16 bars is not a whole lot of space, in the grand scheme of things, in which to leave a mark – to organize the tangle of your thoughts into something that’s memorable, next-level, maybe even timeless. And yet the best verses can feel like fully fleshed-out worlds unto themselves, those 16 – or eight, or 52 – bars serving as portals to unexplored streets and tripped-out headspaces. These are the bars that become permanently etched in your memory, the rhymes you catch yourself subconsciously mumbling on the bus, the instrumentals you freestyle over alone in your room when you’re convinced you’re not such a bad MC yourself. (Hey, we’ve all had that phase.) The endless expressive possibilities within the context of these time structures is the spirit behind Bars, the new Native Instruments global event series, a continuation in their long-running Native Sessions events.
The foundational elements of hip hop as outlined by Afrika Bambaataa – rapping, DJing, b-boying, graffiti – are long overdue for some renovation. (An updated proposal: rapping, singing, producing, and gratuitous face tattoos.) But the most essential element of rap, grime, R&B, and beyond is something simpler, and much more enduring: the bar. It’s the brick from which a song’s infrastructure is shaped, and hip hop’s standard unit of measurement. In a sense, though, a bar is more than a track’s structural element – it’s a mode of communication that at once refines and transcends language. I can’t recognize the lyrics when I listen to a German trap song, but there’s an implicit understanding in the way my head immediately starts nodding on beat.
a bar is more than a track’s structural element – it’s a mode of communication that at once refines and transcends language
Over the course of one marathon month, taking in seven major cities – London, Paris, Toronto, Berlin, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Tokyo – Bars will dig deep into hip hop’s foundational element via panels, workshops, and performances, each tailored to the new wave of talent coming from its specific cultural hub. This is hip hop history presented with reverence to the past and a focus on the future – a learning space that replaces YouTube tutorials with firsthand insights from a contemporary vanguard of MCs and producers. Plus, there’s hands-on access to the tools they use daily, like MASCHINE – whose seamless hardware/software hybrid has helped legendary beatmakers push the genre forward without sacrificing the real-world physicality of the old school.
Take P Money, the South London MC and longtime flagbearer for the underground. He’s one of the last truly legendary clash MCs (for instance, the bloodbath that was “Lord of the Mics 6”) and has brought the same ferocity to his tracks for over a decade. P was at the forefront of Europe’s dubstep wave with scuzzy bangers like 2010’s True Tiger collab “Slang Like This,” but he’s never strayed far from his grime roots, preserving that raw essence even while touring the world. And then there’s Steel Banglez, the Newham-raised producer who, over the past 10 years, has gradually cemented his super-producer status, from crafting hits in relative obscurity for icons like Wiley and Ghetts to new-school cult faves like Mist & MoStack. Named in homage to the bracelets he wears because of his Sikh heritage, his producer tag has come to inspire a practically Pavlovian reaction in those who like their hit records on the cutting-edge side. (If you’re mostly familiar with American rap, think grime’s answer to Metro Boomin.) Both will offer their hard-earned insights to the first stop in the Bars line-up, which kicks off in London on April 11.
The wide range of styles within each city Bars represents is evident nowhere more so than in Berlin (April 26), where the thriving, hyper-diverse rap scene resonates, even if the lyrics don’t translate. With a live beat battle and a panel discussion on the future of German hip hop, the event features a roster of rising talent, including Immer Ready rapper Marvin Game and producer/MC Ahzumjot, who’ve pioneered forward-thinking, melody-oriented trap sounds in the Berlin scene.
In a 2015 lecture with some of hip hop’s best-known producers, Just Blaze responded to fans’ questions as to what program he’d used to make certain classic beats in a way that they may not have expected. “The best instrument you have is your ears and your brain,” he said. “You can have a 10 million dollar studio and make two dollar beats.” There’s no cheat code to brilliance; the best tools function simply as an extension of the artist themselves. But for a new generation of producers, new tools like MASCHINE and the deep instrument and effects libraries of KOMPLETE provide the structure needed to explore their most out-there impulses – striking that perfect balance between formal guidelines and complete creative impunity.
Take Parisian producer Stwo, for instance – a guest at Bars’ April 12 Paris installment, whose haunting melodies and gentle touch landed him a deal with Noah “40” Shebib’s publishing company and a co-production credit on Drake’s “Weston Road Flows.” On his recent contribution to the Native Sketches series, he dug a Rhodes piano out of the KONTAKT sampler and banged out the drums in MASCHINE for a meditative loop of ghostly future-soul. And then there’s TRAKGIRL, a DMV native and guest at Bars’ Toronto edition, whose credits include R&B stars Jhené Aiko, Omarion, and more, consistently holding it down for women in the production sphere. Her sketch—made with MASCHINE alongside the monster synth plug-in, MASSIVE, is a slice of lumbering boom-bap that gradually dissolves into itself, the soundtrack for a dystopian near-future.
All of this innovation starts from a single bar. In a sense, it’s a bit of a trip to consider decades of culture-shifting, life-affirming sonic experimentation starting with such a seemingly rigid unit of measurement – how could structure be so infinitely mutable, so freeing? It might sound strange, but I’ve begun to think about something so standardized as a 16-bar verse in the same way I do a haiku poem. Its once-tight formal guidelines – three lines, seventeen syllables – weren’t about following an unalterable set of rules but about directness of expression, getting to the barest possible essence of the subject at hand. It’s about the ability to isolate a moment in time, if only for a beat or two, and to preserve it in a way that feels true. In the same way, a bar – small as it may be – is the building block from which shapelessness takes shape, and from which the chaos of inspiration becomes art. It’s a tiny vessel for a bigger feeling, and the essence of the music that’s shaped our lives.
Sign up for your nearest Bars event now.
More details coming soon.
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La Place, centre culturel Hiphop
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Musik & Frieden
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Centro Cultural de España en México
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To coincide with the announcement of Bars, Native Instruments has teamed up with Metapop to launch a remix competition, that gives you the chance of winning a custom MASCHINE setup. For more details on how to enter, visit the competition site here.