What is Lo-Fi... Why is it So Popular?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

What is Lo-Fi hip hop? Why is Lo-Fi so popular? Is it just chill hip hop with depressing looping anime gifs and VHS overlay?

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Almost everywhere you look these days, you’ll usually find a Lo-Fi song (extreme or mixed), accompanied by some depressing looping anime gif, with a VHS overlay.

People remix quite literally anything they like, into Lo-Fi, but what exactly is Lo-Fi?

What is Lo-Fi Music?

What is is about this kind of music that grabs so much attention?

Lo-Fi, or low fidelity, is a style of music that’s lower in quality than the mainstream music you’re more accustomed to. The term refers to music that is degraded, damaged, scratched, or critically imperfect in some way. Whether or not this is on purpose depends on the artist.

Well, Lo-Fi is an old idea that has been exploding in popularity for the past few years.

Compared to mainstream music, or Hi-Fi, as it were, Lo-Fi is not expertly mixed to produce the best

Lo-Fi hip hop, for instance, is meant to make you feel like you’re listening to a hip hop instrumental through an old speaker.

The concept is simple — you take an old instrumental sample (usually, the 60s or 70s), a modern hip hop drum beat, and combine the two.

Using that simple formula lo-fi artists have been racking millions of views of most popular streaming platforms in the last few years.

Perhaps the most popular of these are ChilledCow, Chillhop Records, and to a lesser extend ScarLxrd channels on YouTube. But both of these channels operate in a gray area because they don’t own all the music that runs on their channels.

In fact, YouTube mistakenly suspended ChilledCow in early 2020 (after 13,000-hour live stream) causing an outrage in the community.

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First of all, the term Lo-Fi has been used in music for much longer than most people realize.

The term Lo-Fi was officially coined all the way back in 1976 and is defined as music that is lower in quality than Hi-Fi music. It was often used to describe that was made in home studios on cheap equipment, by budding artists.

In fact, you could consider some early demos from many bands as a form of Lo-Fi — considering that the music is developed on cheap equipment and is lower in quality.

Of course, this kind of Lo-Fi is very different from what Lo-Fi is characterized as, nowadays — music that is perfectly imperfect.

In the 90s, the genre veered off into its own form of music titled DIY music. The type of music that budding artists make at home by themselves. It isn’t expected to be professional, nor groundbreaking.

The term became synonymous with people that have a passion for developing music. That is the idea morphs into the Lo-Fi we see today.

For whatever reason, the Lo-fi genre has exploded in popularity in the last few years through multiple different forms. Whether that be vaporwave tracks or chill hop study beats.

Even today, no-one is expecting Lo-Fi to sound professional.

It is supposed to sound raw.

The question is, in a world with where the ability to create professional-sounding music is literally available to anyone with a laptop, why is Lo-Fi music so popular?

What is is about today’s society has provoked such interest in Lo-fi?

Even though there are many different forms of Lo-Fi music, there are a few key characteristics that this genre loosely follows:

Perhaps these characteristics can help us understand its appeal.

#1 — Sampling

The Lo-Fi hip hop sound stems from the ’90s when artists tended to rely heavily on samples from even earlier music.

Sampling is basically just taking a small snippet of a song from another artist and using it in your own way.

People take samples all the time and morph them in ways that don’t even sound remotely like the original.

A lot of modern songs are filled with samples.

For example, Juice Wrld’s Lucid Dreams that was produced by Nick Mira (2017) actually sampled Sting’s Shape of a Heart produced in 1993, and then they got sued. But it shows that sampling is very relevant today.

In Lo-Fi, there are tons of references and samples from jazz or soul artists.

That’s the basis of most songs you’ll hear today.

#2 — Lo-Fi is Built on Nostalgia

Perhaps one of the easiest ways of understanding the popularity of Lo-Fi is looking at it from the perspective of nostalgia.

The conventional theme in Lo-Fi music is nostalgia.

A lot of Lo-Fi music tends towards using very nostalgic conventions. This is somewhat of a staple now.

For instance, for the majority of songs on the genre, old movie clips, sound effects, and VHS static is common throughout.

The idea that Lo-Fi that it helps them reminisce to the old days isn’t far fetched at all.

It’s very clear that nostalgia has a big impact on what makes Lo-Fi music so popular.

This makes sense.

Most people tend to have some feelings of nostalgia while listening to Lo-Fi.

It’s hard to explain.

Whether you are young or old, Lo-Fi seems to fit somehow.

When the older people listen to Lo-Fi, it would make sense that they immediately recognize the samples… but why are teens and young adults listening to this?

