Music, it’s been said, is one of the least fascist ways to bring people together.
On “GO,” the laid-back leadoff cut from Epik High’s 2003 debut album “Map of the Human Soul,” the South Korean rap crew shows how certain styles of music hold sway across the globe, highlighting the similarities we all share over our differences.
While they would have many hits in years to come (and are still going strong), Epik High had some dues to pay first.
When the trio of Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz united under the Epik High moniker, their brand of alternative hip-hop got a tepid response in their native country. 2003 was a far cry from the current musical landscape, which sees artists like CL and G-Dragon collaborating with American superstar producers like Diplo and Skrillex.
Epik High’s approach was nowhere near as club-friendly as the aforementioned efforts from Korea’s contemporary hip-hop superstars. Instead, songs like “GO” demonstrated Epik High’s allegiance to old school hip-hop. While it didn’t win them many fans at the time, “GO” falls on one’s ears nowadays as a welcome slice of the golden age of MCing. Fans of classic rap from Brooklyn to London and beyond could appreciate “GO,” even if they couldn’t speak a whit of Korean. That’s how well-established, how deeply entrenched this song is in its given tradition.
While Epik High operate in the Run-DMC model of placing two MCs in front of a DJ, the period of old-school rap they are channeling harkens to a slightlu later style, from around 1990, give or take a few years.
Produced by Gaeko of the group Dynamic Duo, “GO” owes a distinct debt to the work of Gang Starr, particularly the beats of the legendary producer DJ Premier. Incidentally, DJ Premier recognized Dynamic Duo’s homage to his aesthetic when he deigned to collaborate with the Korean rap crew in 2014 .
The lush harp and boastful horn samples that underscore the tough, mid tempo beat wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an album from Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. or any other rapper from the ’80s and early ’90s. Meanwhile, the group vocals that pepper the chorus of “GO,” bring to mind the party-provoking chants of groups like Naughty By Nature. In contrast with the often reductive deliveries from many of the current crop of hip-hop artists, it’s clear that Tablo and Mithra Jin are students of the form.
Old-school hip-hop was built on the pride its practitioners could take in their skills and it’s clear that while this was Epik High’s first album, they’d honed their swords before heading into the studio.
Their sound may have taken a while longer to catch on, but now that the group is an international sensation and the world is watching the Korean music scene, rap purists in every continent, seeking songs that keep the classic feel intact would be well-advised to dig into that Epik High back catalog.
Listen to the 2003 Epik High song “GO” RIGHT HERE
Jeff Tobias is a composer, musician and writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. As of late, he has been studying arcane systems of tuning and working on his jump shot.