Before I lived in South Korea back in 2018, I didn’t know much about K-pop. I’d heard names like 2NE1, Girls Generation and, of course, PSY floating around online, but it wasn’t something I actively listened to myself; however, I had noticed one very interesting feature of the genre: Most K-pop songs have a rap part.

After moving to Seoul, I was very quickly exposed to a lot of K-pop on a daily basis, (in fact, it’s almost impossible to escape). And, once again, my curiosity was piqued after realizing how almost all K-pop groups have a designated “rapper”, and how a lot of fans will write heated paragraphs online arguing about which K-pop idols deserve to be called “real rappers” and who is a so-called “idol rapper” – or worse (maybe?), merely an “idol who raps”.

“But what the heck is the difference?” I hear you ask – well, if you’ll indulge me in some cultural, musical and linguistic history, allow me to explain.

The importance of culture

Rap music comes from hip-hop, so to cover our bases, we have to know what that means: hip-hop is of course a genre of music, but it’s actually much bigger than that:

Hip-hop is a shared set of values, and behaviors – in other words, a culture.

(Cummings 2017, pp. 7-8)

Hip-hop culture was originated in NYC by African Americans coping with harsh living conditions. Before the recording industry got in on the hype, the story-telling of hip-hop evolved freely and often included hustling, street crimes, vernacular expressions (Rose 2008, p. 2), and ideals of a hyper-masculine and tough performance.

Authenticity is another important factor: in the early days, hip-hop artists lived a tough, often poor life, and would release cheap mixtapes to hopefully catch the attention of music labels. Rapper 50 Cent gained recognition this way by giving away his mixtapes and was signed to a major record company as a result (Cummings 2017, p. 20). A central part of this hip-hop authenticity is the notion of “keeping it real” – don’t act fake and remember where you came from. It’s generally understood as the necessity of expressing these hard-to-hear truths through music (Rose 2008, p. 134).

Now, if we subscribe to the idea that a culture can only be 100% authentic when lived and performed at its place of origin, then hip-hop would necessarily resist localization. But as one of the most popular genres today, we know that the “local practices of music, dance, story-telling, and painting encounter diversifying forms of globalized Hip-Hop”, which allows for the local styles to become part of this global hip-hop culture (Alim et al. 2008, p. 27).

How hip-hop settled in Korea

While Korea isn’t the birthplace of hip-hop, the country has a prevalent underground rap scene. The “keeping it real” attitude resonated with the first-generation Korean MCs who created their local culture by rapping about their own experiences (J. Park 2021, p. 146). As legendary hip-hop artist Warren G says: “You could be Korean, you can be Japanese, Jamaican, whatever color, whatever you are, hip-hop has a home for you […] it’s all about talent” (ISAtv 2015).

Due to linguistic differences in the structure of Korean and English, Korean MCs had to develop their own techniques to make rap work in their language: unlike English sentence structure, which goes Subject-Verb-Object, Korean is a Subject-Object-Verb language – let me explain why that’s significant.

We all remember Shakespeare, right? English has a long poetic tradition with set forms and structures, and many of these include rhymes – especially end rhymes; it just sounds nice. You might’ve heard that RAP stands for Rhythm & Poetry, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true (at least I couldn’t find substantial proof), but what IS true, is that song and rap lyrics use a lot of structures and ideas from traditional poetry, rhyming being one of them. It’s really satisfying to hear a clever rhyme in a song, and English luckily has plenty of possibilities in that regard.

Now, imagine if every English verb had the same ending; every verb in English now ends in -ing, no exceptions. That would make rhymes a bit less impressive, wouldn’t it?

Essentially, that’s why the structure had to be modified when rap was first picked up by Koreans: when all verbs (which, in Korean, includes adjectives BTW) can be conjugated with the same ending and the verb must always come last, end-rhymes really aren’t all that impressive. These new rhyming and rapping techniques that they developed thus became the core identity of authentic Korean MCs (J. Park 2021).

This means that, on top of the authenticity ideal of “keeping it real”, Korean rappers also need to showcase Korean linguistic skills to be considered truly authentic to Korean hip-hop; because, even though English is the “native language” of the genre, it is seen as inauthentic and indicating a lack of skill to use English as a “way out” in Korean rap lyrics (J. Park 2021, p. 161).

“Keeping it real” vs the K-Pop factory

Hip-hop has grown in popularity in Korea to a degree where most K-pop groups have at least one rapper as well as rap verses in even the most pop sounding songs. However, as mentioned, just because a person raps does not mean they’re considered a “real rapper”.

