Lately the hottest trend in Korea is definitely hip hop. In the music charts, television shows and everywhere we can find hip hop artists and can hear hip hop music very often in our daily lives. But since it has spread throughout Korea so fast, there are still many people who misunderstand real hip hop culture. So, The Inha Times has decided to interview Il-Kwon Kang, the Editor in Chief of Rhythmer, one of the biggest hip hop magazines in Korea.
|Il-Kwon Kang, the Editor in Chief of Rhythmer|
The Inha Times (IT): When hip hop was born, what was it like?
Kang Il-Kwon: Actually, hip hop music was created by DJs, though they were not as powerful as they are in the current hip hop scene. Among all DJs, DJ KoolHerc is definitely the ‘godfather of hip hop’. I need to explain one word first: ‘break’. ‘Break’ is rhythm and melody without vocals. While DJ KoolHerc played music at parties, he just repeated break over and over, which people enjoyed very much. Later, as rappers were added into that kind of musical ‘playing’, it became a totally new genre. Sylvia Robinson found some rappers and composed Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, repeating the base part of ‘Good Times’ by Chic. So basically, hip hop music didn’t require any professional knowledge of music like harmonies or chords. In other words, everyone could make hip hop music if s/he wanted to. But so many people misunderstood this point. They think hip hop was made by poor black people who didn’t have enough money to buy any musical equipment. But no, that’s perfectly wrong especially the causal relationship between hip hop and black people. Even DJ KoolHerc wasn’t poor, nor was Sylvia Robinson. It is an incorrect assumption that poor black people created hip hop.
IT: As hip hop has become popular all over Korea, some new terms were created and gained popularity such as ‘ballad rap’ and ‘emotional hip hop’. But original hip hop fans seem to hate those who do ballad rap or emotional hip hop. How do you think about it?
Kang Il-Kwon: First I don’t even know who coined the term, ‘emotional hip hop’. I think it’s a term used for marketing purposes. In contrast, ballad rap has been used by many music critics like me. Anyway, usually the lyrics of ballad rap are about love, which is quite common in the hip hop scene. But the reason that those who perform ballad rap or emotional hip hop in Korea are criticised is, the level of maturity of their music is definitely low which can’t inspire any hip hop fans. But still, ballad rap and emotional hip hop are hip hop, if those who create that kind of music say it is. When we talk about those rappers we cannot help mentioning ‘wack MC’. That term was widely used in the States in the ‘90s. It doesn’t mean a rapper whose rap skills are bad. It refers to a rapper who does ‘non-hip hop’ things while saying hip hop stuff like a real hip-hopper. In Korea there are some wack MCs who make low-quality music, especially in the form of ballad rap, but keep saying their life is ‘hip hop’. I think they are just wack not ballad rap itself.
IT: When we talk about hip hop in Korea we can’t but mention a very famous and controversial television programme called Show Me the Money. What do you think about it? Could you tell us about some of its positive/negative impacts?
Kang Il-Kwon: I’ve been always negative about that programme for several reasons. First, it gives the wrong information about hip hop to people while its producers keep saying they make that programme for hip hop. For example, ‘diss (disrespect) rap’ is not a part of hip hop culture. Rap battles, instead, are part of hip hop. Second, it exaggerates some rappers’ careers whose music has never been credited in the hip hop scene. Third it makes people have wrong perceptions about the relation between hip hop and the weak in our society, and misogyny which is very serious. And last, it pollutes the whole ecosystem of hiphop. In the face of all the negative effects that it has had on the hiphop scene here, its producers keep defending themselves by saying it’s all for ‘the popularisation of hip hop in Korea’. I also want to ask them, “Does hip hop beyond the programme ‘Show Me The Money’ get popularised as well?” I think it doesn’t at all. I’d rather say that hip hop was already popularised in Korea in the 1990’s when Seo Ta-ji and Boys and DEUX were hot in the Korean music scene. At that time, there was even a trend among idol groups to write lyrics that criticised society. Also, after that period, Drunken Tiger, Epik High, Leessang, and Dynamic Duo got so popular that their new songs were always at the top of the music charts. Without any hip hop programmes or provocative marketing, hip hop was still popularised. But how about that programme (SMTM)? Is there anyone looking for the music of other rappers who didn’t appear in that show? Nobody. And the worst thing is, there are some rappers who get popularity regardless of their rap skills or music. Once those rappers cause some controversy, all the viewers remember is that controversy, which doesn’t have anything to do with the popularisation of hip hop. But if those producers are going to continue that programme we can’t criticise their will. However, should at least known the right information about hip hop.
IT: Recently, some people criticised rappers who don’t make any tracks against the government, saying ‘Why don’t you guys get mad at the political conditions of right now instead of getting mad at some pointless stuff?’. What do you think of this situation?
Kang Il-Kwon: I think those who criticise rappers without exact information about hip hop, hip hop artists themselves, and some hip hop fans are responsible for this situation. But the artists should take the most responsibility for it. Okay, first there’s a huge difference between the States and Korea. In the States racial discrimination is still a serious problem in their society, as still so many black people are killed by the whites. So in the States there’s a rather low probability of not including political lyrics. Not because American rappers mean to write those lyrics, but because it’s their daily life, the discrimination. In other words not as hip hop musicians, but as black people they get mad and write those kind of lyrics naturally. Of course there are some groups like Public Enemy in the states who do political rap (belonging to conscious rap) too, but basically they don’t have any special intention to criticise their environment or country. But in Korea there’s actually no serious discrimination like in America (yeah, right!). So it’s quite uncommon for Korean rappers to write those kind of lyrics. Some people criticising Korean rappers should know that difference first. However, was there no Korean rapper who wrote some lyrics against society? Of course there has been. Many hip hop musicians like ChoPD and Seo Ta-ji and Boys became popular for their lyrics. And there’s no need for rappers to fill the whole of their lyrics with criticism. They can just express their anger or say whatever they want about society even with one line. It’s all up to the rappers’ will and ability as a hip hop musicians. Korean hip hop artists should think of it and feel ashamed to be silent even in this disaster-like situation in Korea for that reason. Last some hip hop fans have responsibility for it too, as I mentioned. They used to criticise rappers who make anti-social or critical songs, calling those rappers left-wingers. Of course, hip hop musicians should not care about that kind of criticism, as it can negatively affects their creativity.
IT: Many people relate drugs to hip hop. What do you think about it?
Kang Il-Kwon: Drugs and hip hop are closely related, I agree. But it’s not right to think all hip hop musicians abuse illegal drugs. There’s a difference when it comes to the level of drugs, used in lyrics between the States and Korea again. In the States, rappers’ drugs include cocaine and philopon. Cocaine is so expensive that only rich people can buy it (really?). So it’s one of typical symbols of wealth. So many rappers use it in their swag lyrics or gangster-fantasy lyrics.
IT: Could you give any advice to aspiring rappers?
Kang Il-Kwon: Study hard. If you are dreaming of doing hip hop things as a hip hop musician you should know about it exactly by studying. Many American hip hop artists say the same thing as well. Hip hop wasn’t born in Korea. It’s originally American culture, especially black culture. That’s why we need to study it. Study hard!
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