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Giriboy: “When I write I just imagine what would be the saddest situation ever”@giriboy91 via Instagram

The Korean rapper talking #feelings & leaving hip hop behind

Giriboy was pushed into the public’s consciousness when he appeared on an MC survival reality show, but has since made his own way with his own style

Last November, rapper Giriboy (Hong Si Young) stood onstage in the South Korean city of Busan, wearing his trademark oversized spectacles, as one of the main draws at a televised hip hop festival Wonder Live. Before his final song, he pulled out a piece of paper and began reading. “There are a lot of people who have prejudice against me...” he said.

He read out the grievances music fans had been levelling at him, ranging from jealousy (“Giriboy is super rich from royalty...”) to insults (“Giriboy can’t do diss or freestyle rapping”) after which he paused, let fly a stream of beatbox-style gibberish and ended with a sarcastic “Peace”. “I’m really good, right?” he coyly said to an amused crowd. “I’m Giriboy, and I appreciate the prejudice you have against me. I hope you make more in the future.” He scrunched the paper and tossed it over his shoulder.

As it turns out, then as well as now, a lot of hip hop heads just don't get Giriboy, the rapper who has shunned the label of ‘hip hop’. The Seoul-born 25-year-old, who is a member of the Do’main and Buckwilds crews (two loosely constructed groups of rappers and producers) is sat backstage at his first-ever London show and remembers the incident with a grin. “I did it because I thought it was funny. It was a joke,” he shrugs. But, in fact, it perfectly summates his position. Given that hip hop was the scene that birthed his career, he insists “I don't feel like a hip hop artist. It’s just music.”

The public's qualms stem from his 2014 participation in the now ubiquitous hip hop survival show Show Me The Money. The popular series has become instrumental in launching underground rappers, but consistently runs into controversy as K-Pop rappers who audition (more for credibility than exposure) have often been given leniency in passing through the rounds at the expense of more talented artists being axed. Although Giriboy had been signed to Just Music – a record label growing in power on the country’s mainstream hip hop scene and owned by rapper Swings (who also doubles as a mentor on Show Me The Money) – for two years before auditioning for the show, he hadn't yet broken into the mainstream.

Knocked out in the third episode, it was obvious he wasn't Show Me The Money material – he wasn’t without talent, but lacked the ‘throw-them-under-the-bus’ attitude that brought in ratings. It was bittersweet; the show had pushed him into public’s conscious, but with the drawback of being expected to fill out the preconceived role of what a rapper is, while Giriboy, for the most part, is the antithesis.

He sports copious Supreme but there’s no twerking babes or grills in his visuals. His detractors were right, although through ignorance – he’s not a battle MC; his natural turf is the studio, and it’s in the studio that his music has embraced an ever-expanding palette, from acoustic to funk to dance beats, sans the ongoing love affair mainstream Korean hip hop holds with trap or EDM. Although Just Music is home to several contentious rappers, Giriboy is closer to the introspective material of Epik High’s Tablo, where minutely layered production takes precedence over a banging drum break, his flow more often melodic than punchy.

“I’m not a fighter, I’m not aggressive, so I thought about it a lot if I should be on that show,” he says, looking back on SMTM3. “But now that it's all passed I just want to focus on doing my own type of music and my own thing.” His own thing has kept him fiercely busy. January saw the release of the Bruno Mars-esque single “Because You're Pretty” but, rather than open up 2016, it resembled the end of an era, the completion of an unstated trilogy (preceded by “Back and Forth 30 Minutes” and “Hogu”) where he comes to a reluctant inner truce with one of his favourite antagonists – the woman who uses him as a meal ticket while he languishes on the sidelines, desperate for love. The light, breezy sound and tongue-in-cheek videos are the colour-splashed growing pains of a young man doomed to knowingly repeat the same mistakes. “Let me buy your love, it’s easy / Thank you for texting me back right away when I said I’ll buy you new clothes... / It’s okay to use me only when you think I’m cute”, he raps ruefully on “Hogu”.

