Master Plan: The birthplace of underground hip-hop
Down a side alley in Sinchon, away from the hustle and bustle of Hongdae, there’s a small club with a black and white checkerboard floor that looks as though it could fit no more than 50 people. This is where many say underground hip-hop was born in Korea.
Nowadays, it goes by the name Geek Live House and hosts a variety of shows. However, between 1997 and 2002, it was the mecca of underground hip-hop: Master Plan. Up to 200 people would attempt to squeeze in on Friday and Saturday nights, with those not fortunate enough to enter listening from the staircase outside.
Some of the biggest names to grace its small stage have included Vasco, Skull and Dynamic Duo and hot acts like Drunken Tiger and DJ DOC.
For many, Master Plan was home. “It was like my hometown,” says MC Meta, one half of duo Garion. “At the end of the day, when they sold the club [in 2002], we all felt like we had lost our home.”
Dapheal, a member of Megaphone at the club continues: “It’s a club that had the original Korean hip-hop. Through Master Plan, the music could spread.”
A community of music lovers under the name Master Plan pooled their resources and bought the venue in 1997 in order to establish a place to enjoy music. The space had previously been used by online hip-hop community BLEX for shows and new owner Donmany decided to let them continue there after the purchase, according to MC Meta.
Hip-hop shows were scheduled every Friday and MC Meta recalls that after the BLEX shows, Donmany wanted professional artists to perform, so auditions began. Gradually, more artists joined, the next being Da Crew (consisting of Seven and Sataan who now go by Artisan Beats) Side B, Megaphone, Kigachi (who later became Infinite Flow) and more.
“I didn’t know they had a hip-hop scene in Korea. Actually, they really didn’t. That was the only place you could even hear hip-hop,” says Artisan Beats, who is now a producer.
He said his first show had about five paying customers in addition to the 20 artists that were performing that night – an occurrence that happened often during those early days. DJ Gass from Side B decided to flirt with hip-hop in Korea while studying and living in Japan, where he was able to witness a strong, vibrant hip-hop scene.
“In ’98, we found out there’s some club [in Seoul] doing hip-hop live shows every weekend,” he reminisces. “We went there and it was so little. Tiny, tiny club… I was shocked because I thought I am the first one trying to do this in Korea and it was already happening there.”
Yoo Young-joon, who now works in production at label Brand New Music, started going to the club as a high school student. But his desire to get to know the musicians better led him to take a job there once he graduated in 2000.
“The place was quite energetic regardless of how few people were coming. It was quite vibrant,” Yoo says. He did everything from running the ticket booth to cleaning and even serving soda to the audience (as the club was open to all ages and did not sell alcohol), earning him the nickname Drink Man (음료수맨).
“I was amazed by the fact that a group of Koreans were doing the same thing [as U.S. hip-hop]. It was also enjoyable talking to people who had the same interest as me, who were into hip-hop and R&B,” he recalls.
MC Meta remembers about 30 teams performing at Master Plan every weekend, as well as making appearances at business openings and stages in front of Dongdaemun department stores.
Many Master Plan artists were then featured on a hip-hop compilation album called 2000 Korea (2000 대한민국), which helped build the popularity of the club. The shows then spread to Friday and Saturday nights.
One memorable – and perhaps the biggest – show in particular was Master Plan’s collaboration with Japanese label Future Shock. Rapper Vasco, who joined Master Plan in 2000 with team PJ Peeps, enjoyed collaborating with many foreign artists, noting most were influenced by the Japanese crew.
“A lot of… Korean rappers, got inspired by the Japanese skills and DJ skills and rap skills, and like, how they dressed and how they act,” comments Vasco. DJ Gass also remembers meeting the Japanese rappers he had idolized, recalling how crowded and crazy the club would get. “Everybody is jumping and shouting, and the sweat goes up and came back down like rain from the ceiling because the air [conditioning] is so weak,” he smiles. “But we didn’t care.”
For Vasco, Master Plan was the highest level to achieve as a rapper. He auditioned three times to get in. Others auditioned as many as five times. “Everybody knew Master Plan is the place where all the professional rappers perform. So when I was a kid, it was like an idol. Oh my god, I want to perform there. I want to be there. I want to be one of them,” he says.
At the time, it was the only club that had all the gear, including mixers and turntables and the best DJs such as DJ Wreckx and DJ Soulscape. “They played music from LPs… It was true hip-hop. True underground hip-hop,” he adds excitedly.
Which is why it came as a shock when the club suddenly closed in 2002 – seemingly at its peak – to turn into a label. Some of the artists signed. Others, because of differences with the owner, decided to go elsewhere.
NUCK who was a member of Infinite Flow at MP, said Master Plan has made a natural transition from club to label. “I think it headed in a natural progression. Like going from vinyl to tape, to CD and then to MP3. Though, I still wish it existed… There aren’t many places like that are available,” he states.
Vasco said that one cannot talk about Korean hip-hop without mentioning the importance of Master Plan. “Twenty or 50 years later or 100 years later, when they talk about Korean hip-hop, they have to talk about Master Plan first,” he says. “It’s like, you know, like Brooklyn in Korea. It’s like Harlem in Korea.”
Though it is gone, it certainly is not forgotten by those who were there.
** The second part of Master Plan, which focuses on the club’s impact on the hip-hop scene, will be in Groove Korea’s April issue. **
Emma Kalka is a freelance writer who runs the Tumblr blog “Discovering the Korean Underground,” which focuses on the Korean underground hip-hop scene.