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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: When K-Pop gets rapping (sorta) right

Who knew that Korean pop music would make such good use of 808s and sax samples?

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Over the past six months or so, it’s come to my attention that there is more to the world of K-Pop than Psy, androgynous boy bands with wacky haircuts, and girl groups attempting to set new records for the number of winks that can be performed in a four minute music video. Thanks to the gateway drug that is SBS’s weekly Pop Asia program, it appears that the Korean ‘idol factories’ are churning out pop music that makes that majority of Western commercial radio sound positively prehistoric.

Armed with recording and video budgets that would most US stars would kill for, the K-Pop industry is, at it’s best producing some truly bugged-out videos and great speaker-smashing beats. Of course, the vast majority is the sort of teeny-bopper trash that even the Backstreet Boys would have considered pushing the limits of bad taste. But when it works, they effin’ nail it.

There’s a particular period of music that’s clearly been inspired by Flo Rida’s ‘GDFR,’ which made chopped-up horn samples hot again for the first time since Lakim Shabazz was killing it in the late ’80s. This has resulted in a series of tunes which can only be described as how I’d imagine a Too $hort song produced by The 45 King and Max Martin in 2017 might sound—a massive reliance on 808 bass drums, triple snares, and saxophone samples. Good examples of this sound are BTS’s ‘Dope’, Madtown’s ‘OMGT‘, Zico feat. Zion T’s ‘Eureka‘, Exid’s ‘Ah Yeah‘ and History’s ‘Queen‘. Elsewhere, the incredible breakdown on the hook of BIGBANG’s ‘Bang Bang Bang‘ (fast forward to the one minute mark) is squandered on an otherwise generic song.

Another contingent are songs that take their cues from Snoop and Pharrell’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot‘ school of rap minimalism. Graduates from this particular academy include Blackpink’s ‘Whistle‘ (which features a member from my hometown of Melbourne and another young lady who appears to be heavily inspired by the late Left Eye from TLC), GD&TOP’s ‘Knock Out‘ and 4 Minute’s ‘Crazy‘ (which has the bonus of the aforementioned sax action) and NCT 127’s ‘Firetruck‘.

As you may have noticed, every single K-Pop song has a mandatory rapping part. Not just the upbeat dancefloor numbers though, even the slow love jams have bars tacked on in the middle. It’s as if a memo went out to everyone in the music industry over there stating that every single song from now to eternity must include the following:

  1. Dudes with bangs, dyed hair, and a tonne of make-up acting super tough and dancing in some kind of abandoned building/post-apocalyptic wasteland.
  2. Girls showing off their pins at every conceivable opportunity, when they’re not finding an excuse to wear a school uniform and/or their school gym clothes.
  3. Rapping. Lots of it.

The third style which the K-Pop crew seem to really have a handle on is ’80s throwback stuff that makes Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s ‘Uptown Funk’ sound like bad karaoke. The likes of Kara’s ‘Mamma Mia‘, exid’s ‘Hot Pink‘ (complete with cowbell!) and the Wonder Girls’ ‘I Feel You‘ take it back like the Rooftop in ’88 (word to Iggy).

It would be remiss of me not to mention Girls’ Generation’s jaw-dropping ‘I Got Boy‘, which manages to span just about every musical style imaginable in the space of five minutes with more beat changes than even Pete Rock could have managed in his prime. Why can’t commercial radio play stuff like this instead of just the same three Chainsmokers/Ed Sheeran choons every hour?

The highlight of all of this, however, was the discovery of T.O.P.’s ‘Doom Dada‘, a piece of bizarre, dusted Korean Rap genius. Both the video and the music are amazing, and this fellow also manages to keep unfortunate wardrobe choices to a bare minimum (with the exception of that giant Fun Boy Three style hat). There’s also a young man who calls himself Rap Monster who was able to enlist Wale to make a song with him in a situation not unlike all those TV spots that American actors used to do in Japan in the ’80s when they knew none of their friends would ever see them. Before I go, I’d like to send a special shout out to the videos for Twice’s ‘TT‘ and BTS’ ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears‘ for both being completely mental and for looking like they cost about as much as that garbage Janet and Michael video in a day and age where even Adele can only afford to shoot her clips in a dark room because she blew the budget on a vintage dress.

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