Do they know how intimate they look? As the lead singer of Magic City Hippies Robby Hunter sings into the mic, lead guitar player John Coughlin drops down onto his knees in front of him. In this moment the only person he has eyes for is Hunter. It almost hurts me that Hunter doesn’t look down to meet his pleading gaze.
Averting my eyes from the uncomfortable sexual tension playing out on stage, I took in my surroundings from the back of Lincoln Hall. It was as if I’d walked through the venue doors into a frat house. Hawaiian shirts surround me. Before I can even begin to pull out my camera I feel the all too familiar trickle of lukewarm beer as half-drunk hippie lovers stumble past me into the sold-out crowd.
Hunter’s vocals then jump down a few octaves, recreating the intro of Amine’s smash hit “Caroline.” As white men sling racial slurs into the air during the chorus, my suspicions turn into observations.
Later on in the night, Magic City Hippies continued their set with a cover of NxWorries’ song “Suede.” Aside from the implied racism and sexism of Hunter describing how he calls his women “tricks” and “b*****s,” part of me found it comforting that a band that identifies as “Miami Indie Funk,” as Hunter explained to me after the show, would go out of its way to center black artists in their own set. That is, until I did just a little more research.
In a profile done by the publication Relix, Hunter described his aversion to making his music too political. “I don’t want the band to be political. [When people hear our music], I don’t want them to worry. I want them to escape and feel amazing and dance. We have friends in bands who are really big ‘Trumpies.’ And we may have our little political tit-for-tat here and there, but we’re still friends. You can exist in two different realms and still come together on a different topic. The funk transcends.”
So to re-contextualize my earlier statement, these covers were not about featuring black artists but simply about profiting off their labor for personal gain. Not to be harsh, but to declare funk music as something that could transcend racism and white nationalism makes me wonder if Magic City Hippies don’t have more in common with “Trumpies” than they realize.
Not only did the Hippies utilize covers of black artists, but they also used styles popularized by black musicians to define their sound. While the addition of the “indie” label to their sound recognizes the whiteness that an all-white band brings to funk music, listening to Robby Hunter rap a bad Beck “Loser”-esque verse during the song “Fanfare” further emphasized to me that without funk, without hip hop, without the black artists that pioneered these genres, there would be no Magic City Hippies.
To be completely honest with you I have been a fan of Magic City Hippies for a while now. I listened to their 2015 Hippie Castle EP a few years ago and I really enjoyed the synth-y production and the complementary spacey dreampop jam sections. But in the age of R. Kelly, we can never separate an artist from their art! This isn’t to say that the Hippies are not allowed to cover black artist or be inspired by genres such as funk and soul. All I am suggesting is that they should do so in a way that recognizes their own privilege as a band of white cis men doing rap covers to a room full of white cis men.
Recognizing this privilege means not being complacent when your fans want to support a white nationalist. Recognizing this privilege means calling out your fans when they decide they have the right to use language that has fueled actual racial violence. Recognizing this privilege means questioning why the same people who cheer you on during an Anderson .Paak cover can then go home and support the mass incarceration of people of color across the country. Art and actions always have consequences. The fact that someone can play funk music and not recognize this fact is the definition of white privilege. At the end of the day, what I write will have little effect on their success. But I hope one day Magic City Hippies recognize the people they have the power to influence and stop being too scared and take action.
If there’s one thing Jme wants to make sure you know, it’s that his name is not stylized “JME”. The brother of grime star Skepta and co-founder of record label Boy Better Know, Jme has held his own in the grime scene with a large Spotify presence in the UK, grime’s birthplace. He released Integrity> in 2015. Having never heard any songs from the grime genre, I was unsure what Jme would bring to the table.
