With a jammed packed lineup of the hottest names in Korean hip hop, the Rapbeat Festival 2018 returned for its second year at Gocheok Sky Dome. Back on home turf in Seoul, the Korean hip hop festival returned with some ambitious goals, and with it, hits and misses.

Entering into the Gocheok Sky Dome, punters were greeted with a single stage setup. With one stage and such a huge lineup, time was on everyone’s mind.  Since many sets were allotted only 10 minutes, artists were under pressure to use their time wisely. But rather than being a disaster, the time limit was a filter.

Crews and record labels like The Cohort (Okasian, B-Free and Jayallday), Fame Records Urbane Music (Luda, Bully Da Ba$Tard, Luka, Dex, New Champ, Chillin Ovatime and Feless, Gabriel), Young Thugs Club (Dox-A, Zene The Zilla and Rakon) and Prima Music Group (X.Q, Jay Moon, Kyu Young and Shim Jae Hee) tried to woo the crowd with high energy. But instead, came across as under prepared and sporadic.

Alternatively, artists like rapper Ravi and singer Hoya tried to win the crowd through extravagance, with dance breaks and backing dancers. But while their sets certainly entertained, they didn’t show much artistry.

Yet when Takeone took the stage, his approach was simple; just rap. Initially seemingly uninterested with not a word spoken between songs, he was onto something. With just a flawless cut-throat flow, by the end of his set, the crowd was awestruck.

But the festival wasn’t exclusively Korean, with two international artists on the lineup. While both American hip hop duo Hare Squaed and American rnb and neo-soul group Phony Ppl on paper were a great edition to the lineup, they didn’t fare well on the day.

While Hare Squaed, with their high energy songs, were able to hype the crowd up just enough, Phony Ppl’s more mellow funky vibe felt somewhat out of place for punters. Besides, regardless of how well the two played and how hard they tried, both acts had a hard time connecting with the crowd. Alongside the language barrier, the crowd of Korean hip hop fans were just not interested in the groups that meant nothing to them.

But there were Korean acts too, that despite adding a refreshing diversity to the festival, failed to engage the crowd. Coincidentally both signed to BANA (Beasts and Natives Alike) experimental hip hop group XXX and alternative electronic duo Glen Check’s avant-garde sounds received a very lack lustre response from the crowd. Glen Check’s singer Juneone didn’t help the situation by singing facing the side of stage rather than the audience for most of the band’s set. But even XXX’s Kim Ximya’s strong stage presence and aggressive rap failed to engage the crowd.

What got crowds excited were well-seasoned and much-loved artists like singer Zion T and rappers Mad Clown, Crucial Star and Deepflow, who all performed well practiced sets. Rapper YDG was a wildcard. Bringing his charisma and humour to the festival, he had the whole crowd laughing and singing along with him.

Yet it was the big record labels that the crowd were really there to see. Although they were given more time, the labels didn’t need to work on building the crowd’s rapport, they already had it. Both sets from Ambition Musik (Changmo, Kim Hyo Eun and Hash Swan) and H1gher Music (Sik-K, HAON, Woodie Gochild and PH-1) were crowd pleasers, with all the expected charm and hits from two of the most in demand record labels of the time.

Hi-Lite Records (Paoloato, Huckleberry P, G2, Yun B, Sway D and Reddy) gave a very well-polished and grounded performance. Even with their high energy, their strong point was simple clean rap skill.  While Illionaire Records with DoK2 and The Quiett closed the show for a reason. Walking onto stage as if it was their own, the audience agreed, singing along to every word. Which proved the two are still big stakeholders in the Korean hip hop scene.

But the most exciting and fresh set came from Indigo Music with Swings, Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Justhis, NO:EL and Young B. Like most of the sets of the day, Indigo Music’s was a hit reel, yet throughout their performance the crowd had a youthful and ecstatic energy absent in other sets. Thanks to diverse rap styles, trendy beats and great chemistry between members, the crowd were elated.  It was also in this set that Jvcki Wai, the only female rapper on the whole lineup, showed off her skills. Yet although this festival fares better than others having three women on the lineup, still there is a long way to go for gender balance.

At the end of the day, with so many Korean artists in one place and even a few international artists too, The Rapbeat Festival 2018 had some ambitious goals. While the festival wasn’t afraid to give its audience a chance to try something new, where it brought it home was with familiarity. What it did was to bring together all that’s good in the Korean hip hop scene in the fastest and most efficient way possible.