Masterminds behind hip-hop in Korea: Who are they?
SEOUL — The East-meets-street style of beats were once censored and unwelcomed in South Korea, but now, the blossoming genre is topping charts and has become a musical staple.
Not only are the rapping styles leading trendsetters, but the genre has built its own culture to represent the nation. But unlike other entertainment companies, the hip-hop scene is made up of smaller labels that specialize only in the genre.
Following is a look into nine hip-hop heavyweights that are making a splash on the global music scene.
Standing for “Above Ordinary Music Group,” AOMG was brought to life in 2013 by Jay Park and is undoubtedly the trendiest label in the music industry here, performing music that is done both in the mainstream and the underground.
Since its establishment, the music scene has witnessed the meteoric rise of hip-hop in Korea, and the record label has been at the forefront of it all. It has also armed itself with tunes that interweave hip-hop, hard rap and R&B with a philosophy grounded on “creative freedom.”
Many of the artists were also masterminds behind rap competition programs like Mnet‘s “Show Me the Money” and “High School Rapper,” which have helped to popularize the genre.
Covering music from hip-hop to R&B, the label also boasts some of the biggest names. AOMG houses 20 artists, including rappers, vocalists, producers and DJs. Names that make up the agency include producers like Gray, Code Kunst, Loco and Lee Hi.
Last February, Yugyeom of boy band GOT7 joined the label after his contract ended with JYP Entertainment, and rapper Coogie is the latest face on the roster.
Recently, Jay Park stepped down from the CEO spot, although he still remains an adviser for the agency.
2) H1ghr Music
Jointly founded by Jay Park and his American counterpart Cha Cha Malone in 2017, H1ghr Music is a company pioneering the next wave of hip-hop. With the ambition to showcase undiscovered talents in R&B and hip-hop, the agency has shed light on budding virtuosos.
The agency is currently home to some of the greatest artists of this generation, including rapper pH-1, producer Groovyroom and Jay B of GOT7, to name a few, and these big names are making a bold mark with their sounds.
Its batch of talented artists is known for reshaping the definition of hip-hop. Swerving from mainstream rap, the new vanguard of rappers is offering trendy yet new flows, sounds, moods and positivity through their lyrics.
Not only can they push musical boundaries through songs, but the artists are also commercially viable. Sik-K is a popular musical figure and fashion icon, having made a special appearance for Off-White’s fall-winter 2020 runway show.
H1ghr Music is also famous for dropping songs that feature its entire roster. In 2020, the label dropped a two-part compilation album titled “Red Tape” and “Blue Tape” and won for label of the year and music video of the year at the 2021 Korean Hip-hop Awards.
3) Just Music
Just Music, also known as Linchpin Music, was founded by Swings in 2009 when he was under Brand New Music. It‘s currently home to artists like Han Yo-han, model Park Sung-jin, who goes by Jimmy Paige as his stage name, and Giriboy.
First launched in 2012, Mnet’s “Show Me the Money” TV competition ratcheted up the growth of hip-hop by allowing rappers in the underground community to find fame, as many of the label‘s rappers gained popularity through the show. C Jamm and Vasco, who now goes by Bill Stax, are two of the many rappers who found glory through the show under Just Music, although Bill Stax departed the label in 2018.
The rappers under Just Music are also famous for reflecting their personalities: Their songs are raw, give joy and spit fire. Many musicians tend to blast out their thoughts and creeds with creative yet honest lyrics, and the label’s compilation albums “Ripple Effect” and “We Effect,” released in 2014 and 2017, respectively, vividly show their distinctive musical personalities.
VMC, or Vismajor Company, started as a crew called “Vismajor” in 2011, comprising Deepflow, Babynine, Wutan and Ven. The record label was later established as an independent label in 2014, and is helmed by Row Digga and Deepflow, who is known as one of the mentors for the hip-hop competition series “High School Rapper.”
Unlike other labels, VMC is famous for its several classic hip-hop albums. Deepflow‘s third LP, “Yanghwa,” dropped in 2016, was praised for bringing real hip-hop tunes to the masses, and won him artist of the year at the 13th Korean Music Awards.
Nucksal’s first LP, “The God of Small Things,” also released in 2016, gained the limelight by conveying a message through music that every cloud has a silver lining.