I was drawn in from the start. Ear-to-ear synth rolls started off Pulse 8, the first track, which gave way to a kicking, persistent bass. In the opener, Jme discusses his veganism and incorporates a lot of contemporary references (Charlie Bit Me, Words with Friends, Clash of Clans, etc.) The lack of a hook exemplifies the energy of this album; he barely allows any time to process between bars, whether it’s after a 32-bar verse or a lyrical onslaught a la “96 Fuckeries.”
Jme clearly uses this album as a means of showcasing his lyrical abilities. He makes sure the listener hears every line with sharp annunciation. The bars themselves range from corny (“If you don’t like G-R-I-M-E, then you’ve got no taste like vegan cheese” on Taking Over), to accusatory (“Well well well, you man keep hating / I come back, same flow, I ain’t changing” on Same Thing.)
I have to give Jme credit for his willingness to switch it up when it comes to production, though. While “Game” fittingly featured a beat that carried a lot of similarity to Super Mario Bros. game music, the beat for “No You Ain’t” had a braggadocious tone to it, reminiscent of Trophies by Drake. It’s the most hungry we see Jme on the album.
Jme brings in several collaborators on the album but at the end of the day, this album is about his journey; he keeps 10 out of 16 songs for himself. Oddly enough, “Amen”, the track with the most features, is the album’s shortest. Jme and fellow Boy Better Know artists Skepta, Frisco, Shorty and Jammer, manage to cram in a total of nine 8-bar verses into a mere 2:05. It’s fast-paced and perhaps most exemplifies the overall energy of the album.
One of my favorite moments of the album was Jme’s line on Test Me: “Man must think that I’m a celeb / Cause the whip cost an arm and a leg / But no, I make grime on the regs / And I saved for a year to buy one of them.” It’s a refreshing moment of honesty and emphasizes the role of hard work in getting to where he is now. On Test Me, I also was grateful that Jme lets the instrumental breathe at the 2:16 and 3:39 marks. And a good instrumental it is.
The final track, Integrity, serves as the climax of the prevalent anti-establishment rhetoric on this album. He delivers the inflammatory bar: “Any one of you cocaine snorting label executives that thinks you can take my integrity for a couple bags, think twice” to hammer this point home.
Jme may not be touring in Chicago or headed for the Billboard Hot 100 any time soon. Nevertheless, I have a lot of respect for his self-made brand. I recommend Integrity> for anyone looking to figure out if they like grime music or not. One thing’s for sure, though. Regardless of whether or not you take a listen, Jme won’t compromise his Integrity.
TRACK TO LISTEN TO RIGHT NOW: Test Me
MOST CONFIDENT BARS: Work
OVERALL RATE: 7.2/10
This is article was republished from WNUR’s K-Sound. To read more of this show’s content visit K-Sound’s official website.
More often than not, music consumers seem to point towards the quality of music as the defining factor that differentiates the underground from the mainstream. It’s a notion that has prevailed in most, if not every, music industries around the world: mainstream artists are commercial hacks who churn out unoriginal garbage, while indie musicians — the destitute singer-songwriters living precariously from gig to gig — are the real deal. To many music lovers, this seems to be a straightforward distinction. Huge entertainment companies like YG and SM are homogenizing the Korean music industry. There is no diversity, not to mention originality, in mainstream K-Pop. Korean music industry is dead: only pretty boy bands and sexy girl groups dominate the chart.
The truth is, the line between the underground and the mainstream is becoming more and more blurred in today’s Korean music industry. The billboard charts these days are as diverse as ever — as of writing this article, the Top 100 Melon Chart contains an astounding gamut of genres and subgenres besides the regular K-Pop and ballad hits, including hip-hop, acoustic, country and even trap.
Perhaps ironically, mainstream TV shows and the so-called “idol groups” seem to be responsible for the recent diversification of music styles and popularization of such previously underrepresented genres in the Korean music scene.
