In a famous New Yorker piece, writer Amanda Petrusich categorizes lo-fi hip hop as “apathetic music to make spreadsheets to.” Petrusich goes on to describe the genre’s popular use for productivity and background listening as disheartening and disconcerting.
For those not familiar, lo-fi hip hop is… well, for starters, technically an incorrect genre label. Nowadays, “lo-fi hip hop” is a blanket term for music that, generally, has any of the following: a downtempo rhythm, looping beat and/or melody, stripped down instrumentals, and/or elements of lo-fi recording artifacts (more on this in a moment).
“Every label has its own vision of music and lo-fi in general, because lo-fi is not really precise,” says Joceran Moreau, owner of Dreamhop Music, a lo-fi hip hop label based out of Brussels.
Typically, there are no lyrics, although the genre heavily uses sampling, sometimes of film dialogue. Melodies are usually piano or guitar based, but brass and woodwind instruments are not uncommon. The “genre” can much better be defined by the moods it aims to evoke in the listener: relaxation, nostalgia, and melancholy.
“I think [the] lo-fi audience is mainly people who are looking for atmosphere more than great compositions,” says Moreau.
Micro-genres like jazzhop, chillhop, and chillwave have also sprouted out of their hard-to-define parent. But, a new listener might not be able to tell these subtly different genres apart. From label to label, owners are swapping out and mixing together genre titles, tailoring them to fit whatever is getting clicks. What stays consistent are the attributes attached to the livestreams and playlists where the genre lives. Most livestreams and playlists have “…to relax/study to” attached to the tail end of their titles. Others go further, adding “to get high to” or “to fall sleep asleep to.”
“Typically, if you’re looking for music to help you focus, you want something that’s really rhythmic,” says Lee-Anne Dowsett, Assistant Professor of Music Therapy at Canadian Mennonite University. “Our brains entrain to music – that’s the clinical word we call it. We sync up to rhythm. Within two beats, our brains are already like ‘oh, I am catching this rhythm.’”
In her New Yorker piece, Petrusich continues that she is “agog that [her] fellow-humans” feel comfortable relying on sound to propel them into productivity.
Playlists, Bedrooms, and Millions of Listeners
Although it’s hard to pinpoint the start of its popularity, lo-fi hip hop began its mainstream ascent around 2016 through YouTube playlists and livestreams. Years before, the genre was growing in small, tight-knit SoundCloud communities.
“You had to dig really deep in the platform to find those beats because there were not that many beat makers,” says Moreau, owner of Dreamhop Music. “People interested in that were people who consumed music on the internet – and not on the radio – and not on the tv. It’s kind of counterculture.”
Decades before that, as artists and fans throughout the community repeatedly point out, artists such as J Dilla and Nujabes were emphasizing looping beats and jazz samples in their music not knowing they’d one day be considered “godfathers” of lo-fi hip hop by many.
In more recent years, a big portion of the genre lives on Spotify due to the platform’s emphasis on playlist listening. Getting music on Spotify’s top lo-fi hip hop playlists is now a major goal for artists and labels alike as it provides an opportunity for massive exposure.
“It’s not an exaggeration, I actually use it for everything,” says Cico Sorriento, a 16-year-old lo-fi hip hop listener from the U.K. Sorriento discovered lo-fi hip hop in 2018 while browsing sample packs online to make music of his own. Since then, Sorriento says he’s been hooked and has even begun releasing his own lo-fi hip hop this year under the name CicoX2.
Sorriento is not alone. In 2021, there is no doubt, lo-fi hip hop is mainstream. If you’ve never heard of it, chances are a young person in your life has. The top lo-fi hip hop music label, ChilledCow, has a YouTube channel with over 7.4 million subscribers and over 750 million total video views. They feature two 24/7 livestreams that, combined, consistently hold a viewership of at least 30,000 listeners, but they’re by no means the entire market. Labels like Chillhop Music or College Music among many others are also running channels with well over one million subscribers. According to Moreau, the growth is not slowing down.
“Many, many labels are being created every month now because, apparently, all artists are expecting from a label now is to own a playlist,” says Moreau.
Moreau’s label, Dreamhop Music, has over 32,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel. Although he admits his label is still small, he says he’s confident in the continued growth of not only Dreamhop Music but the entire genre as well. During a two-week period in January 2021, for reasons unbeknownst to Moreau, the listenership on his “24/7 Lofi Hip Hop Radio” livestream grew from 40 listeners on a good day to 1000-3000 listeners at any given time.
Moreau started sharing lo-fi hip hop music on his YouTube channel in 2019 after amassing a decent lo-fi hip hop library he’d collected for other projects.
“At some point, I had a real community of musicians submitting to me and discussing with me every day. So, it felt kinda natural to help them and release a project with them.” says Moreau. “The label started really humbly without any ambition.”
Lo-fi hip hop’s large listenership is not centered around individual artists or songs but rather around livestreams and playlists created by labels who compile hundreds of songs. It’s an ecosystem where artists get high monthly listens but few recurrent listeners, because listeners are staying content with large playlists rather than seeking specific artists. Some artists make a living off lo-fi hip hop, while the majority see little to no money. This goes for smaller labels too. The majority of those making lo-fi hip hop, typically teens or young adults, do it from their bedroom and share it to labels and online friends as fast as they learn how to create it.
