There is no one quite like the Illionaire Records crew in the Korean hip-hop scene right now. The success of their single “YGGR” made the song’s stuttering Southern rap flow achieve meme status in the Korean hip-hop community, with rappers as far removed stylistically as Verbal Jint quoting it wholesale (in “I Smell Autumn”)—and American rap fans excitedly referring to it as “Korean Migos”—but Illionaire are always acknowledged as the source. The Korean hip-hop scene is surging as K-pop adopts more and more “legit” rappers and hip-hop culture gains mainstream visibility; over 3,000 people tried out for the latest season of Show Me the Money, a survival reality show for underground rappers. On that season, Illionaire’s co-CEOs Dok2 and The Quiett were mentors.
Illionaire Records (always pronounced “illin-aire”) was founded by Dok2 and The Quiett on January 1, 2011. Both founders are rappers and producers with distinct styles (Dok2 is the Dirty South guy; The Quiett likes soul and R&B) and long histories in the industry: Dok2 was sending rapper Cho PD his demos at age 12 and signed to his label at 13, and The Quiett established his first label, Soul Company, back in 2004. lllionaire’s wayward third member, Beenzino, had been in and out of various art-rap groups since 2009 before signing with Illionaire, who were already friends.
The Korean hip-hop scene exists both outside and next to the idol group market. It has its own important labels and its own stars and channels for music sharing and distribution; the labels are usually made up of artists who already knew each other, and they eschew the trainee system entirely. But the two industries are connected: All of the major hip-hop labels, including Illionaire Records, are all distributed by CJ E&M, the same corporation that distributes idol-focused labels like A Cube (home of APink) and TS Entertainment (home of Secret and formerly B.A.P). The term "underground" is applied in Korean hip-hop to indicate rappers who are not totally undiscovered, but who generally exist outside of both the major pop labels and the major hip-hop ones. Illionaire, for its small size, is a major player in Korean hip-hop now, and is not underground.
All three Illionaire artists are popular feature rappers for everyone from underground rappers to K-pop megastars like HyunA and Lee Hyori. On top of the nine albums of material he released between his debut in 2008 and the end of 2010, Dok2 alone has 83 non-Illionaire “featuring” credits on his Wikipedia page. The Quiett is well known as a producer. Beenzino hasn't been around as long as them, but he is extremely popular right now for his model looks and cool attitude. There's a joke that it's not a hip-hop show if Beenzino isn't on the lineup. But it’s Dok2’s association with Korean-American singer/rapper Jay Park that’s been the most profitable: The two have released six singles together starting from 2011’s “Abandoned”, resulting in a huge transfer of fan base attention to Dok2 and Illionaire both in Korea and overseas. Advance tickets to Illionaire shows sell out in minutes.
The three of them have different styles, strengths, and musical tastes, but when they come together—even just as guests on each others’ solo albums—they make trap magic. They also offer the image of a flashy lifestyle, something they openly acknowledge getting from American hip-hop. Rolex watches and German cars are staples of the Illionaire lifestyle and lyrics, and they regularly give away stacks of cash at shows. They once made a music video which was just Dok2 casually dropping $3,621.35 at Versace.
This conspicuous consumption is sometimes controversial in the Korean rap scene, especially among fans of more humble means; aren’t the rappers just showing off? Yet both CEOs have made it clear that they do not come from money but rather made it themselves, and their songs emphasize the importance of working to get money as much as the joys of having it. While their adoption of certain American hip-hop mannerisms can be clownish and always problematic, they rarely rap about anything they don’t know about, eschewing stuff like gun talk in favor of long spiels about different makes of Mercedes.
Here’s a brief tour through their immense discography. Tighten your snapback and get your Rollie on.
Dok2, “I’mma Shine (feat. Mr. Gordo)” (I’mma Shine, self-released, 2008)
Before he fully immersed himself in Southern rap, Dok2’s musical style was more similar to the median of Korean hip-hop of the time, a mix of West Coast gangsta rap and Korean popular music’s sentimental tendency. Early Dok2 is all skill—without the vocal stylizing he adopts once he’s built a persona.
The Quiett, “Be My Luv” (Quiet Storm: A Night Record, Soul Company, 2010)
This romantic jam is one of The Quiett’s most popular pre-Illionaire songs. Other than that, it’s notable for him singing more than he raps and because four years later weirdo rapper Black Nut used the beat for a romantic jam about Beenzino’s pubes.
Illionaire Records, “Illionaire Gang” (Illionaire Records, 2012)
Illionaire’s first group single, “Illionaire Way,” has a great soul beat with The Quiett written all over it, but it lacks the fire of “Illionaire Gang.” This single lays the groundwork for all subsequent group tracks, with its stuttering “A Milli”-esque hook and minimal hi-hat and bass.
The Quiett - “2 Chainz & Rollies (feat. Dok2)” (Illionaire Records, 2013)
This is the Illionaire manifesto, adapted from the Book of Wiz and recorded in Las Vegas on a thundering Prima Vista beat. The Quiett has said he intended this as a song anyone could enjoy without knowing the lyrics; in other words, the turn up truly knows no language or international border.
The Quiett, “AMBITIQN” (AMBITIQN, Illionaire Records, 2013)
The production is the most important aspect of a Quiett song, especially when he uses it to make his rapping sound better. The soul instrumental on “AMBITIQN” is classic, sleazy, and cool at the same time; it makes his otherwise monotone flow pop as it slips around and between the bouncing bass.
Dok2, “Hell Yeah” (Ruthless The Album, Illionaire Records, 2013)
This is prime Dok2: fluidly bilingual boasting, money talk, acknowledgement of his hustle, “young king young boss,” and a hook delivered with a drawl so calm it goes all the way back around to threatening—all on a Yammo beat that moves slowly and with menace.
Beenzino - “Dali, Van, Picasso” (Illionaire Records, 2013)
The Chet Baker sample recalls Beenzino’s pre-Illionaire groups, like Jazzyfact’s chill lounge-rap shined up with P’Skool’s retro vibe. Beenzino majored in sculpture at university, and mixing a modernist art sensibility with American street swag has always been his thing. On this track he compares himself to both Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian models and 2 Chainz, which are more refined choices than when he later compares sex to action painting.
Illionaire Records, “Rollie Up” (11:11, Illionaire Records, 2014)
“Rollie Up” has all of the same elements as “YGGR”—trilling snares, shimmery ringtone synths, deliberate pauses in flow—but arranged with a spareness that makes it float. Most of Illionaire’s album 11:11 is variations on this Mercedes night driving theme, but “Rollie Up” is the most breathtaking example.
Vasco, “Don (feat. The Quiett, Dok2, Genius Nochang)” (Just Music, 2014)
This is Vasco’s track, but Dok2 and The Quiett recently released a video for it (minus Vasco’s verse; see above) for the sole purpose of showing off their newest automobile purchases. Vasco and Nochang, both from shit-disturber label Just Music, originally wrote this to mimic Illionaire’s trap and turn up sound. Rather than take offense, Dok2 and The Quiett give the beat proper respect and bring out its ghoulish majesty.
Madeleine Lee wishes she could be Beenzino for just 10 minutes. Follow her on Twitter.