listen to Shibuya K, a genre of alternative rock that she was introduced to by her older brother. And, she says with no shame, she loves “AV culture”: adult video culture. Hardcore speaks of her raw innate sexualtiy, while the word girl is a reminder of who she is, and all that she can be. Girls can be anything and everything.
English and Korean vocals, brought together in dark electronic soundscapes: there really is nobody quite like Cifika. You can’t slap a genre on music which is entirely self-invented and undefined. Cifika’s music is a harmonious clashing cultures.
In February 2016, she moved from California, her home for the past 11 years, back to her motherland of South Korea. She wanted to find a label. After several attempts, she met two individuals who would be her bridge into the independent music scene: Jayvito and Mood Schula. Their record label, Third Culture Kids, strives to change the scene by highlighting the underdogs deserving of recognition. The musical landscape in South Korea puts a heavy emphasis on the voice, but often fails to recognise the person behind the beat. This is arguably fuelled by the ever-present norabangs (karaoke centres) and the revered acoustic scene.
Giant entertainment companies which manufacture and regulate artists (yes, K-Pop) have almost total control over their artists, from the way they dance to the size of their nose. “Korean culture is very conservative and they don’t actually want female artists to stand by themselves and be active artists. Producers like Mood Schula, Jayvito… they’re all feminist and they respect me as they would with any other male artist.” Wanting to collaborate with other talented females, Cifika was disappointed when her label couldn’t find anyone who made similar electronic music to her in Seoul: “It’s kind of sad that I’m just surrounded by male artists. I’m the only girl in the music scene that I’m in. It’s pretty small.” As grateful as she for the support she’s received, she wants to give back to other women, as a source of encouragement and collaboration.
When you see someone like you doing something you’ve only dreamed of doing, there is a sense of hope. It gives you the session that with passion and hard work, you too can succeed. These female artists are all too aware of this — they’ve all encouraged more women to follow in their footsteps, and empathise with their sisters’ struggles. But the public has to embrace Korean female DJs too. If it’s good music, it should be taken seriously, regardless of who’s making it. Suna sums it up perfectly: “People have to be given the chance to experience real music with no pretence. If they experience that, we develop together — as an artist and as a crowd.”