Elijah Who, a musician, learned how to produce lo-fi hip hop fresh out of high school in 2016 after discovering it on social media platform Vine. He used a cheap laptop and a pirated version of FL Studio. A year later, he signed a distribution deal with a label, allowing him to create music full time.
“I was just really lucky that it happened to take off and become something where I could sustain myself,” says Who.
Last year, Who had 66.4 million streams on Spotify alone. Yet, he still records from his bedroom using a laptop and an external sampler.
“Hypothetically, anyone could be making this stuff.” says Who. “It’s very much like a bedroom genre.”
Lo-fi hip hop has, without a doubt, found and continues to find its success. On the surface it might be seen as “apathetic music to make spreadsheets to,” but the genre is a lot more complicated than that. Once you peel back the warm surface layer of these beats, you’ll find it’s full of contradictions – reasons why it shouldn’t be working – that seem effortlessly decoded by a listenership living in an age of contradictions.
Contradiction One: Making it Sound Bad to Make it Sound Good
Although lo-fi hip hop is relatively new on the internet, the concept of low-fidelity music is nothing new. Its definition, however, continues to be debated by producers, artists, and listeners.
Fidelity refers to the exactness of a sound.
The role of the producer in the analog age was to record the “source” – the sound of the musician’s performance – as accurately as possible. This was a challenge when things were recorded on tape. There were audio artifacts – hissing and crackling – that were and still are considered elements of low fidelity sound. Producers would try to eliminate these artifacts as much as possible to produce what was, at the time, considered high fidelity sound. But, standards change as technology advances. An original Elvis Presley recording, no matter how high fidelity at the time, is undoubtedly low fidelity when compared to any song off Harry Styles’s latest album.
Definitions of high and low fidelity sound not only change with time but also depend on the definition of the source – what exactly is the producer trying to capture?
If the production itself is viewed as part of the performance, then the producer’s role also becomes artist and performer. This is literally true if a musician is solo producing. The producer can redefine the “imperfection” as inherent sources of the sound they are trying to capture. The listener might then associate this imperfection with a relatable human recording music in the comfort of their own home rather than a less relatable rock star in a state-of-the-art studio. After all, what’s more human than flaws and mistakes? Thus, lo-fi music can be considered closer to the “source” than high fidelity music if the “source” is defined as the artist/producer themselves.
On the other hand, artists creating high fidelity music, especially with today’s recording and production options, desire specific sound over capturing performance. This creates a music landscape where high fidelity music transports the listener to a manufactured artistic idea. Lo-fi music, with its emphasized imperfections and artifacts, transports the listener right beside the artist as if they sit in the same room, creating an intimate listening experience between them.
This gets contradictory in the digital age when none of the artifacts that previously came with self-producing are present or necessary. Digital recording technology is advanced and widely available commercially. When it comes to lo-fi hip hop, the artists creating it today typically add in the crackles and hiss afterwards. It’s no longer an inevitable sound as a result of analog age recording technology but rather a sound deliberately sought after. So, it’s arguably no different than high fidelity sound as it’s often created the same way: it’s manufactured.
This highlights one of lo-fi hip hop’s most defining aspects: its relationship with nostalgia – a nonsensical relationship to say the least. Lo-fi hip hop fetishizes the recording technology of the past as if the listeners long for that period of their lives. Now, here’s the kicker: the main demographic of listeners are generally 18-22 years of age. Listeners are nostalgic for a time before they were born, for machines they may have never even had their hands on. As a result, rather than based on concrete ideas of the past, this nostalgia is better characterized as an idealized dream of what the past may have been like.
Contradiction Two: The Same House, but Separate Rooms
Lo-fi sound may also be considered intimate, as silly as it sounds, because the artist told us so. Some artists who use a more DIY, home recording approach mention this in the liner notes of their records, CDs, and cassettes. Although this became prevalent when artists could first buy commercial recording technology, a famous, modern example of this was when Justin Vernon a.k.a. Bon Iver recorded “For Emma, Forever Ago”. In the liner notes (also known as album notes) of this release, Vernon shared that he recorded alone in a remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin and it became a story synonymous with the music.
In emphasizing his life in relation to the recording, Vernon reframes what the listener is supposed to focus on – redefines the music to what he deems intimate and authentic. The “source” is now Vernon and his cabin, and the recording is part of the performance as well. For a listener looking for an intimate, human connection, knowing this information beforehand allows for a better overall listening experience.
A music’s listening mode is defined by its community and dictates how a genre should be listened to. This can mean what the listener should focus on (as is the case with “For Emma, Forever Ago”) or the level of focus the listener should have – should one heavily concentrate while sitting in a dark room, or should one listen passively while relaxing/studying. Whether it be from liner notes or the title of a playlist, the community spreads info among each other, then to genre newcomers. This allows listeners to understand how to define the value in a genre or piece of music.
