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Zen Sounds 067: More Barber Beats
Some thoughts on the artistic value of curation and edits; plus five current album recommendations and a DJ set from Laurel Halo
Enjoy the curation
In last week’s newsletter on barber beats, I introduced a niche internet genre whose producers basically act like underground DJs: They hunt for obscure tunes in certain subgenres of past eras, like trip-hop, acid jazz, and liquid drum’n’bass, they assemble these tunes, pitch them down, add reverb and other effects, and then they put out collections of these versions as their own albums.
Which, of course, leads to confusion. Is this even art, some people on the internet ask, given that most treatments on any barber beats release could possibly be applied with a DJ controller, because very often, no actual compositional element is added to the songs, so no production software would be necessary. There’s even people on the forums calling for some sort of “ban” of barber beats, as they were essentially about “ripping off” other peoples’ music.
These people clearly know nothing about the history of hip-hop and vaporwave in general, and their overly simplistic assessment reeks of elitism.
When the late DJ Screw started making his chopped & screwed tapes in the early 1990s, he mixed current hip-hop tunes, pitched them down and simultaneously added echo effects by crossfading between two copies of the same record that played slightly out of sync. He recorded these mixes to tapes, later CDs, and sold them in his shop in Houston. They became wildly popular.
A decade after Screw’s untimely death in 2000, early vaporwave producers rebranded his technique to eccojams/plunderphonics, applying it to other genres of music, mostly ones that were deemed distasteful: sugary 1980s R&B, boring lounge music, soulless mall muzak, esoteric new age.
In the second half of the 2010s, barber beats came along and basically used the same treatment on downtempo, trip-hop, drum’n’bass and chillout music – again, records that weren’t exactly flying off the shelves anymore. The genre has recently expanded to deep house and nu disco, and it’s still developing as I write this.
I’d argue its main artistic value lies in curation and recontextualization. Slowing down these older tracks, editing them and adding certain effects brings out interesting nuances – similar to a great DJ set. If you start listening to some of the originals, many of them ripped from 2000s lounge bar and restaurant chain compilations, they will sound rather cheesy today, but that slowed + reverb treatment makes them weirdly listenable.
I also think the confusion around the nature of barber beats “albums” stems from the fact that they typically aren’t mixed like DJ sets, and they mostly lack any credit to the original tracks.
In the producers’ social media bios, you will often find a semi-clarifying statement, usually a variation of the below:
All art is recycled
Everything is plundered
I take no credit
Enjoy the curation
Like Nas, these producers seem to say that no idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun – it’s never what you do, but how it’s done.
It’s not that easy though. Many listeners, I suppose mostly younger ones, don’t understand that barber beats, in most cases, aren’t original music. Judging by their comments, they seem to believe Macroblank or Monodrone must be creative geniuses that actually write, play, record and produce all of the music on these albums they’re churning out weekly. While in reality, they didn’t actually make the music. They curate, edit and distribute – that’s what they do.
From a legal standpoint, barber beats exist in a dark-grey zone. Most “samples” aren’t cleared, and credits are rarely given. That’s why producers tend to stay anonymous and not monetize their albums on the big streaming services. They work with indie labels that sell limited runs of vinyl, CD and tape editions, and they offer merchandise with their “original” graphics (they’re pretty much all plundered as well). Just like vaporwave, the genre clearly isn’t set up for commodification. That’s exactly what I love about it though. It’s beautiful, fun, and a little anarchic.
In last week’s issue, I’ve pointed you to the best releases of the formative years (2020–22). Today, I want to recommend a handful of recent albums – all released in 2023, most in the last two months – that define the state of the art.
This producer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been active since 2021 and often combines his barber beats with left-wing political messages. In early 2022, he released a trilogy under the name “The Curse of Colonialism”; since then, his titles and artwork regularly followed themes of revolution and upheaval (“Guillotine”, “Redistributions”, “Anti-Imperalist Tapes”). Their newest release is one of my current favorites in the barber beats cosmos, an atmospheric selection of deep and moody slowed trip-hop with exceptional sound design.
Almost a veteran of the barber beats scene, Oblique Occasions from Baltimore, Maryland, has been around since 2020, assembled a huge discography on their Bandcamp page and created an instant classic of the genre with his “Anathema” album. What I love most about their most recent release is how it creates this deep dystopian late night atmosphere. It doesn’t have that ‘capitalist productivity’ vibe I get from many lofi beats these days.
Fairly new producer who’s only been active since March of this year, but has already released five solo albums and two collaborations. They see their music as “a celebration of trip-hop as seen through the vaporwave lens”, which is a pretty apt description of the barber beats genre as a whole. On this album, which was available on limited tapes and CDs as well (all sold out by now), Majestic 12 shows versatility by branching off into liquid drum’n’bass and deep house, which we will definitely see even more of in the next months.
One of the most prolific and popular producers on the scene, Macroblank has just put out a new album which underlines their impeccable taste. Some fans have already been hailing it as one of their best releases ever, and I would tend to agree, but I haven’t even sat through half of their vast discography. This one is indeed really strong though, steering clear of coffeetable shallowness and instead opting for deep and musical downbeats with dark cinematic vibes that work well with a countryside train ride through a thunderstorm.
Hailing from Tokyo, GORE has only been releasing albums for less than a year, but put out 25 releases in that short time frame. That pace is symptomatic for the scene right now, and it’s obvious we’re steering towards oversaturation (for some early adopters it might already be here; personally, I still enjoy the vast amount of music out there to be discovered). This new album by GORE was a highlight of this week’s listening sessions: Deep jazzy beats with hard, crisp drums and an experimental edge in the curation. Heavy rotation.
One more thing
Eagerly anticipating “Atlas”, Laurel Halo’s new ambient jazz album, I was extremely delighted to discover this sweaty DJ set from the experimental electronic goddess in Berlin’s HÖR YouTube channel. Clearly dialing up the BPM for this set of techno bangers, she includes some outstanding moments like a ‘93 Underground Resistance B-side transitioning into the most anthemic vocal house groove. Her ultra-fast mixing technique and deep track selection make this one a must-watch.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze