May 30, 2016
For those of you who prefer Korean variety shows and reality programmes to their drama counterparts, the recent rise of “survival” type-shows such as Show Me The Money and Unpretty Rapstar are evident that Korean Rap music might soon be at the helm of the hallyu wave. While American/Western music have largely dominated our understanding of rap and hip hop, there’s no denying that these Korean artists put an interesting spin on the genre, drawing influence from their various backgrounds and Korean culture (this list is by no means exhaustive).
Practically a household name, Epik High – consisting of Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz – are no strangers to the hip hop scene of South Korea. Classified as alternative hip hop artists, they’re known for combining various styles of the genre and for collaborating with different artists for each of their albums. As a result, the group has a sound that’s distinct, yet refreshing with each new release. With careers spanning eight full-length studio albums, Epik High’s music tackle everything from heartbreak and insecurities to being self-aware about their status near the top of the hip hop pyramid. Their recent releases such as “Born Hater” are testament to their ability to keep things lighthearted with addictive beats, while simultaneously delivering just enough arrogance to keep you rooting for them.
Oh yeah, and they were also the first Korean Hip Hop act to perform at Coachella this year. No biggie.
Currently positioned as the leader of K-pop group Block B, Zico is one of those rare “idol” rappers who have grown to be respected in both the mainstream and underground rap scenes. This is largely owing to the fact that he was active in the underground scene himself, even extending his activities to the underground rap scene of Japan. In recent years, Zico has also risen to prominence for his abilities as a producer, having also been a guest producer on the rap-survival show “Unpretty Rapstar”. His sound is typically a little more mainstream with club-banger type songs such as “Eureka”, but he’s also been taking on slower, more R&B-influenced songs such as “너는 나 나는 너” or “I Am You, You Are Me”. His influence in Block B’s sound has also been evident, as the group has recently switched out their badass, rock-inspired image for more melodious, moody tracks.
28 year-old rapper Beenzino has seen a steady rise to fame ever since his debut in 2009. While he started out being more active under the group Jazzyfact, which consists of Beenzino himself and producer Shimmy Twice, his solo releases garnered much attention from both critics and fans alike, with his slightly husky voice giving his songs a signature sound. His laid-back demeanour and humble beginnings – he was discovered through a song he posted on a hip hop website – have also earned him a good reputation and have positioned him as a highly sought-after artist to collaborate with. In fact, there’s even a joke that it’s not a hip hop show if Beenzino isn’t in the lineup. Currently under Illionaire Records, the famed independent rap label formed by rappers Dok2 and The Quiett, Beenzino has definitely grown to be one of the poster boys of the K-Hip Hop scene. He certainly has the face for it too.
Slowing things down with a group that’s known for their mellow tracks, rappers Lil Boy and Louie, who perform under the name Geeks, are probably best known for their remake of the R&B hit “Officially Missing You” by Canadian singer Tamia. But as popular as their covers are, Geeks’ original tracks have also seen a huge amount of popularity and love, and for good reason. Their collaboration with Korean-American soloist Ailee – a rap ballad entitled “Wash Away” – is bittersweet and moving: Geeks’ softer, slightly more restrained tones complement Ailee’s powerful vocals perfectly. If the world of rap and hip hop tends to be overshadowed by diss tracks and feuds between various artists, the sound of Geeks is your safety blanket. It’s time to get cozy.
Of course MFBTY (My Fans are Better Than Yours) is on this list. Drunken Tiger/Tiger JK, Yoon Mi-Rae and Bizzy are each forces of nature within the rap scene, so you can be sure that, as a collective, the group is not to be messed with. Tiger JK has even been called the “godfather of Korean rap”, and his wife Yoon Mi-Rae is one of the most well-known and highly regarded female rappers of Korean hip hop. As the daughter of a South Korean mother and an African-American father, Yoon Mi-Rae has also broken new ground as an artist of mixed heritage in a largely homogenous society. In terms of sound and style, it’s impossible to determine what MFBTY haven’t covered and/or drawn influence from. Their latest tracks such as “Bang Diggy Bang Bang” have showcased a unique blend of Indian instruments and modern beats, while earlier songs such as “Angel” and “Sweet Dream” rely a little more heavily on R&B but are nevertheless given the unique MFBTY treatment. As giants in the rap/hip hop – and by extension, music – industry, you definitely have to keep your eyes (and ears) on MFBTY.
While he’s definitely a lot younger than the others on this list, Kim Namjoon a.k.a. Rap Monster’s passion for rap and his past activities in Korea’s underground rap scene have made him a formidable contender in the music industry. As the leader of 방탄소년단 a.k.a. BTS – a group whose status as “hip hop idols” who largely write and produce their own music have earned them worldwide acclaim – Rap Monster is undeniably a rising star. The release of “RM”, his first mixtape, sees him breaking out of the shiny, sugar-coated image that is typically expected of K-pop idols. “RM” explores Rap Monster’s insecurities and strengths, resulting in tracks which range from raw and emotional to exuding a rockstar, IDGAF-attitude. In some ways, the multiple styles of rap music explored in the mixtape are emblematic of Rap Monster’s continuing journey of finding his own voice in the rap world, and we can’t say we don’t want to hear more.
Featured Image: MFBTY – 부끄부끄 (BuckuBucku) MV