Low Fidelity, High Quality: A Look Into the World of Lofi Hip-Hop

As someone who loves to sit down at a computer and write, I find it easier to focus when I have music on in the background. However, when background music has lyrics it can become distracting and cause me to go back and reread passages multiple times. I found the solution to this problem in a fairly recent develop in music that has created a new genre of music perfect for this situation.

Spotify Lo-Fi Hip Hop art

What is Lofi music?

Low fidelity hip hop (Lofi for short) refers to a specific genre of music with quite a unique aesthetic. The term “low fidelity” specifically refers to the sound quality within the production of the music itself. Often there are parts of this music that would usually be seen as imperfections in other genres. These imperfections are deliberately used to create the desired sound. This style of music originally developed at the end of the 20th century under the guise “DIY Music”. Key features include, but are not limited to, misplayed notes, environmental interference, and “worsened” audio quality (adding tape hiss or phonographic grain). While DIY Music initially was rejected by many listeners, it was able to break through the criticisms and find its way into multiple genres such as pop and electronic music. Musicians such as the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney helped establish a solid foundation for this music to stand on. Having endorsement from some of the biggest names in music allowed it a place in the public eye. Since then, Lofi as a concept has been connected to multiple music cultures within popular music such as cassette culture, punk, primitivism, and generation X stereotyped music.

Fast forward a few years and we see a new technological revolution in music. The rise of more compact DAWs (digital audio workstations) and the ability for the “everyman” to create decent music on their own at home led to a whole new era of lofi music. Even to this day, more and more members of younger generations are finding out that they can create masterpieces on their laptops and smart devices without ever leaving their bedrooms. This next step in the evolution of music technology helped create even more electronically based branches of lofi music. Examples of this include chillwave, hypnagogic pop, and eventually lofi hip-hop

Why is it Gaining Popularity?

In the 2010’s the most recent adaptation of lofi music arose. Lofi hip-hop (less commonly referred to as chillhop) came onto the music scene and gained massive popularity due to the now available medium of YouTube. Streaming music on the world’s most popular video sharing site became a way of gaining a big following and creating a community around people who all have a common interest. This community attracts people of all kinds, even celebrities like Will Smith. Smith even put out his own mix of music on YouTube “Lo-Fi Summertime Beats to Social Distance To”. Aside from big name celebrities, groups and individuals from all over the world stream this growing genre of music. The most well-known of these lofi music streamers is the YouTube channel ChilledCow. Their two consecutive live streams of “lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to” and “lofi hip hop radio — beats to sleep/chill to” run nonstop 24/7. These streams average anywhere from 7 to 35 thousand viewers at any given time. This has allowed ChilledCow to amass a following of almost 8 million subscribers.

ChilledCow’s stream “lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to”

Another streaming source that has helped spread the fame of Lofi Hip-Hop is the widely popular music streaming platform Spotify. According to an article by Forbes, the playlist “Lofi Fruits” by the indie record label Strange Fruits Music has almost 4 million followers. More and more music labels and digital distribution services are hopping on this trend to gain more of an audience. Puebla, Vista, and Chill Children are just a few examples of these labels. Another such label is Amuse who recently hired the popular Youtuber Ryan Celsius to build their lofi music department. Celsisus is known on YouTube for streaming lofi hip hop from artists such as Snøw, smartface, and Homieunculus. The collaboration between music production companies and media personalities such as YouTubers shows that this style of music allows access to a larger world of music for lesser-known artists and enthusiasts.

The ease of access to this genre of music and the market space it encapsulates is a big motivator for emerging artists to start making lofi music. A sense of low cost and high reward attracts musicians to try their hand at making music and sharing it on social media. Isaiah Faber is a perfect example of this system. The Canadian based songwriter who goes by the name Powfu released his hit “Death Bed (Coffee for Your Head)” in February of 2020. This song (a remix of the 2017 song “Coffee” by Beabadoobee) broke barriers in lofi and allowed Powfu to dive headfirst into media stardom. This song had over 4.1 billion plays on Tik Tok in 2020 and was featured in more than 5.5 million videos as well.

Viewers and listeners (me included) utilize these music streams as a means of background noise that both relaxes you and helps you focus. The majority of the songs in this category do not have any lyrics which is a nice aspect when reading or writing (hence the “to relax/study to” title). The widespread popularity of lofi hip-hop, and that of ChilledCow’s YouTube streams, has spawned many a look-a-like and sound-a-like soundscapes in various niche areas. Examples of these unique areas are “lofi Star Wars”, “lofi hip-hop christmas”, and “lofi jazz hip-hop”. Because there are so many facets within lofi hip-hop itself, even these subgenres have hours and hours of music to explore.

The exploration of this chill soundscape is still in its infancy. As audiences and producers dive deeper and find more layers to unravel, the evolution of lofi will continue on to influence all facets of the music industry.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

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