Know Your History – 16 Bars

Welcome to “Know Your History.” Your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. 

This is a transcript of the fourth episode. If you’ve missed the previous three, please click on the “Hip-Hop History” tab above to download all of the episodes of the show and to read the transcripts as well.

Download Know Your History: Episode 4 – 16 Bars for free or you can listen to it using the player below.

On today’s show I break down the science behind 16 bars, how they are used, and why they are important in the structure of hip-hop songs. I hope you enjoy the show.

Have you ever been listening to a song that you’ve never heard before, it’s got a really catchy chorus and you want to sing along to it? Something like, “Ya down with OPP? Yeah you know me” and you know that chorus very well. And as soon as it’s about to come back in, you start singing the chorus because you just know it’s going to drop right now, and sure enough. it drops right now.

How does that happen? How do you know when that chorus is going to come back in to effect?

Well, it comes down to the structure of the music. Hip-hop is not just something that is randomly thrown together. It follows established musical rules and patterns. And we can recognize those patterns even if we’re not counting them and we don’t have any musical experience whatsoever.

Today I want to share with you some of the knowledge of what goes into constructing a Hot 16. I know you’ve heard that term before. Rappers spit 16 bars and that’s what they’re expected to it. Well, what is a 16? What’s 16 bars? What’s a bar?

I know when I first started rapping, I had no idea what that was. I would just rap and rap and rap and say whatever I had to say until I made my point, and then I’d do my chorus. I’d do my second verse, say whatever I wanted to say, make my point, and go to the chorus. It took me some time to figure out that that is not what rap is, that it is, in fact, sloppy and unprofessional.

In my early days, I was too arrogant and you couldn’t tell me anything. Until one day when I went to a studio to record some of my stuff and the producer looked at me sideways, “That’s your verse? That’s too long!”

I was like, “What do you mean it’s too long? I said what I wanted to say. It’s time for the chorus.”

He said, “It’s not 16 bars.”

And I almost ignored him. “Just record it, man. That’s my song.” I’m glad that I didn’t because 16 bars is something that all rappers should know. My songs benefited greatly from this knowledge so I wanted to share it all with you. So I’m going to break it down for you today and let you know what exactly is a bar, what 16 of them are, and how to put them together. I hope this helps some of the emcees out there and I hope it also helps to show that rap is actually following musical conventions.

Now think back, if you had any sort of musical training whatsoever even if it was just in elementary school where you learned how to clap patterns like ta, ta, ti-ti, ta, then you know about beats. You also know that there are often four beats in a bar. 1, 2, 3, 4. (You can hear this timing a lot better on the podcast than you can on the transcript so go download it)

It’s constant and steady. That’s four beats in a bar.

The kicks and the snares (drum sounds) will actually fall on different parts of the beat if you listen carefully. Once again, we are dealing with four beats in a bar. 1, 2, 3, 4 and you’ve got the hard kick drum sound and the hit of the drum stick on the snare drum.

Most drum patterns in hip-hop will have the downbeat, the first beat being on the kick drum. The snare drum comes on the second beat. The snares will fall on 2 and 4 and the kicks will fall on 1 and 3.

A beat is constant and steady and while the rhythm may change, the beat will stay the same. You can have fast beat 1,2,3,4 or you can have a slow beat 1…….2…….3…….4. But it is never going to go 1…….2,3…….4. It’s going to stay steady and constant.

Most rap patterns will start with a kick drum and will follow a kick-snare-double kick-snare. So with this pattern, the kicks are on the 1 and the 3 and the snares fall on the 2 and the 4.

So if you can count to four and you can slap on your knees, by going left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand, you can get a pattern. 1, 2, 3, 4, right. left, right, left. You can count bars.

It gets a little more complicated when you want to count 16 of them because you have to count to 4 sixteen times. Here’s the best way to do it. Every downbeat, start that with the measure you are counting. So you count like this, 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, 4, 2, 3, 4, an in that way you’ve just counted 4 bars.

