On the first day of hip-hop school, the seven members of Korean hip-hop group BTS sit anxiously in a Skid Row apartment waiting to meet their first teacher. They speculate over who it could be. Could it be Dr. Dre? The boys are big fans of his headphones. Or what if it’s Snoop Dogg, who recently collaborated with PSY? But who are they kidding? It’s not like they’re seasoned superstars Big Bang or 2NE1. Actually, BTS just made it past the rookie stage this year, and they’re not even on one of k-pop’s Big Three labels (SM, YG, JYP). So it’s only fitting that the person to walk through the door, in a cap with strategically placed cutouts for his Pippi Longstocking pigtails, is 90s rapper Coolio. Rap Monster, the group’s leader, seems to be the only one who recognizes him.
BTS are here, in Los Angeles, meeting with one of the hundred or so most famous rappers of the 90s, as part of a reality show called BTS American Hustle Life. As the title suggests, the show promises to show BTS, who are releasing their first full-length album Dark & Wild on August 20, exactly what it's like to make it in America as a rap star. The cameras will follow the group for two weeks in Los Angeles as they get schooled in hip-hop. If that premise seems a little ridiculous, it is: hip-hop credibility is generally built through knowing the culture, while the world of k-pop tends to be blatantly inauthentic. But here they are, and Coolio is going to help them, dammit.
Coolio gets right down to business, asking BTS some basic questions about the origins and history of hip-hop. Whether it’s because they’re nervous or clueless or both, the room goes quiet. But it’s not long before Coolio is interrupted by class clown V, who chimes in with a “turn up” that makes Coolio pauses his pop quiz to get the kid in line. He asks V if he even knows what “turn up” means, to which V replies, “Let’s go party?” Some of the other members chuckle, the others shake their heads in embarrassment. Coolio is not amused. He orders V to do 25 pushups, and the group’s eyes collectively widen. Shit just got real.
"Do you even know what that means?" is a fair question to ask of k-pop stars, or idols, who often talk the talk without really knowing what they’re talking about. This is not to say these stars aren’t genuine or talented artists, but the k-pop industry is about selling a package. Idol groups are formed by finding raw talent and the right look that can be preened, polished, and trained to deliver that package. When forming a hip-hop group, it’s not as important to know and respect hip-hop culture as it is to be able to sell it.
The only rappers you know are Kanye West and Drake? That’s okay. Your go-to dance move makes you look like you’re conducting traffic? Not a problem. The label can teach you how to rap, teach you how to dance, dress you in the right clothes, and even find your swag for you. Korea's label creatives keep track of trends not only in k-pop, but also (and especially) in American hip-hop and R&B. The influence of artists like Kanye West, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna is keenly felt among counterparts like G-Dragon, Ailee, 2NE1, and 4Minute.
BTS was formed and trained by Big Hit Entertainment and debuted last year with the first part of their mini album trilogy, 2 Cool 4 Skool. The group is made up of seven members: leader Rap Monster, in charge of bilingual raps and keeping his boys in check; singer and pretty face Jin, in charge of looking good; rapper Suga, in charge of swag; rapper and dancer J-Hope, in charge of good vibes; singer and dancer Jimin, in charge of abs and high notes; singer V, in charge of tomfoolery; and golden maknae (youngest member) Jungkook, in charge of being good at everything and disrespecting his hyungs (older brother, generally used by guys to refer to older guys they are close to). Of the seven, Rap Monster and Suga are the two members with the most substantial hip-hop backgrounds, both having honed their rap skills in Korea’s underground scene. Though many of the other members had little to no hip-hop foundation, with some rigorous training the group made a strong and convincing debut.
Still, there are limitations. Despite the tight rapping and choreography, as well as the overall intensity on part two of the trilogy, O!RUL8,2?, some of the moves are a bit awkward and forced, and their baby faces make the group look a but like little kids playing dress up. They're getting there—fast forward a year to the Japanese version of “No More Dream,” and the progression is clear—but the walk doesn't quite match the talk yet. The idol grooming has them looking good, but it comes with a sacrifice in image, too.
It’s a tough choice for a rapper to join an idol group. On the one hand, they gain resources, support, and exposure; on the other, they lose credibility. To many, being an idol rapper is a contradiction. It’s not “real hip-hop” if it’s spit out by the k-pop machine. You can’t expect to be taken seriously when you’re in coordinating outfits and eyeliner doing aegyo (acting cute) on a k-pop show.
At an event last year, rapper B Free commented on Rap Monster’s and Suga’s makeup and choreography, stirring up some unresolved feelings in Rap Monster, especially. The BTS leader uploaded a cover of Drake’s “Too Much” to SoundCloud shortly after in which he talks about being seen as a sell-out by other rappers. He admits he still second-guesses himself, but he also acknowledges that he chose the idol life and that it has its own rewards. The theme comes up in some of BTS's music, too. Songs like “Cypher” Parts 1 and 2—although the limitations on idol groups are strict, the label still values the contributions and writing of the more rap-oriented group members—address the inner conflicts that Rap Monster, Suga, and J-Hope have as idol rappers.
Is it possible for BTS to prove their hip-hop credibility? That's what BTS American Hustle Life promises. Of course, there are some obvious issues: How much authenticity can you really build while filming a reality TV show? Though Rap Monster and his groupmates may be relatively well-versed in current hip-hop music, it’s hard to understand the music without fully understanding the culture. It’s even harder to do so in a place so far from the source, especially since, for a country that consumes and repackages hip-hop culture as much as it does, Korea has some serious issues with anti-blackness.
This is why many fans have a complicated relationship with k-pop and also why many BTS fans were uneasy when news of BTS American Hustle Life surfaced. Yes, these boys could use the lesson, and, yes, this show could be hilarious and entertaining. But it could also go very, very badly. When the teaser for the show was released, it showed the group getting “kidnapped” by a group of black men, taken to an undisclosed Skid Row location, and yelled at like they were on an episode of Beyond Scared Straight. This did not bode well.
But soon Instagram pictures of the group with mentors Dante Evans, Nate Walka, and Tony Jones, as well as teachers Coolio and Warren G started floating around, and it looked like the boys were having a good time and learning a lot. It was encouraging. After V's push-ups punishment, Coolio splits the group into three teams. Suga and Jin form the first team, J-Hope, Jimin, and Jungkook the second, and Rap Monster gets the task of babysitting V. Then the teacher assigns homework. The teams have to answer the pop quiz questions they had failed to answer earlier, as well as work on a short rap that they will perform for their neighbors the next day. The team that impresses their neighbors the most gets to have dinner with Coolio. The members are energized and determined to impress their teacher, so maybe if we can get past the mess of the first episode, we can see some real growth. At the very least maybe someone can teach V what “turn up” means.
It's only been a day, but a few things to check off their hip-hop school list:
1. A personal live performance by Coolio that reminded J-Hope, who is usually sunshine incarnate but had lost his light along the way, that hip-hop makes him happy
2. A personal live performance for Coolio that had the group visibly sweating
3. Actually kind of impressing Coolio with their performance
4. Hip-hop homework
Blanca Méndez thinks hip-hop is like floating but you can't see it, too. She's on Twitter - @blancateli
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