This Will Be the Year of Lo-Fi Hip Hop, if it Doesn’t Go Down in Flames

It was one of the fastest growing genres on Spotify last year: lofi hip-hop, a genre of online pirate stations and clandestine jazz samples. But an implosion under the weight of that success looms....
By    January 16, 2019

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Jaap van der Doelen spits freestyles over Times New Viking loops into a Talkboy.

“It’s starting to become a parody of itself”, says Bas van Leeuwen, founder of record label Chillhop Music. “I don’t know if lo-fi in this form has much of a staying chance.” He’s the one to ask though, since he’s witnessed the genre’s current rise from the very beginning. On a cupboard in Chillhop Music’s Rotterdam headquarters rests a golden YouTube Award, presented for a million subscribers. A number that has doubled since. Not surprising, given that the genre’s sudden boom originated from YouTube’s decision in 2013, to enable live streams.

The technique was quickly adopted in a way YouTube hadn’t foreseen, and could be described as a form of radio piracy for the digital age: channels that display a continually looped animation, often in an anime style, while jazzy, instrumental hip-hop plays. With descriptions like “beats to study/chill/read to”, they’re relentlessly popular with predominantly young listeners. As such, lo-fi seems to be a direct opposite to the type of hip-hop dominating charts and festivals, with its danceable rhythms, massive mosh pits and rattling trap drums.

“Yeah, it’s very contrasting”, agrees Lassi Kotamaki. “I do see a lot of people listening to both. Having fun with trap, and listening to lo-fi to chill.” The modest young Fin is studying medical sciences at the University of Edinburgh, but aside from that, is one of the notable talents in the fledgling genre. Under the guise of his nom-de-guerre Idealism, he has an audience of more than two million monthly listeners on Spotify. Listeners that come from all over the world. “Yeah, it is an internet genre. There are so many artists from so many different countries; there’s no way to pinpoint who made it popular and how it got popular. The biggest names in lo-fi do not come from the same country at all”, he says. “It really is an Internet genre.”

A geographic point of origin it may lack, but a shared spark of inspiration can certainly be found. “Like most other, let’s say ‘lo-fi’ artists, I remember watching Samurai Champloo, and through that I discovered Nujabes”, Kotamaki recalls. The jazzy hip-hop by producer Nujabes, who delivered the anachronistic soundtrack to the animated samurai spectacle, was a big influence when he started making beats. “Through Nujabes I discovered J Dilla, and this kind of underground producer community. It was pretty big back then, but it’s huge now.”

The two celebrated hip-hop-producers he mentions, are godheads to the lo-fi scene. Something they ironically have never witnessed themselves, due to Dilla’s fatal disease, and Nujabes his tragic car accident. Like the beats by hip-hop artists like Madlib and MF DOOM, their music could be heard in or around the cartoons aired nightly on Adult Swim. Its bumps featured a wide variety of gritty, unorthodox instrumental hip-hop, and a generation of future beatmakers, started associating those sounds with the networks animated stylings.

As such, most listeners, when they talk about lofi, are referring to a certain mood and feeling, rather than a sound that is technically low-fidelity. This is an abomination in the eyes of purists, who are concerned only with the gritty stuff. Its partly why Chillhop Music chose a less specific name for its platform. “A lot of music we release technically isn’t lo-fi hip-hop,” van Leeuwen says. “Nujabes isn’t lo-fi hip-hop either; the sound is actually very polished. It’s jazzy, but not lo-fi.” Those jazzy, often somewhat melancholic sounds, are in large supply on countless YouTube channels, together with those requisite animation loops. The biggest among them have thousands of listeners at any given time of day, and millions of subscribers.

“All those channels have the same style beats, an anime picture, and some kind of sad title”, van Leeuwen sneers. He appreciates friendly competitors like Chilled Cow and Steezy As Fuck,  which he believes have the right mindset and values. The growing popularity of lo-fi as a subculture, also brings in a lot of less emotionally invested copycats though. These newcomers seem to focus more on their own growth, rather than what works for the artists whose work they’re showcasing: “Nowadays, many just upload music to their channels, without even checking with the artists that made it.”