And here, lo-fi hip hop, once again, contradicts itself. Liner notes are replaced in the internet age by titles of channels, streams, playlists, descriptions, and a community that all imply listeners play lo-fi hip hop in the background while studying or relaxing. One could sit in a dark room and intensely focus on lo-fi hip hop, but it would not be relevant for the genre. It’s an oxymoron of intimate music that is to be listened to passively.
While Petrusich uses this as a point to devalue the genre in her New Yorker piece, many lo-fi hip hop artists welcome the passive listening, feeling much of the music’s value lies exactly in its usefulness.
“If people are finding a use for it, and they’re listening to it and enjoying it on some level, then cool, they can do whatever they want,” says Who, “I totally get having to have something on in the background while you’re trying to focus.”
Contradiction Three: A Community of Nobody
With lo-fi hip hop’s popularity existing primarily online, its community has been strong and active from the start. Livestream chats and Discord servers pull the human connection of the genre to the forefront with listeners all over the world messaging each other. Friends who have never seen each other’s faces check in daily, discussing, among other things, school assignments, the struggles of young adolescence in the digital age, and mental health. Sorriento says he’s met good friends through the lo-fi hip hop community and plays video games with them regularly. This goes for labels and artists as well. Moreau says he considers all artists on his label like family.
“Even if those guys are making EPs for other labels – can be ChilledCow, College Music, ChillBeats – they show me what they’re doing, they ask for feedback.” says Moreau. “I just want to be here to help when they need someone.”
Regardless, the genre itself is pretty faceless when it comes to the artists. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but most artists like to remain anonymous, and lo-fi hip hop concerts are a pretty rare sight. Elijah Who, for example, has tens of millions of listeners, but it’s hard to say whether he’s “well known”. He’s not a small fish by any means, but the pond is massive, and most artists are swimming far below the surface.
“I just don’t enjoy putting myself out there like that. So, I decided to just put out the music.” says Who, “I feel like this is one of the only genres where you can get away with that.”
The genre is headed by the channels and labels: the curators. These curators use avatars. ChilledCow has a simple looping animation of a girl studying as the visual for their livestream. She has since been dubbed “study girl” by the community and become somewhat of an avatar for all of lo-fi hip hop. Other labels like Chillhop Music use child-like animals for their brand avatar as a way to emphasize nostalgia.
“Lo-fi culture is really happening a lot on YouTube, and on YouTube you need visuals that are strong enough to catch the attention,” says Moreau.
Dreamhop Music has two characters: a large, white-haired beast, and its companion, a young orange-haired girl. On Dreamhop Music’s livestream, the pair float through the sky on a comfy cloud. On the covers of label releases, the pair adventure through forests or overlook sunset skylines.
“I wanted to have a real story behind the characters that we show,” says Moreau. “I wanted two characters to create some kind of dynamic.”
It’s funny that labels use avatars to pull the listener into a playlist or stream that then implores the listener to pay little attention. On one hand, it makes sense that avatars provide a form of escape from an age of music where artists dominating the charts have brands built around their personality (virtual bands like Gorillaz capitalized on this idea early). On the other hand, it’s contradictory that a genre using a sound associated with intimacy and human connection is so faceless when it comes to real people.
Strangling Art with the Ethernet Cable
Lo-fi hip hop’s popularity is a result of living in an age of over-entertainment. Listeners who grew up with access to the internet their whole lives are searching for a time when machines weren’t so cold, clean, calculated, and constantly begging for their undivided attention. So, in comes manufactured nostalgia in the form of lo-fi hip hop with warm distortion, quiet tempos, and relaxing melodies. It encourages the listener to barely focus and carves its place on the internet, the loudest landscape of entertainment, because a generation born reliant on tools of over-stimulation also needs those tools to escape them, or at least pretend they’re escaping.
Petrusich concludes her piece in The New Yorker by answering her own question. She writes, “It makes sense that, in 2019, as we grow collectively more uncomfortable with our own quiet, inefficient sentience, we have also come to neglect the more contemplative pursuits, including mindful listening, listening for pleasure, listening to be challenged, and even listening to have a very good time while doing nothing else at all.” While the statement she makes is not wrong, her elitist, youth-killed-art mentality throughout the piece is overdramatic and cliché. If anything “killed” Petrusich’s vision of music, it’s the internet as a whole. And just like radio at the hands of video, Petrusich’s vision of music didn’t really die, it just found a new body.
Regardless, it’s easy to understand why Petrusich could see lo-fi hip hop as a face of the internet. It’s not only a product of it but in many ways encapsulates the essence of the internet in 2021. It’s desperately trying to push human emotion forwards while being held back by its own limitations and realities. It’s the internet looking in the mirror through the eyes of its most reliant and prolific users: communities of young people struggling with identity and figuring things out as they go, DIY style. Just like the music, we are surrounded by so much technological noise designed to promote intimacy that sometimes we forget there are people on the other end of the screen. So, we remain connected by our shared disconnect – not alone by our shared loneliness – creating humanity out of anything we can, no matter how quiet it seems amidst the overwhelming noise.