[Music Discovery] An Exploration of the Lo-Fi Aesthetic

lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to from YouTube

Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with a style of music often referred to as Lo-Fi. I’m not alone either, as there seems to be no shortage of internet denizens who are finding themselves drawn to the heavily sampled chilled out delights of chillhop. It’s started with the discovery of a growing YouTube trend of chillhop/lo-fi radio feeds, and from there it’s grown into something that I can honestly call an obsession.

I’ve been wanting to do a post that explores Lo-Fi, it’s roots and what its become today for some time now and was surprised to see that there wasn’t really much out there on this topic. I know nothing of music theory, I can’t play any instruments and I have zero journalistic or musical training, so I strongly encourage you to do your own research on anything I discuss. With all that in mind, let’s go on a musical journey of discovery. If you’re looking for a little musical accompaniment, might I recommend one of my favourite YouTube feeds included below.

What is Lo-Fi?

A suitcase record player

Lo-fi comes from the term “low fidelity”, which in its simplest terms is the opposite of Hi-Fi or “high fidelity”. It’s an aesthetic of music that captures the imperfections during recording and production, often with the sound being “low quality” compared to contemporary standards. It’s a bit hard to pin down exactly what makes something lo-fi, with many wrongly suggesting that it’s harmonic distortion or “analogue warmth” that make up the core features of lo-fi music, but it’s actually defined by “the inclusion of elements normally viewed as undesirable in professional contexts, such as misplayed notes, environmental interference, or phonographic imperfections (degraded audio signals, tape hiss, and so on)”. It’s also considered a musical genre onto itself thanks in part to the rising popularity of such music during the 80s and 90s, but we’ll get into that more later on. First, let’s go right back to where it all began.

History and Early Beginnings

Lo-fi first came about during the 1950’s as a new wave of amateur musicians began making recordings on shoestring budgets. Due to the less than ideal recording venues and DIY nature of it all, music produced this way would often contain “unnatural” distortions. The public at large came to love this DIY-style of music despite the lack of quality the records had, most likely due to the unique character these records would have. A great example of this is “My Song” by Johnny Ace, which was called a “fifteen minute job” by co-writer David Mattis. It was both written and recorded at a radio station, and upon listening to the track you can definitely get a sense that it was rushed and the quality of the recording suffered as a result. It definitely has that raw and almost impromptu sound that modern lo-fi artists tend to create artificially these days. Despite all of this, “My Song” took the number one spot on the Billboard R&B chart in 1952.

Somewhere along the line, the lo-fi aesthetic became strongly associated with youth and artists started recording tracks intentionally using low quality equipment in order to attract younger audiences. The Beach Boys helped establish lo-fi as the music aesthetic that we now know it as in the sixties with the “Smiley Smile” album, with some also crediting “Pet Sounds” as being an earlier influence of theirs.

It was during the 1980s and 1990s that the term lo-fi started being used to refer to a breed of underground indie rock groups that started recording their music at home using four-track machines. This style of lo-fi music was massively popularised by American garage, British punk, Norwegian black metal and New Zealand groups like the Chills and the Clean. These bands use of abstract lyrics, free-form structures and often experimental and artsy styles gave their music a different kind of sound, something different to what the mainstream was producing.

In the 1990s groups like Sebadoh and Pavement, who had garnered moderate cult followings in the USA and Britain, helped lo-fi as a genre really take off. Even mainstream artists like REM and Beck had started off with lo-fi beginnings, and even kept elements throughout their careers.

Modern Lo-Fi

In the late 2000s, lo-fi aesthetics served as the core of the chillwave and hypnagogic pop music genres, and more recently the chillhop music genre that I’ve become so enamoured with. These slower tempo varieties of house, jazz, psybient and lounge music of approximately 80 to 110bpm are what most of us now call lo-fi and is what you’ve been listening to if you turned on the YouTube stream at the beginning of this post.

Chillwave itself was started by the satirical blog Hipster Runoff in 2009, where the author of the article basically just put a load of silly names out there to see what would stick but it wasn’t until early 2010 that it really gained mainstream attention thanks in part to analytical articles by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Now you’ll find chillhop/chillwave/chillout mixes on almost every music streaming service. Memes have even sprung up about the many youtube chillhop live streams. Some have spotted that chill-out music has massively risen in popularity in US states where marijuana had been legalised, such as Washington and Colorado. This could help explain why lo-fi music has seen a modern day resurgence.

While writing this I came to realise that I’ve been listening to lo-fi music in some form or another for most of my life, without ever knowing so. I’ve recently bought a 90s indie record by a band called Refrigerator called Long 33 1/3 Play without realising that it was an early example of lo-fi music. I like those kind of coincidences. There is also Vaporwave and it’s simple cousin Simpsonwave, plus the plethora of other Vaporwave derivatives but they are whole topics in themselves really. If you’re after some homework, why not try watching a video by an excellent YouTuber called This Exists on Simpsonwave.

A couple of weeks ago, my vinyl copy of the Chillhop Essentials Summer 2018 compilation arrived on my doorstep, so I’ve mostly been playing that in the background while I go about my business. As usual, the gatefold sleeve features some beautiful artwork from Illustrator Mauro Martins, who once again found the perfect way to represent this shiny collection of tracks with hot colors! He was also responsible for the amazingly detailed artwork on the Spring 2018 release. These collections never disappoint, with each one seeming to almost perfectly capture the vibes of each season. Head on over to the Chillhop Records website for more.

I hoped you enjoyed coming on this musical journey with me and I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like I’ve learnt something today! Do you have any favourite lo-fi artists from over the ages? Let me know your thoughts and feelings down in the comments. Take care.

Lo-fi Music on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lo-fi_music)
Brief History of Lo-Fi Music (https://hotvox.co.uk/news/brief-history-lo-fi-music)
Enough loli hip hop on 9gag (https://9gag.com/gag/avOERQW)
Vinyl player image from Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/en/record-vintage-record-player-music-1428003/)

All images and videos are used without the express authorisation of the copyright holders. They are used under what’s known in British law as “Fair Dealing” or under US law as “Fair Use” exceptions. For example, exceptions relating to research and private study, criticism or review, or news reporting. For more information visit the UK Gov website or the US Gov website.

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