When Dok2, who is one of the most successful Korean rappers today, was just 15 years old, he signed a slave contract with Gap Entertainment. Like many entertainment agencies in South Korea, Gap Entertainment was more than ready and willing to use and abuse its artists if that meant making a profit, and Dok2 agreed to drop 10 full-length albums in just eight years. He would eventually break his contract (and his chains), establishing his own Korean hip hop record label, Illionaire Records, with The Quiett.
“Money made by artists is first given to entertainment [agencies] to pay bosses, managers, and staff members, but we are the bosses,” said The Quiett in an interview with Jaeki Cho of Complex.
The establishment of independent Korean hip hop record labels like Illionaire paved the way for the revolution in the Korean hip hop scene, which includes everyone and everything from Korean hip hop artists to Korean hip hop record labels to Korean hip hop venues. It also paved the way for the evolution of the Korean hip hop scene, which had its “big bang” in 2016.
The Korean hip hop scene was still considered underground in South Korea until a little-known cable TV show, Show Me The Money, became one of the most-watched cable TV shows in the nation. A Korean hip hop survival show, viewers tuned in to what was already season five of Show Me The Money to watch the heated rivalry between C Jamm and BewhY, two of the best Korean rookie rappers who just so happened to be best friends.
As Show Me The Money season five received record ratings despite controversy after controversy surrounding its so-called “devil editing,” the unthinkable happened. The Korean hip hop scene went mainstream, for better or for worse. In his interview with Slay In Korea, Korean rookie rapper Changstarr said it best.
I dislike the fact that mainstream Korean hip hop music focuses so much on the trends started by Show Me The Money…
Hip hop culture was not properly rooted in South Korea. It’s just an image, and consumers here assume that the Korean hip hop artists they see on popular pop culture “Korean hip hop” survival shows like Show Me The Money are the best.
They even assume that underground Korean hip hop artists are wack because they aren’t famous, but underground Korean rappers like Hwaji and B-Free are better than most of the mainstream Korean rappers on TV.
Korean rookie rappers who competed on Show Me The Money 5, such as C Jamm, BewhY, and Myundo, dominated Korean music charts like Melon and Genie. Despite being eliminated before the final round, Korean rookie rappers Myundo, Hash Swan, Kim Hyo-eun, and Junoflo were scouted and signed by some of South Korea’s old school hip hop record labels, too.
South Korea’s Old School Hip Hop Record Labels
- Amoeba Culture (EST. 2006)
- Hi-Lite Records (EST. 2010)
- Illionaire Records (EST. 2011)
- Brand New Music (EST. 2011)
- AOMG (EST. 2013)
- Feel Ghood Music (EST. 2013)
- Just Music Entertainment (EST. 2014)
- Vismajor Company (EST. 2014)
But that’s not all. As the Korean hip hop scene changed, so did South Korea. Clubs, bars, and lounges that once only played EDM (Electronic Dance Music) started to play “all kinds of music,” including hip hop. “Hip hop only” clubs, bars, and lounges became more common, too, while concerts, showcases, and festivals featured Korean rappers as both show openers and show headliners.
In South Korea people jokingly say that one chicken and beer restaurant opens up right next to another chicken and beer restaurant. In all seriousness, it does! In a country where casual trends turn into serious crazes seemingly overnight, even over a bag of chips, it wasn’t long before a second Korean hip hop survival show, Tribe of Hip Hop, swept the nation with not one but two back-to-back seasons.
Believe it or not, season one of Tribe of Hip Hop featured Korean grandmothers as contestants while season two of Tribe of Hip Hop featured Korean celebrities as contestants. Despite its deep and at times controversial, at times comical disconnect from the Korean hip hop scene, ratings for Tribe of Hip Hop seasons one and two rivaled ratings for SMTM 5.
Grandmothers, celebrities, and high school students aside, in the aftermath of SMTM 5 both successful and struggling Korean rappers in the Korean hip hop scene, whether they consider themselves mainstream or underground, seem to have found more freedom in a relatively homogenous society where their passion and profession is still heavily frowned on. More importantly, they seem to have found more time (and made more money) to spend on what really matters to them the most…
Keep reading to find out about the music releases, special performances, and guest appearances made by Korean hip hop artists at South Korea’s old school hip hop record labels in 2016!
