(Lo-Fi) Hip-Hop Is(n’t) Dead: Killer Bee’s ‘Otaku’ is a Genre Defining Work

Ben Grenrock takes a look at the perceptions clouding lo-fi hip-hop and some producers re-defining what the term means.
By    March 27, 2018

Ben Grenrock wrote this while listening to early Wavves.

Lo-fi hip-hop tends to get a bad rap. Characterized by simple boom-bap drums, samples that ooze a sweet-yet-melancholic nostalgia, and a near fetishization of ’90s and early ’00s anime, there isn’t much wiggle room for innovation within the subgenre’s narrow demarcations. It’s a specific sonic template for a specific niche, one that predominantly caters to listeners seeking “chill beats” to provide a backdrop for the inhalations and subsequent coughing fits bookending the consumption of fluffy, purple flora.

While there are a lot worse things to structure a niche around than boom-bap, sentimentality, and anime, and while burning things of a sticky and/or icky nature is a practice I’d go so far as to wholeheartedly endorse, when perusing the YouTube-channel-cum-lo-fi-hip-hop-grand-barzaar STEEZYASFUCK, the nits at which lo-fi’s detractors pick become magnified to the point that anyone can see them, looming Mothra-like over tired Ocarina of Time samples dusted with a patina of artificial tape-hiss.

As of this writing, STEEZYASFUCK boasts 357,130 subscribers. I’d postulate—though I’ll admit to maybe a touch of hyperbole here—that it posts tracks and beat tapes by roughly a third as many producers, teeming multitudes of them making lo-fi hip-hop with the same drum patterns, the same Samuri Champloo dialogue, the same three piano lines chopped from the Final Fantasy X soundtrack. This glut of producers and their focus on creating simple background music to soundtrack muted episodes of Cowboy Bebop viewed through bloodshot eyes, combine to make the genre appear little more than a spicy-mayo-lubricated circle jerk—though, granted, a lot less dramatic.

And I can’t argue with that. As someone who has let YouTube’s algorithms shuffle up STEEZY-curated joints until I’d passed from a state of boom-bap bliss to being literally bored unconscious, this is not an inaccurate generalization. But as with all generalizations, there are notable exceptions. In some instances, these manifest as OGs of this young movement like bsd.u, whose flawless deployment of the genre’s elements have resulted in scintillating beat tapes and become fodder for countless copycats.

Then there are the even-younger and less-acclaimed innovators—for example, melodic maestro sleepdealer (whose excellent tape Oasa I have already gushed over on P.O.W.)—who stand out from the pack by displaying an ineffable command of precisely the things that, in the hands of less proficient beat makers, tend to make lo-fi appear so reliably meh. Twenty-three-year-old producer Killer Bee fits best into the latter of these two categories. Yet his work, most notably 2017’s Otaku, injects the generally staid genre with an infusion of kineticism, experimentation, and an inherent musicality that invites the sort of active listening STEEZY’s preponderance of “beats to study/chill to”-playlists dampen, if not outright discourage.

Hailing from New York City, Killer Bee first began making hip-hop music at age sixteen, recreating Drake songs on Garageband by strumming along on his guitar and programming drums via his MacBook keyboard. He’s come a long way since then. High school led him to Kanye, then to Dilla, DJ Premiere, Pete Rock, and eventually to Japanese beatsmith Nujabes, whose tendency to sample piano lines from Japanese music resonated with Killer Bee’s Toonami-cultivated love for anime and its similarly pentatonic-inclined anthems. When he stumbled upon bsd.u, all of these sonic interests aligned. By then he’d started college, and there Killer Bee began trying his hand at creating the lo-fi beats that had captivated him.

These early efforts coalesced into Venus EP. But from its very first second of playback, it’s apparent that Killer Bee—whose name is a reference to the pseudonymous rapping ninja of Naruto notoriety—would go on to bend and break the “rules” of lo-fi’s aesthetic. Rather than a sample from Naruto, or some other anime amenable to Western taste, Venus EP’s first track is built around perfectly looped chords from King Krule’s “Baby Blue.” Under that, the drums snap—definitively boom-bap, but considerably more aggressive than what you’d expect from a lo-fi joint—and over it, snips of Japanese dialog serve both as a tasteful garnish for the music and as irrefutable admittance under the lo-fi umbrella. Despite these intriguing anachronisms, Killer Bee’s debut fits comfortably under that umbrella and sounds like an initial, though very solid, offering rather than the work of an experienced artisan. But the signs were there from the beginning.