K-pop is often compared to a factory line production (MS. Song 2019, p. 125), both in terms of music and the catered personas that the idols are trained to portray (Fedorenko 2017, p. 503). Idols must uphold these personas in order to live up to the high expectations that both fans and the public have for them (H. Shin 2015). Additionally, it hasn’t been, and arguably still isn’t, the standard for idols to produce and/or write their own songs, which fundamentally conflicts with the core tenant of “keeping it real” within hip-hop. The fact that the K-pop aesthetic generally includes wearing flashy and experimental clothes and make-up regardless of gender, means that a lot of hip-hop traditionalists automatically excluding idols from claiming affiliations with hip-hop culture, simply based on this seeming conflict with the hyper-masculine image that the culture originated with. On top of this, K-pop also conflicts with Korean hip-hop culture as it’s very common for K-pop songs to use English in rap verses, which conflicts with the Korean ideal of linguistic authenticity.

So, on paper, these two musical styles really don’t mix very well, and it seems to me that this is the basis for why people have such different views on whether idols can be considered rappers. But what about idols themselves?

On April 23rd, 2015, Jackson Wang, a member of the idol group GOT7, appeared as a guest star on the show 문제적남자 (Problematic Men). The cast of the show suggested a rap battle between Jackson and RM of BTS (one of the rare few idols who seems to have the privilege to call himself both a rapper and an idol; more on that later). Jackson refused the suggestion by stating “I am not a rapper. I am a person who raps”. At this, the cast looked confused. Jun Hyun-Moo replied “that’s a rapper, though” to which Jackson responded “no, a rapper is someone who is really good at rapping, I just do my best” (tvN D ENT 2019).

As someone from the industry, Jackson’s distinction here is really interesting. He seems to believe that being called a “real rapper” indicates a certain level of skill, probably from previous experience, while an “idol who raps” does not necessarily have skills specifically related to hip-hop (such as fast rapping, writing lyrics or freestyling). “Real rappers” are those who relate to hip-hop culture – no matter what country they’re from. It’s people who are passionate about their music, who “keep it real”, who have the skills to write their own lyrics, and who stands by their music as authentic.

Jackson Wang’s official position in GOT7 is “rapper”; however, he didn’t start rapping before joining JYP; one of the so-called “big 3” music labels of South Korea. Wang is a trained idol who raps on GOT7’s songs, but he never claimed the title of “rapper”, nor did he even try to call himself an “idol rapper”.

To me, this clears up quite well the difference between who we can call a “rapper” and who we can see as “idols who rap”. Although I sometimes see people online use the latter as if it’s a bad thing, I don’t think it is, and evidently neither does Jackson Wang. I don’t think Jackson is a bad rapper, but I also don’t think anyone would try to compare him to someone like Jay Park (a big name in Korean hip-hop).

But if “rappers” are those who identify with hip-hop culture and “idols who rap” are the idols who were given the “rapper” position in a K-pop group, then what is an “idol rapper”?

Can you be two things at once?

On November 21st, 2013, hip-hop journalist Bong-Hyeon Kim held an open recording session with guests to celebrate the one year anniversary of his podcast Gimbonghyeonui Hipap Chodaeseok (MS Song 2019, p. 121). Among the invited were independent rapper B-Free and “idol rappers” from the (then) newly formed group BTS. While the event was meant to celebrate the podcast, it somehow escalated into a discussion on the authenticity of idol rap with B-Free questioning BTS members RM and Suga’s right to be considered “idol rappers”.

This interaction is especially interesting to look at in relation to hip-hop in South Korea and the BTS members’ identity as both “idols”, “rappers” and “idol rappers”. This event included people who saw themselves as part of the Korean hip-hop culture, and for the reasons I explained before, BTS being newly debuted idols meant that the other panelists questioned their authenticity.

In reality, RM and Suga were part of hip-hop culture long before joining BTS. Suga has often spoken about his life as a struggling artist, having to choose between eating dinner or taking the bus to work. Both Suga and RM performed their music on the underground rap scene – in fact, even though he hasn’t used it since, RM’s old alias “Runch Randa” was relatively known, and Suga has released all his mixtapes under his rapper alias “Agust D”. Their ties to hip-hop and its culture is undeniable, even to B-Free, yet the older rapper still didn’t seem to believe that the categories of “rapper” and “idol” could define the same person:

B-Free: What it is, is that you guys were people on the same path as us –
Suga: Yes?
B-Free: But you couldn’t win over that temptation.
Suga: I don’t understand why you call it a temptation?

