Recently an underground rapper named B Free dressed down some members of BTS for being too idol-y. There’s a good post (which turned into a series of posts) about it here, and another commentator took the opportunity to express their annoyance at how what could be a robust debate in the Korean hip-hop community about how to commercialize this music is instead just a bunch of idiotic whining and name-calling, more often than not aimed at those evil, worthless female listeners.
I agree is that a discussion about the commercialization of hip-hop in Korea would be a nice one to have if only the people instigating it were a little less vapid. I mean, B Free’s criticism of BTS is–what? You’re not really hip-hop if you take off your shirt?
Real hip-hop artists have no interest in appealing sexually to women or to men. They just have sensitive skin and get rashes easily! Note the tragic prevalence of jock itch!
I’ve been listening to American hip-hop for 30 years (shut up), and I feel that it has gotten less interesting as it’s gotten more commercial because the lyrics have become increasingly similar. In the early 2000s everyone not only started using the same slang terms (“boo,” “flossing”) but also started using the exact same phrases to describe things that could be described many different ways (“Now I can breathe again” to describe sexual release). Most annoying was the whole Ghetto Fabulous thing, which involved naming off a list of brands of items that the person owned. Everyone rather amazingly owned the exact same things–nobody had the creativity to pretend to own even a slightly different brand of fancy car (and forget about really radical ideas, like not rapping about your goddam boring car in the first place).
Ghetto Fabulosity is pretty much gone, but the habit of sticking with tried-and-true lyrics has unfortunately remained. There are many American hip-hop artists I can’t even listen to, because two seconds into one of their songs, I know exactly what they are going to say, and worse yet, exactly how they are going to say it. Commercialization in America = homogenization: A formula works once, so it gets reused and reused and reused until everybody wants to vomit. The quality of lyrics in American hip-hop is bad enough that there’s a woman in my Korean class who is afraid that, if she becomes proficient, she will no longer be able to enjoy Korean hip-hop because she will be able to understand what they’re saying, and in her mind, there’s no way this could possibly be a good thing.
But what I find potentially most troubling about the commercialization of Korean hip-hop is the way the mainstream commercial K-Pop industry operates: It’s a system that very much degenerates the performers, and it is a system in which the artists have little to no creative control.
Personally, I love what BTS is doing–O! R U L8 2? is a great album in my book. But my question is, how long will they be allowed to do it? How long before their corporate overlords decide that they must go the way of B.A.P.? How long before their label decides to dump half the group’s members? Are the BTS kids (who are for the most part teenagers) really in a position to stop these sorts of things from happening?
It also bothers me to see a hip-hop label at least appear to treat a group the way a K-Pop label would. Rhythm Power used to do stuff like this:
And now they’re doing stuff like this:
Now, I could definitely see toning down the whole fake-porn-movie thing, but “Bond Girl” is simply not a Rhythm Power song–Rhythm Power is singing backup to Zion T on a Primary song. I like both Primary and Zion T, and they go great together, but that doesn’t mean I want every single group coming out of Amoeba Culture to have the exact same sound.
I think it’s extremely likely Korean hip-hop will become more commercial, if only because more non-Korean hip-hop fans are discovering it thanks to YouTube and the like. And I love an awful lot of it, so it makes me happy to think that the people who make Korean hip-hop would actually be able to pay the bills that way.
But even though I hope that Korean hip-hop becomes more successful, the very last thing I want is for it to become a clone of the K-Pop industry. Superficial boneheads like B Free can fret about hip-hop artists doing idol-y things like wearing makeup and flashing abs; I worry about them having idol-y things done to them: Are they getting ripped off? Are they being worked to death? Can they do side projects? Can they pick the songs they perform? Are they forced to undergo cosmetic surgery? Do they have adequate protection against psycho fans? Are they afforded the basic liberties granted workers in democratic countries–are they free to live where they want and date who they want?
Or are they basically indentured servants, to be used and then disposed of as their masters see fit?