As Asian media behemoth CJ E&M takes ownership of a second Korean Hip-Hop label within only a matter of months many eyebrows across our fandom furiously furrow. On the 6th of January the company announced they had “acquired AOMG, today’s trendiest hip-hop label.” The wording of the statement is unlikely to have gone down too well with Jun Sang Hyun , A.K.A Paloalto , founder of legendary label Hi-lite Records who also merged his own label with the company months earlier.
A naive outsider might expect international fans to be excited at the prospect of increased tour budgets , shinee’er (pun intended) videos and generally seeing artistry played out on a grander scale but i assure you this isn’t the case. Responses on SNS have ranged from “why’s Jay doing this, AOMG don’t need anyone’s help” to pre-empted rage at the idea of Okasian transforming into a dance routine hammering , shiny suit wearing , Girls Generation collaborating ghost of his former self.
Owing to this Korean Hip Hop begins 2016 in somewhat new territory. CJ E&M arn’t the only ones throwing cash at the scene. Even YG have funded Teddy and Kush to begin an independant label under their umbrella. Sure , major labels have exhibited confidence in the culture’s ability to sell units , but never has so much capital been injected into so many underground brands in such a short period. To many hardened KHH fans this signifies the encroachment of corporate Korea into sacred lands. But to me this indicates the dawn of an exciting new era.
Whilst interviewing the owner of Cult of Ya , Hoon Gold for a documentary on the history of Korean Hip Hop the topic of “The Beef” as i like to call it came up. The L.A boy boasts responsibility for bringing a host of artists to the EU for a set of sold out shows spanning several countries including B-free , Okasian , Paloalto , Dok2 & The Quiett and even Kieth Ape’s muse Og Maco. As we sat in the avant gaurde West London Office, with rare British sunlight peeping through the windows, the immaculate fashion designer slash promoter appeared as if having just stepped off set. Covered in fresh to def attire from his own clothing brand, Hoon settled in his chair awaiting my first question.
“Hip hop in Korea is entering the mainstream and i can tell that just by looking at all the clubs and the events. Show’s like Show Me the Money are popular but they’re polarizing. The average fans just listen to whatever appeals to them but the industry don’t see it like that. The underground artists grinded from the bottom upwards. They had to hand out their CD’s and hustle it to get to where they are now. The idol artists are the result of having huge funds poured into them There’s a difference between the way that fans see these artists and the way these artists themselves see the whole hip hop scene. If you listen to Pop artists they’re lyrical content doesn’t have a message. They seem really, petty, you know first world problems.” When Exo’s wolf drops ‘I feel the sensation; I feel it at once. I’ll take you in one mouthful like cheese’ one can see why idol’s lyrical prowess isnt always what they’re remembered for.
For as long as this generation of fans can remember , artists rapping in Hangul have been split starkly into two categories. Idols , characterized by squeaky clean raps , served on a bed of over produced instrumentals and a hot side of coordinated choreography. A legitimate criticism of these type of rappers is that they only started barring when some “INSERT LEAST FAVORITE MAJOR LABEL HERE” big wig told them to. Their role was simply to create the illusion of ‘edginess’ by mimicking the attitude and attire of the populist genre , often without understanding of the mask they wore clumsily. That being said genuine talents have emerged from the school most notably B-Block’s Zico. In the other camp you have your underground rappers. It’s important to understand that in this context underground means non major label manufactured more than anything else. The soundcloud grinding , Haeundae Beach battling backbone of the musical revolution. They dress , eat and breath this shit for real. Applying the strong Korean work ethic they strive in pursuit of the rags to riches tale told by many of their American heroes. Preferring a hooded swagger to hip grinding choreography the true flag bearers have long been overlooked in favour of more polished , better funded Pop stars.
This clash of tribes was well exemplified by B-free’s robust challenging of BTS. Sure that won him an onslaught of abuse from the Bangtang die hards but he prompted an important conversation. Is the nucleus of Korean Hip Hop really best viewed on Mnet and the like? Though the answer seems obvious , for many International K-pop fans this was the first time they’d been made aware that there was a whole class of rappers outside of glossy Idol Land.
