7 MIN READ
One of the most thrilling aspects of the K Hip-Hop scene within recent years has been that of rap survival shows. Popularized through the likes of ‘Show Me The Money’, ‘Unpretty Rapstar’ and ‘High School Rapper’, these shows see up and coming rappers go head-to-head in the hopes of winning cash prizes, record deals, and the opportunity to flaunt their skills. Within the last decade, these shows have witnessed a steady uptick in viewership ranging from loyal K Hip-Hop fans to newbies to the genre, and in many ways, they have become an intrinsic part of the scene. However, while they have aided the growth of the K Hip-Hop community, through their commercialization of the genre, they have also begun to strip away at some core parts of Hip-Hop. To truly understand the impact of their commercial nature, join us as we dissect the good and the bad of these shows.
Undoubtedly, the main purpose of these shows is to provide entertainment to fans interested in Hip-Hop. Show Me The Money was the first of these rap competition shows to hit Korean airwaves on the television channel ‘Mnet’, and according to its chief producer, Han Dongchul, it was designed to expose the public to music outside of K Pop. Around the time it first aired, K Hip-Hop was still a relatively niche industry, especially when compared to the giant that is K Pop. Given this, activities and mainstream forms of entertainment for fans and people interested in the genre were rare. Show Me The Money stepped in to fill this gap and provide entertainment to fans, while at the same time serving as an introductory point for the general public to K Hip-Hop. Viewers didn’t need to know much about the genre itself, but instead could be introduced to rappers within the scene, and follow them on their journey filled with ups and downs as they battled it out in the hopes of emerging victorious. This is perhaps the true appeal of these shows, fans get to feel as though they are witnessing a success story from the ground up. Indeed, this has worked in the show’s favour as it has since been renewed for a whopping 11 seasons so far, providing more excitement with each new season.
Apart from providing entertainment, rap survival shows are also designed to benefit the rappers who appear on them. These shows provide a platform to market oneself and promise mentorship, cash prizes and even fame. This can be enticing to rappers, especially underground ones who may lack the right outlets to show off their skills and let their music be heard. With the only criteria to join being one’s talent, many jump at this opportunity as a fast track to success. Rappers also have the chance to be mentored by the industry’s finest while pulling off some superb performances. This aspect of their appeal does seem to be working as within the last few years, there has been an immense increase in rappers wishing to participate in these shows. Show Me The Money, for example, saw around 27,000 applicants for its most recent 10th season further highlighting its attractiveness.
From a commercial point of view, these shows are also beneficial in helping grow the K Hip-Hop industry. Labels have the benefit of scouting potential artists through them. When rappers appear on these shows who are either unsigned or come from small labels, not only do they have the opportunity to sell themselves to fans but to established labels as well. Many times contestants don’t even need to win, once they impress a label enough, they can be given a recruitment offer. In fact, many big labels like AOMG and Ambition Musik have snatched up rappers who appeared on these shows such as Woo Wonjae, Keem Hyo-Eun, and Leellamarz. In this way, they also help shine a light on some previously undiscovered gems. This sort of discovery aspect of these shows also leads to viewers becoming more engaged with the show and the K Hip-Hop community as a whole. To match this, within the last 5 years, many of these shows have also expanded beyond the sphere of television and have amped up their social media presence by creating challenges, YouTube specials and carefully curated posts to ensure that viewers are constantly engaged with the contestants. This not only serves as a chill way for people to keep up with K Hip-Hop but also works to promote both rappers and labels as well, contributing to their exposure.
There is no dispute as to whether these shows have contributed to the growth of K Hip-Hop, they have. But is there a cost to this? Part of the reason why shows like Show Me The Money are able to be so successful is due to the fact that they are heavily curated. Rarely if ever, anything unplanned happens. Each season has a clear vibe that is chosen and maintained throughout. For example, on Show Me The Money 10, it is clear that the producers opted to create a more ‘friendly’ vibe in comparison with past seasons. This ups their appeal and allows them to make their audience more engaged, therefore increasing viewership. Though, when taking this into consideration we also have to look at the genre of Hip-Hop itself. It is one that prides itself on authenticity. However, in their controlled nature, these shows have a tendency to ‘water down’ Hip-Hop to fit a particular vibe and make it more digestible to a wider audience. For example, contestants cannot rap about anything too ‘controversial’, swearing is censored, tattoos are covered up, and rappers who have had past scandals with marijuana are banned. The environment is carefully crafted to avoid pushing any buttons or offending anyone. But when rappers go on these shows, are they really staying true to the essence of Hip-Hop in such a restricted environment? Hip-Hop was birthed out of going against the conventional standards, it hinges on being non-conformist. So in some ways appearing on these shows while avoiding these very foundational aspects of Hip-Hop almost feels like a betrayal of the genre. In selling these shows to audiences, production companies are only selling a small part of Hip-Hop which is rapping, but through this, it also feels as though viewers are getting a false idea of what genre is really about. Moreover, it seems as though they are stripping away at the true meaning of Hip-Hop.
