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New Directions, Old Sound: An Analysis of Lo-Fi Hip Hop Music




“Contemplative, nostalgic sound; the love child of soul and boom bap raised on a steady diet of vinyl,” writes hip hop magazine contributor Peter Maroulis about lo-fi hip hop music. While elements of lo-fi music have been utilized by a variety of artists throughout history, only around 2018 did these elements consolidate to form a defined genre of music: “lo-fi hip hop." For lo-fi fans, hallmarks of the genre are distinct: jazz or classical tracks, repetitive melodies with soft beats, sounds from the environment such as water or rain, and “nostalgic” sounds like vinyl crackle or white noise, oftentimes paired with scenes from anime film or shows. Aspects of recordings that are conventionally unwanted, such as distortion and mistakes, are praised.

The emergence of this genre is one worth exploring. While lo-fi hip hop artists today rely on technology in creating their music, they simultaneously seek out a sound that is natural and life-like, perhaps even representative of a widespread shift in mentality for this generation: one that embraces the mechanization of creative practice yet strives for the concept of authenticity.

Technological Inseparability of Lo-Fi Hip Hop and Music Sharing Platforms Though lo-fi instruments and sounds have existed throughout history, the creation and promotion of lo-fi hip-hop as a defined genre was made possible entirely through technologies such as Youtube and SoundCloud in the mid 2010’s. A combination of these platforms’ legal structures, ability to link auditory and visuals elements, and nature of the sound of this music contribute to the genre’s formation. First of all, Youtube and SoundCloud’s more relaxed sampling policies, as opposed to policies of other music sharing platforms such as Spotify or iTunes, make them conducive to the production lo-fi hip hop music — a genre that heavily utilizes samples in nearly all aspects. Similar to “breakbeat or battle records,” compilations of melodic bits, drum lines and audio clips utilized by turntablism artists, Youtube users have created playlists specifically for the purpose of lo-fi sampling. These playlists make Youtube not only a tool for sharing music, but for creating as well. Youtube has also been essential in combining auditory and visual (anime-related) elements of this genre to give it a unique brand. Unlike artists of other genres that utilize their album art and music videos to enhance the message of their individual songs and personalities, artists of lo-fi hip hop are different in that they use the uniformity of anime imagery to enhance the feeling of the genre as a collective whole. Anime used by these artists are typically from 90’s or 2000’s shows, espousing feelings of nostalgia that enhance the auditory elements in the music. Finally, Youtube’s 24/7 live streaming channel and the way SoundCloud functions a type of radio that automatically plays related songs helps to facilitate a non-typical listening style that is specific to lo-fi hip hop. Unlike other genres where people seek out specific songs, lo-fi hop hop music is repetitive and non-intrusive. This leads people to listen to it in loops as background noise to their everyday activities. The best example of this would be the popular lo-fi hip hop radio on Youtube called “Lofi Hip Hop Radio to Relax/Study to” by anonymous figure ChilledCow. With over 1.7 million followers, it is described by Vice magazine as a type of “youtube phenomenon.”

Due to the integration between of music sharing technologies and the creation of this genre, lo-fi hip hop artists artists and the platforms of Youtube/SoundCloud have become inseparable within the system which they exist. As philosopher and filmographer Bill Nichols states, “[i]n an age of cybernetic systems, the very foundation of western culture and the very heart of its metaphysical tradition, the individual, with his or her inherent dilemmas of free will versus determinism, autonomy versus dependence, and so on, may very well be destined to stand as a vestigial trace of concepts and traditions which are no longer pertinent." This undoubtedly reflects the situation lo-fi hip hop artists, whose independence is indeed “no longer pertinent.” While artists have indeed changed the structure of Youtube/SoundCloud by making it a space that goes beyond just music sharing and towards collaboration and creation, the structure itself that aided the linking of auditory and visual elements has actually had unintended consequences. Lo-fi hip hop artist Ninjabe said, “The funny thing is if you have anime art on the cover of one of your tracks on SoundCloud you’ll get far more plays. I did an experiment once where I put a track with an anime photo and it got way more plays than my other tracks. While this “brand” is what helped to form this genre in the first place, it now in fact restricts artists from expressing themselves as individuals.

A Movement Towards Authenticity Ironically, while artists of this genre rely on technology to create music, they strive for a sound that reflects the sounds from a less technological, and therefore more “authentic” era. Artists across all genres are beginning to move away from clean, mechanized sound of hi-fi music in certain aspects of their music, yet it is the artists of lo-fi hip hop in particular that have fully embodied the changing definition of music-making technologies that author Anne Danielson describes in her article “Music Technology in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Danielson states that “the ‘machine’ is not what it used to be. Its music can be deep and groovy or high-paced and frenetic; it can expose its mediating technology or conceal it; it can even evoke the human touch of the pre-digital era." Lo-fi hip hop artists employ a plethora of plugins, softwares, and methods are utilized by lo-fi hip hop artists, such as EQ, distortion, saturation, bit-crusher, pitch LFO, compressors, and chopping up of sounds and intentionally putting them off beat to simply achieve this “pre-digital” sound they are looking for. For example, in the song “memories of you” by popular lo-fi hip hop artist [bsd.u], the kick and snares are slightly off-beat, and piano enters late at certain parts unexpectedly “misplays” certain notes. The song also utilizes the sound of rain in the background, further enhancing the life-like feel of the song. This detachment of real-world sounds from their context is seen frequently in lo-fi hip hop songs. In Froyo by Aso and Hans (ft. Clairo), the sounds of a can being opened are spliced and used instead of traditional kicks and snares in the primary drumline. In addition to these techniques, the feeling of authenticity is also created through the commenting feature on these technologies, which creates an effect similar to the one Nancy Baym says Twitter has on its users. On SoundCloud, users can leave comments on specific parts of the song, and on Youtube, the addition of the live 24/7 music streaming radio displays people’s comments in real time, almost like a group chat. Similar to fans that converse with their favorite artists on Twitter, fans of lo-fi hip hop revel in the intimacy of the genre. Not only does this encourage a sense of community and solidarity for listeners and artists around sharing a common and rather niche music interest, but it creates a loyal audience base for the genre.

The Democratization of Sound Simple to reproduce and praised for its low quality and “authentic sound,” people who do not necessarily have a background in theory or composition are now able to create music that is widely appreciated, signaling a type of democratization of sound espoused by this genre. Artists do not need to be signed, have producers or even professional studio equipment to create music that fits into this genre — perfect microphone quality, mixing skills, or even other band members are unnecessary, if not counterproductive, to creating the sound that listeners look for in lo-fi hip hop music. While genres shift and change over time, the occurrence of new genres of music is few and far between. When it does happen, it leads listeners to ask questions: How did this occur? Why now? What does this mean for the future of music? For lo-fi hip hop, the sense of community, accessibility and relatability, fostered by platforms like and Youtube and Soundcloud stood behind its conception. While many fear the downfalls of oversaturation due to technology, lo-fi hip hop in the context of this generation’s fascination with tangible, “authentic” items like polaroids, record players and typewriters, provides a glimpse at our future: one where technology and life are integrated in such a way that each complements, enhances and enriches the other.

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