More than these early tendencies to infuse, if not break, the mold with his own breed of novelty, between the release of 2015’s Venus EP and Otaku, Killer Bee dedicated himself to what truly allows him to rise above the too-blunted horde of lo-fi producers: he studied. One summer—for seven hour a day, every day—Bee sat in front of his computer watching tutorial videos on production.

He read David Gibson’s The Art of Mixing, a 350 page text considered a bible by many sound engineers. He listened to music of disparate genres from jazz to future bass, acid house to R&B, giving each musical exploration time to percolate in his mind so it might naturally inform his output. He approached making a record like a cosplayer might approach preparing for the annual Blizzard convention—comprehensively; and on Otaku, boy does it show.

As with Venus EP, right away the intensity Killer Bee brings to Otaku precludes its facilitation of any sort of “study/chill” behavior. Bass-drunk slapper “luvsick (intro),” feints with introductory dialogue pulled from the romance-drama Like Crazy, before its elements come together to form a weighty haymaker of a track. The melody remains melancholy, but the song laces its sentimentality with steel. Follow-up “irl” is similarly impassioned, and features the lo-fi convention of distorting an iconic acapella and then laying it over a beat meant to give it some form of new life; in this case it’s Easy-E’s “Tha MuthaPhukkin Real” over a beat that owes more to J Dilla’s diverse percussive palate than to boom-bap or lo-fi’s epicurean kicks and snares.

Personally, this practice of cutting and pasting verses has always felt more like a tactic to block aspirant rappers from stealing beats without asking and/or paying for them than something that really elevates a given track. But Otaku’s iterations of this device are almost comprehensively enjoyable, none more so than “blossom.”

If it weren’t for the snatches of anime exclamations swirling through its high-end and a gorgeous, meditative breakdown, “blossom” would be a straight-ahead footwork track. The song not only successfully blends footwork with lo-fi—two vastly different genres that exist at the poles of extroverted and introverted hip-hop, respectively—it drops Earl’s “Hive” verse over the kick drum’s amphetamined arrhythmia to stunning effect. Rarely have multiple sub-genres found themselves working in harmony this well while remaining this distinct.

There’s no questioning that Otaku is a lo-fi hip-hop album. Even its name is a double entendre of a nod to the genre’s obsession with Japanese culture and to lo-fi’s innate nerdiness. Still, instead of simply existing within the boundaries of lo-fi, Killer Bee’s selection of sounds and his burgeoning mixing skill leave the album sounding richer and denser than its stripped-down peers. He also takes risks on Otaku, venturing into interstitial spaces to deliver tracks like “final fantasy,” a saccharine trap beat that sounds like what you might get if Seal, in a bout of wine-drunk depression, remixed the Migos. Chalk it up to Killer Bee’s skill as a producer that that’s mean as a compliment.

Still, Otaku is not quite a magnum opus. Like the video games that share its name, “final fantasy” seems to go on forever; at over seven minutes, it is a bit too long. So are a couple other tracks that don’t quite possess the dynamic structuring to support three solid minutes of instrumental hip-hop. But the album’s few missteps are clearly the result of an artist in the process of fine-tuning his already impressive skill set. Considering the dividends Killer Bee’s commitment to self-study have already paid, I’d wager that by the time his next tape drops, he’ll have the same command of the minutia of production that he already displays in its broader strokes.

Lo-fi hip-hop doesn’t really deserve all the internet shade that gets thrown its way. Few have the freak musicality to operate within the genre’s tight confines and still create beats that sound exciting and fresh. But some do; and Killer Bee is one of them. Even across the legions of the genre’s less-notable producers, it’s worth remembering that as lo-fi is inherently simple music to make, it’s a convenient entry point for a lot of young producers actively learning their craft. Killer Bee is a shining example of the sort of progressive innovation that will hopefully continue to take place within lo-fi hip-hop as these beginners become tradesmen, the tradesmen become masters, and as the otaku become shokunin.

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