Musing On Music #3

by Hannah Weiss

Pictured: Drunken Tiger

Hip-hop in Asia – appreciation or appropriation?

When we think of Hip-hop, we think of the place it began. In Southern Bronx in the 1970s, at house parties where DJs like Kool Herc, often acclaimed as the godfather of Hip-hop, would give rhyming speeches known as ‘toasting’ over funk beats. This proto-rapping can arguably be traced back to the oral tradition of the Griots in West Africa. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang released the epic 14 minute track Rappers Delight. It became the fastest-selling 12 inch single ever released, with up to 60,000 copies shifted each day as the infectious beats of its disco-based backing track and spontaneous, relevant rhymes of the rappers caught America’s attention. Rap music was initially dismissed as a passing fad, but MCs and DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC and Afrika Bambaataa led the way in establishing hip hop as a new cultural movement that used music to give the kids of rundown, poverty-stricken Bronx a voice and mode of rebellion.

Hip-hop has since swept the globe, but initially it can be hard to understand how rappers in Tokyo can identify with music made largely by and for African Americans. Hip-hop first came to Japan with the 1983 release of the film Wild Style, which documented the B-Boys and MCs of the Bronx. Japan has since become a cultural hub for breakdance and hip hop heads in Tokyo sport streetwear by Chief Rocka and Obey. As Hip-hop has become globalised, it transmutes itself as different cultures identify with the movement in their own ways. In a nation where the importance of hard work is highly valued, Japanese B-Boys gather in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park and the Namba district of Osaka to train long and hard to become some of the best in the world. In a homogenous culture where standing out from the crowd is widely discouraged, Hip-hop style has become a youth identifier and a way to express one’s individuality. 90s-era MCs such as Buddha Brand and King Giddra led the way for Tokyo-based rappers like Issugi From Monju and Kohh and The Riverside Mobb to reveal a different side to cool Japan – the poverty and gang violence ignored by mainstream media.

In South Korea, Hip-hop has found mainstream appeal, yet arguably at the expense of its authenticity. It is commonplace for cookie-cutter K-Pop groups to have one member who raps the bridge of their bubble-gum pop songs – possibly the farthest thing imaginable from Hip-hop’s origins. It becomes stranger still when K-Pop bands go further to brand themselves with a Hip-hop-esque image deemed rebellious and cool. Too often African American hairstyles such as cornrows will be appropriated by boy bands aiming for the bad boy image, donning gold chains and bandannas. They might include graphic fight scenes in their music videos, or have their female back-up dancers do some twerking. To be clear – this is not Hip-hop. This is a jumbled rehash of sounds and images seen through the eyes of a culture that has no connection with the original MCs of the Bronx, and appropriated by artists who lack any understanding of the cultural roots behind the dreads they wear.

Genuine Hip-hop has found its way to Seoul. In 1999 Korean-American rap crew Drunken Tiger released their first album Year Of The Tiger which made waves by foregoing K-Pop norms, with its anti-establishment ethos and explicit lyrics. One half of the duo, Tiger JK, later teamed up to form the crew MFBTY with Yoon Mi-Rae, a biracial African-American-Korean artist who has become South Korea’s most eminent female rapper, known for her lyrics detailing the racial discrimination she received growing up as a mixed-race child in homogeneous Korea.

Currently making waves are Illionaire, a collective formed of rappers The Quiett, Dok2 and Beenzino who have found independent success by co-founding their own label and cutting out the entertainment agency conglomerates that control most of Seoul’s music industry. Without the middlemen, the Illionaire rappers pursue an American dream unfamiliar to a country where cooperate deference is valued over independence. In a similar move, rapper Jay Park founded AOMG records after being kicked out of boy band 2pm. He and labelmates and recent acquisitions Gray and Loco enjoy complete control over their music and earnings. Epik High have been active for 16 years and released multiple albums. They have inflamed both the conservative mainstream with lyrics attacking Korea’s mandatory military service and the grind of its corporate culture while simultaneously alienating the underground scene by infusing Hip-hop with elements of soul, rock, pop and electronic music. Epik High are impossible to categorise but one thing the collective – made up of rappers Tablo and Mithra Jin and DJ /producer Tukutz – have always stood by is their unswerving defiance of convention.

Seoul’s version of Hip-hop is a strange combination of the rebellious and confirmative. Talent shows such as Show Me The Money and Unpretty Rapstar both showcase Korea’s rising underground MCs while monetising and exploiting them for public entertainment. The fact that many so-called idol rappers have both appeared on and won these shows serves to further the debate over their authenticity. At the same time, however, the inclusion of underground rappers in mainstream idol music arguably also raises Hip-hop’s profile.

Whatever form it takes in cultures around the world, Hip-hop has undeniably become a global tour de force. Its impact is perhaps best asserted in the opening line of Afrika Bambaataa’s Renegades Of Funk: “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop us now.‘”