It’s easy to chalk this down to curiosity… what young people watch on TV, old films and so on. Others reason that it’s simply a longing for… simpler times?

It’s hard to put it down to one reason.

That’s perhaps the closest to an answer, we’re ever going to get and besides, a single explanation cannot possibly suffice.

#3 — Japanese Artwork and Culture

Lo-fi samples come from all around the world.

It isn’t just stuck to one country or region, the influence is taken from a global viewpoint.

A lot of Lo-fi tends to be situated around Japanese culture.

Anime clips, titles written in half-English half-Japanese everywhere.

But where does all this even come from? Anime wasn’t even around in the 90s for the early hip hop scene.

One thing is certain — Japanese pianists and jazz artists form the groundwork for the entire Lo-Fi genre. You can’t really talk about the current state of Lo-Fi without mentioning Nujabes.

He is perhaps the new reason why this aesthetic exists.

He worked in the O.S.T. for Samurai Champloo. And it is honestly hard to click through a few Lo-Fi songs without finding some kind of reference to it.

It’s everywhere.

There are more examples than just this, such as Studio Ghibli movies, Cowboy Bepop… but… you get the point.

#4 — The Lo-Fi Style Isn’t Limited to One Genre of Music

Even though production of Lo-Fi music is pretty much the same, the Lo-Fi style itself isn’t actually limited to one genre.

I find that people that are into a certain genre—heavy metal, rap, rock, or whatever genre, can somehow find an interest in Lo-Fi.

To say that Lo-Fi has to stick to chill hip hop would be totally incorrect.

There are many different forms that it can take — whether it how it’s mixed or what array of instruments are used.

Even though a lot of Lo-Fi music sticks to jazz or funk music as a sample, it isn’t actually limited to those two genres.

You can take pretty much any genre and mix it in a Lo-Fi method.

What you create will most likely work, just as well.

There is a LoFi mix for virtually any kind of genre of music somewhere on the internet &; from the initial Lo-Fi hip hop study mixes, and the occasional Lo-fi Deep House mixes, now, there are even Lo-Fi Minecraft and Gaming mixes.

People remix literally anything they want and turn it into Lo-Fi.

You’ll even see some interesting elements infused, such as cutting to static. In most other styles, this idea would be practically unthinkable, but for Lo-Fi, anything goes.

But something seems to stay the same that ties it all together.

It’s perfect for what it’s marketed as — I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There are beats perfect for relaxing, studying, sleeping, or just existing.

It’s a welcome distraction that helps you concentrate, like having your own background theme in life.

The result is that listeners have a massive ocean of styles to pick from.

With limitless styles, comes the limitless appeal.

I use it for that exact reason. It blends into the background but you’d notice it if it wasn’t there.

#5 — Cash Grabs, Industry Plants and Other Gripes

Music today has become distastefully commercial.

The old idea that most of what society deems as popular music is chosen by huge corporations is ever more pervasive. These corporations are often accused of simply trying to make uninspired music that will simply make money at the expense of everything else.

Money and commercial gain has been prioritized over creativity and inspiration.

Of course, you can still find a lot of passionate music on the charts today, but still, the amount of flash in the pan cash grabs is staggering.

You see so many artists today with no discerning talent, who are only in it for profit.

Under the pressure of their labels, they release anything to the public, as long as it sticks to the latest fads in the crudest way.

No. I’m not naming any names and please do not search the term industry plant.

In contrast, lo-fi artists do everything independently, often because they enjoy it.

Of course, you’ll come across some bad eggs, but this remains mostly true. There was always passion behind Lo-fi.

Some artists even look at Lo-Fi as a democratization of music. Everyone can participate and enjoy rather than a select few big-budget studios.

In Conclusion

For some people, Lo-fi doesn’t bring melancholic vibes.

It’s more annoying than anything else.

That also makes sense when you think about it.

If you are the type of person that cannot stand a person singing the same line from song to song, over and over again, Lo-fi gets annoying after a while.

When you hear the same looping parts of a song for minutes on end without anything changing, it could get annoying.

In a way, the genre has become a parody of itself. People don’t even take it seriously. It’s become a meme more than anything else.

Sure the genre is wide and full of types of sounds but that doesn’t mean that any song with an old sample, vinyl scratches, and rain lightly playing in the background is creative.

It is a broad genre that has its highs and lows.

This loop is just a tired girl studying, writing down notes with headphones on, listening to music just as many people do every day.

It’s relatable somehow.

But with Lo-Fi, there is not much to it.

Just something to get you through the day and live in the moment with.

That’s it for this article.

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ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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