Tracing back its roots to the 1980s, Lo fi corresponds to a “do it yourself” esthetic, the opposite of “high fidelity” and polished sounds. Over the years, Lo-fi has become intermingled with various music genres. However, in reality, Lo fi Hip Hop in itself is more an esthetic than a full-fledged musical genre. The purpose of this craft relies essentially on a desire to make music raw and on the deliberate distortion of sounds and the usage of unusual samples (vinyl crackle, tape hisses etc.).

In the 1990s, there were no DAWs or accessible audio technologies. Any type of music would be made in a rather unprofessional way by today’s standards. It is exactly at this time that producers such as Nujabes and J Dilla would set the stepping stones of a new music genre, lo fi hip hop. Today, BSD.U, Eevee,  Jinsang or Nohidea are following in the footsteps of their predecessors and are part of the revival of the genre. In this article, we will analyze the simplicity of lo fi Hip Hop, the reasons for its emergence in recent years, before focusing on the elements and the technique behind its making.

To sum up, we will respond those following questions:

1. What is lo fi hip hop ?

2. How to make lo fi hip ?

VIDEO: “Nujabes – Feather (2005)”

There’s a good chance that you associate Lo-fi Hip Hop with Nujabes’ music. The Japanese producer and DJ forged a fusion style that sampled hip hop and jazz to create a “mellow, nostalgic and atmospheric sound” over the course of a tragically brief but accomplished career.

The Science of Simplicity: The Motto Of Lo fi Hip Hop

If we want to use words to describe Lo-Fi Hip Hop, these would be sundry. Some will categorize this type of music as cozy, chill or relaxing. Others will prefer to use the words mellow, nostalgic or sad. Yet others will prefer to identify cheerful or happy emotions when listening to Lo-fi hip hop. Surely, it all depends on your musical taste and approach to the genre. However, everyone will agree on the fact that Lo-fi hip hop relies on simplicity rather than complexity.

Well-known tracks in the sub-genre will often make use of one sampled part of a song or track which is repeated and on which the producer will apply various effects. The goal will be to achieve a certain groove which will trigger the listener’s interest. Additionally, the initial sample is often accompanied by a simple hip-hop beat and some white noise or vinyl cracks. What makes this type of music addictive for the listener is that he doesn’t have to overanalyze the track due to the song’s few elements. Whilst the producer’s community heavily criticizes the genre for how “lazy” it is, it can be an extremely powerful and well-thought genre that entertains the human mind in more than one ways.

What makes this type of music addictive for the listener is that he doesn’t have to overanalyze the track due to the song’s few elements.

Furthermore, the act of finding the right sample, achieving the desired effect and associating these elements is an art in itself. When done so, the nostalgic feelings which the track produces are ethereal and one of the main reasons behind its popularity. Another element that makes for the appeal of the sound is its unfinished or raw character, translated through distortion or saturation effects. In a world which is obsessed by quality and perfection, some natural and organic sounds are more than welcome. 

In a recent article, Vagueoo3, a lo fi hip hop artist who has been in the scene for around two years declared: “Lo-Fi is short for low fidelity, and essentially means bad quality, but purposefully”. According to Vagueoo3 it is precisely “this bad quality which makes it stand out, just like overblown bass and distorted vocals make ‘SoundCloud rap’ stand out.” After all, the less is more, isn’t it ?

VIDEO: J.Dilla – “Workinonit”, (2006)

The Reasons Behind The Reemergence Of The Genre In Recent Years

A few years ago, the sub-genre in itself didn’t mean anything. It is only around 2013 that lo-fi started to become a notable trend on the world’s biggest platform for music streaming, YouTube. More specifically, both YouTube’s Live feature and related video algorithms have permitted its emergence. Rapidly, the term became a buzzword up to the point that today simply searching for “lo-fi” on YouTube will provide you with a handful of live channels the video platform hosts. Moreover, the popularity of the genre has also increased because of its association with digital streaming fatigue and anime culture, which have a become a meme in their own right.

In fact, most of these channels are run by reckless anime fans. In addition to the “anime hype”, it is self-explanatory why the music has reached such a wide acclaim. Indeed, its laidback sound characteristics makes it the perfect companion for people who are just looking for a relaxing tune to listen to when doing domestic chores, studying for exams or chilling with friends.

Whilst the “live” feature of Youtube was introduced back in 2011, it is not until last year that lo fi hip-hop channels really started to take off. Chilled Cow’s channel was one of the the first 24/7 lo fi hiphop stations on YouTube. Today, the latter remains the biggest lo fi hip hop live station with more than a million subscribers and thousands of  live radio listeners.  However, the movement has experienced a great development and there are more and more live channels that provide their listeners with the most soothing lo fi hip hop tunes.

How To Make Lo Fi Hip Hop: The Gear, Software & Samples You Need

For the creation of lo fi hip-hop, “the less is moreshould be your number one rule. If we don’t to go as far as saying that anything can work, originality is a must. With an extensive amount of music producers having opted for the “easy-genre” you will have to stand out of the crowd with sought-after sounds. Digging for unique sounds will be your main task. Therefore, as mentioned before, there is no real necessity to polish a sound. Because, the charm of lo fi hip hop resides precisely in its unfinished character. Nonetheless, some software, hardware and sample indications can give you a good head start for further explorations.