What I’m going to do now is just randomly throw in a CD so we can count bars together. We will be able to see if the rapper does indeed spit 16 bars. Pretty much any song I pick will do it.

Listen to the podcast to see how this works.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh you counted that already or you set that up” but if you don’t believe me, go check out any rap song in your collection or on your iPod and count it. I’ll bet you that you get 16 bars, expect when you don’t.

“Okay, what are you saying Chase? You’re saying everything is 16 bars and now you’re saying it’s not.”

But if we go back to what I said at the start of the show, a lot of the popular music we listen to these days is based on 4/4 time. That means there is four beats in a bar. That’s why we count to 4.

So if a rapper wants to rap more than 16 bars, that’s totally fine. Sometimes you’ll find less than 16 bars. However 16 bars is the standard and if you are going to deviate from that you are going to do so in groups of four. For example, some rapper will rap for 12 bars and that is perfectly acceptable because that is four bars less than 16. There are some verses that will be 20 bars long and this is acceptable too because it is four more bars that 16. Sometimes you’ll hear them rapping twice 16 so you’ll hear a 32 bar rap or you’ll hear a 24 bar rhyme. But you will hardly ever hear a 17, 18, or 19 bar rhyme. It’s gonna be 16 plus or minus four or a couple groups of four.

You’ll notice that the not only are the verses built in groups of four, but so are the choruses. The standard is a 16 bar verse and an 8 bar chorus. Sometimes they’ll use a 12 bar chorus or a four bar chorus but most of the time you’ll notice that it is all in groups of 4.

4/4 time that we’ve been dealing with is referred to a common time. Pretty much any pop song, rock song, country song, whatever, it done in 4/4 time. You can find a few that are done in 6/8 time but most of the modern music we listen to is done in 4/4 time.

The only way you can learn how to do this is by actually doing it. So let’s practice counting now. When I count, I actually conduct a musical pattern in the air like an orchestra conductor would but you don’t need to do that. You can just count to four.

Listen to the podcast and count with me for the first verse and then again on your own for the second verse. (Please go try it out because like I said, that is the only way to learn.)

Rappers rap in groups of 4. Most notably is 16, that is the standard. If someone is going to deviate from that, they will do it groups of 4.

So if you’re an MC, go back and count your songs. If you rapped and it was a pretty nice song and it was 18 bars, you can probably figure out how to get rid of two bars there, do a little bit of a rewrite and make it fit to the 16 bars. If you can’t cut anything and you just love it too much, put two more bars in there to make it 20. Your song will sound and feel all that much more professional. Trust me. That’s what real hip-hop heads do. That’s what real MCs do. That’s what real lyricists do. So step your game up, count your bars and get it done.

The other interesting thing about bars is that you can rap fast or slow. It’s not about how many rhymes you say, it’s about the beat. You can fit as much lyrics in there as you want. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go, how many words you put in, whether you’re going triple them up or whatnot. Since you are only counting the beats, you have a lot of freedom there to do whatever you want.

I hope you’ve learned a little bit today about what 16 bars are, why there important, and how they fit in with hip-hop culture.

The only thing I didn’t talk about is where the rhymes actually fall. In the old school days, the rhymes always used to fall on the snares. Nowadays, you can rhyme on the snare, just before, or just after it. Most of the times though it is timed out and if you listen carefully you will see that the rhymes do fall on the snares. So check it out.

I’m going to play one more song to close out the show and I’ll allow you to count that yourself for practice and then I let you know what the count was.

I hope you learned all about 16 bars, how they’re put together and how 16 bars defines this music and this culture. Thanks for tuning in. This is Chase March and you better “Know Your History.”

4 responses to “Know Your History – 16 Bars”

  1. great break down…i know what im doing,…but ive read many articles about bars and this one is the best by far

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you so much for that praise!

    I am currently a little behind in transcribing the episodes. I will be posting more soon.

    Stay tuned!

  3. Hi Patrick Pete,

    I fixed the broken player and download link. Hope you enjoy listening! Thanks for the comment!