“For you to copy me is the only way I could become ordinary”.
With tattoos peaking out behind baggy clothes and a beanie pulled low enough to form a permanently furrowed brow, Woo Wonjae’s emotionally conflicted ruminations over Mobb Deep’s legendary ‘Shook Ones Pt. 2’ instrumental felt practically shocking to a primetime TV audience in South Korea. According to the show’s fictional metrics, his final performance made 6 million won.
The show was cultural sensation rap competition Show Me the Money and, counterintuitively, it was Wonjae’s unassuming, moody 20-year old demeanour that made him such a hit with the audience.
Now signed to label AOMG, Wonjae still retains his aggressively poetic lyrics and moody disillusioned demeanour, yet most of his recent videos discard the beanie for slicked-back hair and clothing that belongs more on a runway than on the moody 20-year old he first appeared as. Currently in the promo run for his newest studio album, recent content casts Wonjae in his characteristic beanie for the first time since SMTM in what could be construed as a very clear marketing choice. Does this not devalue the authentic stories so central to Wonjae’s appeal?
With an emphasis on stage presence and marketability, Show Me the Money performances bear a striking similarity to Seo Taiji & Boys’ seminal 1995 performance of ‘Come Back Home’ on MBC KPOP. Often credited as catapulting elements of hip hop culture such as rapping and breakdancing to mainstream attention, Seo Taiji’s cohort of high-impact, body-popping male performers were also an early display of the flashy K-Pop boy group format that would eventually become the pretty face of South Korea’s cultural export policy around the world. In much the same way as ‘Shook Ones’ was repackaged and delivered to the Korean audience by Wonjae’s performance, SMTM as a whole takes hip hop aesthetics and representations to a whole new level of glitz and glamour- just compare the recent SMTM 6 producer cypher to the iconic Slim Shady cypher by which it was clearly inspired.
To understand South Korea’s peculiar relationship between hip hop culture and commerciality, SMTM must be viewed against the wider context of cultural industry development in the country. South Korea, as a nation, has seen some of the world’s highest economic growth rates over the last 30 years and this is in part due to the close relationship government bodies have kept with businesses. Large conglomerate organisations with close ties to central officials known as ‘Chaebols’ form a major backbone of the countries’ industry and can be compared to transnational corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline that keep their fingers in all sorts of commercial pies. Added to this is the policy of ‘Hallyu’ (‘Korean Wave’) that has seen increasing investment in Korean cultural industries since the 1990s to push their products to a global audience- for example through providing English lyrics to record-setting K-Pop group BTS’ tracks. SMTM’s broadcasting network, Mnet, itself is a direct product of both of these policies, being owned by outright business giant CJ Group and featuring a constant obsession with marketing its artists overseas. Meanwhile, it’s panel of judges (referred to as ‘producers’ in-show) betrays another peculiar feature of South Korea’s hip hop scene- most of the country’s big-name rappers are signed to one of six key record labels: Hi-Lite; Illionaire; Just Music; AOMG; Brand New; Amoeba. Practically every single one of the show’s judges over its 8 seasons has represented one of these labels and a vast majority of the show’s winners have gone on to sign with one of these labels. Given the centrality of cultural commodities to the country’s recent development, it is understandable how success as a rapper in Korea has come to be so caught up with label interest and marketability, but how far does this conflict with the principles of being “from the bottom” and “keeping it real” that gave birth to hip hop in the first place?
The South Korean music industry has come leaps and bounds since Seo Taiji’s performance. Where Taiji’s chorus mainly consisted of the English phrase “jump” repeated ad nauseum, South Korean language has become not only a central feature but a distinctive trait of the nation’s hip hop scene, with artists like Drunken Tiger’s Tiger JK making innovative use of Korean language to create flows that that could not be replicated in English.
The South Korean hip hop scene is so fertile, in fact, that Korean-American artists aspiring to make it in the country that they have their own (slightly derogatory) name- ‘gyopyo rap’. While there are many ‘gyopyo’ artists (‘gyopyo’ itself referring to members of the Korean diaspora living abroad) that have seen widespread success in the country- not least of all Seattle-born Jay Park who founded the AOMG label Woo Wonjae is signed to-, English speaking Korean rappers are still viewed with a degree of condescension in the scene and SMTM makes a point of eliminating contestants who rely on the language too heavily. In many ways this can be seen as a significant maturation point for Korea’s native hip hop scene, marking a success in both national development and cultural exchanges.
Nonetheless, this maturity can also sometimes distort the cultural material that is being imported. SMTM’s attempt at producing a grime track, for example, borders on being actively offensive- describing the genre as a “slow BPM with a very tight beat” and clearly misunderstanding the significance the genre has to the disgruntled London communities it originated in.
Cultural theorist Saha Anamik’s article ‘Locating MIA: Race, Commodification and the Politics of Production’ focusses on these same conflicts in the case of British rapper-singer MIA. For Anamik, MIA became the symbol she is today by navigating these commercial forces carefully, “managing to express a disavowed Asian identity without being trapped in the marginal space through which Asian culture is excluded”. This dynamic can be witnessed in SMTM too, with hitherto unknown rapper EK’s semi-final performance choosing to dispose of the large performance budgets the show supplies and instead enlisting his childhood friendship group to complete the stage. However, does this capture the complete picture? Is there always an inherent trade-off between commerciality and authenticity?
While it is often used as the poster boy for authenticity in music, it is important to remember that hip hop has a nascent fascination with money and fame. Jay Z kept rapping about ‘the blueprint’ long after he made his millions and married Beyoncé; Drake is one of hip hop’s richest individual artists yet his “started from the bottom” mantra has virtually become religious scripture for hip hop acolytes around the world.
Suffice to say, commerciality and authenticity have long stood side by side in the genre and all this talk about ‘keeping it real’ neglects another side to the equation: authentic listening experiences. 18-year old rapper Lil Tecca is a case-in-point who, in a since-viral Genius interview, flat-out admits that most of lyrics to hit single ‘Ransom’ are complete fabrications- when asked about the line “She know I got the Fendi, Prada, when I hit Milan” Tecca responds “I’ve never been to Europe”. Regardless, the song’s celebration of grinding to success still maintains an air of raw believability (for the most part) and clearly resonates with a large audience, having reached 300 million views since its release in March 2019. In this way, while it is important to emphasise the connection music has to its immediate environment, it is also undeniable that it can be completely detached from this environment to the perspective of the unassuming listener.
To return to the focus of this article, the increasingly apparent commerciality of SMTM may detract from the initial awe I felt while watching the show but it can never erase this experience. Despite his slicked back hair and trendy garms, Wonjae’s apathy still resonates with me, as did Hangzoo’s grime performance (even if he clearly had no idea of what grime actually embodies for its pioneers). One can philosophise about the complex entanglement of authenticity and commerciality until the (bitch I’m a) cows come home, but it’s another matter entirely to lie to their own ears. So catch me rapping along to Wonjae’s latest album with my own made-up lyrics, it just feels good.
This article has been written as part of longer series exploring hip hop scenes around the world, to find more check out our guide to Japanese hip hop here.