For Idealism, such channels are also a point of annoyance. But he also pleads for more creative risk taking among artists themselves. “It’s been stuck for a long time now, on this sad, depression anime trend thing. Some positive vibes would probably help it out”, he says with a slight laugh. He tries to avoid relying on samples much in his newer work. “I have nothing against it; it’s a great way to make music for people who can’t play instruments, but me personally, I prefer composing something on my own. Less loops, more original composition.”

The song ‘Tasogare’, his collaboration with Japanese guitarist Yitaka Hirasaki, is a great example of that approach. It does make him doubt whether lo-fi is even still applicable to it as a label. “I realized you could use a lot of ambiance and texture to make really personal tracks as well, that are relatable to the listener. (…) I’m still using vinyl crackle and things like that to set a kind of intimate mood to the tracks. It just kind of stuck with me, these lo-fi elements, but it’s not really lo-fi.”

“It’s becoming harder to be original, but he’s one of the people that does succeed in that regard”, van Leeuwen notes about Idealism’s work. “Lots of people make great beats through sampling, but I think that nowadays with Spotify and sample packs [collections of royalty free pieces of music, played by sessions musicians and sold to sampling beatmakers], the ease with which people can take this all up, causes a lot of saturation in the market. A lot of people are creating the same stuff.”

Not only the threat of creative stagnation looms though. “I hear music of artists we work with in  television programs. XXXtentacion used beats by people we work with. In hotels and at Starbucks our music is being played,” he says about the music’s quickly broadening use. And that commercial appeal brings a risk along  with it: “90% of lo-fi is based on uncleared samples, so at some point, major labels will start coming in and say ‘hand it over’. Sooner or later a shitstorm is coming. And then it’s all going to be a lot harder.”

That the popularity of lo-fi could mean the genre’s downfall, is far from unthinkable. Exactly the same thing already happened in 1991 with another style in hip-hop. Biz Markie used a sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ in his song ‘Alone Again’. O’Sullivan’s record label filed a lawsuit, and won. From that point on, samples had to be cleared with rights holders prior to the release of all songs. In a practical sense, the kind of exuberant sample collages full of surprising asides, like Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, or De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, suddenly became outlawed. Such a multitude of samples simply wasn’t commercially viable anymore for any label.

Throughout recent years, van Leeuwen’s has actively expanded Chillhop Music beyond the most dogmatic definitions of the genre. A strategy that he feels is necessary to survive both in a creative and business sense: “We don’t want the music to be seen as a throwaway or interchangeable product. We want people to recognize individual tracks. Not that they put it on, regardless of what’s playing as long as it’s a sampled beat.”

Part of that stance also comes from a sense of personal motivation: “Lo-fi hip-hop is cool, but to solely concern yourself with a  sound people only listen to when they’re studying or working…” He pauses a moment to gather his thoughts. “Look, we’re working on this with five or six people, and it doesn’t feel entirely convincing to me to spend all our days on music that’s just in the background. I want to expand the sound; have people actually listen to it, instead of using it just as background noise.”

Producer Philanthrope, who besides his own work as a musician, is A&R at Chillhop Music, agrees with that philosophy. “I think we are trying to push the sound itself more, connecting people that are coming from different genres and putting them together to make something new out of it.” They do that by hosting studio sessions in their office headquarters, where beatmakers can collaborate with instrumentalists. In these sessions, they don’t have to be concerned with the copyright on samples, and can fully explore whatever creative urges they want to follow. “It just has to evolve into something else. Because it is based on two-bar loops and drums, and rain sounds,” Philanthrope remarks. He has no doubt their approach is going to succeed: “If you look at the comments on our tracks, a lot of the tracks that I wouldn’t consider lo-fi get connected to the genre. So in people’s minds it’s already evolving.”

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