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An astute purveyor of culture would notice that irony is hot right now. People feel important by standing out and being unique, one way to do that at the moment is by banality, irony, and nostalgia. It has spread like an airborne plague to all forms of creative culture—fashion, tv, and music. Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga and head designer of Vetements, shocked the world with a $2,000 Ikea bag and a $200 DHL shirt. Stranger Things released in 2016 and amazed audiences all over the United States with its pronounced resemblance of the 80s. Want to hear distortions and environmental interference in your music? Great, because there are a plethora of destinations to hear live steams or long mixes of lo-fi hip hop. Confused as to why people want to listen to washed out and muffled reproductions of hip hop beats, read further to understand the question, "What is lo-fi hip hop?"
YouTube is the predominant medium to consume this micro-genre, either by live streaming or hour-long mixes. With the press of a play button you can get washed out drum beat patterns, melodic vocal samples, crackles from environmental interference, soundbites from Nintendo 64 games, and hazy percussion overlay gifs about getting stoned or from anime. Lo-fi is short for low fidelity, representing the self awareness of its low quality. The strong tones of irony are apparent; each of these elements are from a bygone era, or are considered imperfections. Despite the quality of the recording being below par, the mixes are high quality, and are comprised of melodic hip hop samples. A muffled sample will usually never run for more then two minutes, and feature only the essential elements of any hip hop beat—audio drum loops, a bass line, and supporting orchestration (could be synth pads, string sections, or horns). Sometimes the songs feature vocal samples from legendary hip hop artists like Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep, or Nintendo 64 superstars like the Mario Bros.
A YouTube Sensation
YouTube is a growing platform for music, allowing creators to easily publish content without stringent enforcement of copyright laws. As the largest music platform in the world, 85 percent of YouTube users, 1.3 billion people, visited the website to listen to music in August 2017 alone according to a 2017 Music Consumer Insight Report. Their live-streaming feature and related videos algorithms help people discover new music in a quick and efficient fashion, a likely catalyst for the rise of lo-fi hip hop, especially if you're looking at some of the amazing "undiscovered" UK hip hop artists out there. YouTube's content creators switched to live streams, ostensibly radio stations, so that they could rank higher on organic searches of "lo-fi" or "hip hop." Some of the popular lo-fi hip hop radio stations on YouTube are bootleg boy (845K subscribers), NEOTIC (669k subscribers), nourish (423k subscribers), Ryan Celsius (260k subscribers) and Mellowbeat Seeker (363k subscribers).
A Counterpart to SoundCloud Rap
Soundcloud rap, also known as mumble rap, burst onto the scene in 2016. Music critic Jon Caramanica of The New York Times opined in a 2017 article that SoundCloud rap "in the last year has become the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip-hop." Heavily distorted bass and perceived incoherence of the artist's lyrics translated into raw energy for fans, and so began the emerging micro-genre. Lo-fi hip hop and SoundCloud rap both adhere to the same ironic trope, an intentional lack of polish in the sound—yet leaves fans salivating for more. If you have not been blessed with the enchanting modus operandi of SoundCloud rap, please indulge your auditory senses with the video above, or otherwise, listen to some of the Soundcloud artists you should definitely check out.
Association with Anime
Livestreams and mixes for lo-fi hip hop usually have an anime gif or picture for the back of their video. The association likely stems from nostalgia associated with Cartoon Network's Toonami. This network segment brought Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo to a Western audience for the first time. Millennials who loved this when it aired are now in their late 20s, and are in dire need of some music to chill out, read, and/or study to. An extremely important link between the two micro-niches is the lo-fi hip hop artist and producer Nujabes. He created the soundtrack for Samuri Champloo, likely serving as the primary catalyst for conjoining the two worlds. Not exactly the way we'd expect anime to change our lives, but something to consider nonetheless.
To be banal is to be, "so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring." It is cool because it's obscure? Is it cool because it is self aware of its own shortcomings? These are deep philosophical questions beyond the scope of this article, and even beyond objective answers. However, now we can confidently answer the questions where it came from and, "What is lo-fi hip hop?" It will be interesting to see where this micro-genre goes, as it will likely serve as a predictor for how long banality and irony can be considered "cool."