Even if you’ve only ever listened to true-blue kpop complete with choreo and hot pink hair, you’ve likely at least heard the name Epik High in passing. It sort of hurts my heart to think that could be the case, but that’s just my deep love for the trio speaking.
Many ARMYs likely had their eyes opened when Yoongi went on to collaborate with them in the 2019 single, Eternal Sunshine–something that seriously delighted me to see. I respect Suga as a rapper as much as I do the geniuses behind Epik High, so the collaboration was something of a dream for me.
For him, too. Namjoon and Yoongi have more than once expressed his respect for the trio, and the feeling seems to go both ways with Epik High famously showing support for the idol rappers. Yoongi’s work with Tablo on Lee So Ra’s single Song Request and again on Epik High’s aforementioned single, Eternal Sunshine from their album “Sleepless in __________“ marked a long awaited collaboration between two of the most famous and beloved names in modern Korean hip hop.
So, what is it about Epik High exactly that has had them turning heads in the scene since their debut in 2003?
Speaking, err… subjectively, I’d say it’s a blend of Tablo’s lyrical genius and clever mix of English and Korean lyrics, Mithra Jin’s verses rich with symbolism and depth delivered in his distinct baritone, and their beatmaker DJ Tukutz cranking out track after impressive track for them to lay down those bars.
What really makes Epik High interesting to me is what happens when you take a step back from the group and look at the bigger picture. Hidden in their numerous styles that take inspiration from Old School hip hop to modern trap rap, you’ll find waiting there to be discovered some linguistic depth that seriously makes them stand out.
Korean Rhyme and Reason
(I totally won’t be offended if you skip this part if you don’t care about nerdy language things. I am no linguist nor am I a Korean native speaker so… this is all just going to be pure language nerddom. But I find it is important in order to truly appreciate the awesomeness that is Epik High, so brave it if you dare!)
I’d like to preface this section with a brief note about the Korean language for those who aren’t familiar with it. In Korean, the verb always comes at the end of the sentence. It can be conjugated in a seemingly infinite number of ways, doing far more than just explaining the tense and instead expressing plenty of personality, intention and mood.
Still with me? Sweet.
For one, there are three or four honorific endings that are used depending on the status and relationship between conversational partners. For another, Korean sentence endings tacked onto verbs host a whole suite of possibility–from politely acknowledging that both parties in the conversation already know a fact to asking for clarification to expressing surprise upon learning new information… it rather excitingly goes on and on.
Despite their diversity, the Korean verb poses one problem: the ends of sentences often sound the same due to the nature of them.
Got all that? Cool.
The way that Korean sentences are structured (subject-object-verb instead of, for instance, the English subject-verb-object) leaves little room for shifting around nouns and the like to create rhyming sentences that sound “fresh.”
The hip hop scene began to emerge on the Korean peninsula in the mid-nineties, bringing with it the challenge of creating a similar flow and rhyme that rap from the United States was famous for. It became a hotly debated topic in hip-hop communities–what was and wasn’t considered rhyme and if these rhymes were objectively “good” or not. Opinions ranged all over the place, including some from our very own Tablo.
Tablo had this to contribute:
“라임에 관한 논쟁은 불필요한 논쟁이에요. 라임이 없는 랩은 랩이 아니에요.”
“The rhyme-related controversy is needless. A rap without rhyme is not rap.”
As expected, some agreed while others didn’t, but for the purpose of this topic and for brevity’s sake, we will focus on Tablo’s own opinion. In his rhymes, you can certainly hear the way that he stretches the boundaries of the Korean language, playing within its barriers to create rhymes by shifting syntax and working in English words and phrases here and there that add such flavor to his flow that it feels distinctly one of a kind.
A Stanford graduate with honors in both creative writing and English, his skill with both languages is undeniable. Tablo uses that swift mind and quick tongue to give voice to social commentary on everything from the government to the education systems of the world, delivering his thoughts on heavy topics as effortlessly as he raps about the lighter ones.
Phew. Okay! If you’re still with me, you’re a trooper. With all of that said and out of the way, let’s dive into why I admire them from a musical standpoint.
In Epik High’s discography, there’s something for lovers of hip hop of all kinds. As I touched on before, they roll across several subgenres of hip hop and rap with an effortlessness that leaves little to be desired, no matter your taste.
From the ever-trendy trap beats of Slow Motion to the influence of Timbaland, Billy Corgan and even Phillip Glass in the back half of their album “Remapping the Human Soul,” the weave of Tablo’s songwriting is impossibly diverse.
They even keep up the culturally significant Korean trot influences in the aptly named 트로트 Trot meaning their style seriously does span multiple decades. Turntablism, sampling, complex rhyme schemes–they’ve truly really got it all.
Their most recent release, “Sleepless in __________“ even dabbles in both lofi-aesthetics and crisp production styles all in the same package, something that feels new and fresh against the rest of their expansive catalogue.
Each member individually brings something to the fold, and they give you a chance to hear that with solos like the Mithra/Tablo’s Word series. They’ve collaborated with countless artists over the years to really keep things diverse and creative, and some of the features of the upcoming “Epik High is Here” pull from artists that seem to be better known to modern audiences, such as Zico, Heize, and CL.
It’s my hope that, much like Min Yoongi was able to attract more attention to the trio when he produced for them, these acts will turn the heads of anyone who has yet to dive into the lyrical and musical complexity that is Epik High.
I could go on and on but I’ll cut it off here.
While we wait for the new album, “Epik High Is Here 上 (Part 1)” to drop on the 18th, check out this list of some of my favorite Epik High tracks below (in no particular order because it was super hard to narrow down!).
Thanks for reading!