Take the variety show Infinite Challenge (무한도전), for example. The show, which is already known in Korea for being innovative with its programming and for pushing the boundaries of social and cultural limits, most recently completed a successful concert that helped propel some of the most talented and versatile musicians into “mainstream” status. Hyukoh Band (혁오밴드), the adorably awkward group of alternative rock prodigies, is currently enjoying a level of fame unmatched by any other indie musicians. If you haven’t heard of Hyukoh’s Wi ing Wi ing (위잉위잉) yet, do yourself a favor and do so right now: it’s a type of music that nobody would have suspected to end up in the Top 20, with its minimal guitar riffs, abstract lyrics and hypnotic vocals characteristic of many indie bands. Even Infinite Challenge’s choice to collaborate with the unconventional jazz vocalist Zion.T — who, in his own right, was already a certified hit with the Korean masses — proves that Korean mainstream entertainment industries are not shy from taking risks with new artists and genres. And in turn, this means that the Korean audience is becoming more and more accepting of new and interesting genres, and are not wed to the safe bets of conventional K-Pop.
Audition programs like Show Me The Money also helped promote hip-hop, which was previously a marginalized genre that only appeared to the public as commercialized addendum to K-Pop singles, into a status of perhaps the most popular and dominant genre in Korea right now. Just a few years back, nobody would have suspected that longtime players in the underground hip-hop scene like Dok2 and Beenzino would be selling out shows and raking in millions in record sales and concert tickets.
And even the commercial, company-backed artists are doing their part in expanding the musical territory for Korean listeners. Big Bang is perhaps a prime example of one of the boundary-pushing, genre-defining artists who create entire new trends and musical tastes. Big Bang has been churning up unique hits that imitate and recreate exotic Western subgenres like trap and dubstep with tracks like “Bang Bang Bang” and “R.O.D.”
All these said, I refuse to promote the notion that the Korean music industry has traditionally been a monotonous and barren landscape of factory-made chart hits, and is only recently taking the turn for the more diverse. Take for example Seo Taiji (서태지)’s groundbreaking introduction of nu metal and heavy metal in the early 90s with hits like “교실 이데아” and “Ultramania,” or the legendary rockstar Shin Hae Chul (신해철)’s experimentation with techno-electronica in the late 90s. Going back even further, artists like Kim Kwang-Seok (김광석) and Yoo Jae-Ha (유재하) pioneered the folk and singer-songwriter culture in Korea with their brilliant songs reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. This trend of adopting and modifying unfamiliar Western genres and subgenres has been present ever since the beginning of Korean pop music, and continues to this day with various artists pushing the boundary of what can be successful and popular music.
One could call it a gross commercialization of “indie” music talents, and even dismiss artists like Hyukoh, Zion.T and Dok2 as “sellouts” now that they’ve immersed themselves in the dirty waters of mainstream music industry.
But this dangerous hipster mentality gives music listeners a myopic view of what good music is. For me and others in the K-Sound team, Korean indie musicians share the same philosophy as our music show: to promote originality, novelty and excellence in music. What’s often difficult to understand is that these tenets aren’t always exclusive to indie artists.
It’s easy to dismiss the Korean music landscape as a never-ending parade of girl groups and boy bands with addicting but forgettable factory-made K-Pop hits. And to some extent, this is true — as it is with the American music industry, and for that matter, any other music industry around the world. But for every generic K-Pop single and garish music video, there are gems like Akdong Musician’s refreshing duets or Crush’s jazzy sensibility.
It is our mission here at K-Sound to present you, our listeners, with the kind of Korean music that is refreshing and new to listen to. In the beginning, we began our initiative as “Chicago’s Premier Indie Music Show.” But now, with amazingly talented artists putting out chart-topping songs weekly regardless of whether they’re underground or mainstream, we feel no need to be bound by the stereotype that only indie music is authentic music. We live in a glorious time when an anonymous singer-songwriter in a Hong-dae club can skyrocket through the charts after a brief media exposure. The K-Pop charts have never been so diverse, and we’re excited to take you along on this journey in search of your next favorite Korean song.