Whilst the hostility across the divide is rabid and unrelenting at times it has has been born out of clear rationality. When a whole generation watches Epic High abandon everything that solidified their slot as pioneers only to churn out disposable, ringtone rap , many fans appalled , said screw the majors. Not to forget witnessing Tiger JK surf in and out of exploitative contracts and eventually forced to accept helping hands from artists they musically burped. Again many fans said screw the labels. But to be continually dazzled by these real injustices only blinds us to the changes in musical consumption happening all around us.
But soon our conversation flowed on into the rapidly changing views of Hip Hop by corporate Korea. “Hip Hop is becoming commercialized in idol culture. They’re realizing it sells , It goes hand in hand with culture and fashion and sometimes idols are being told to rap just for that reason. It’s similar to what some pop artists are doing out here to cash in on the popularity of EDM and the festival scene. For the next few years Hip Hop is going to be in the Korean mainstream for sure.The manufactured hip hop sounds are going to have to grow up though. When you have a look at Ken Rebel and The Cohort‘s collaborations Underwater Rebels that content looked so fresh and so different. Alot of hip-hop from the far east is really influenced by what’s happening out here but we’re all gonna mature out of this and find something more unique.
His point is extremely valid. How long could G-Dragon pass as an authentic voice for the scene with Dok2 and swings looming in the charts. It’s reminiscent of when Will Smith’s brand of sickeningly straight edged rap become redundant in the early – mid 2000’s. He tried to make a come back with a lame family friendly dance number called ‘Switch’ the same year 50 Cent dropped ‘Get rich or die trying.’ We didn’t care because our expectations and understanding of what a rapper was had evolved to be closer in line with that of the underground. Needless to say he was dropped by his record label like a sack of big eared potatoes as diluted rap was no longer required for a millennial mainstream audience.
There are cultural forces however that challenge rawer Hip Hop becoming as prominent as it is in the Western mainstream. With Confucianist ideals running strongly through the veins of Korean society there has been understandable discomfort about the nature of some content. Fortunately the internet offers a way for fans to access music away from those it may offend. Theoretically this allows the scene to avoid the whole public N.W.A CD destroying phase that we experienced in the West during Hip Hop’s early years.
“Censorship doesn’t even matter Hoon sais” I mean E-sens has his issues so he came to the EU to record an album. Now days artists will find a way. Its not like when hip hop exploded in the states in the 80’s and 90’s and tele and radio were the gatekeepers. Monmae got banned from tele and still charted, right?”
When i was a kid and my evening’s were spent bootlegging music from the radio, i always wondered why Sony owned a record label but manufactured blank cassettes. It seemed so counter intuitive to my 9 year old mind. Eventually i grasped they understood that music piracy was inevitable and missing revenue wouldn’t benefit anyone but their rivals. Is it time for fans to view the situation for what it truly is. Labels aren’t throwing money at the Underground because they wish to alter it beyond recognition, it’s because if they don’t start paying attention to what’s swelling beneath their feet they’re at risk of becoming bystanders. Jay Park & Paloalto are in a position of power rarely held by artists. They can legitimately demand “ Work with us in a respectful fashion or we’ll carry on getting money without you “ CJ E&M have very little to gain from tinkering with winning formulas. If their treatment of Illionaire Records is anything to go by , they understand that candying up an already respected hip hop brand will compromise credibility and therefore profitability. Simultaneously Idols and their creators are being forced to reconsider what an Idol rapper sounds like due to the audiences increased awareness of the real deal. As the interview came to a close , Hoon casually threw an interesting prediction in the air. “Despite what people think i feel the tension between Idol and Underground is gonna get better. I personally think that we should all grow out of it. If you have a look Hip Hop wars used to be between factions , East Coast Vs West Coast and that bowled over in the 90’s. I’m just about good music and that’s what i think fans should concentrate on.” KHH fans would do well to remember that in the nation of the Mothership the likes of Universal have no issues simultaneously having The Game & Taylor Swift on their roster. Hip Hop globally prides itself on being rebellious so maybe i shouldn’t be so shocked at the reluctance to let go an outsider status. But if being honest the ground has been left supple by the steps of the Idols many have grown to resent. The only smart response is to exploit the groundwork of your rivals. As i blaze J-Hope’s 1 Verse for the 6th time consecutively the divide seems ever more arbitrary. The Great Idol Wall has it’s days numbers and CJ E&M just started the countdown. 10,9………..