The idea of losing Hip-Hop’s true meaning through these shows has also been posited by a number of artists within K Hip-Hop and K R&B. The latest of these has been AKMU’s Chanhyuk who while featuring for Mudd the Student during his performance of ‘Dissonance’ on Show Me The Money 10 said: “From now on Hip-Hop is no longer cool … Show Me The Money is spoiling the world.”. During his verse, he sang about prioritising the love of the genre over the money and accolades that the show is famed for. His ‘diss’ of the show was very strong given the platform and highlights that in selling the genre, the idea of what it is all about is being lost. This isn’t the first time that the show has been criticised though as in 2017, the pioneering rapper Tiger JK also criticised the show’s lack of authenticity stating that it was scripted and that he received backlash for not being interesting enough during his stint as a judge on the 6th season. Simply put, the more drama that was seen meant that more viewers would become hooked. This then highlights that these shows aren’t solely concerned with talent, they also seek out people who are interesting and script scenes to keep viewers engaged.
This scripted aspect, while disingenuous, is also what accounts for a large chunk of the viewership on rap survival shows. The drama the episodes are chock full of help to keep the viewers on edge and leave them coming back for more. At times, when looking at these shows, it feels as though the drama supersedes the actual rapping and performances. It is almost as though the essence of Hip-Hop is put on the sidelines. Take Unpretty Rapstar for example, the show that was once dubbed the female version of Show Me The Money. While initially it was created with the intention of highlighting talented female rappers who have historically taken a backseat within the industry, as the episodes progressed, the show began to focus less on rapping and more on the beef between the contestants. Yet, in its first season, it was incredibly successful, so much so that it was renewed for a second season which aired a mere 6 months later. This highlights that aside from performances, many viewers also enjoy seeing the drama. So to attract more viewers, shows naturally will create more drama. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, are we also a part of the problem by supporting these shows? Do we also value drama over talent?
Rap survival shows have also been accused of prioritising money-making over helping artists grow. Many of these shows often get accused of being rigged and having producers who help their own artists advance to increase their popularity, rather than giving a chance to more deserving artists. This was seen particularly on Show Me The Money 8, a season that divided many fans. YUNHWAY of Wedaplugg Records appeared as a contestant and despite messing up her lyrics during the first 2 rounds, she was given a pass in both instances, while other rappers who delivered bars with more finesse were eliminated. The controversy came as both Swings and GIRIBOY who were producers on the two teams respectively had recently taken over Wedaplugg Records. Many fans at the time took to social media to voice their frustration over what they viewed as favouritism. Another instance of favouritism was also seen on Show Me The Money 10 with team YUMDDA x TOIL, who chose 12-year-old Song Minyeong to be on their team despite his inexperience. It rubbed fans the wrong way, especially since he was picked over more experienced artists like SAN E. Many fans voiced their concerns and even called for YUMDDA to be removed as a judge. The team also stated that their goal was to make chart-topping songs. However, that in itself almost betrays the purpose of the show as it seems more focused on them gaining accolades rather than truly mentoring rappers and helping them grow. These shortcomings were also highlighted by first-generation rapper Oneson, who in a YouTube video critized YUMDDA's judging style and role as producer. This once again calls into question the show’s authenticity and whether it can truly be said that it is all about helping the artists.
Therefore, we have to think about how these shows represent the K Hip-Hop community. There are benefits to them and they have helped grow interest in K Hip-Hop both domestically and internationally. However, ultimately through their commercialisation, they strip away at the genre. They cannot be taken at face value and we can’t see them as being truly genuine. So is there a middle ground? Well, Loco and Woo Wonjae summed it up well on their 'CUE POINTS' radio show last September when asked about Show Me The Money. They advised listeners to remember that at the end of the day, it is a show. This is how we need to approach it, we should acknowledge these shows for being what they are, shows designed to entertain us. While they include aspects of Hip-Hop, ultimately, we can’t use them to represent or paint an accurate picture of the community. So we can watch these shows for enjoyment, but at the same time, we should in our own way try to keep the true spirit of K Hip-Hop alive.
- Anais Khan-George