1. Amoeba Culture (EST. 2006)
- Choiza and Gaeko of Dynamic Duo
- Boi B, Geegooin , and Hangzoo (also known as Haengju) of Rhythm Power
- and more
Amoeba Culture: 2016 in Review
International Korean hip hop fans waited impatiently for a collaboration between Crush, Dean, and Zico, the three kings of Korean R&B. The long wait paid off when Zico, who is better known as a Korean idol and rapper, finally released “Bermuda Triangle” featuring Dean and Crush at the end of the year.
Crush also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, South Korea’s most famous hip hop festival, and at The Henz Club, South Korea’s most famous hip hop club. He even became everyone’s crush due to his appearance on the hit Korean reality TV show I Live Alone, where he showed off his awkward but adorable side.
Primary had a quiet year after managing to make a successful comeback in 2015 with popular songs like “Mannequin” despite the plagiarism controversy that has continued to plague him since 2013.
As Dynamic Duo, Choiza released a single, “High Five” featuring Crush, Boi B, and Primary. Choiza, Boi B, and Primary also performed at The Henz Club.
Choiza’s controversial girlfriend Sulli, formerly a member of SM’s girl group f(x), was also in attendance during his show at The Henz Club.
Boi B appeared on SMTM 5, the most-watched season of Show Me The Money yet. As a member of Gil of Leessang and Madclown’s team, he released the hottest Korean hip hop single of 2016, “Horang Nabi,” before being eliminated from the show.
After dropping an album, Andre, in 2015, Yankie also had a quiet year.
2. Hi-Lite Records (EST. 2010)
- Huckleberry P
- and more
Hi-Lite: 2016 in Review
Paloalto released a single, “Fancy” featuring Dean and Sway D, and dropped an album, Victories, all while performing at popular hip hop clubs, bars, and lounges in Gangnam, such as Octagon and Hidden Lounge.
After appearing on season four of Show Me The Money as a judge alongside Zico in 2015, Paloalto continued to appear on Korean hip hop survival shows in 2016. He is currently a judge on Tribe of Hip Hop 2 alongside label mates Reddy and G2.
He also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, Rapbeat Show, and more as well as at popular hip hop clubs, bars, and lounges in Itaewon. Despite a packed schedule and a busy year, he tied the knot with his longtime girlfriend during a dreamy December wedding.
Reddy released three singles including “Think” featuring Jay Park and appeared on SMTM 5 where he made a name for himself as one of the Korean hip hop scene’s trendiest fashion icons.
G2 also appeared on SMTM 5 but flopped after forgetting his lyrics time and time again due to tension, anxiety, and stress. But they all come with being a contestant on the Korean hip hop survival show that pits Korean rappers against Korean rappers. It’s label mates against label mates and friends against friends.
After his appearance on SMTM 5 came to an anticlimactic conclusion, he released a string of highly successful singles and dropped an album, G2’s Life, Pt. 1. His English language documentary, A Portrait of G2, also aired exclusively on kcon.tv.
YunB released an arguably underrated single, “Runaway, Part 1” featuring Paloalto, cementing his position as a Korean rapper to watch at the Korean hip hop label and in the Korean hip hop scene.
3. Illionaire Records (EST. 2011)
- The Quiett
Illionaire: 2016 in Review
Dok2 & The Quiett
Dok2 and The Quiett released single after single (The Quiett also dropped an album, Q Train 2) and appeared as judges on Show Me The Money for the third year in a row.Team Illionaire came in third place on SMTM 5 after Superbee, who auditioned in Los Angeles, California, defeated Korean rapper after Korean rapper, surviving to the bittersweet end. However, it was Superbee’s best friend and fellow rapper
Team Illionaire came in third place on SMTM 5 after Superbee, who auditioned in Los Angeles, California, defeated Korean rapper after Korean rapper, surviving to the bittersweet end. But it was Superbee’s best friend Myundo, who was also on Team Illionaire, who skyrocketed to fame with the hit single “Sniffin’ My Ambition.”
After discovering talented and trendy Korean rookie rappers Hash Swan, Changmo, and Kim Hyo-eun through SMTM 5, Dok2 and The Quiett established a new wave hip hop record label, Ambition Muzik, and signed all three of the Korean rookie rappers to it.
Beenzino released a single, “Life in Color,” and dropped one of the most-talked-about albums of 2016, 12. 12 was rivaled only by Anecdote, which E Sens released while he was still in jail for repeat marijuana use.
