In director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 neo noir thriller Oldboy, a man is held captive for 15 years before being stuffed in a trunk and hauled out into an empty field, left alone to solve the mystery of how he got there and why.
Two decades and 8,000km away, the high-octane hip-hop collective 1300 (pronounced one-three-hundred) smooth down their collars, mess up their hair, and make their best impressions of the character Oh Dae-su and the goons terrorizing him for their single, also named Oldboy. But where Oh Dae-su stood alone, 1300 mob the camera as a pack, grinning while rapping with some of the most special delivery in an Australian outfit in years.
1300 producer and singer Nerdie describes the influence of the film – and South Korean culture broadly – on the music 1300 is now making in the suburbs of Sydney. “I watched a lot of fucked-up movies when I was a kid,” the 24-year-old says. “I had free rein. My grandpa had a DVD store in the garage where you’d rent out bootleg DVDs. I just watched all of this crazy shit. I watched iRobot on repeat for like a week.”
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Sweat, 31 – in 2020, after noticing one another floating around the Korean music community in Sydney. He and rapper Rako, also 24, speak to Guardian Australia on a break from a day in the studio. They pass a vape back and forth between them as they recall how they met their fellow band members – rappers Dali Hart, 23, and Goyo, 26, and producer Pokari. “It’s not a big scene,” Nerdie clarifies. “It’s just like a few people.”
In early 2021, when they released their breakout single No Caller ID, it was clear 1300 had hit on a rare chemical reaction. “You don’t need to speak the tongue to know this is a banger,” Koolism’s Hau Latukefu, the host of Triple J’s dedicated hip-hop show, wrote in a review.
1300 bend and meld Korean and English into their lyrics, while their production draws from both contemporary references – from SoundCloud rap to house and hardstyle – and the emo and punk-pop they consumed as kids.
“We all grew up listening to what teenagers would listen to in Australia,” Nerdie says, name-checking Fallout Boy, Panic! at the Disco, and Linkin Park, alongside dance and US hip-hop. “Me and [Pokari.Sweat] are Australian, so there’s an extremely western influence on the production – I guess that’s why it might feel a bit different to Korean people making western sounds in Korea.”
Rako’s experience was a little different; he grew up in Perth but almost exclusively consumed music from Korea. “Our five members’ music tastes [vary], and the amount of exposure to Korean culture is also different,” he says. Between them, 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 flexes their muscles, refusing to sit in one place for too long. For every slick and smart song like Rocksta, there’s a track like Ralph – listening to it feels like sticking your head in a pinball machine. Like Oh, Dae-su heaving himself out of the trunk, 1300 catapults you into the future and leaves you to fill in the blanks of how you got there.
They’re following up the release of the record with a string of live shows, notably a spot at Splendour in the Grass and national dates supporting Confidence Man after a pitstop at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid.
It’s a significant show for a band who weren’t sure, a year ago, whether Australia had the stomach for what they were preparing.
“We never thought that Australian music people would pick our music up,” Rako says. “You know, we write in Korean. We always thought the language barrier is a big fence to go over.”
“It just doesn’t exist in your mind, like the possibility that it could work,” Nerdie agrees. “Just cause you’re a Korean kid. Making weird hip-hop music. In Australia. It just doesn’t make any sense; why would people like this? Come on!”
Over time, the boundaries around a genre like Australian hip-hop – one that, for decades, only sounded and looked like one thing – have come down, and new voices have grown louder. “There are two generations,” Nerdie says: “all the classics” he followed growing up, including 360, Kerser, and Hilltop Hoods, and “this sort of new generation of more diverse artists that are doing afrobeat and all kinds of different stuff” – among them Genesis Owusu, whose live shows 1300 have supported, Agung Mango and Raj Mahal, both of whom feature on Foreign Language.
“It’s just been such a shift in mindset,” Nerdie says, of how Australia’s love for 1300 has led him and his bandmates to take what they are doing more seriously. But he could just as easily be talking about the years of slow, incremental change that have led to the point where 1300 are now, emerging as the most promising and dynamic act Australia has produced in years.
“We weren’t planning to be this big or this popular. We didn’t think anyone would like it, to be honest. But there’s no limit to where it can go now.”