It all began with a kick and a crackle.
As the wide landscape of music continues to expand in every direction possible, bits and pieces of the story are lost along the way. It’s the nature of evolution as we’ve always known it. Music practically wages wars with itself, and there are martyrs left in the rubble of every battle.
Lo-fi is an infectious loop of nostalgia that can only be explained in kicks, snares, and static. It’s a brand of hip-hop that gets overlooked in the bottomless digital record bin more than it deserves.
If you scour YouTube, you can find a sizable collection of lo-fi playlists.
Take a quick listen to “Fall in Love” by Slum Village
Lo-fi hip hop is a sub-genre laced with heavy sampling, swinging kick drums, and melodic soundscapes that range from moody to serene. It has the allure of black coffee and faded photographs. Often undervalued and overlooked by the industry at large, there’s still a loyal tribe of purists who enjoy the subtle beauty of it. Unsurprisingly, the loyal tribe is dwindling to survive in mainstream music while the umbrella genre still lives on.
Over time, hip-hop infected pop culture like a viral case of wildfire, making it one of the most prominent styles alluded to in the media. Fashion has grown around it. The lifestyle has slithered into the pockets of designer handbags and underneath the soles of sneakers. Hip-hop is embedded into film and TV among shattering box office hits and binge-worthy Netflix series. Bottom line, it’s thriving practically everywhere.
On a subatomic level, the limping “boom-bap” of the kick and snare is the rhythmic backbone that gave hip-hop the infamous swing we’ve all learned to recognize. The same rhythmic style is used in lo-fi. The sub-genre has spiraled off down a completely different branch. The seeds of hip-hop culture are rooted everywhere, and yet lo-fi is left hanging too high above the norm for most consumers to grasp.
Artists who craft lo-fi typically lack enough momentum to dent the rigid barrier of the mainstream. The fabled hip-hop architects are constantly out-shadowed by the behemoth of popular music. Mapping out the next big trend is like hunting a chameleon in a ball pit. The music industry is a business, but Lo-fi artists are less concerned with chasing the chameleon. Instead, they make music to quench their thirst for creation.
Lo-fi producers are as well-known as riddles inked onto pop-sickle sticks, but it doesn’t keep them from inspiring a cult-following of fans. We owe it to the artists who still manage to keep their heads above the tide. Landmark innovators like Pete Rock, J-Dilla, and Madlib helped pave the groundwork of modern beat production. If we trace our fingers along the lush family tree of hip-hop history, we’ll find the same lineup of originators dug into the outline of home base.
There isn’t a recipe book to cook lo-fi. Anyone can scrap a few drum samples together and sew them into loops. The real artistry lives in sampling and arrangement. It’s a jigsaw of soul-mending jazz sprinkled with vinyl static. Bass lines walk, tape hisses, and snares crack behind a collage of chopped samples. Flavors range from mellow vanilla to black licorice with beats that shuffle like pop rocks. It’s a pacifier for overactive minds and stray thoughts without a home. The production style is straightforward, but the volume of complex emotions scrapes the ceiling of infinity.
Will lo-fi ever integrate into mainstream music?
Lo-fi music is less appealing to mainstream audiences because of its reliance on instrumentals without any vocals. Lyrical content sells songs, and without a voice behind the microphone, lo-fi will stay an outcast genre. Until the mold of mainstream music reforms to favor these artists, lo-fi will forever sit in the corner rocking a dunce cap.
Truth be told, the dunce cap will probably come back in style at some point. When it does, you’ll see me wearing one with a pair of cans match.