People seem to like my technical posts, and for ages people have asked me to write a technical post about rap music just for K-pop fans:
Always eager to please, I have done exactly as asked.
Read on and be entertained as KPOPALYPSE answers all your important questions about rap music and K-pop!
So, what is rap music?
AOA‘s Jimin knows all about what rap is and is not, because she’s listened to Dr. Dre’s “Detox” album, and in fact all the answers to all of your rap questions are on this album but only Jimin knows the secrets. I approached Jimin for an interview but she’s not telling anything, so in lieu of this vital information I’ll do my best to unravel rap for you.
Rap music is any music with rapping in it. Rapping is a vocal style. It refers to talking with a rhythmic meter, essentially making the human voice a rhythmic musical instrument without specific pitch (like a drum) rather than a melodic musical instrument which generates specific pitches (like a piano). This is the defining characteristic of rap — the strict adherence to rhythm matched with the deliberate lack of adherence to specific pitch.
Someone who is using their voice with both defined rhythm and defined specific pitches is not rapping, they are singing. Let’s use our friend Jimin from AOA as an example. In “Like A Cat”, her vocal section from 2:06 is not a rap, because she is hitting specific pitches with her voice, therefore it is sung, because that’s what singing is — pitching vocals. The fact that her part is sung very quickly at a typically rap-style speed does not actually make it a rap.
However, Jimin DOES rap in other songs, such as “Get Out” from 2:29:
Rapping being a rhythmic form is usually matched with rhythmic music, although it doesn’t have to be — it can be matched with any type of music at all, or even no music at all (also known as “a cappella”). Think of rap as poetry but delivered vocally with a specific defined sense of rhythm rather than just a free-form “say the words whenever you please” style. Just like poetry, rap doesn’t have to rhyme … although just like poetry, the more popular examples usually do, and in rap music the rhyming is used to deliver syncopation. More on that later.
Okay, so what is hip-hop then? Are rap and hip-hop the same thing? If there are differences, what are they?
Hip-hop is a cultural movement, comprising of the following elements:
- Rap vocal style.
- Beats or tracks (a generic term for backing tracks that go behind rap vocal, which may or may not include an actual beat, but usually do).
- Certain styles of DJing (scratching, certain beat-mixing techniques).
- Beatboxing (mimicking instrumental sounds of drums and other instruments with the voice only).
- Certain art styles (graffiti art, etc).
- Certain dance styles (breakdance and other forms).
- Certain clothing styles (various types of hip-hop fashion).
- Not showering before going to school.
- Hanging out with friends and high-fiving each other.
It could be debated that hip-hop is also a type of political movement, but to anyone who thinks that all I can say to them is that iKON’s Bobby probably doesn’t know anything about politics and he probably showers less than politically-focused rappers like Immortal Technique, therefore you are wrong.
I don’t care about this though. Let’s cut to the chase — is [my favourite Korean pop idol] a good rapper or not? That’s all I really wanted to know when I clicked this. How do I tell?
Never mind if they are a “good rapper”, there’s a larger question here which is what actually defines a “rapper”.
Oh no, KPOPALYPSE, you’re not going to give us a boring fucking rap history lecture are you?
Hey, you’re the one who begged me for months to write about this boring crap. You said that you wanted a technical trufax rap post, I said I didn’t want to write it, and you kept fuckin’ asking me about it, so here it is, so now you can fuckin’ shut up and deal with it.
Rap music as it is currently known first solidified in America, and the origins arguably go back centuries (to West African griots), but the birth of the form likely comes from the Jamaican club and house party scene. Clubs and parties would have that annoying creepy guy who tries to talk you into entering the club when you walk past, and over time the role of this person integrated with the role of the MC or Master Of Ceremonies, a term that comes from the Catholic church but basically means “the person who runs the party”. Talking was eventually replaced with the rhythmic “toasting” style of vocals, and this became more and more popular and then was exported to America (Kool Herc), where through the inflections of the American accent it transformed again into the rap style that we know and love/hate today.
Understanding the cultural origins of rap will also help you understand the following points about rap music:
- Rap music essentially started as a cross between entertainment and advertising, and this is why rap music to this day often seems very egocentric to an outsider. “I’m so awesome, you’re not” raps are actually very true to the original culture — other permutations like the “political”, “gangster”, and “social commentary” rap styles, as well as the “I love you, girl” pop stuff all came later.
