Insight Focus: The Rise and Fall of Lo-Fi

Monday 2nd July // You’ve just got home from a busy day at work, you unload your bags, make yourself a hot drink, sit at your desk and take a sip. As you open YouTube, you glance at a thumbnail showing an anime girl with headphones on, sitting at a desk, just like you, with a steaming cup just like yours. You click the link as you begin to hear the gentle pitter-patter of rain on your window, the distant grain of a vinyl player and a looped sample of a blues piano track. Time pauses as you sink into your chair and you reflect as your mood relaxes and your mind wanders. You have just discovered Lo-Fi hip-hop.

But what is it?

Tracks consisting of repeating samples over a basic hip-hop beat only lasting around 2 minutes makes this genre of music best consumed in BeatTapes or Mixes. These tracks, short and simple, are then filled out with what I like to think as ‘Nostalgic Value’. This is your ambient rain sound effects, coffee shop ambiance, birdsong, vinyl grain and event cassette rewinding. With this, you get an emotional reaction that is quite rare within music, melancholy or even longing, but foremost nostalgia.

Lo-Fi hip-hop has been around for a while but really exploded thanks to YouTube’s recommended video algorithm which saw names like Tomppabeats and Jinsang stacking millions of views on their BeatTape videos in early 2017. There are many reasons for this, be it a similar time Vlogging started becoming popular and Lo-Fi being used over time-lapses and montages, and of course the boom of soundcloud rap and so many up and coming rappers looking for tracks to make their mark on. But I decided to dig deeper and find out how and where the pieces that construct Lo-Fi came together.

17th August 1959, Miles Davis releases Kind of Blue. A Jazz album, a Modal Jazz album. Different from conventional Jazz, it was slower, easier on the ears and very very blue. Best served with a cigar in a musky bar deep in the smokey metropolis of New York City. Modal Jazz was huge, carried by the likes of John Cultrane, Miles Davis and Chet Baker. with correlating Genres like Cool Jazz and bebop. It was sad and emotional and taboo, people didn’t like it too much, Jazz, in general, was seen as lazy and cheap. But the younger generations loved it. And I believe this goes full circle and I will come back to that. I personally really got into Jazz after Lo-Fi I think for the reason that they seem to be playing towards the same emotions, and being enjoyed by the same audience. I can listen to both Lo-Fi and Jazz on a rainy day reading a book. They both give that feeling of slowing down time.

Fast forward to 1998 and on the other side of the globe Cowboy Bebop is released in Japan and became one of the best Anime shows of all time. To Summarise the series, it was a retro-futuristic show about a group of space bounty hunters going on a journey of ups and downs and climaxing in one of the most heartfelt endings to an anime series ever to shake the tear ducts of the Japanese youth and the soundtrack that backed it? Smooth Jazz. This, alongside the works of Miles Davis and Chet Baker became the backbone for Lo-Fi Sampling today. Also around this time, the likes of J Dilla and Questlove were heavily sampling these Jazz Musicians already, notable tracks including J Dilla – Life and Questlove – Goodbye Isaac. Around this time you could say was the true birth of Lo-Fi.

2005-2006, what is culturally known as the successor to Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo surfaces, with an incredible soundtrack produced by the incredible Nujabes with help from Fat Jon. Without causing too much of a debate, Nujabes was the king of Lo-fi with his dabbling in Hip-hop and Downtempo. And because of this the coloration between Anime and Lo-Fi really started to come into effect, as Anime became more mainstream with big films being produced by Studio Ghibli and internet subcultures surfacing some true anime classic. Alongside Smooth Jazz, Anime became the next big heavy samples, with small sections of dialogue and distant cicadas popping into Lo-Fi tracks here and there.

Early 2017 Lo-Fi was flooding Soundcloud and Youtube, artists like elijah who and saib. chucking out tracks weekly. Once it caught on it exploded, why? Because it was easy, not just to listen to, but to produce. With no need for any serious melody creating skills or experience with FL studio, anyone could make it. As most of the track was sampled from older, more timeless tracks and what was left was a basic rap beat that could be pumped out with a simple plugin and a repeated sound clip of rain, anyone with any skill with music software could pump out a track in 2 minutes.

Now Lo-Fi chill mixes fill your recommended videos and somewhere out there, there will always be a LoFi Radio broadcasting LIVE to a group of 250,000 listeners or less, who are simply using it as background noise whilst working or studying. Most of the true listeners of this genre used it, like myself, as a gateway into other deeper subgenres. Where listeners have been craving more of that nostalgic response have found the likes of synthwave or more recently Lo-Fi house, a more upbeat mashup between Lo-Fi and house that can be listened to on a chill summers day but also danced to at a festival. Check out artists like DJ Poolboi and Slim Hustla.

With the genre saturating so much in the last year or so everything starts to sound very similar, pinpointing specific songs with high-quality samples and good production value is becoming harder and harder to find. I think as this may be the end of Lo-Fi hip-hop as we know it, it is here to stay as a genre that pairs so well with everyday life, easily consumable and easy on the ears to just about everybody, real OGs will find themselves venturing elsewhere for more dynamic and well-composed sounds.

I have compiled a list of Lo-Fi tracks that have stayed with me long after my venture into the genre.

Hisohkah – School Rooftop

A L E X – don’t die

joji – medicine

Nujabes – Counting Stars

j^p^n – bloom.