B-Free clearly agrees that the BTS members were part of hip-hop, but because they took the “easy way” and became idols, he views them as weak; they didn’t have what it takes to fight for true hip-hop. The BTS members then spend most of the conversation trying to justify why it is possible for them to be both “idols” and “rappers”.

RM and Suga quickly abandon their attempt at convincing anyone that BTS as a group can be considered pure hip-hop – even though this was the image that the group originally promoted. Instead, the two start to defend their individual relationships with the culture through past experiences and proven skills. Had they not joined BTS, they would have likely continued as “real rappers”, but by becoming idols, it seems that they have forfeited that title.

But I don’t actually think the two categories are mutually exclusive, and neither do a lot of K-pop fans.

When cultures must collide

MS Song (2019, pp. 122-23) writes that the term “idol rapper” is “particularly given to those rappers who have heightened visibility and influence in the group (e.g., Zico of Block B, RM of BTS, Bobby of iKon and Mino of Winner)”. These are often the K-pop rappers who also have previous experience on the underground scene (this is true for all the above, and why Suga is also considered an “idol rapper”).

K-pop is not the antithesis to the hip-hop ideal, despite what some “experts” might want you to believe. Traditionally, no, the two genres do not go well together, but it’s always important to consider nuance.

Is it fair to take away the hip-hop culture from rappers like RM and Suga, who spent so much of their youth identifying so strongly with its ideals? Is it fair to erase that part of their identity just because they now dance, sing some pop songs and wear makeup? True, they aren’t “pure hip-hop rappers” anymore, but they are not not “rappers”. They still write their own music, produce their own beats, come up with concepts and use their rap to talk about their authentic selves.

BTS is far from the only group with members who can be called “idol rapper”, others include G-Dragon from Big Bang, Ilhoon known from BtoB, Soyeon from (G)-Idle and many more. I simply use BTS as an example because they are the most well-known. BTS is also especially interesting because of the 3rd member of their rap-line: J-hope.

J-hope is an interesting case who fans seem to have a hard time defining: when he joined BTS, he didn’t have any rap experience at all and he wasn’t a singer either, so you might be quick to assume that he’s one of those “idols who rap” who was simply “too pretty not to debut”. However, taking one look online, you’ll quickly notice that, when talking about BTS and their “authentic rap-line”, J-hope is always included alongside RM and Suga. People somehow still consider him an “idol rapper”.

I’m not going to pretend like I know exactly where the line goes between “idol rapper” and “idol who raps” in this case, because I don’t. I think it’s safe to say that idols who were rappers first and who continue to write, rap and uphold hip-hop ideals in their groups can be considered “idols rappers”. The categories can co-exist.

I think J-hope’s inclusion into the category comes from the fact that, although he wasn’t previously a rapper, he was involved with the hip-hop culture as a dancer throughout his childhood. He has roots in the culture that allowed him that authenticity, and as a member of BTS, he has since released mixtapes and managed to create an image for himself that goes beyond simply being a person who raps – he has managed to earn the title of “rapper” after becoming an idol.

Final thoughts

So, what does this all matter at the end of the day? Whether your favorite rap part in a K-pop song is done by a “real rapper” or someone who was taught by a company shouldn’t make a difference to whether you enjoy it or not – that’s entirely subjective. And if we’re just listening to the music, there’s no reason for us to consider this.

However, I think it’s important to talk about and remember that idols are more than just products of the K-pop factory; they’re all humans who have pasts and passions, and they have multi-faceted identities that should not simply be erased just because they choose to wear makeup.

I’ll refer to a quote from RM regarding his self-identification in-between hip-hop and idol culture:

Yes, there was this idea of being a pure artist or pure rapper. So, in the beginning, it is true that when we were debuting as a pop act, there were times when I had to sort of reorganize my identity and then reflect on what my identity is. […] Whether it’s rap or pop music, or whatever it is, it is another method for me to show my mind and express my voice […] As long as I can show what I’ve written, it’s valid as the continuation of my dream and what I always wanted to do.”

(Hiatt 2021)

It doesn’t seem like RM has found the definitive answer to justify his dual identity in the face of other people’s opinions, but he also doesn’t seem to care anymore; rather wishing to live as authentically as possible, whatever that means.

Hip-hop as a culture deserves respect, and it shouldn’t be something that can just be claimed by any new idol trainee after 2 weeks of rapping – that’s not how it works – but the two cultures can certainly coexist.

At the end of the day, I think RM said it best:

Life is short. Art is forever.

(Hiatt 2021)


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