In the latest breakout feature from Rolling Stone’s BTS cover feature, group leader RM dives into the rap heroes that helped inspire him, his evolution as a rapper and whether he even believes that the group’s music is K-pop.
“I started with Nas, Eminem, the golden age of hip-hop. And the turning point was Drake, in 2009, when he released Thank You Letter,” RM (born Kim Nam-joon), 26, said of the MCs who influenced his flow. “That album was kind of shocking for me because it was kind of a freaky thing that a rapper actually sang. So after that, a lot of rappers began to sing, deciding to put the melodies into their songs across the genres, between raps and melody. So, yeah, that was the moment.”
The singer, originally known as “Rap Monster,” also delved into how the fact that South Korea is not multi-ethnic like the U.S. plays into the music that has come from his home country. “There are different sensitivities that are underlying the music,” he explained. “Korean rappers of course have their own unique and different lyricism, their own situations and hardships that they fit into the process. As a Korean, obviously, these are the things that resonate with me.”
He also explained the difficulty he faced early on in deciding whether he wanted to be a rapper or a pop star. As a young man, he wrote prose and poetry before discovering hip-hop, at which point he poured his energies into making music. “Yes, there was this idea of being a pure artist or a pure rapper. So in the beginning, it is true that when we were debuting as a pop act, there were times when I had to sort of reorganize my identity and then reflect on what my identity is,” he said. “And at the beginning, we didn’t see positive results. We didn’t have a lot of fans. We didn’t have great results. There were some times when we were mocked.”
Luckily, he did eventually develop his own identity and settle into a persona that allowed him to express himself and get through to an audience, resolving the conflicted feelings he had early on. The other fortuitous change is that the boundaries between what’s authentic and pure have mostly melted away. “As long as I can show what I’ve written, it’s valid as the continuation of my dream and what I always wanted to do,” he said.
But perhaps the most existential question the deep-thinking singer dove into was: What is BTS? Is it pop, is it K-pop, or is it its own thing entirely? “I can’t really explain it very well, but there are some characteristics that we Koreans have, or maybe Eastern people. So we try to kind of combine those two things into one, and I feel that we created a new genre. Some may call it K-pop; some may call it BTS, or some Eastern-Western combined music, but I think that’s what we’re doing,” he shared.
“If you think about the Silk Road in the past, there’s this idea of Eastern people and Western people meeting on some kind of, like, big road and maybe doing selling and buying of stuff,” he continued. “I think this story repeats itself, and some kind of new, interesting phenomenon is happening. We feel very honored to be existing in the very eye of this big hurricane.”
Because there are now K-pop groups with no Korean members who have the sound and look, RM said that some people think it is only for Koreans who sing a Korean song. But what about BTS’ biggest U.S. chart hit to date, the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 smash “Dynamite,” their first all English-language song?
“We sing the song in English. But we’re all Koreans, so somebody may say it’s a K-pop song,” RM said. “Or they may say it’s just a pop song, because it’s in English. But we don’t actually really care about whether people see us as inside or outside K-pop. The important fact is that we’re all Koreans, and we’re singing a pop song. So that’s the reason why we said that our genre is just BTS. That debate is very important for the music industry, but it doesn’t mean very much for us members.”
The BTS cover story will be included in a special collector’s box set that includes eight copies of the issue — one group cover and seven additional ones spotlighting each member — which is available here now.