Even though The Henz Club hosted E Sens’ album release party without him, it was still a full house as fans and fellow Korean rappers alike came together to listen to 12 and show love to E Sens.
4. Brand New Music (EST. 2011)
- San E
- Verbal Jint
- Hanhae, Sanchez, and Kiggen of Phantom
- and more
Brand New: 2016 in Review
San E released a number of singles including “Bad Year,” a play on words that means bad bitch in Korean, criticizing the corrupt President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye.
He also hosted season three of Unpretty Rapstar, but it was not as successful as the seasons that came before it due to lackluster performances by the “unpretty” female Korean rappers on the show. He is currently hosting Tribe of Hip Hop 2 alongside Shin Dong-yub, who is close to Korean rapper and entertainer Din Din of DO Entertainment.
Verbal Jint released a single, “Sunshine” featuring Chancellor, but had a quiet year in comparison to 2015 when he released a full-length album, GO HARD Part 1. Of the 21 songs on the album, nine feature fellow Korean hip hop artists including Beenzino, Black Nut, Sanchez of Phantom, and YDG.
YDG featured on a variety of hit singles including Beenzino’s “January,” G2’s “Oasis,” and Code Kunst’s “Beside Me.” He also made an appearance as the captain of a team on the Korean pop survival show Singing Battle.
P-Type is currently a judge on Tribe of Hip Hop 2 alongside Hanhae of Phantom and Minos, two Korean rappers who are taking over the Korean hip hop scene slowly but surely.
“Not BET. Korean hip hop artists who lead and never follow—be with me,” rapped Minos during episode nine of Tribe of Hip Hop 2.
Hanhae, member of the popular Korean hip hop trio Phantom with Sanchez and Kiggen, also released three singles as a solo artist including “I Used To.”
KittiB released a string of singles including “Doin’ Good” featuring Verbal Jint, cementing herself as one of the few Korean female rappers to watch in the Korean hip hop scene.
KittiB, Hanhae, and P-Type were all judges on Tribe of Hip Hop 1, but KittiB was dropped from the second season and replaced with Korean female rappers to watch Cheetah, LE, and Yezi.
Chancellor, formerly a Korean R&B singer in the Korean hip hop trio One Way and currently a producer in the Korean pop duo Duble Sidekick, released a single featuring Dok2, “Murda,” and a single featuring B-Free, “Palm Tree.” He also dropped his first album as a solo artist, My Full Name, and the title track, “Surrender,” features Lyn.
5. AOMG (EST. 2013)
- Jay Park
- Simon Dominic
- Cha Cha Malone
- Ugly Duck
AOMG: 2016 in Review
Jay Park released sexy single after sexy single, and he also dropped a show-stopping EP with label mate Ugly Duck, aptly titled Scene Stealers, and a solo album, aptly titled Everything You Wanted.
He performed at the hottest hip hop clubs, bars, and lounges in South Korea, such as The Henz Club, Secret Society 02, and Arena, and appeared on My Little Television with his B-boy crew, Korean Assassins.
After wrapping up SMTM 5 with a victory thanks to BewhY, Simon Dominic and BewhY performed their hit song, “Not Who You Knew” at The Henz Club.
Simon Dominic also made a surprise guest appearance when Jay Park and Sik-K, a member of Team AOMG on season three of Show Me The Money, performed at Octagon.
Gray & Cha Cha Malone
Gray was a judge on SMTM 5 alongside Simon Dominic, and he produced hit song after hit song, including “Not Who You Knew.”
Both Gray and fellow producer Cha Cha Malone made special guest appearances with AOMG at the popular Korean hip hop lounge Boom Bar, where Jay Park’s B-boy crew Korean Assassins were the hosts of a series of successful Korean hip hop parties.
Loco released five singles including “Still” featuring Crush. He also performed alongside label mates Jay Park and Gray at Seoul Fashion Festival 2016. Together, they headlined one of Seoul’s newest Korean hip hop festivals that mixes music and fashion.
Loco, Jay Park, Simon Dominic, and Gray also made guest appearances on SNL Korea. Have you seen their 3 Minute Boyfriend skit?
Ugly Duck released Scene Stealers with Jay Park and performed at The Henz Club. He also made his debut as a DJ at The Henz Club and Secret Society 02.
