Sneak Peek: Eight veteran Korean hip hop record labels, their current artists and their year in review.
Entertainment companies in South Korea rule the Korean pop industry with an iron first, for better or for worse.
South Korean entertainment companies are notorious for slave contracts, which often include everything from inhumane working conditions to mandatory plastic surgery to mandatory prostitution.
Once upon a time, South Korea entertainment companies ruled the Korean hip hop industry with an iron first, too.
When Dok2 was just 15 years old, he signed a slave contract with Gap Entertainment, agreeing to drop 10 full-length albums in eight years.
Dok2 would eventually break his contract (and his chains), establishing his own record label, Illionaire Records, with The Quiett.
“Money made by artists is first given to entertainment companies to pay bosses, managers and staff members, but we are the bosses,” said The Quiett in an interview with Jae Ki Cho of Complex.
The establishment of independent record labels like Illionaire lead a revolution in the Korean hip hop industry; and, it also lead to the evolution of the Korean hip hop industry.
Now, both successful and struggling Korean hip hop artists have more freedom, making up eight well-established veteran record labels and four must-watch rookie record labels.
Veteran Korean Hip Hop Record Labels
- Amoeba Culture
- Hi-Lite Records
- Illionaire Records
- Brand New Music
- AOMG (Above Ordinary Music Group, or Always On My Grind)
- Feel Ghood Music
- Just Music Entertainment
- Vismajor Company
Rookie Korean Hip Hop Record Labels
- MKIT Rain
- The Black Label
- Ambition Musik
Under independent record labels, Korean hip hop artists simply have more time and money to spend on what really matters to them the most: Their music.
Recently, CJ E&M, one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment and media contents companies, acquired Hi-Lite Records and AOMG. However, CJ E&M only controls the marketing and distribution of their music– not the production of their music.
1. Amoeba Culture (Est. 2006)
- Choiza and Gaeko of Dynamic Duo
- Boi B, Geegooin and Hangzoo of Rhythm Power
Amoeba Culture: 2016 In Review
Korean hip hop fans around the world waited impatiently for a collaboration between Crush, Dean and Zico; and, the long wait paid off when Zico finally released Bermuda Triangle featuring Dean and Crush at the end of the year.
Crush also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, South Korea’s hottest hip hop festival, and at The Henz Club, Seoul’s hottest hip hop club.
Crush even became everyone’s crush due to his appearance on the hit Korean variety show I Live Alone where he showed off his awkward but adorable side.
Choiza released a single, High Five featuring Crush, Boi B and Primary, with Dynamic Duo. Choiza, Boi B and Primary also performed at The Henz Club in 2016.
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 season five of Show Me The Money, arguably the most-watched season of Show Me The Money yet.
As part of Gil of Leessang and Madclown’s team, he released one of the hottest Korean hip hop singles of 2016, Swallowtail, before being eliminated from the show.
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.
After dropping an album, Andre, in 2015, Yankie also had a quiet year.
2. Hi-Lite Records (EST. 2010)
- Huckleberry P
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 South Korea like Octagon, Club Made 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 competition shows in 2016.
He is currently a judge on season two of Tribe of Hip Hop (Tribe of Hip Hop: The Game of Thrones) alongside label mates Reddy and G2.
He also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, Rapbeat Show and more as well as at several hot hip hop clubs, bars and lounges in Korea.
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 Show Me The Money 5 where he made a name for himself as one of Korean hip hop’s hottest fashion icons.
G2 also appeared on SMTM 5 but flopped after forgetting his lyrics time and time again due to anxiety, tension and stress.
But anxiety, tension and stress all come with being a contestant on the controversial Korean hip hop competition show that pits Korean rappers against Korean rappers: It’s label mates against label mates– and friends against friends.
After SMTM 5 came to its dramatic conclusion, G2 released a string of highly successful singles and dropped an album, G2’s Life, Pt. 1.
YunB, one of Hi-Lite’s newest members, released the underrated single, Runaway, Part 1 featuring Paloalto, cementing his position as a must-watch Korean rapper 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 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.
Illionaire came in third place on SMTM 5 after team member Superbee, who auditioned in Los Angeles, California, defeated Korean rapper after Korean rapper, surviving to the bittersweet end.
Although, it was Superbee’s best friend and fellow team member Myundo who skyrocketed to fame with the hit single Sniffin’ My Ambition.
Hidden Stages are filmed at Hidden Lounge, Gangnam’s only Korean hip hop lounge.
After discovering talented and trendy Korean rookie rappers Hashwan, Changmo and Kim Hyo Eun through SMTM 5, Dok2 and The Quiett also established a rookie record label, Ambition Muzik.
Dok2 and The Quiett signed all three of the Korean rookie rappers to their new label while label mate 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 give love to E-Sens.
4. Brand New Music (EST. 2011)
- Verbal Jint
- Hanhae, Sanchez and Kiggen of Phantom
Brand New: 2016 In Review
San-E released a number of singles, including Bad Year, or Bad B*tch, which criticized the corrupt President of South Korea, Park Geun Hye.
He also hosted season three of Unpretty Rapstar, but Unpretty Rapstar 3 was not as successful as the seasons that came before it due to lackluster performances by the female Korean rappers on the show.