- The competitive spirit of the Jamaican club scene is still present in the competitive spirit of rap music today, hence “diss tracks” where rappers criticise each other on record, and “rap battles“.
- Jamaican macho male culture is commonly sexist and homophobic as shit, and this is still reflected in rap lyrics today, and is also why when worthwhile female MCs do appear in that scene they are no-bullshit as fuck, because they have to be tough to rise above and be heard.
- Most importantly of all, a very high emphasis was, and still is, placed on being able to wow the audience with a unique and cleverly timed/insightful/funny lyric or turn of phrase.
Uh … k. So where are you going with this?
The final point above — uniqueness and cleverness of the content and timing of the lyric being the #1 most important factor that far outstrips every other consideration — has some important implications for K-pop fans who want to evaluate Korean rap. Are you ready?
Firstly: if a rapper didn’t compose their own rap, their rapping prowess simply cannot be evaluated as either good or bad. It’s no secret that very, very few Korean idols get to write their own lyrics — most idols have no say in this area at all. If Jimin from AOA busts out a rap part in her next song that was actually written by a 40-year-old guy in a suit in a boardroom committee meeting, it’s THAT person’s rapping skill that you’re evaluating when you say “Jimin is good” or “Jimin is shit” … not Jimin herself.
But what about things like vocal tone and breath control, isn’t that important?
Of course not, think about it for a second. Eminem has a vocal tone like a rusty gate and is widely considered to be one of the best rappers ever. Kool G Rap sounds like he’s continually gargling marbles, and is also widely considered to be one of the best rappers ever. The reason why is that both rappers strongly meet the criteria of clever self-composed lyricism. Rapping is just talking in a rhythm, so if you know how to talk with breath control (something we all mastered by about age six), you know how to rap with breath control. Most rappers who specialise in rap don’t know the first fucking thing about the kind of vocal techniques that singers use, and happily remain ignorant of it because those singing techniques aren’t needed in rapping, which is just talking.
Why do you think the “dancer” in a K-pop group always gets the rap parts? Regard anyone who applies vocal technique criteria to rap music as a complete and utter brainless idiot with no clue, or alternatively, a deluded obsessed fool who is just trying to clutch at straws of nothing in order to push their personal bias list onto you. They’re either stupid, delusional, consciously lying, or some combination of these three.
Now you know WHY rappers are considered to not be rappers if they don’t write their own material — because delivering the lines takes little to no vocal technical skill at all whatsoever (besides the technical skill of speech, which everybody reading this probably has). Therefore, rapping someone else’s raps is actually a really easy thing to do … it’s the act of coming up with those raps in the first place which is difficult and the part that requires skill.
But I just love the vocal tone of [my bias] and that’s why I like their rapping!
This may be true, but “I like the sound of their voice” isn’t the same as “someone has clearly identifiable rap skill”. Liking the way someone sounds when they speak is subjective, and you may indeed love the sound of [your bias], but that doesn’t mean they can rap well (or that they can’t rap well, for that matter). See, rap skill relies on wit and cleverness, which brings us to…
I’m not going to like this, either, am I?
It is literally impossible to evaluate a rapper’s true skill if you don’t speak the same language that they are rapping in. Not just tricky — impossible, even with subtitles. To evaluate the true skill of anybody who raps exclusively in Korean, you need to understand Korean fluently … and not just regular Korean speech, but also all the slang and cultural references being used, as well as the way words intersect and rhyme, as it’s the interplay of rhyming words with their meanings and often double-meanings (which subtitles generally won’t convey) which forms part of the cleverness of a good rapper.
That rhyme skill is what is known as “flow” (a term which has nothing to do with vocal technique stuff). Allow me to demonstrate using a video that showcases two completely different styles of flow in one song, and it’s definitely far from my favourite track from anyone involved, but it’s a good example just for educational purposes.
At 0:22, DMC from RUN-DMC raps. DMC raps (no doubt deliberately) in the style that he’s known for — mostly strict rhyming couplets. Rhyming words happen in the middle or end of the bar and pretty much nowhere else, and everything is delivered in much the same consistent rhythm. This sounds dated today, but it was the norm for mid-80s rap when RUN-DMC were at their peak. Rap flow wasn’t as advanced then as it is now, and while his flow does have a retro charm for those who remember those days, if a new rapper surfaced and rapped only in that style, they wouldn’t make a dent in today’s hip-hop scene.
