K-Pop and Hip Hop: Where Branches Leave The Tree

K-Pop has a complex relationship with Hip Hop. There is a whole spectrum of interaction between the K-Pop world, the hip hop world, and Korea’s own underground hip hop scene. There are stars like Jay Park who have entered the legitimate hip hop scene in Korea after making it as a K-Pop star, there are rappers turned idols as part of a group such as Bangtan Boys’ Rap Monster and Brown Eyed Girls’ Miryo, and there are Korean rap groups that get signed to K-Pop entertainment companies such as Epik High.

This not even to mention the plethora of hip hop influences in K-Pop proper’s music videos. Even from the beginning, the cinematography and dance choreography from Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Nan Arayo” way back in 1992 showcased deep American hip hop influence, drawing similarities with Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” and New Jack Swing. Aesthetically many groups adopt variations of modern urban styles in their wardrobes, such as in Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga”, or at least film in urban scenery much like hip hop videos from the 90s and early 2000s, such as Big Bang’s “Bad Boy”.

Taeyang has become an international celebrity. With “Ringa Linga”, he exhibits a huge hip hop aesthetic influence.

Despite these coincidences, Korea’s music scene vastly misappropriates hip hop culture in many instances, and yet parts of that same music scene adhere to the essence of hip hop. There is a healthy and rapidly growing underground for Korean hip hop, amidst K-Pop’s equally great efforts to stuff elements of the music and style into their videos to appeal to a wider audience.

A 1999 paper, written by Becky Blanchard for Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE), does an ample job of explaining the roots and reasons of classic hip hop. Titled The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture, the paper cites that rap comes from “a long-standing history of oral historians, lyrical fetishism and political advocacy.” It was a reminder to African Americans about their history and their identity. It is perhaps this, and another point the paper makes about hip hop today, that help illustrate the role of hip hop in K-Pop today, and it helps illuminate what K-Pop has seen fit to take, and what it has ignored, whether it could help it or not. Blanchard also writes that “The commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts, out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.”

From these two ideas, we can understand that Korea has been swayed by the heavily profitable and appealing side of commodified hip hop and rap. Videos with an intentional rap aesthetic often coincidentally fall into the ratchet aesthetic as well, usually exploited in videos such as CL’s “The Baddest Female.”

CL of 2NE1 debuted in 2013 as a solo artist with “The Baddest Female”, achieving an “all-kill” that is, hitting no. 1 on all major music charts in Korea.

This kind of usage of hip hop elements, especially when the primary motivator is not political advocacy but to display the wonders of monetary excess, draws heavy fire from critics of K-Pop. Seoul Beats published a piece by a guest contributor in 2012 about K-Pop’s disconnection with authentic Hip Hop culture. In it, the article describes, using a Big Bang live performance of their single “Bad Boy,” that Korea just doesn’t seem to understand the implications of the tropes and aesthetics they are adopting. Big Hit Entertainment’s relatively new hip hop idol group Bangtan Boys were recently the stars of a reality TV series where the young group goes to LA to be educated in hip hop. Noisey, a sub-website of Vice.com, published a piece by Blanca Mendez in August 2014 about the series, shedding light on the fact that one of Korea’s rising hip hop groups knows very little about the music they’re performing and the aesthetics they adopt.

The Bangtan Boys adopt many hip hop tropes such as making and spending money, abandoned urban backdrops and others as part of their success as one of Korea’s frontrunning new hip hop groups.

However, all of the examples I’ve quoted so far, BTS, CL and Big Bang, have achieved great success for the use of hip hop elements in their work. Korea has a great love for hip hop, and it shows as an equally healthy underground-turning-mainstream true-to-roots hip hop community is well established in Korea’s music scene. Hip Hop groups that have been active for around a decade now are beginning to get major record deals, but those deals don’t seem to be taking away from the authenticity of their work.

Epik High is one example of this. Widely known as a rap group, they are known to use different kinds of sounds in their work. Their single “Love Love Love” is electropop and is wildly different from “I Remember,” an R&B track from their first album which showcases their rapping acumen, and still are widely different from their most recent hit, “Born Hater.” Released under YG Entertainment, Epik High seems to have retreated to the safe space of a full rap culture image, but the video is really a testament to the underground hip hop culture of battling and dissing other rappers and haters. “Born Hater” isn’t exactly true to hip hop’s original intentions as mentioned in Blanchard’s paper (which one could attribute to its association with YG Entertainment), it still reflects the real rapper backgrounds of all the artists who collaborated on the record, rather than the use of rap as a fishing pole for appeal by idols who are packaged by their companies entirely.

A lyric video is the best way to illustrate “Born Hater”‘s showcasing of the rap talents of all of the artists in this video.

Unfortunately, upon even the slightest delving, it seems that K-Pop uses hip hop elements without the best of intentions, and all of this research now makes it uncomfortable for me to watch anything overtly related to classic hip hop in K-Pop videos, but the influence of hip hop in shaping the aesthetics of K-Pop is undeniable. No matter the reason, it is a fact that hip hop permeates almost every aspect of the K-Pop industry and it is a huge vehicle of its popularity today. Many 3rd generation K-Pop groups such as EXO, Bangtan Boys, BAP and others utilize the varying elements of modern hip hop to shape their aesthetics (in Bangtan Boys’ case, whether they actually understand it or not) and that has maximized their appeal as idols.


BAAAM (feat. Muzie of UV) – Dynamic Duo

I first heard “BAAAM” at Davis Dance Revolution 2014 when SoNE1 performed their medley of K-Pop hits, and that first impression is probably what leads me to continually put this track in that messy gray area between K-Pop and K-Hip Hop. On one hand, it was performed by a group of fans dedicated to dancing K-Pop hits, and the MV itself does feature dance routines. In fact the video itself is shot much like your average K-Pop video, with a signature blend of exposition shots, artist shots, and choreography shots.

On the other hand, Dynamic Duo, like Epik High, has been a hip hop group that’s been in the scene for a long time. Dynamic Duo have collaborated with many an artist on tracks, being featured and featuring others in the scene in turn. They have the facility, and the captioning in the video reveals that the images flow in an intertwined fashion, much like spoken word (which I imagine is much inspired from rap and the advocacy of hip hop), and is actually not something too common in other K-Pop videos.

Overall though, the fact that this is a gray area video, especially in the ways that I’ve described above, makes it all the more appealing. As written in the last entry on SNSD, it is the intentional (mis)use of Western ideas that give this video its uniquely Korean flavor. A lot can be said of the fact that Korea has adapted an American art form based on the rhythm and malleability of words, which marvelously lends itself to the plosive heavy Korean language. Korean syllables act as a secondary bass and snare drum set when Korean is rapped, and it is that which also makes Korean Hip Hop, whether it’s in the gray area or not, that much more fun to listen to.


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