There are few greater sonic experiences than hearing your speakers crackle with the warmth of vinyl fuzz. That rich dustiness has inspired an entire genre of music called lo-fi hip-hop, which employs an intentionally-poor recording quality to flavor beats. It’s a contemplative, nostalgic sound; the love child of soul and boom bap raised on a steady diet of vinyl.
Over the past two years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of lo-fi listeners and creators whose preferred platform is SoundCloud. On the heels of this boom comes a widespread co-opting of classical lo-fi culture as represented by legendary producers such as J Dilla and Nujabes. A host of budding artists have begun seeking their place in the lo-fi canon, altering the genre along the way.
A critical component—perhaps the defining component—of lo-fi hip-hop is the influence it draws from ‘90s culture. The rap records of yore figure heavily in lo-fi beats; boom bap drum kits and unique vocal samples—a jowly Biggie bar for instance—have carried the day. Lo-fi hip-hop is also inextricably linked to the anime shows of the late '90s/early 2000s, most famously the Nujabes-scored series Samuri Champloo. Japanese minimalist graphics have come to set the tone for album and track covers, like Dilla's 2006 project Jay Love Japan.
The tandem of boom bap and anime culture has become the most recognizable, and indeed the most riffed-on element of the lo-fi hip-hop aesthetic. “There’s definitely a huge nostalgia factor,” explains Aimless, a 19-year-old beatmaker from the Bay Area. “A lot of these guys [beatmakers] are under 20 and weren’t around for the OGs like Nujabes and Dilla. The methods that producers use today are reminiscent of how those guys made their beats except now it’s all on the computer."
Lo-fi instrumentalists have indeed wavered from the Dilla-Nujabes school of artistry they often credit. Beatmakers still seek the desirable vinyl fuzz, but often abstain from touching records. While sampling hardware such as Roland's SP models used to be a staple of the lo-fi community, these days, software—namely Ableton and FL Studio—reigns supreme.
"I bet you 50 percent of the dust sounds in lo-fi are added after [a track has been finished]," says emune, a beatmaker from Texas who has built a following of almost 40,000 people on SoundCloud. "People just download a dust sample off of YouTube and throw it on there."
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While emune doesn't see a problem with that approach—“I respect everything that’s being done, it’s all creativity," he says—there are others, such as New York City beatmaker Ninjoi, who remain skeptical. In a genre where many now believe all you need is a computer, inflation is a legitimate concern.
"I’ve seen lo-fi grow and change so much from five years ago, watched it blow up and become one of the most oversaturated genres of music," Ninjoi says. "Most people don't have training in mixing so it’s just much easier to give [beats] that grit, that old vinyl sound [with software]."
Ninjoi is somewhat of an old-timer in the lo-fi scene; he's been making beats for the better part of a decade. Beyond the sound, he says, lo-fi's traditional relationship with anime is losing its meaning. Ninjoi points out that many SoundCloud beatmakers have recently—and rather suddenly—begun featuring anime-inspired images on the covers of their tracks to get more recognition.
“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,” says Ninjoi, who grew up dozing off to late-night cartoons on Adult Swim. “I did an experiment once where I put a track with an anime photo and it got way more plays than my other tracks.”
The inherent conflict of the lo-fi community today is clear: people seek to emulate the greats but they don't necessarily want to emulate their style. Modern lo-fi is not the stuff of the Nujabes-Dilla era. It can’t ever be—not without hardware and an unforced appreciation of anime.
Is that a bad thing? Make of it what you will. On the one hand, low-effort lo-fi is enjoying its time in the sun. On the other, beautiful music now flows freely (and for free) from computer terminals. And classical lo-fi has gained an unprecedented popularity, earning Dilla and Nujabes mainstream celebrity.
We are in the midst of a lo-fi evolution or revolution; as Substantial remarked in Nujabes’s song “Think Different,” let's just keep “giving birth to thoughts that unify.”