Smash (left) and J-Kwondo of 45RPM
This is the 20th article in a series on producers, MCs, DJs and artists working in the Korean underground hip-hop scene. ― Ed.
The hip-hop scene in Korea was very different when rap group 45RPM first started in 1999.
The group ― consisting of members Smash, J-Kwondo and Red Roc ― said back then hip-hop was a culture shock to Koreans who had never experienced it before. At the time only a small number of Koreans listened to hip-hop, and there weren’t many rappers or dancers.
Back then, there weren’t many opportunities to perform either, Red Roc noted, not to mention the absence of social networks such as YouTube or Soundcloud.
“Basically all we had were our demos. We wanted to perform, but we didn’t have the opportunity,” he said. “We would just do any performance that was available. We would go all over Korea to Daejeon, Busan and just anywhere that would let us perform. It was a gift to us.”
He added that today it’s very different. Artists can just upload songs online and they can go viral, whereas when they started out, they had to go on foot to get their stuff out there.
The three members all came to hip-hop in different ways. Leader Smash was introduced to it by a group of DJs that he used to live with when he was young. For J-Kwondo, it was his cousin who introduced him through his LP collection. Red Roc got to know hip-hop first as a dancer, and then started rapping with his friends in high school.
Smash and J-Kwondo originally started the group 45RPM in Daejeon. In 1999, Smash was managing a club called Apollo, where they started out. At the same time, Red Roc was getting his start in Seoul at underground club Master Plan as a part of Deep Down Tribe with his best friend. He featured with 45RPM, but didn’t officially join until 2012.
All three said they were attracted to the freedom of expression with hip-hop, especially in live performances.
“Back then, there was nothing like what we call pure rap. You know how they have some sort of bridge, and then a little rap here and there. But when I started listening to LPs, I liked that with just rap, pure rap, I can express myself and thoroughly speak my mind,” J-Kwondo said.
In the early 2000s, hip-hop really took off in Korea, Smash said. Unfortunately, it was just a passing trend. However, the artists who stuck around and continued with hip-hop have not only grown, but contributed to the scene as well.
“Back then, it was a big thing, a fad. But when all the fans died down, the people who continued to do the music, they’ve actually taken ground. And they have a firm foundation. They’ve evolved in skills and style,” he said.
The group said they get inspiration for their music from experiencing life. Smash said that there is always something that people want to say about life. For Red Roc, it’s more than just writing lyrics. He is trying to deliver a message and tell a story, something that the audience can relate to and be comforted by.
J-Kwondo said that listening to other music also challenges them to make better music.
At the moment, the group is working on a new song set to be released early in the new year. Smash said the song is called “Old School” and is basically the group’s thoughts about Korean hip-hop ― what attracted them, their struggles, everything they feel about it. Depending on whether they get the consent for sampling, the single might be released as a free download.
As one of the longest-running hip-hop groups, 45RPM has no thoughts of stopping any time soon. J-Kwondo has his sights set on being the next Psy and performing overseas. Smash, however, simply wants 45RPM to continue performing together as a group, even when they get old.
“We’ve never been the best group. But we know our own color and we want people to be happy when they listen to our music. As a group, we hope that when people listen to our music, they enjoy it,” Smash said.
By Emma Kalka (firstname.lastname@example.org)