The Story Behind Lo-Fi Hip-Hop

Flowium
5 min readApr 24, 2022

Lo-fi hip-hop is a musical genre that can be traced all the way back to the ’60s. Those days’ some rock bands were recording their songs in their garage with low quality equipment. ’60s garage rock and punk rock evolved into ’90s grunge. These are the predecessors of today’s lo-fi sound. When the home recorded albums merged with DIY, DIY also affected grunge. Then producing music became so easy. This is the low budget part of the lo-fi music. But we have to recognize lo-fi as a sound and as a genre.

Lo-fi comes from ‘low fidelity’ and it refers to music with lower sound quality. Some records have some imperfections like audible tape edits, distortion, noise and background noises (coughing, laughing, passing cars etc.). These are the examples of low fidelity. But as a genre, lo-fi is not about low quality. Its quality is intentional. Why? The answer is ‘mood’.

When all those vinyl noises, distortion, jazzy elements and hip-hop beats combine, it creates an aura. And it’s so calm, relaxing and nostalgic. It is taking the listeners back to their childhood. No lyrics, no positive or negative emotions and purified from all the distracting things. This can trigger the cerebrum and helps focusing. But some people called this music boring, some called ‘apathetic’.

This kind of use of music, like ‘a tool’, has a long history. Kyle Chayka describes it in his book ‘The Landing for Less: Living With Minimalism’. At this point ambient music is involved. And ‘furniture music’ was created by Erik Satie. To be heard but not listened to.

If we want to talk about elements of this genre, we can talk about Dream Pop, the subgenre of alternative rock which was pioneered by Cocteau Twins. The sound of the dream pop genre is the basis of the dreamscape that contributed to lo-fi hip hop.

The next one is downtempo. Trip-hop and downtempo are often used interchangeably. Evolution of downtempo began in the early ’90s. DJs in Ibiza used this music to calm the people’s energy. In the late ’90s the Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister popularized downtempo with their remixes of pop and hip-hop with influences of the ’70s soul jazz. And breakbeats, dream pop, psychedelia, melancholy tones, atmospheric sounds included. When we look at the lo-fi hip-hop, they are all there.

If we want to see the historical evolution of lo-fi hip-hop clearly then we must take a look at chillwave too. Because it has the same ambiance and synthesizers, the same psychedelia and the same ambient sounds. Like we can see them in dream pop, shoegaze and downtempo. Plus chillwave has lo-fi elements like fuzz and hisses.

Lo-fi is in some sort of relationship with vaporwave too. Vaporwave is a microgenre of electronic music and an internet meme that emerged in the early 2010s.

The Vaporwave artists transformed the modern techno cultural elements into the compositions and the images filled with melancholia and nostalgia. It’s not just that. The other important thing is its visual aesthetics. ’90s web and graphic designs, glitch art, 3D rendered objects, Japanese lettering were in its cover artwork and music videos. If we combine these elements, emotions and moods show themselves. We can see those emotions and moods in lo-fi hip-hop too.

Bedroom Pop is also often associated with the lo-fi aesthetic and music genre, it’s basically lo-fi indie pop music. And it has had a breakthrough in recent years with artists like Mac Demarco, Clairo, boy pablo and Rex Orange County drawing attention to the genre.

Boom bap is another link. This style is recognized by drum loops that use bass and snare drums. Notable boom bap artists include Wu Tang Clan, J. Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest.

And about the anime… Toonami began in 1997 and aired both Western Cartoons and anime. It’s even credited with bringing anime to the U.S. mainstream. Used lo-fi music. Then Samurai Champloo (2004) perfectly tied together key elements of the genre: anime, hip-hop, jazz, Japanese aesthetics, nostalgia, electronica, downtempo, atmospheric sounds etc. And the soundtrack was produced by Nujabes. Toonami and Samurai Champloo are the reasons for childhood nostalgia. While we listen to those Youtube playlists evokes us those days.

Nujabes is one of lo-fi hip-hop’s forefathers. His two albums ‘Metaphorical Music’ and ‘Modal Soul’ are touch tones in lo-fi. He was influenced by tons of jazz and golden era hip-hop. Nujabes and one of his earliest collaborators, Japanese rapper Shing02 made ‘Battlecry,’ the theme song for Samurai Champloo and the song became so popular.

Jonny Laxton from College Music which is a live YouTube lo-fi streaming channel with over 1 million subscribers, believes that Nujabes is integral to what lo-fi hip-hop is known today. Nujabes is often mentioned in the same breath as the late legendary producer J. Dilla. In fact, the two share a birthday.

And nowadays, on YouTube, anime girls are studying in company with lo-fi hip-hop. The first lo-fi chill beats list on Youtube was posted by Chillhop Music on April 23, 2013. Chilled Cow’s channel was also one of the first lo-fi live stream channels. These lists began to listen more and more in time, and soon the number of followers and listeners reached millions. The playlist posted by ChilledCow on April 12, 2015 has exceeded 7 million views. The list of Chillhop Music posted in 2016 exceeded 16 million views.

According to a 2017 Music Consumer Insight Report, 85% of YouTube users — 1.3 billion people — visited the website to listen to music in August 2017 alone. Nowadays ChilledCow is the most popular lo-fi hip-hop live streaming Youtube channel. On the other hand Chillhop Music had some kind of disagreement with Studio Shizu in 2018. Yuki, the anime character that Chillhop used in his live stream, was from the anime Wolf Children, and Studio Shizu was the studio that created that anime. After that, no one could see Yuki again. These days, they continue their way with a raccoon.

We shouldn’t be surprised at all this. It is very natural that the way music becoming popular at this time is through Youtube. On the contrary, we who live in the first quarter of the 21st century should understand our own time better. Maybe we can even predict where the music industry will evolve from now on. Ultimately, it is in our hands to ensure that the technology is in our best interest. (At least for now.) But it is a completely different thing to make it both for our benefit and to turn it into a stream.

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Flowium

Flowium collaborates with musicians and producers to bring you amazing playlists every month and experiment with AI (Midjourney) to generate cover arts.