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BUILDING K HIP-HOP : Breaking Into the Overground

Things were often short-lived in the early days of Korea’s hip-hop underground, for a variety of reasons. For one, hip-hop in the late 1990s was strictly a hobby. There was little money in performances and most artists would be content with breaking even. The idea of making a full-time living from music alone was a fantastic dream for nearly everyone, and the thought of actually becoming wealthy like the American rappers at the time was unthinkable.

Soul Company, the first attempt at organising a group of underground artists into a cohesive label, wouldn’t appear until 2004, but until then the only way to earn some money was to try and break into the overground. This was no easy task. Entertainment companies, chiefly YG and SM, had a monopoly on how hip-hop was portrayed in the mainstream eye.

Artists without representation faced the insurmountable task of convincing a television or mainstream radio producer to play their music based on artistic merit alone. Few were given a chance, and fewer still were successful, but one group that seamlessly made the leap into the ears of mainstream listeners was CB Mass.

CB Mass was originally a four-member rap collective formed in 1998 and led by BLEX member Curbin. When two of the members left to join another group, and another left due to creative differences, only Curbin remained. Choiza and Gaeko, members of a group named K.O.D that regularly performed at Master Plan, eventually joined CB Mass after one of their own group members went abroad to study. Still using the CB Mass name and with Curbin as the de facto leader, the trio first appeared on the 2000 대한민국 (2000 South Korea) compilation album with the track 羅針盤 (Compass). 2000 South Korea was the sequel to the enormously popular 1999 대한민국 (1999 South Korea) album that had helped propel rap group Honey Family to the front of the music industry and sell 50,000 copies of their debut album. CB Mass being featured in 2000 South Korea, alongside many overground heavyweights, was a significant step towards gaining visibility with a mainstream audience.

In the eight years between Seo Taiji’s 1991 debut and the release of 1999 South Korea, an influx of Korean-Americans had descended upon the hip-hop scene. Being American, they radiated authority when it came to hip-hop. They had grown up with it, as English speakers they understood it, and as Korean-Americans they were uniquely positioned to guide its introduction into Korea. Their authenticity appealed to both the underground and overground communities and they existed in flux between both. A lot of these artists enjoyed early success as a result of their position. Jinusean and 1TYM dominated the mainstream circuit with the support of YG Entertainment, and even rap group Uptown were given significant airplay on television. Likewise, various Americans peppered the tracks on 1999 South Korea, including a brand new duo called Drunken Tiger (Tiger JK and DJ Shine). It was their relationship with Drunken Tiger, who had already experienced instant success with their debut album, that aided CB Mass in joining the overground scene.

Three months after the release of 2000 South Korea, CB Mass featured on Drunken Tiger’s highly anticipated second album, 위대한 탄생 (The Great Rebirth), on a track called The Movement alongside Kim Jinpyo and Uptown’s Yoon Mirae. The album climbed as high as no.3 in the music charts and sold over 130,000 copies. When CB Mass eventually released their own debut album, Massmediah, in the second half of 2000, hip-hop fans were already expecting great things from them. Their sound was modern and on-trend relative to what was being released in the United States at the same time. Massmediah featured a sequel to The Movement, and a hip hop crew by the same name was established with the artists who featured on the original song as founding members. The popularity of CB Mass exploded, and their two subsequent albums, Massmatics (2001) and Massappeal (2003), were both commercial successes and remain classic albums even today. Appearances on television shows like Music Camp and in movie soundtracks confirmed it – CB Mass had made it. They were part of the overground.

It was mentioned earlier that things in the early days of Korean hip-hop were often short-lived. Even the rapidly rising CB Mass were not an exception to this phenomenon. It was Curbin, the leader himself, who stood accused of embezzling money from the earnings of Massmatics, as well as from fellow Movement members Epik High and TBNY who were yet to make their debut. Evidence of this discontent can already be seen in Massappeal, released prior to the official break-up of the group. Five of the fourteen songs are remixes (one of which is a remix to another song in the same album), and of the remaining nine, Curbin only features on three. CB Mass were bound by their contract with Cream Records to release Massappeal, but just three months after its release it was announced that Choija and Gaeko would be leaving the group to form Dynamic Duo, with Curbin to continue as a solo artist. Having burnt all of his bridges in the industry, Curbin never did return to music, leaving behind a bittersweet legacy as the man whose selfish actions led to the creation of the greatest double act in Korean hip-hop history.

Eighteen years and ten albums later, Dynamic Duo has longevity that is highly unusual in Korean hip-hop. The number of rappers who manage to spend ten years in the industry is small enough, but the number of first-generation artists that remain influential can be counted on one hand. Trends within rap are fickle, and those who cannot keep up with the ever-changing genre will quickly lose their audience. There is also the element of technical skill to worry about. The flows and rhyme schemes on Taxi Driver, Dynamic Duo’s debut album, still largely hold up today, which is a testament to how quickly Korean hip-hop evolved from the simple four-bar end rhymes that were standard just a few years earlier. It is also a testament to Korea’s willingness to adopt hip-hop so soon after its introduction despite the genre being so initially unfamiliar. Hip-hop is now one of the biggest genres in the country and Dynamic Duo has played a large role in that transformation.


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