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Zen Sounds 066: Barber Beats
A new vaporwave subgenre pays homage to jazzy 1990s trip-hop
Need a haircut?
Last week, I wrote a love letter to vaporwave. I looked back on the genre history and some of my favorite records. What I failed to mention was that a new subgenre has emerged and become extremely popular in recent years, and it goes by the name of barber beats.
The term was reportedly coined by one of the managers of London vaporwave label Aloe City, at first referring strictly to producer Haircuts For Men’s music. Their early albums, released between 2016 and 2018, might be referenced as some of the first barber beats releases, even though the genre tag wasn’t widely used back then.
So, what exactly is it all about? First of all, it developed from vaporwave, sharing similar aesthetics, but adding significantly to the visual canon: Aside from the usual Japanese characters, Renaissance art and Roman busts, you’ll see artwork inspired by Greek and Egyptian mythology, high fantasy, hentai or manga. The colors will be darker, and there will be a lot of monochrome imagery.
Sonically, barber beats are based on the eccojams/plunderphonics template of slowing down and editing existing songs. In every other artist bio, you will find the slogan “everything is plundered”. As in ‘classic’ vaporwave, some are taking it a step further and trying to make more original barber beats. They still use recognizable samples, but chop them up, add effects and other elements.
The big difference to ‘classic’ vaporwave is the source material. Barber beats typically don’t reference 1980s R&B, city pop, and mall muzak. Instead, they’re based on trip-hop, downtempo and chillout music from the 1990s and 2000s. Adjacent styles like nu-jazz, ambient house and atmospheric drum’n’bass are being plundered as well.
To make that clear, there are obvious stylistic similarities between barber beats and lofi hip-hop (also referred to as ‘chillhop’, after a Dutch label), but those scenes have developed independent of one another. There are differences as well. Barber beats sound a bit more straight-forward, clean and heavy on the drums and bass, therefore more hi-fi than the muffled kicks dominating most lofi playlists. Some barber beats have that Balearic sundowner feel as well, but the overall vibe is more dark and cinematic, deep and tripped out.
Barber beats is probably just what happens when kids that grew up on vaporwave discover the Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune catalogues. Most of their albums are basically tasteful DJ sets consisting of slowed + reverb versions of “Earth” compilation tracks and Kruder & Dorfmeister remixes pitched down to minus 8, slightly edited and rearranged. Needless to say, I enjoy their music a lot.
To get into the sound, here’s a list of my favorite three producers and some more albums to start with.
In true vaporwave fashion, Macroblank is an anonymous artist (some speculate it’s a collective) that has been active since 2020 and become hugely popular in barber beats circles. Their releases are steadily among the top albums in the experimental and vaporwave categories on Bandcamp; for obvious reasons, their music is currently not on Spotify and other streaming services.
Many of ‘their’ songs are just slowed-down, slightly manipulated versions of existing chillout tunes from the late 1990s and 2000s. Which is totally in line with the tradition of the genre – again, early eccojams and ‘classic’ vaporwave didn’t do much more. It also explains the sheer volume of stuff they’ve released in a rather short period of time. Still, some of it is alarmingly addictive.
This Canadian vaporwave producer also went by Jaded Luxuries when starting to release music in 2020. “Forbidden Fruit” is actually my favorite album from the subgenre so far, though I couldn’t imagine this being played in a barbershop (Macroblank’s work would be much more suitable for that use case). This is a more of a moody experience for deep headphone listening while railway traveling across the city at night.
03 Haircuts For Men
Often referred to as the godfather of barber beats, HCFM doesn’t actually like being grouped in with the genre anymore. Still, they were arguably the first producer adapting the cinematic trip-hop feel, dubby bass and heavy drum sounds for the vaporwave age. They’re apparently located in Honolulu, Hawaii, but as usual, all biographical information could as well be totally made up. They do have a massive discography though, and it contains loads of interesting stuff to be discovered.
Bonus (Barber) Beats
All free download links on Bandcamp
04 Jaded Luxuries – “s/t” (2020)
Genre-defining album from Monodrone under early alias
05 DΛRKNΣSS – “Haircuts for E-Girls” (2021)
Instant genre classic from prolific Mexican producer
06 Oblique Occasions – “Anathema” (2022)
Barber beats with a jazzy, atmospheric drum’n’bass influence
07 Oscob – “Praise The Sun God” (2022)
German vaporwave producer with an epic dark jazz masterpiece
08 PcUniverse – “Platinum mirage” (2022)
Atmospheric, melancholic beats from a Finnish vaporwave artist
09 Mabisyo – “Hentai Jazz Deluxe” (2022)
Acclaimed smooth jazz barber beats from Chile
10 GODSPEED 音 – “栄光の阻害” (2022)
Bandcamp profile says they’re from Antartica. Yeah, right
Similar to vaporwave, there’s an impregnable amount of barber beats releases out there; most of it sounds quite decent and listenable, if you can get into the style at all. Just browsing through the discographies of the above-mentioned producers, you’ll have days and weeks of material to skim through. Currently, I treat this music as a constant, almost 24/7 backdrop in my home office. I’ve also deleted all other music from my phone and am playing random barber beats when in transit. I’m getting totally immersed.
To me, It feels a bit like coming home after a while abroad. Everything looks a little different now. Some shops have closed, and new ones have opened. There’s people in the streets you haven’t seen before, and some are wearing new clothes you don’t quite understand yet. The old buildings up the street have been refurbished. You liked them in their retro shabbiness, but they look much nicer now. It’s still home though, and it’s definitely still a vibe.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze