Hip-Hop Don’t Stop, Korean Style

Our K-pop fever has extended to include Korean hip-hop too, as a fan guides us through his favourites.
10 August 2018, 10:30am
Member of the band Big Bang, G-DRAGON and T.O.P collaborated on a hip-hop album in 2010, which turned out to be the fifth best-selling album that year in South Korea. Image Courtesy: YG Entertainment/Flickr.

We're getting very up close and personal with the love for Korean pop music love in India, and its surrounding industry. Let super fans power your soundtrack, tell you how to talk and walk K-pop style, in the best that K-pop fashion has to offer. Read more here.

The angsty yet inclusive cultural movement of hip-hop first popped up in Korea around the late 1980s. The 1988 Seoul Olympics paved the way for global genres to penetrate the Korean market. Hong Seo-beom’s 1989 song ‘Kim Sat-gat’ is considered to be the pioneering track that used rap elements in what we now identify as a catchy K-pop style. It sparked the revolution of ‘rap dance’, founding Korean hip-hop that eventually evolved around the late 1990s thanks to people like Drunken Tiger, Epik High, and rap duo Jinusean. While Korean hip-hop was largely influenced by its western origins, it became inventive around 2001. Artists like Verbal Jint, who were independent of any commercial labels and made up the underground scene, overcame the challenges of following Korean language grammatical structures and crossed over into the mainstream by experimenting with rhyme in rap. This provided an alternative approach to the label-controlled idols we love, like BTS, and has given the industry a chance to get candid about issues that affect them. It has also given rise to an interesting intersection of western culture with a distinct Asian heritage, as other regions like Indonesia, Hong Kong and China followed suit adding their own perspectives taking Asian hip-hop to the next level.

Today Korean hip-hop is loved worldwide for its smooth beats, eclectic instrumentation, and dazzling visuals that convey their east-meets-street approach. It’s also blown up into reality rap battle shows like Show Me The Money and has fine tuned its extensions like break dancing or b-boying along with distinct street style fashion statements. Even women like CL and Yoon Mi Rae are noted for being powerful, real and inspiring with a zero-fucks-given attitude in their music and performances, eschewing the cookie-cutter image of K-pop cuteness.

Under the influence of Korean hip-hop, Erik K Debbarma, a 22-year-old MBA student from Tripura, gives us the lowdown of what the extended scene is like in India.

VICE: How did you discover Korean hip-hop?
Erik K Debbarma: Being from the north-east [India], I was always connected to Asian culture, but like most Korean hip-hop fans in India, my loyalty began with my craze for K-pop. I was about 16, and I had been following the genre for three years. By then I was aware about the concept of the Big 3, basically the most powerful music labels in Korea. YG Entertainment was one of these, and I got my first taste of Korean hip-hop through the rap lyrics that this agency’s idols would use in their K-pop songs. I then dug deeper and discovered the rap reality series Show Me The Money on Youtube, which was steadily emerging as the biggest platform for underground Korean rappers to express themselves. This show brought me great insight and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Erik K Debbarma at the 2014 K-pop singing contest organised by the Korean Consulate. He rapped. And didn't get selected.

What do you relate to in particular?
I appreciate how authentic it is, that there is no superficiality. Korean hip-hop artists have brave and open personalities which are easier to identify with than their K-pop counterparts. There have been female artists like Jessi from the show Unpretty Rapstars whose couldn’t-care-less attitude is so honest. Even the topics they discuss seem more serious and genuine, although they are also interpreted as controversial.

What kind of topics?
These subjects are often provocative or sexual in nature. Like most global hip-hop artists, they rap about sex, drugs, cars and money. The underground scene even includes exclusive parties with drugs and drinking which they visually depict in a subtle manner through double meanings and symbols in their videos. They constantly use rhymes and puns. They also have a more sensitive side where they open up about their journey and struggle to make it big in an industry that favours a more commercial sound.

How different is it from its western counterpart?
It’s definitely very influenced. They usually follow similar tunes and themes but in their own language. But Korean artists avoid using a lot of specific slang, something that is distinct in the US, as there are multiple Korean dialects and it becomes difficult to convey the meaning of what they are trying to say. Their focus is to make it relatable for the audience, despite often stirring up controversy in a slightly more conservative society.

What’s been the biggest controversy in Korean hip-hop so far?
Rapper Song Min-ho from the group Winner sparked controversy when he rapped the line ‘Girls spread their legs like they do at the gynaecologist,’ on Show Me The Money. This offended many women and most of Korea’s healthcare system. Eventually, everyone from the artist to the record label had to apologise. It just goes to show how outspoken these songs can be [and how conservative the society is].

What are the most popular Korean hip-hop style trends?
Being more hardcore in nature, it explores a darker side even in fashion. The artists often braid or shave their hair, have tattoos, wear baggy hoodies. While they don’t exactly get dolled up like K-pop idols, they still choose colourful urbanwear options to improve their overall aesthetic and to appease their audience.

Has being a fan of Korean hip-hop changed you in any way?
One of the biggest things it has done for me is open me up to optimism and challenge. When I shifted from Tripura in the north-east to Pune [in the west] to take up an MBA course at Symbiosis, I had to face a lot of racist backlash about listening to Korean hip-hop. But at the end of the day, it was this music and its motivating lyrics that pushed me to pursue my higher studies. It even became an important source of reassurance for me when I felt low or worthless, and made me confident enough to stop being bothered about what other people thought. It has also helped me connect to a lot of like-minded fans through Whatsapp chat groups, making me feel like a part of something greater while giving me a platform to discuss any problems in my life.

How do Indians feel about Korean hip-hop?
It’s often seen as controversial in India, but there is also a growing scope for it. While some parts of Indian society remain conservative, many are opening up to the idea of an Asian-based hip-hop channels, as they are about deeper issues. Subjects in popular Bollywood music mostly revolve around love, but Korean hip-hop explores topics like poverty and how difficult it is to break through the barrier of success.
But I think more and more Indians are recognising it as relatable now. In 2014 when I participated in a K-pop singing contest organised by the Korean Consulate, I wanted to do a rap song but wasn’t selected. Now they are more okay with these things. I also think that people listening to it through Youtube now have more access, which otherwise may be controlled by censorship in Korean broadcasting channels.

What do you think is the future of Korean hip-hop?
Unfortunately, I sense a pattern of regression in this genre. Earlier, it used to be more unique and meaningful, but now there is a greater insecurity to compete with K-pop. This has made it more about the masses than about standing out. The sound is becoming a bit generic.
But I am hopeful that it will evolve to keep up with the times as we enter an age of electronic music and trap. It is only a matter of time before Korean hip-hop establishes a fresh and unique footing for itself in the industry.