“(When I write) I just imagine what would be the saddest situation ever” — Giriboy 

Giriboy laughingly admits he’s “adverse to writing happy lyrics”, but don’t write him off as a Drake-level sensitive type just yet. It’s not difficult to find his more disruptive side; “Outro”, on his acclaimed 2015 album Coming Of Age Ceremony, saw him look to his teens where, over a low-key trip hop vibe, he makes his disdain clear. “Something that made me sad was that I thought about reasons for everything when I started listening to hip-hop / Why I was going to school and why I had to be friends with people I didn’t want to be / And how to become friends with them and crawling under people that are better than me / I know, I’m from Korea, motherfucker”.

At the other end of his creative spectrum is the beautiful and bleak “Take Care of You”, which sits a long way from current trends in Korean hip hop. “It’s about a prostitute,” Giriboy explains. “It addresses a dark issue, I like bringing out problems and issues that people face. When I watch films or listen to music, I really get into stories of loss or breaking up. For guys, I think they’re the most cool in that moment when there is pain and suffering felt. (When I write) I just imagine what would be the saddest situation ever.”

With the release of The Standard Three Songs EP, alongside the new album, 기계적인 앨범 (Mechanical Album), Giriboy boldly steps beyond the style that’s clocked him up millions of YouTube views. It marks a new phase, where rumbling, muted bass tugs restlessly beneath his words and their more refined cadence, and experimental, synthesised vocals run amok over intros and bridges. There’s a new urgency to his material, most evidently on “우주비행2 (Space Flight 2)”, where every beat and sustained note reverberates or trips frantically into the next.

“The album isn't like ‘Because You're Pretty’,” he points out. “It’s the opposite of that. It’s less hip hop. I’ve focused more on the production side of things so the overall sound will be electronic. My intention was always to showcase my versatility as a producer. I’ve loved electronic music since I was a kid, and always mixed it into previous albums, but people still thought they were hip hop. On this album, I made that difference more drastic.”

That it’s been less than a year since Giriboy’s last major release, alongside this scale up of production duties, is unsurprising; his early ambition was to be a producer, a role he’s continued to fulfil alongside his own music. He’s prolific, with three EPs, two albums, and a handful singles in four years, as well as producing, writing or featuring on songs for hip hop artists and idols, including Junsu of the popular trio JYJ, mega-selling girl group Sistar, former Beast member Jang Hyunseung, and upcoming idols Monsta X.

Despite being the master of the mixing desk, he questions whether production gives him a certain freedom. “Well, I think it’s a bit more difficult. You need to be more sensitive and detailed (when working on another artist). When I'm performing, I can get caught up in the atmosphere and when I produce (for myself) at home, it's more fun. The reason I do music is because I want to hear what I created... I love listening to my own music!” he laughs. “Like, the new album. There's one of my older songs called, ‘I’ll Protect You’ and also one called ‘Adulthood’, they’re songs I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to.”

This thrust of success has yet to affect Giriboy – a name that means, aptly, ‘to see the way’. He’s an intriguing mixed bag; even while goofy, down to earth and sweet, he’s also guarded and in possession of a sharp wit some may interpret as sly. Giriboy is also notoriously, deeply cynical of himself. It’s not uncommon for him to be self-deprecating; in the past he's called himself ‘nothing’ or ‘shitty’. “I say that because there's still G-Dragon (Big Bang)! And I want to improve in every way,” he laughs. When pinpointing a key career moment, he replies, “After the release of the album... the first one”, which was four years ago. “It was, really,” he insists, “But I think I’m always happiest the day before I release an album.”

“I want to be like Kurt Cobain...I’m always thinking big and, yeah, I do want to be a legend” — Giriboy

At precisely in his mid-20s, he’s teetering between the recklessness of youth and the lure of adulthood, more precisely about expanding the Hong dynasty. “In the near future, I want to have a family, to have kids. Very soon, tomorrow!” he laughs. “I’m ready!”

There’s still a few more goals in his career, however. Though he name-drops Big Bang’s song-writing, super-performing, Karl Lagerfeld-endorsed K-Pop extraordinaire, Giriboy is adamant he'd prefer not to have G-Dragon's career. “I want to be like Kurt Cobain,” he says abruptly. Considering how Cobain's life panned out and ended, does Giriboy have some kind of dark wish? Thankfully, not quite. “I like a calm, plain life, and I want to live comfortably,” he says. “But I’m always thinking big and, yeah, I do want to be a legend.”

Translations by Hoon/Katy Kim