Understanding BTS’ Foundation in Hip-Hop
How a K-pop group’s style of writing, rhyming, composition and narrative are rooted in their love for this powerful genre of music
Hip-hop is often seen as a genre that has lost pioneers such as Tupac because of ‘beef,’ gang violence and, above all, toxic masculinity. Although this side to hip-hop very much exists (even today), we’ve seen a lot of lyric-heavy storytelling rap from artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, among others, become mainstream. A rather unexpected addition to this mix was BTS.
Although BTS debuted under what was then a rather small entertainment agency (Big Hit Entertainment) in 2013, they showed us that they were the exception and not the rule. The septet stood out for many reasons, even as a rookie group. Apart from having more rappers than a regular K-pop group, there have been many obvious ways that hip-hop has influenced their artistry. It has been discussed before that they were originally meant to launch as a hip-hop group rather than a K-pop one, and even though the latter route was chosen, the culture of hip-hop never left the table.
The rise of Soundcloud and mumble rap has made hip-hop more accessible to a larger audience over the last four or five years, there’s a more powerful side of hip-hop that doesn’t get the limelight it deserves. That is the side of rap and hip- hop that we know BTS (primarily rappers and songwriters RM, SUGA and j-hope) enjoy and appreciate. It is no wonder that the members have cited Nas, J. Cole, Mac Miller, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, A$AP Rocky and more as influences—artists who championed the idea of combining hip-hop with complex storylines and visual art. Although it may have been peculiar, Big Hit’s decision to debut a group that was more hip-hop than K-pop, choosing to go against the obvious glitz, glamour and fame, worked in their favor. They chose to encourage BTS to be celebrated for their vulnerability and honesty.
One of the many reasons the band is so unique to other groups from Korea is because the members play a significant part in the production and writing of their own music. For decades, K-pop’s culture was primarily based on handing groups songs that are already pre-written, produced and packaged, but BTS and Big Hit Entertainment understood the value of perspective. Older members of the group’s fan club ARMY remember livestreams where the members were seen producing instrumentals or writing lyrics. Even with the limited little window a fan has into an artist’s life, BTS’ honesty in their work gives ARMY a bond at a level that is more than just superficial–their losses and victories became ours.
If you visit their 2013 debut single album 2 Cool 4 Skool, their first EP, O!RUL8,2? (2013) or their second EP Skool Luv Affair (2014), their lyricism and sound was very fitting for where they were in life. We were introduced to the multiple conflicts a boy that is coming of age would experience, but with an evolved thought-process. Dissent, dissonance, love versus romance, critiquing their education system and society, were some of the topics explored. The group’s music videos and lyrics both paralleled rebellion and explored the wonders of youth and curiosity. The fandom has often discussed that BTS’ school trilogy may have been influenced by rapper Kanye West’s college trilogy (made of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation). Unlike other groups, BTS’ members were writing their music from the start and making their own decisions on what to write about. Their music featured tracks the boys did in their regional dialects—which isn’t popular and is often looked down on in the Korean entertainment industry— and chose to follow traditional hip-hop structures when it came to their albums: intros, outros and skits were part of almost every record, committing to be different from anyone else in the industry even if it meant being unpopular. At one point we even had a series of cyphers on various albums, and it doesn’t get more old school than that. BTS embraced their love for hip-hop unapologetically and like many of their inspirations, chose to make art that imitates life.
BTS’ music privileges us with an opportunity of growing up with them. We have seen their music, range and lyrics evolve and age with time. Wings (2016) was the first to capture this maturity but we see this growth prominently in their album series Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa (2015,) which roughly translates to ‘The Most Beautiful Moment in Life.’ In this era we see the boys reminisce about their youth and tackle demons that come with stepping into adulthood. Post the School Trilogy, BTS explored a new sound, leaving behind their distinct Nineties hip-hop scratches and influences. As they experimented with a more alternative soundscape, driving into darker trap, piano ballads and even rock-based blends of hip- hop, it was fittingly complemented by the beauty of the subsequent albums which was the deep reflection and introspection of the lyrics presented. Staying true to their roots of storytelling, BTS curated certain anecdotes from their own lives and these albums gave them a chance to find strength in situations that otherwise could be discouraging. From albums titled Face Yourself and Love Yourself, BTS has taken us on a journey through not only self-acceptance and perseverance, but on one that celebrates growth and progress.
Pre-debut BTS also understood the significance of authenticity. We had tracks where the members discussed everything from Korea’s mandatory military service to country politics and the impact of both on a young boy’s mind. As BTS have aged, their perspective has changed from externalization to internalization, which is something we see very commonly in mainstream lyrical hip-hop. Their most recent release Map of the Soul: 7 had subtle references to their earlier music, helping us draw comparisons to the members back then to them now. The album explores concepts based on human psychology— Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories of the ‘persona’, ‘shadow’ and ‘ego’—and helps trace back the band’s journey and blooming since their debut.
Hip-hop’s influence on BTS isn’t only abundant but is also obvious. Their style of writing, style of rhyming, their composition, the narratives each album takes on, the nods to previous music all of it is rooted in their love for the genre. BTS’ love comes through not only in their musicality but also in their choreography as their most popular dance forms are jazz, street style, urban contemporary and of course hip-hop. As a rap and hip-hop fan, it is worth mentioning that BTS has risen to the top of a male- dominated genre and industry (that has effectively normalized a lot of destructive tendencies) but have challenged toxic masculinity in their own ways. This ranges from their choreographies, their use of makeup, their interest in fashion, their softer aesthetics, to being comfortable crying on stage, expressing their emotions, making music that’s empowering instead of punching down, and most importantly, priding themselves in their ability to be vulnerable. Their style of artistry has never been done before and–although there may be attempts—it will never be done again.
BTS’ rise to fame was because people chose them to be their heroes, chose them to tell their stories and chose them to change history by being the first K-pop act to hit Number One on Billboard. Their impact has been no less than a revolution and it all started just because of these seven boys and their love for hip-hop. BTS’ acceptance and acclaim in hip-hop is inspiring. Not only does it represent a side of hip-hop that mainstream pop culture ignores, but the group’s rise in the genre has made more space for more lyrical poetry, non-English rap, feminine boys, and so much more. We ARMYs look at BTS and see a little bit of ourselves in them, and for that very reason, BTS’ influence on the world will be spoken about for centuries and will be read about in history books. We’d read all about how a small Korean entertainment company believed in a seven-member hip-hop group to take over the world… and they did.
Aranya Johar is a poet, activist and the youngest member and only Indian of the G7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council. Before she was any of those things she was, and still is, an ARMY.