Ugly Duck, Jay Park, Gray, and Loco supported Dayday (a Team AOMG member from Show Me The Money season four) during his highly anticipated album showcase at Hidden Lounge.
Elo & Hoody
Korean R&B singers Elo and Hoody dropped long-awaited albums, Eight Femmes and On and On respectively, and Elo wrapped up 2016 with a special performance at The Henz Club.
6. Feel Ghood Music (EST. 2013)
- Yoon Mirae
- Drunken Tiger (also known as Tiger JK)
Feel Ghood Music: 2016 in Review
Yoon Mirae & Drunken Tiger
Korean hip hop legends Yoon Mirae and Drunken Tiger didn’t participate as judges on SMTM 5, but they did scout and sign three talented contestants to Feel Ghood Music: Superbee, Myundo, and Junoflo.
Superbee & Myundo
Superbee and Myundo appeared on the multinational hip hop competition show Swaggers Made in USA and dropped a mini album under the same name. Both Superbee and Myundo, who performed at Secret Society 02 before competing on SMTM 5, almost dominated SMTM 5 together.
Unfortunately, in the end, all eyes and ears were on C Jamm and BewhY, two best friends from high school turned Korean rookie rappers and Show Me The Money rivals.
Junoflo also appeared on SMTM 5, but he was defeated early on by Korean rookie rapper Hash Swan in a one-on-one rap versus battle. After appearing on SMTM 5 and signing to Feel Ghood Music, he immediately released several singles, including “Deja Vu.” Now, he is performing on tour with Yoon Mirae and Drunken Tiger and at trendy hip hop clubs, bars, and lounges in South Korea.
7. Just Music Entertainment (EST. 2014)
- C Jamm
- Bill Stax (formerly known as Vasco)
- Black Nut
- Genius Nochang
- Han Yohan
Just Music: 2016 in Review
After a two year hiatus from the Korean hip hop scene, Swings dropped his fourth album, Levitate 2.
But he was plagued by several controversies surrounding his early discharge from the military and his music video for the single “Your Soul”, which featured a Korean dancer in blackface. Due to complaints from both Korean and international Korean hip hop fans, the music video was taken down immediately. The director also issued an apology.
Despite dealing with controversy after controversy Swings opened a second studio, signed a new artist to Just Music, and performed at sold-out solo concerts in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and more.
C Jamm came in second place on SMTM 5, but he was still a winner! He shot to fame almost overnight and appeared on several Korean reality TV shows such as I Live Alone and Happy Together. He also appeared as a guest on Mic Swagger 2.
Recently, he performed at a concert in the US with ASAP TyY, who also released a single, “Like Me” featuring C Jamm and BewhY.
Giriboy dropped an album, Mechanical Album, and released several singles including “Suljari.” But Beenzino’s album, which was released at the same time, dominated the charts.
He also made his debut as a DJ, performing at The Henz Club, Secret Society 02, and more. His crew, WYBH (Would You Be Hang), held a string of successful Korean hip hop parties as well.
When he wasn’t in the studio, he was performing in London with Blacknut and in China with both Blacknut and Giriboy. He also opened a second club in Busan, Secret Society 051, and turned his first club in Hongdae, Secret Society 02, into a bar and lounge, all while appearing as a judge on the Korean pop survival show Boys 24.
Genius Nochang had a quiet year but could often be spotted performing and DJing at Secret Society 02.
Han Yohan, Just Music’s former guitarist, joined the old school hip hop record label as an artist and released his first full-length album, MUSASHI. He also held his first solo concert.
A wide variety of Just Music artists performed at Hiphopplaya Festival and Seoul Fashion Festival, and Just Music also held a group concert, The Cry, at the end of the year.
8. Vismajor Company (EST. 2014)
- Don Mills
- and more
VMC: 2016 in Review
Don Mills & Nucksal
Don Mills and Nucksal both released albums, Future and The God of Small Things respectively, while still making time to host their Korean hip hop talk show on YouTube, Hwangchi and Nukchi. They recently filmed their own 2016 special.
Deepflow & Wutan
Deepflow, Don Mills, and Nucksal performed at SXSW, the world’s largest music festival held annually in Austin, Texas, while Wutan had a quiet year.
A wide variety of VMC artists performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, Rapbeat Show, and popular hip hop clubs, bars, and lounges in South Korea like The Henz Club and Secret Society 02.