Software

Surely, software is not the most important part, since most lo fi sound relies on samples or iconic hardware. However, with the development of software synthesizers and their ever-growing capabilities, there are certain plugins that will definitely help you shape a lo-fi sound. Amongst them you should count EQ, distortion, saturation, bit-crusher, pitch LFO, and a compressor. The good thing is that most of the time all these plugins will come with your DAW software. If not, you will find some demo versions or free VSTs for these effects.

Here are some of the popular plugins which emulate old hardware or degrade audio:

  1. ToneBoosters’ “Time Machine
  2. iZotope’s Vinyl 
  3. U-He’s Satin 
  4. D16 Group’s  Decimort
  5. Tone Projects’  Sonitex STX-1260 
  6. Soundtoys’ Decapitator
  7. Fabfilter’s Saturn
  8. Reaktor’s VHS Audio Degradation Suite
Hardware

With hardware, you will have to look for anything able to record or play audio through. As an example, cheap toys, VHS tapes, cassettes, or any other old media format make great options. The purpose of this apparatus is that they act as filters  to degrade your sound and can be combined to manipulate the audio further. Some cassettes and tapes will already feature drums you will be able to sample. You will be able to use other sounds on vinyl or cassettes, and the advantage is that the sound you will get will already be lo-fi. With sound design, there are no true limits on how to make lo-fi. The strangest sounds you record in your house or you find can produce an unexpected and satisfying result.

If you want to achieve a higher quality sound that still sounds lo-fi you should consider investing in drum machines, samplers, synths, etc. Naturally, old or poor hardware gives a more degraded sound. Nonetheless, you can achieve the lo-fi effect on newer gear with the plugins mentioned above.

Samples

Finding samples is easier than ever with blogs and streaming platforms playing old music. If sites like Samplephonics are great for regular samples, you should make sure that you process or tweak your sample enough to be certain that it doesn’t sound like any other one (since these packs are heavily used). Moreover, don’t forget that this is where you make the real difference. Your musical culture and effort to dig deep to find old tunes that are worth sampling will make all the difference when it comes to lo fi hip hop.

How To Make Lo Fi Hip Hop: The Technique

VIDEO: “How To LoFi Hip-Hop”

As mentioned, before lo fi hip hop is criticized for not being creative and lacking actual uniqueness.  In a way, when you make a lo-fi sound it is actually really straightforward and it should not take longer than 10 minutes. A drum loop with 4 or 5 parts. A unique sample. Some effects and mixing and you’re all set. Relying greatly on samples, the argument of the lack of creative input is not far-fetched. Somehow, you modify a “stolen beat”. Nonetheless, it all depends on how far you manipulate the sample. If you start chopping a sample in creative ways, you can create an entire new piece of music. Even more so when you combine different elements together.

While it may be true that lo fi hip hop requires less effort than other electronic genres, it is still as hard to find a hook or memorable beat. And the effort to find original and uniques samples is not easy. If you still think it’s simple and lazy then change it up and do something that makes you feel excited about the project again. Don’t be part of the lazy lo-fi producers. Instead, push the boundaries further.

That being said, the core technique of lo-fi hip includes certain unmistakable steps:

  • Lower the bitrate
  • Lower the sample rate
  • Add distortion/saturation
  • Emulate Tape, Vinyl, old hardware, etc…

You can go a step forward and buy any cheap hardware with recording capabilities like a cassette recorder for example, record your samples to cassette then record back to your computer.

See also: What are the best cassette players ?

The process involves taking one one sound, speeding it up or slowing it down, pitch shifting it, and adding some distortion. But the skill of learning how to create lo-fi beats comes in the order that you do these things, how you do them, and what your source material is. It is worth mentioning that as YouTuber Ryan Celsius, whose lo-fi channel has more than 250,000 subscribers, “the whole idea of lo fi hip hop is usually beat production that can sound under-mixed, containing intended or unintended imperfections with a heavy focus on creative sample use and authentic sounding drums kits. It’s usually a tape hiss or some analog distortion set against a simple set of drum loops and an incredible sample selection”.

VIDEO: “How To LoFi Hip-Hop – FL Studio Tutorial”
Conclusion

We are not exactly sure what the future holds for Lo fi Hip Hop. Could people become annoyed by the repetitiveness and simplicity of the sub-genre ? Or, does the beauty and immortality of lo fi hip hop exactly reside in it’s never ending sampling and creative possibilities ? At the moment, there aren’t any signs of slowing down for lo fi hip hop’s growth. YouTube channels are multiplying every day and 24/7 live streams continue to attract the music genre’s enthusiast, bewildered student or inseparable friend’s group. Without any doubt lo fi hip hop can remain popular if the creativity of forward thinking artists is paired with the efficiency of technology and the demand of listeners.

Recommended Youtube Channels

  • Chillhop music (1.4 millions subscribers)
  • The bootleg boy (640K subscribers)
  • NEOTIC (559k subscribers)
  • Nourish (290k subscribers)
  • Ryan Celsius (260k subscribers)
  • Mellowbeat Seeker (267k subscribers)

All of these channels feature unique still frames, rotating playlists, and unique uploads.

Our Favorite playlist: Samurai’s Rainy Day