Korea’s Most Influential Hip-Hop Label Played at the Center of America’s Rap Universe

It’s hard to talk about innovation in Korean hip-hop without talking about Amoeba Culture, and it's hard to talk about American hip-hop without talking about Atlanta. What happens when the two come together?

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Mar 31 2015, 2:13pm

Duluth, Georgia is a suburb of Atlanta that has the highest ethnically Korean population in the state. It has over 20 Korean restaurants, two H Marts, and, at its center, a 70,000 square foot country music club named Wild Bill’s. Wild Bill’s is a piece of Americana located within a piece of Seoul that is itself located within the current center of America’s rap universe, and on Friday it was host to five of the biggest names from one of Korea’s most influential hip-hop labels, Amoeba Culture: Dynamic Duo, Zion.T, Crush, Primary, and DJ Friz.

This was the first of two US dates for the tour; the second was in New York the next day. Acts from South Korea coming to the US have traditionally stuck to the two coasts—specifically New York and LA, the areas which have the country’s highest populations of Korean-Americans and, by logical extension, the highest population of potential fans of Korean music. But as the international popularity of K-pop has become more and more evident, especially among non-Koreans, K-pop concerts have started moving away from these centers. In the past two years, tours have stopped by Dallas, Chicago, and Maryland, often omitting either New York or LA in the process. For the Amoeba tour, playing Duluth serves a double purpose: It’s both going where the Koreans are (and much of the concert banter was conducted in Korean, without translation) and going to the source of modern rap innovation, Atlanta.

It’s hard to talk about innovation in Korean hip-hop without talking about Amoeba Culture and Dynamic Duo, the label’s co-founders and the de facto headliners of the show. Rappers Choiza and Gaeko formed Dynamic Duo in 2004 after their previous trio CB Mass dissolved, and in 2006 they started Amoeba Culture. At the start, Dynamic Duo’s music built on CB Mass’s New York old school rap patterns and disco samples, best heard in hits like “Solo” and “Attendance Check.” Then, in 2008, Amoeba Culture signed two artists: the rowdier duo Supreme Team, and a producer and composer known as Primary.

Primary was then leading a band called Primary Skool, a collective of musicians, singers and rappers—including, eventually, future Illionaire Records heartthrob Beenzino—whose songs fused his formal jazz studies with his interest in hip-hop and funk. (The cardboard box robot head he wears comes from the cover of Primary Skool’s first album, Step Into the Metro.) As he started producing for Dynamic Duo and Supreme Team (he and Gaeko composed a song for Supreme Team for Quincy Jones’s 2011 visit to South Korea), the cross-pollination started to shape these groups’ sound, too, not so much through a shift than by an expansion of possibility. You can hear how far Dynamic Duo has come in the innovation and depth of their most recent album, 2013’s LUCKYNUMBERS (whose “Three Dopeboyz” samples Supreme Team’s first single), and in Gaeko’s diverse solo album from last year.

In 2012, Primary released Primary and the Messengers, a four-part double album that covers every jazz and rhythm and blues-derived genre imaginable. His “messengers” made up a who’s who of current Korean rappers and R&B singers: his Amoeba labelmates, scene stalwarts like Paloalto and Garion, rising talent like Beenzino and Junggigo, and even K-pop idols like G.O of MBLAQ (who Primary would go on to produce a single for, called “Smoky Girl”). As a result, the tracks have a mix-and-match feeling that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the Korean hip-hop scene as well as the far reach of Primary’s connections. The success of the album and its various singles cemented his place in the scene.

The Atlanta show held up the label’s collaborative spirit. After a brief EDM opener from turntablist DJ Friz, the show played as one continuous set, with transitions between artists bridged by performances of group songs. R&B crooner Crush’s solo set (with DJ Friz there to press “play” on Crush’s pre-recorded tracks) flowed into two duets with his mentor Zion.T, who then performed a few of his own songs before Primary came out to back him on “Let’s Meet,” after which Dynamic Duo’s Choiza came out for “? (Question Mark),” and so on. The overall effect was that we had come to see one big group, albeit one group with some very unique individual members.

Possibly the most unique of the label’s roster is singer Zion.T, whose constantly changing hairstyles, Cesar Romero grin, and bizarre wardrobe (he showed up at Wild Bill’s looking like he stole an old man’s golfing clothes) mark him as eccentric even before you hear his music. His breakthrough hit was the slippery “See Through,” a track from Primary and the Messengers that also features Gaeko. His debut album, Red Light, has the same genre-blender feel as Primary’s album or Dynamic Duo’s later work, but the sound is often stretched out (“Neon”) or stripped back (“Doop”), and it's all covered in his jazzy, syncopated vocal style. As his public visibility and popularity increases, his songs have turned toward the Korean tradition of the MOR ballad, starting with the spare “Yanghwa BRDG,” a longing ode to his taxi driver father (which he introduced in Wild Bill’s as “a song that’s very important to me”), and a duet with Crush, “Just,” that topped the weekly Gaon Digital Chart at its release and is only starting to descend now.

Crush is Amoeba’s newest artist, and he's more straightforwardly pop than anyone else on the label. He’s named both a single and his debut album Crush On You, and his sound tends toward the richness of classicist 90s and 00s R&B, like “Hug Me” (featuring Gaeko, naturally) or the decadent “Sofa.” But he and Zion.T equally represent the new guard of Korean hip-hop and R&B—not only because of their youth, but because of their popularity. Again, this change is because of an expansion of the palette of hip-hop and R&B. Zion.T has even joined Primary in composing and producing for K-pop idol groups (he’s all over “Smoky Girl”) and was featured on a cowbell-clanging disco-house track with G-Dragon and Boys Noize where G-Dragon partially assimilated his distinctive vocal style. Dynamic Duo had a solid and loud fanbase in the audience at Wild Bill’s (including one girl who could rattle off every syllable of Choiza’s raps), but it was Crush and Zion.T who got the most attention from non-Koreans, perhaps because their sets didn’t reach so far back or because of this K-pop connection.

There isn’t going to be an onslaught of Korean rappers coming to Atlanta—even Dirty South-style rapper Dok2 hasn’t played there since 2010. But Korean hip-hop nowadays is no longer playing catch-up to the source material; artists are directly taking cues from American contemporaries now. The Amoeba Culture tour coming to Atlanta as one of two US destinations feels like a choice to affirm their own relevance as much as the city’s.

At nine years old, Amoeba Culture has witnessed huge shifts in Korean hip-hop, from a period when it was still trying to find a style to call its own to its current mainstream prominence and influence on idol pop. The house music at Wild Bill’s seemed to represent this literally, with Salt-n-Pepa and N.E.R.D. playing before the show and, of all things, two cuts from the Empire soundtrack playing after it ended. The encore had all five Amoeba artists on stage performing a mid-period Dynamic Duo track produced by DJ Friz’s group Planet Shiver, and at the end, they all joined hands and bowed together.

Madeleine Lee is starting to see spaceships on Hongdae. Follow her on Twitter.