At 1:38 (after that fucking hideous chorus), Necro raps. Necro might be a scumbag like KPOPALYPSE, but he has a much more sophisticated modernised flow by rap standards, with complex syncopated rhymes — not always delivered at the end of each line, but chained together at varying points to produce their own rhythm within the rhythm — plus his usual outlandish slang and pop culture references that fly by pretty quickly and need a few listens to absorb with the context intact even for a fluent English speaker like myself. Now imagine how someone who doesn’t even know any English language apart from “hello”, “thank you”, and “please notice me, oppa” would go trying to evaluate Necro’s rapping ability in that song — pretty fucking dumb, right? Now you know how fucking dumb you might look when you throw down your opinion on Korean idol rappers and how great their often basic lines are when you can’t even speak the fucking language and therefore have no idea what you’re actually talking about.
Okay, so is that it? Are you finished making me feel like I’ve wasted my life now?
Not quite, there’s one more point that I should cover, which is the idea of “authenticity”. Authenticity is a big thing in rap music, and the most severe of insults are reserved for people who steal lines and ideas from other rappers, precisely because it’s so easy to do.
As I covered before, it requires really no special skill to deliver a rap line, only to think up a rap line, therefore people who say “I’m a great rapper” while using other people’s lines are generally treated as not just intellectual property thieves, but also as musically fraudulent on a basic “you don’t actually even have any rap skill” level — someone who might like rap but doesn’t understand it or even know what they’re doing. Obviously in a style where almost nobody is writing their own raps (K-pop), authenticity isn’t even an issue — people who are interested in rap music dismiss K-pop idol rappers out of hand because they are not the writers of their own material.
The value of “authenticity” in the rap scene goes further than this, as it also extends in other directions. To take just one example, threatening physical violence in rap songs is generally a metaphor for rap battles rather than an actual intention to kick anybody in the head, but these lyrics gain extra power from the idea that they might be real given circumstances (West Coast/East Coast being the obvious example, but there are others). Such verbal threats in rap style are often transposed directly over to the world of K-pop idols when the companies are trying to give their idols an edge, but in such a scene where idols have to be polite and their behaviour is tightly controlled at all times, this language looks frankly laughable to a rap fan. The lyrics when delivered by idols lose their double meaning (an invitation to battle plus a potential threat), and therefore part of the gravity that makes them work in their original context is lost.
All values in the rap scene are filtered through the lens of “authenticity”, and it’s easy to understand why some rappers get hate and some don’t if you understand this point.
Vanilla Ice wasn’t hated by the rap world because he was white, he was hated by the rap world because he was “fronting” (putting up a false impression): he said in interviews that he was “from the ghetto”, when he very obviously wasn’t. Iggy Azalea isn’t hated by rappers today because she’s a white Australian, she’s hated because she’s a white Australian trying to sound like a black American — if she used her own accent most people wouldn’t have any problem with her, just like they don’t have a problem with the Hilltop Hoods, who are highly respected. The race isn’t the issue, the lack of authenticity is the issue.
Every Korean idol is sitting at roughly Vanilla Ice levels of authenticity, and it shows when they start actually talking about rap music.
But what’s authenticity got to do with the actual music? It doesn’t affect the way it sounds, and I just know when I like the sound of what I hear.
AND THAT IS THE CORRECT ATTITUDE. WHICH IS WHY YOU SHOULD STOP BANGING ON ABOUT ALL THE OTHER FUCKING SHIT.
It’s fine to like what you like and dislike what you dislike.
The problem with Korean pop fans is that they feel like they constantly have to make excuses and justify their music taste by “proving” how great their favourite idol is with a bunch of lies, made-up bullshit, and terms they don’t even understand properly. You don’t have to do this, and with Korean rap idols you generally can’t anyway, because these people are mostly objectively not even rappers by any standards with which proficiency in the style is actually measured.
I personally quite like a lot of raps in K-pop songs, because I like the way they sound, but I don’t try to kid myself that these people are “real hip-hop”. You people with your Korean idol rap obsession talking about rapping idols and trying to pull everything apart and be analytical are basically comparing a bunch of apples and asking yourselves, “Which one is the best motorcycle?” Just forget about it, stop making yourself look like an idiot and appreciate an apple as an apple.