Rap originated in 1973 from a legendary block party in South Bronx and grew to become one of the most influential styles of music in the world. Unsurprisingly, the biggest global audience for hip-hop music is found in the United States. The genre is so popular that in 2019, 52% of the top 100 most streamed songs were hip-hop. However, popular rap is far from exclusive to the U.S. Virtually every country has some kind of local variation of hip-hop with its own characteristics built from the genre's American foundation in the early 1980s. This article will evaluate the key traits and top artists of hip-hop in the following five countries: Netherlands, South Korea, United Kingdom, France, and Nigeria.
The Netherlands typically isn't the first country to come to mind when it comes to talking about hip-hop, but this genre is one of the most popular. Eight out of 10 of the most streamed artists in the Netherlands during 2018 were Dutch hip-hop artists. Netherhop, what Dutch hip-hop is affectionately referred to as, started taking off in the mid-80s. Though before Netherhop could grow to be its style distinct from its American origins, the raps were in English, almost as if it was an imitation art. With time, Netherhop began to adapt to its new environment, which means stylistic changes. Now, most of the lyrics are in Dutch with phrases and slang unique to the Netherlands. There are occasional lines or words in English sprinkled throughout some of the popular songs, some songs are even titled in English, but for the most part, the Dutch language dominates.
Netherhop also seems to have quite a bit of overlap with dance music and pop as evident by the high-paced beats in the background of the raps; this sound borders on electronic at times. This is due to the immense popularity of EDM and DJ culture particularly in the Netherlands which then influenced the way hip-hop in the Netherlands sounds. Lastly, the subject matter of Dutch hip-hop often centers around pride in making money and taking care of business. Because of a focus on the prior, there is quite a bit of boisterous language and emphasis on objects the rappers have acquired with their wealth. All in all, the themes in Netherhop aren't much different from American hip-hop, but there is much difference in musical styling between the two.
Ronnie Flex is one of the best examples of Netherhop and an excellent place to start exploring the world of dutch hip-hop. He is a seasoned rapper with a total of 9 singles that were number one on the national charts for weeks, and 18 other songs that were in the top 10 throughout his career. Though the majority of Ronnie Flex's popularity resides in the Netherlands, he is one of the most recognizable and appreciated Dutch rappers worldwide with fans ranging from America to Belgium. Ronnie Flex flirts less with dance music than his peers and gravitates more towards deep, slower beats. His most popular album was Nori, but for less ambitious listeners, the songs "Non Stop," "Wat is Love," "Drank & Drugs," "Plek Als Dit," and "Energie" are good places to start. It may also be enriching to expand out to similarly popular Dutch artists like Lil Klein, Frenna, and Keizer.
Following the same trend as other adaptations of hip-hop. Korean hip-hop (or K-hip hop) started taking root in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Korean Americans were integral in this cultural exchange by bridging the gap between the two cultures. K-hip hop raps in English roughly half of the songs; there seems to be an even split between the two languages, more so than the rappers in other countries. Artists will use syllables that best fit their rhymes in both languages. This is partly due to the interest of younger generations, who are predisposed towards American culture. However, the content of K-hip hop tends to differ from its American counterpart. South Korea has extraordinarily strict laws against any kind of drug use, including marijuana, therefore—unlike in American hip-hop—there is no mention of drugs.
We also see the idioms and values of Confucianism as a reflection of the music's primary audience: the Korean people. In recent years, there has been a blending of more traditional Korean instrumentals into the beats of K-hip hop. For example, the song "EUNG freestyle," a song that was so popular it reached mainstream America, features a traditional gong. Korean hip-hop is also interwoven into the makeup of the extremely popular k-pop girl/boy groups. Every group has at least one member that raps on their tracks, and these groups (like BTS) are so immensely popular that they are furthering the spread of k-hip hop inadvertently.
One of the best artists to listen to when beginning your K-hip hop journey is Jay Park. Fitting for having an album with the name Worldwide, Jay Park has global recognition with multiple albums reaching the top 10 for the Billboard's World Albums chart. This is a significant feat when considering that the majority of music, especially hip-hop, that is recognized globally is in English. Beyond the global stage, he is incredibly successful in South Korea with millions of monthly streams and being a prominent judge in musical competitions like Show Me the Money 4 and Asia's Got Talent. Jay Park is equally considered a hip-hop and R&B artist, and his work reflects this blend; on tracks, he will often rap at impressive speeds and sing smoothly. However, if you are looking for the sound of K-hip hop specifically, his album Worldwide will best demonstrate these talents. Jay Park's work reflects his upbringing in Seattle and his training with South Korean JYP Entertainment to be an idol: a solid blend of lyricism in both languages and culture.
