One of the things that can be confusing or off-putting about K-Pop for Americans is that people will point to something that, to an American, is clearly not hip-hop music, and say, “That’s hip-hop.”
Part of the reason this happens is that idol groups are geared toward a younger audience while underground hip-hop is not, so saying a group is hip-hop can be a way of saying that they’re cooler and more sophisticated, and that, by extension, you as a fan have good taste and don’t just like them because you’re 12 and hormonal. People trying to make their idol group seem cool are typically also the people who, when it is pointed out that something is not actually hip-hop music, will insist that it is KOREAN hip-hop music. (No, it’s not.)
Because no 12-year-old is complete without a 15-year-old older sibling constantly berating them, the reverse happens as well: Sometimes a song sure sounds like hip-hop music, but certain people will insist that it isn’t really hip-hop–it just sounds that way. (The way music sounds sure can be misleading, can’t it? Confuses me all the time. Almost as much as the way paintings look.)
In addition, some of the time people know damned well that something isn’t hip-hop music–they don’t have a chip on their shoulder, they’re not ignorant, they’re not crazy, and they know it’s not actually hip-hop music. But they call it hip-hop anyway, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
What gives? Well, there’s a couple of terms in K-Pop that are helpful to know when trying to sort out what the fuck people are thinking when they say something that doesn’t sound like hip-hop music is, or that something that does sound like hip-hop music is not.
Term 1: Hip-hop concept
What is a “concept”? In K-Popspeak, a concept is basically a theme. Remember that K-Pop music is rarely released in a vacuum: Typically when a K-Pop group releases a title single, it comes with a video and elaborate choreography, complete with costumes, that is performed on TV shows.
It makes sense for all those things to have a common theme, right? This is the concept.
A concept can be something like the pirate theme of “Nallili Mambo,” or it can be musical in nature. For example, IU did a swing concept for her song “Red Shoes.”
The song is swing-y, the costumes are vintage-y, the choreography is Charleston-y–viola! A swing concept.
No one’s pretending that this is strictly historically accurate swing music or that IU is a hard-core swing artist–it’s just a concept.
In the States, we’re accustomed to performers periodically getting really inspired by a particular period or place, so it makes sense to us that someone might do music from another country or time period for one album, and then move on and not do it again.
But U.S. artists don’t usually do that with contemporary American genres like hip-hop. (It does happen–Ray Charles’ country album is a well-know exception–but it’s not common because it’s seen to interfere with a performer’s branding.)
In K-Pop, though:
Now, nobody thinks that 4Minute is a hip-hop group–they’re not. But they did a hip-hop concept song. They wore chains, they braided their hair, and the music’s a little more hip-hop than their usual thing. Their next concept may be completely different, and no one’s really going to care–no one’s going to feel like 4Minute has lost their identity as a hip-hop group or anything, because they never really were one to begin with, and everyone knows it.
You also get hip-hop concept groups, like GOT7 up there. Do they actually perform hip-hop? No. Do they feel a deep connection to the genre? No. But because they are a hip-hop concept group, they wear basketball jerseys and whatnot. They’re also very much a kid-friendly idol group, so what GOT7 does is unapologetic Hip-Hop Lite, geared to younger listeners and their (overprotective) parents.
So, what about groups that do feel a deep connection to the genre? That’s where you get the “hip-hop idol” category, which is where most people would put a group like BTS or Block B. They’re more of a hybrid between the idol model and the underground scene, so they tend to be a little more edgy and a little less kid-friendly: Some of their songs and videos are 19+, they curse on camera, and they have members who feel a very strong connection to hip-hop music–it’s not just about the clothes for them.
How can you tell if a group is just doing a hip-hop concept, or if they are really hip-hop idols? Hell if I know! I just listen to what I like and don’t listen to what I don’t like–honestly, I don’t have much tolerance for these kinds of debates, especially because they tend to really be about whether or not you think a group is cool.
What I do find interesting in all this is BAP. When they started out they did this rap/rock thing, then they got moved away from that, and people said, “Oh, it was just a hip-hop concept, and now they’re moving on.” But then they sued their label, and now they’re back doing music that sounds a lot like their original rap/rock sound. So I don’t think it really was just a concept for them–I think it was the kind of music they wanted to do. (Which makes them . . . hip-hop/rock idols? Honestly, I have no idea.)
Term 2: Idol rappers
An idol rapper is a rapper with an idol group. Period. It doesn’t mean they’re bad; it doesn’t mean they’re good. It just means that they’re with an idol group.
MNet, home of the Korean rap competition shows Show Me the Money and Unpretty Rapstar, loves to make a HUUUUGE deal out of the idol rapper thing. It’s boring, and I’m hoping that with failure of the second season of Unpretty Rapstar they will realize that the money they get paid from the labels to promote random idol rappers doesn’t make up for the opportunity cost of putting out a ton of flop songs.
But MNet is right about one thing: Idol rappers as a group are viewed as inferior to underground rappers as a group–and as a generalization, I’d say that’s true.
Why is this?
Typically a K-Pop label assembles an idol group from trainees. Those who can sing, become the singers. Those who can’t sing, become the rappers. You can get decent rappers this way–Bobby from Ikon won the third season of Show Me the Money. But in general, you get as idol rappers people who aren’t particularly interested in rap and who haven’t been rapping very long–hardly a recipe for quality.
The thing is, it’s not really important to a lot of these groups that the rappers be great. For example, I’ve read criticism of Baro of B1A4 made by people who certainly seem extremely knowledgable about rap, but my feeling is, Baro is perfect for that group’s music. Why the hell would you want a speed rapper jumping in and fucking up the smooth funk groove when you can have Barry White telling you to take off your panties?
Eminen would not improve this song.
So, why are underground rappers in general better? Korean hip-hop performances are much more pared down than idol group performances, and they are really, really focused on the rapping.
“Eureka,” underground style
“Eureka,” idol style
At the Show Me the Money concert I went to (as well as every fan cam of Korean hip-hop concerts I’ve ever seen), the performers sometimes danced around, there were colored lights, and someone took of his shirt (thank God!), but that was about it: There was no choreography, and the music wasn’t even that loud. Rapping was the star of the show.
Bad or even just mediocre rapping can’t hide in the underground hip-hop environment, so yeah, as a group underground rappers are better–they have to be, because rap is pretty much the only thing they’re being graded on. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all underground rappers are good, or that a given individual underground rapper is necessarily better than a given individual idol rapper, or that someone is a top-quality rapper just because they were an underground rapper before they joined an idol group. The underground thing can get a little fetish-y (and more than a little hipster-y) as well.