Currently, VMC is home to illustrious rappers such as Don Mills, Los and Rohann, and manages producers, DJs, engineers and designers.
5) 1llionaire Records
The now-disbanded 1llionaire Records was created in 2011 and had controlled the rap game for nearly a decade with only three artists: Dok2 and The Quiett, who helmed the label, completing its list with Beenzino. The trio triumphed by tweaking the hip-hop scene in Korea.
Among many hip-hop labels, 1llionaire was the fastest in adapting to West Coast G-funk, and the trio’s signature style was trap music. Dok2 and The Quiett played a pivotal role as mentors in the third season of “Show Me the Money,” and Dok2, in particular, made a seismic change by introducing “money swag” and influencing the flow and rhythms of trap music.
The trap-style tracks the tandem wrote during the program, like “YGGR,” performed by Bobby of boy band Ikon in the semifinal stage, became a sensation in 2014, creating a major hip-hop trend that year.
The group of three also went big by finding themselves touring in the US and exporting Korean hip-hop sounds, but are now defunct as Dok2 and Beenzino announced their departure from the label in 2020.
6) Ambition Musik
Ambition Musik was founded by then-1llionaire Records’ CEO The Quiett and Dok2 in 2016 for one purpose: to cater to up-and-coming artists and put out songs that are different from 1llionaire Records.
Initially, the label was small in size and managed just three rappers: Kim Hyo-eun, Changmo and Hash Swan. But now, the agency has added five more newcomers to its roster: Ash Island, producer Way Ched, Leellamarz, Zene the Zilla and Don Malik.
The label boasts one of the best rap heroes but doesn’t necessarily pursue a style that fits into the standard definition of hip-hop in people‘s dictionaries. Leellamarz is a violinist-turned-rapper, Changmo uses the piano as his forte and Ash Island reshapes the melodies of hip-hop by singing rap. With his iconic producer tag “Way Ched, It’s Your Way,” Way Ched is also famous for collaborating with artists from other big-name hip-hop companies like Trade L of H1ghr Music.
After adding more names to its label, Ambition Musik was honored as the label or crew of the year at the 2020 Korean Hip-hop Awards.
Wavy was established by singer-songwriter Colde in 2018 and started as a one-person label when he put out his first solo EP, “Wave,” in September that year. Now, the agency plays a crucial role in Colde’s musical universe.
Colde often describes Wavy as a label that does “unconventional and avant-garde” music with a lot of digital touches. Also, as the name of the label suggests, just like how Wavy reminds of “wave,” the ripples of constantly transforming waves add more diversity to music.
From R&B and hip-hop to indie, Wavy is a label that allows music to speak for itself. It houses seven artists, including Apro, Khakii and the self-made band Wave to Earth.
8) The Black Label
Founded by YG Entertainment‘s producer Teddy Park in 2016, the Black Label is a subsidiary of K-pop powerhouse YG Entertainment.
The agency initially started by overseeing hip-hop artists like producer Kush, Zion. T, R.Tee, Vince and Okasian. But it continued to expand its list by adding Jeon Somi, a former member of girl group I.O.I, and American child model Ella Gross.
The Black Label has been involved with many hip-hop ventures in Korea, as Zion.T appeared on three seasons of “Show Me the Money,” recognized for his musical skills and as a mentor. Other artists also continue to carve out a path for themselves by bringing out fresh hip-hop and R&B tunes.
The latest to join Korea‘s hip-hop scene is Dream Perfect Regime: a multigenre group with a collection of artists and visionaries in music and the visual arts. With videographer and singer-songwriter DPR Ian at the helm, nine members, including DPR Live, Ian, Rem and Cream, make up the label.
Famous for his “Coming to you live” watermark tag, DPR Live brought his studio sound to the masses with his “Coming to You Live” EP in March 2017. DPR Ian earned his stripes as a video director and is known for directing the music video for Taeyang’s “Wake Me Up.”
Since then, DPR has built its solid career as an independent label and broadened its horizon by continuing to treat audiences with unique yet creative music and projects.
The DPR crew strove for more by collaborating with the Seoul Tourism Organization for last year‘s “Your Seoul Goes On” campaign. DPR Live and DPR Cream also teamed up with conglomerate Lotte Group for a commercial jingle under “New Today, Better Tomorrow.”
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