His work has gradually shifted to reflect more and more American influence, this is largely in part of Jay Park becoming a full-time US resident where he has focused on making American projects with an American audience in mind. In fact, he has recently worked with famous American rappers like Rich the Kid, VIC MENSA, and 2 Chainz. Jay Park continues to be known and remains distinct for his unique voice and the creative control he has over all of his music. Once he began his solo career, Jay Park intentionally remained independent from massive labels going so far as to found his own hip-hop and R&B label: AOMG; this has given him much freedom in his creative pursuits and his style. Top songs that reflect Jay Park's style and artistry are "MOMMAE," "All I Wanna Do," "SOLO," "SOJU," and "DRIVE." Other k-hip hop artists to explore are DPR Live, BIBI, and Sik-K.
Hip-hop in the United Kingdom is startlingly different from American hip-hop regardless of them both being performed entirely in English. A clear, immediate distinction between Americans and Britons is their difference in accent. UK hip-hop consistently features a heavy British accent, which contrasts heavily with mainstream expectations of British singing (that audibly isn't much different from American singing). This heavy accent is a key part of the genre, so much so that a sub-genre of UK hip-hop called grime is distinguishable purely by the thickness of this accent. In tandem with the thick accent, the bass in British hip-hop is central to the music and incredibly heavy.
In general, there is far less overlap between R&B and hip-hop in the UK than there is between American hip-hop and R&B. These dark, gritty musical characteristics of British hip-hop match the weather. The majority of British artists also have particularly deep voices, while in the United States, hip-hop artists have a range of tones and voices they are known for. In this same vein, there is little variation or play with vocal tones in British rap; the focal point of this style is the rapper's flow and lyricism. Content-wise, it is not much different from American hip-hop; the urban landscape of the UK, particularly London, with so many diverse groups of people makes hip-hop easily adaptable to the struggles of oppressed groups and the problems they face.
Little Simz is a British MC to watch out for; she has put her own spin on this particular style while still staying true to the defining characteristics of UK hip-hop. Her voice is relatively deep, a hallmark of British rap, and she has an exceptional flow. However, she not only experiments with intricate wordplay, but Little Simz also delves into sounds and influences uncommon in the world of UK rap. Her most recent album, Sometimes I Might be Introvert, had lots of old-school, black music influence from 80s R&B to gospel to jazz; it feels as if it's an anthology of black music. As we often see with hip-hop artists, Little Simz uses the genre to speak about her particular experience as a black woman born to African immigrants in the UK. Some of her songs, like "Venom" and "Woman," fearlessly unpack Little Simz's experiences and feelings that can apply to women like her. This gives her music a depth that is sometimes lacking from rappers who focus on marketability instead of lyrical value.
Due to her unique sound and unapologetic raps, she has received critical acclaim in the form of praise and awards (AIM Awards: Independent Album of the Year, Ivor Novello awards: Best Album, NME awards: Best British Album, and BET Hip Hop Awards: Best International Flow). This last award demonstrates the extent of Little Simz's impact which reaches far beyond the UK's shores. Some songs to listen to in order to get a feel for her work without diving into an entire album are "Venom," "Woman," "Selfish," "Introvert," and "105 FM." Other British rappers to watch out for are Digga D, Young T & Bugsey, and French the Kid.
France is the second-largest market for hip-hop in the world behind only the United States, so it is no surprise that French hip-hop takes a form of its own. French rappers share similar pains of growing up in impoverished, urban areas with gang culture that face racism and other forms of oppression. The adaptation of hip-hop to speak to struggle has been carried out by and large by the minority group that faces the most oppression in France: Muslim people. This makes the content of French rap incredibly similar to its American counterpart, where African Americans have used hip-hop platforms to speak out politically about their societal positioning since the genre's inception.
Politically conscious content is often produced by artists in the South of France, particularly from the city of Marseilles. In the north rappers often directly confront themes of drugs, gangs, and poverty. In addition to speaking out about oppression as well as struggles, the easy-going, boisterous, and flaunting themes of money, sex, and status are also featured in french hip-hop. Additionally, French hip-hop has a noticeable amount of African influence (emphasis on bass and drums with upbeat dance music) due to their large Sub-Saharan African immigrant population. Because of this, African French rappers will often discuss their struggles with invisibility within french society. Regardless of the heavy influence of American culture on French hip-hop, the lyrics are mainly in French. Often the only English in their songs are swear words or simply the song's title.