He is currently hosting Tribe of Hip Hop 2 alongside Shin Dong Yub, who is close with 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.
GO HARD Part 1 is an album with a whopping 21 songs. Of the 21 songs, nine feature fellow Korean hip hop artists, including Beenzino, Blacknut, Sanchez of Phantom and YDG.
He also made an appearance as the captain of a team on the Korean singing competition show, Singing Battle.
P-Type is currently a judge on Tribe of Hip Hop 2 alongside Hanhae of Phantom and Minos, who are fast becoming well-respected Korean hip hop artists in both the underground and mainstream scenes of Korean hip hop.
“Not BET. Korean hip hop artists who lead and never follow– be with me,” rapped Minos during episode nine of Tribe of Hip Hop: The Game of Thrones.
Hanhae, member of the popular Korean hip hop trio Phantom with Sanchez and Kiggen, released three singles as a solo artist, including I Used To.
P-Type, Hanhae and KittiB were all judges on season one of Tribe of Hip Hop (Hip Hop Tribe), but she was dropped from the second season and replaced with Korean female rappers Cheetah, LE and Yezi.
Nevertheless, KittiB released a string of singles, including Doin’ Good featuring Verbal Jint, cementing herself as one of the few must-watch Korean female MCs in the Korean hip hop scene.
Chancellor, formerly a member of the Korean hip hop trio One Way, released a single featuring Dok2, Murda.
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 but also dropped an EP with label mate Ugly Duck, Scene Stealers, and an album, Everything You Wanted.
Jay Park also performed at the hottest hip hop clubs, bars and lounges in Korea like 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 team member BewhY, Simon Dominic and BewhY performed at The Henz Club.
He also made a surprise guest appearance when Jay Park and Sik-K (a former AOMG team member from season three of Show Me The Money) performed at Korean hip hop club Octagon.
Gray was a judge on SMTM 5 alongside Simon Dominic. Both Gray and Cha Cha Malone made special guest appearances with AOMG at Korean hip hop lounge Boom Bar. Jay Park’s B-boy crew Korean Assassins were the hosts.
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.
Jay Park, Simon Dominic, Gray and Loco also made guest appearances on SNL Korea, drawing attention and applause for their 3 Minute Boyfriend skit.
Ugly Duck released the super popular EP Scene Stealers with Jay Park and performed at The Henz Club as an artist. He also made his debut as a DJ at both The Henz Club and Secret Society 02.
Jay Park, Gray, Loco and Ugly Duck also supported DayDay (a former AOMG team member from Show Me The Money 3) during his highly anticipated album showcase at Hidden Lounge.
Both Elo and Hoody dropped long-awaited albums, Eight Femmes and On and On respectively, and Elo wrapped up 2016 with a show at The Henz Club.
6. Feel Ghood Music (EST. 2013)
- Yoon Mi Rae
- Drunken Tiger (also known as Tiger JK)
Feel Ghood Music: 2016 In Review
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, all eyes and ears were on BewhY and CJamm, two high school friends turned Korean rappers– and rivals.
Junoflo also appeared on SMTM 5, but he was defeated early on by rising Korean rookie rapper Hash Swan in a one-on-one rap versus battle.
Korean hip hop legends Yoon Mi Rae and Drunken Tiger didn’t participate as judges on SMTM 5, but they did scout and sign the three talented contestants to Feel Ghood Music.
After appearing on SMTM 5 and signing to Feel Ghood Music, Junoflo immediately released several singles, including Deja Vu.
Now he is performing on tour with Yoon Mi Rae and Drunken Tiger and at trendy hip hop clubs, bars and lounges in Korea.
7. Just Music Entertainment (EST. 2014)
- Bill Stax (formerly known as Vasco)
- 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.
However, 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 national and international Korean hip hop fans, the music video was taken down almost immediately. The director also issued an apology.
Despite dealing with controversy after controversy in 2016, Swings opened a second studio, signed a new artist and performed at sold-out solo concerts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and more.
CJamm was the runner-up of SMTM 5 but still a real winner. He shot to newfound fame and also appeared on several Korean variety 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 America with ASAP TyY. ASAP TyY also released a single, Like Me featuring Cjamm and BewhY.
Giriboy dropped an album, Mechanical Album, and released several singles, including Suljari. However, 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 successful string of packed club, bar and lounge parties as well.
He performed 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, Secret Society 02, into a bar and lounge– all while appearing as a judge on Boys 24.
Genius Nochang had a quiet year but could often be spotted performing and even DJing at Secret Society 02.
Han Yohan, Just Music’s former guitarist and brand new artist, released his first full-length album and performed at a solo concert.
A variety of Just Music artists also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival and Seoul Fashion Festival, and Just Music held a group concert, The Cry, at the end of the year.
8. Vismajor Company (EST. 2014)
- Don Mills
VMC: 2016 In Review
Don Mills and Nuksal both released albums, Future and The God of Small Things respectively, while still making time to host their Korean-language Korean hip hop show, Hwang-chi and Nuk-chi. They recently filmed their own 2016 In Review special.
Deepflow, Don Mills and Nuksal 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 also performed at Hiphopplaya Festival, Rapbeat Show and popular hip hop clubs, bars and lounges in Korea like The Henz Club and Secret Society 02.