By Carson Mlnarik
There’s a whole world outside your bedroom window, but you’re too busy to notice. Maybe you’re nestled in bed, feeling the serenity and safety of your laptop, your succulents, and an unexhausted supply of vinyl records and seltzer. Perhaps you’re perched at a desk and inspiration has struck; you can only take your eyes off the page for a few seconds to watch your cat’s tail swing. There’s a soundtrack for this kind of concerted absorption, and its most devoted fans and creators call it lo-fi hip-hop.
Lo-fi hip-hop might be a meme, but thanks to 24-hour streaming channels and playlists on YouTube and SoundCloud, these jazzy, inoffensive tunes have become both practical and escapist functions for young people seeking music both for relaxation and concentration. The coronavirus pandemic has led people to log more hours online due to boredom or virtual workplaces and schools, and livestreamed music performances are reaching their full potential. Music can help ease our escalating anxiety — even Will Smith recently created his own “chill beats to quarantine to” playlist — and lo-fi hip-hop is a great place to start.
While the genre connects with listeners on a utilitarian level, its cosplay inspirations, dedicated fan communities, and pop-culture references show its influence has spread beyond the one-night binge study sesh. The sound replicates nostalgia by design, and the pops and cracks of vinyl distortion and quality are as intentional as the odd vocal loop or carefully curated BoJack Horseman sample. With listeners finding themselves in an increasingly noisy world for political reasons amongst others, they’re finding comfort and consolation in a genre built on channeling the old.
“The genre as a whole is nostalgia,” Steven Rogers, better known by his recording name Beowülf, told MTV News. “That’s what connects with people the most.”
Rogers stumbled upon lo-fi hip-hop while scouring the web to curate a soundtrack for working on his girlfriend’s homework. At that moment, “it was all over,” he said. He had watched his brother make beats for years, but the genre’s authentic sound and inherent simplicity gave him the confidence to try it out on his own. His signature compositions mix chill beats with distorted dialogue from media like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Simpsons, and his music has garnered 4.2 million listeners from 79 countries last year on Spotify alone.
Followers of Rogers’s YouTube account, where he has more than 15,000 subscribers, describe his music as “the feeling of losing almost all my anxiety” and “the right kind of sad.” One of his most popular tracks, “Today is a Gift,” samples a monologue about the past — and dumplings — from Kung Fu Panda. In the comments on the corresponding video, one fan recounts listening to the track while “doing some classwork and it was just so confusing (...) then I heard Master Oogway’s voice and just… broke down?? In the middle of math class?”
An animated Jack Black film from 2008 might seem like an odd nexus for all-encompassing catharsis. But 2000s nostalgia is in full swing, and there are a number of theories why millennials might be the most nostalgic generation yet: that they were raised within “a technological divide,” they grew up in a recession that caused them to over-romanticize, or that it’s merely a buffer for anxiety about the future. It only makes sense that they’re looking at halcyon beats, just as much as they’re reminiscing about downloads on LimeWire and Bratz.
“I think that kind of stuff has always resonated with people,” Clifford Stumme, an interdisciplinary professor at a university in Virginia, told MTV News. “Any time people feel like they’re going through a tough time, it’s easy to look back on the happier past and to be able to enjoy that and live in that for a second as a form of escapism.”
Stumme runs a YouTube channel called the Pop Song Professor, which he uses to analyze pop songs and lyrics. While lo-fi hip-hop’s scarcity of words has led some music critics to write it off as background music, he’s seen a lot of sentimentality and “thoughtfulness” in the genre, which he attributes to its creators.
“A lot of elevator music is very corporate. It’s very well put together, very finely tuned to the point where it’s acceptable to everybody, but interesting to no one,” he said. “The thing that separates [lo-fi hip-hop] is partially the emphasis on imperfection ... Just the very nature of lo-fi itself is the idea of low quality in a recording.”
It’s definitely more than “background music” to Bas van Leeuwen, cofounder of Chillhop Music, one of YouTube’s biggest lo-fi channels. With multiple livestreams hosting more than 3,000 listeners around the clock, as well as more than 2 million subscribers, what started as a labor of love between him and close friends in the Netherlands has blossomed into a 25-person team, serving as a promotional channel, label, and publisher for artists across the world.
Chillhop artists including Arbour, Sleepy Fish, and Aso make regular appearances on Spotify’s Lo-Fi Beats and Chill Lofi Study Beats playlists, and they’ve partnered with artists like L’indécis on tunes like “Staying There” and “Soulful,” which have found their way into segments on NPR. Bas describes the sound as “a modern take on lounge music [that] helps [you] get into a great flow,” and the genre finds its roots in downtempo jazz and hip-hop beats, with a “sonic nostalgia” similar to vaporwave. Listeners on Chillhop Music livestreams go as far as to describe it as “therapy for your brain,” evoking the feeling of embarking on “an exciting journey but not rushing the process.”
The nostalgic and low-key journey listeners experience may also be in part due to the genre’s visuals. Popular streaming channel ChilledCow has become synonymous with the anime girl studying to the point of parody, just as Chillhop Music’s stations have lent themselves to the cozy raccoon, who only takes breaks from their laptop to give the occasional yawn or beat of its tail.
“I think the visuals that became popular also help [create the] mood among listeners,” van Leeuwen said. “This is why images of studying characters rose to become the face of the music nowadays, although it is a goal of [ours] to showcase who’s actually behind the music more.”
Nostalgia was definitely an “in” for Quentin Mulligan, who records under the name Frumhere. With dreamy visuals, a penchant for lowercase lettering, and melodramatic titles like “She Only Likes Me When I’m Drunk” and “I Still Have All Our Old Texts,” he has cultivated more than 820,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. “What I think is unique to lo-fi hip-hop is that essentially you’re creating this nostalgic sound, both in the way that the tracks are created and also in the compositions themselves,” he told MTV News.
Having grown up studying and playing classical piano, Mulligan noted the difference in being a “classic, performing, competing musician” versus the community of lo-fi “bedroom producers,” where the barrier to entry is different, and some creators are using free or low-cost software like GarageBand to create tunes. “For the most part, [lo-fi] music is accessible, just as the people are accessible that create it,” he said.
It’s that accessibility that has inspired fans to reach out beyond playlists and livestreams to Instagram, where Mulligan said he gets a lot of DMs about his music helping people through breakups. “When I first started making music under the Frumhere project, I was actually going through the worst breakup of my life,” he said. “So it holds a lot of weight when people reach out to me, especially when they say that it helped them get through something tough emotionally.”
Music has the power to evoke memories for listeners, and while lo-fi hip-hop is a genre built to rouse nostalgia, sentimentality is not exactly a novel concept in music. “People have always been willing to romanticize things,” Stumme said. “It just so happens that one of those big emphases right now is the past.”
Still, there might be something to be said for lo-fi hip-hop’s composition, and the way its creators mix simplistic melodies with a judicious use of words to create intense memories, feelings, and nostalgia. “The beat is very minimal, the whole sonic experience is very stripped back and very careful,” Stumme said. “When you have something to say, I think people are going to listen.”