L'Algérino is an artist that embodies the style and content of southern French rap. As his name would suggest, L'Algérino is an Algerian, french-born artist. With historical context in mind, it would make sense why L'Algérino gravitated towards hip-hop to express himself. Algeria was colonized forcibly by France for 132 years, and during this occupation, the Algerian people suffered countless human rights violations. L'Algerino gives voice to these struggles both to an Algerian and a broadly French audience. Namely the song "Algérie mi Amor" which discusses how tribes in the country are currently being killed and L'Algérino wishes he could save the people and country he loves. In representing his identity as an indigenous Algerian, he also incorporates Algerian and Chaoui (native languages to Algeria) into his songs. Though L'Algerino raps about other lighter topics as well like love, he is a revolutionary figure for Algerian artists by giving a voice to his people through music. Top songs to sample his work are "Algérie mi amor," "Excuse My French," "L'essentiel," "Hasni," and "Classi." Other affluent French rappers to listen to are Booba, Niska, and Ninho.
Nigerian Hip Hop
Last but not least, Nigerian hip-hop. Hip-hop came to Nigeria as dance music with DJs in the 80s but became rap as we recognize it now in the early 90s with artists Junior and Pretty who infused local languages into their music. Then once hip-hop started playing on tv and radios, young people all over the country started getting into it and it began popping up in essentially every city. It is now such an integral part of Nigerian culture, that when searching Nigerian hip-hop there are multiple websites made by and for Nigerian hip-hop fans. Hip-hop took root mostly in Lagos, the country's capital, when Nigeria was under oppressive military control. The genre then became used as an outlet for these experiences.
Similar to the content of hip-hop in most other countries, songs of general flexing of wealth and status persist. However, Nigerian hip-hop is also prone to vocalizing scathing critiques of the government. This goes hand-and-hand with the origins of Nigerian rap being found in times of excessive political turmoil. Nigerian hip-hop is also known for having feuds between artists as a key feature of their hip-hop culture. Stylistically, Nigerian hip-hop audibly sounds like it is influenced by traditional African music and instruments. Often the music has fast-paced, consistent drum beats that allow for dancing (a hallmark of African culture). And recently, Nigerian rap has begun to incorporate the native languages spoken along with English lyrics. Every song will typically have English, Pidgin English, and another Nigerian language like Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa.
Burna Boy is an artist that unapologetically and masterfully fuses cultures in his music as one of the biggest Nigerian rappers with worldwide recognition. He was established as the Artiste of the Year at the Global Music Awards Africa. And extending far beyond the borders of Nigeria, Burna Boy has won numerous accolades from the world's most highly coveted award shows. His 2020 album Twice as Tall won Best Global Music Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards and he won Best International Act at the BET awards. Burna Boy makes an effort to address the black community globally through his music. In an interview with the New York Times he commented that his goal is to "build[ ] a bridge that leads every black person in the world to come together."
As you would expect from a musician with a goal to bring people together, his music is what he calls an "afro-fusion" of influences, ranging from traditional African music to R&B, and to (of course) hip-hop. However, a hallmark characteristic of Burna Boy's music is fast-paced drum beats. He also speaks in pidgin, English, and Yoruba; so while Burna Boy appeals to the global audience, he remains to make music that is identifiably and unapologetically Nigerian. In speaking out to his global audience, Burna Boy tackles the many global misconceptions about Africa and African people as well as the collective black struggle against racism and exploitation. The following songs are good places to start in Burna Boy's extensive discography: "Ye," "Gbona," "JA ARA E," "Kilometre," and "On the Low." Other Nigerian artists to listen to are Tekno, Kizz Daniel, and Wiz Kid.
In the same way hip hop was created as a response to the growing urban environment and lifestyle in the US, it has adapted itself to all the locations it spread to both in subject matter and style. This article featured rappers from a range of backgrounds and struggles that have appealed to their country's audience in a variety of ways. While Burna Boy's music appealed to the broader experience of Africans and black people as a whole in the world, Little Simz targeted her specific experience with sexism and racism in the UK. In contrast, hip-hop's content can also be much lighter. Jay Park and Ronni Flex have a lot of fun with their music, and it's clear their primary goal is to create songs people can dance to and enjoy. Whatever the country, hip-hop can adapt to its audience to reflect their preferences and struggles seamlessly.