Editor’s Note: This article was written by Becca Wig.
Literally being defined as a measure of production quality, lo-fi in and of itself is less of a genre and more of a way of describing music. It’s important to make this distinction when discussing this particular genre because the term has taken on multiple meanings. It would not be accurate to say both meanings are interchangeable, but the lines are becoming blurred in modern music and pop culture.
Historically, this method of purposefully low fidelity has been popular for many years, with one notable early adopter being the Beach Boys, and more modern uses being found in bedroom and dream pop. In an article by the media company Genius, origins of this new meaning of lo-fi were attributed to earlier genres like shoegaze, dreampop and vaporwave. However, the word is now predominantly used to describe genre over style.
Though many styles of music have taken on aspects of this kind of production, one genre has emerged that overtly used this approach to define itself. Lo-fi’s modern meaning incorporates hazy beats with distortion, tape hiss and any kind of “imperfection” that would be wiped clear in hi-fi recordings. It’s an easily accessible genre, with many independent artists who create music in their DIY studios. YouTube live streams have played a major role in the popularization of this genre with many channels advertising work/study background music, using mainly instrumental recordings. Most tracks feature only hip-hop or jazz-hop beats, however, there are creators who add dreamy vocals as well. One YouTube Lo-fi streamer, Ryan Celsius (whose channel has ~474,000 subscribers), summed up Lo-fi as:
“sonic nostalgia, but not in an aggressive or ironic way like vaporwave or retrowave.”
Despite its increasing popularity, it’s not likely that there will be a lo-fi Hot 100 chart on Billboard anytime soon, as one of the defining characteristics of this genre is a cohesive and consistent sound. Being purposely ambient and instrumental, it can be difficult to distinguish between artists and even songs at times. However, lo-fi is ever-evolving and there are some creators making more waves than others.
Shiloh Dynasty is one artist who has gained popularity within lo-fi and has gained traction from creators in other genres. Her haunting and smooth vocals have been picked up and used by rappers like Juice WRLD and Young Thug along with XXXTENTACION, with the most well known sample living on X’s “Jocelyn Flores.” She’s a notoriously private person whose rise to fame has been marked by grainy, nondescript Instagram videos of just her and her guitar. Though she has stayed quiet on social media for a few years now, her most recent published work is mostly collaborative projects with other lo-fi creators and rappers.
SwuM is another lo-fi creative gaining an audience. He’s a more public creator whose most popular tracks are for the most part instrumental only, however, he draws inspiration from classic hip-hop and rap with many tracks featuring samples. His most recent project called “Sail” is an instrumental collaboration with artist Wun Two.
Artist eevee is a good example of a lo-fi artist taking inspiration from and blending Japanese and jazz aesthetics. Many of her tracks showcase asian string and flute instruments as well as jazzy percussion and horns.
- Creator Chilled Cow’s lofi hip hop music — beats to relax/study to is a must listen, this curator also runs one of the most popular live streams on YouTube.
- Asian (mainly Japanese) aesthetic and influences are a big part of lo-fi culture. User thebootlegboy runs one of the most popular playlists representing this side of the genre, called Japanese Lofi Hip Hop.
- Editorial playlists are a must listen as well, as they are the first line of authority in tastemaking. The most popular Spotify-owned playlist with 3.3 million followers is called Lo-Fi Beats.
- Another main inspiration curators draw from is jazz-hop, offering lounge vibes with vintage brassy melodies and piano acoustics. The Jazz Hop Cafe has a frequently updated list called The Jazz Hop Cafe [Monthly Selection].
Many livestreams and playlists self-describe who they’re trying to reach: “beats to relax/game/study/work to” are all very common titles. Those looking for background music, a mood setting, or even sleeping tunes are all included in the target audience.
Lo-fi blends so many genres, and takes inspiration from other media, which only serves to broaden the audience that these creators are reaching. Many tracks also feature a monologue or line from films, TV and anime. One of the most popular themes curators and artists alike seem to go for is Studio Ghibli films. It’s no stretch to say that nostalgia, colorful aesthetics, and comfort all define the culture of lo-fi. Consumers find themselves on a livestream or playlist because they are seeking just that.
According to an article conducted by Genius, they claim that most of the live channels on YouTube that stream lo-fi are run by “reserved anime fans,” most of which did not respond to their team reaching out. In our own research, we’ve found the same could likely be said about curators on Spotify, with very few responding to our messages. Anonymity and focus on music over personalities is an overarching theme. There’s a large number of playlists that pop up when you search on Spotify, only a couple of editorial playlists with the majority of the rest being created independently or by brands/labels. Most independently run playlists feature a mood, film or anime in the title with many featuring a photo of the topic. Aesthetics are of importance to the creators and consumers of lo-fi alike.
Roster Highlight: Deep Wave
Another on-the-rise artist worth mentioning is Deep Wave, a songwriting and production duo based out of Toronto. Independently, its members Luke McMaster and Arun Chaturvedi have achieved great heights. McMaster’s earlier project in McMaster & James earned him a gold album run, as well as the opportunity to sing for the Canadian and American troops in Afghanistan. The other half of Deep Wave, Chaturvedi, has a long history of producing and songwriting as the frontman of indie rock band Driver. He also has many original compositions featured in TV and film projects including reality TV show “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” Together, the group has written compositions with cuts on albums by Rihanna, Nick Lachey and Jim Brickman, as well as placements on General Hospital and for major brands like Visa and SouthWest Airlines.
We reached out to the team to ask for their thoughts and perspectives on this rising genre, as well as their personal creative process. When asked about the growth and success of lo-fi within the music community, the duo commented:
“We definitely see this genre growing in leaps and bounds. It helps people relax, helps them focus, and serves as a soundscape, transporting the listener to another place. The world is pretty tense these days, filled with distractions and anxiety, and anything that can help alleviate that is something we’re honored to be a part of.”
Since this genre has wide stylistic parameters, we also wanted to get an insider’s understanding of what it’s like to create these atmospheric, vibey tracks. Chaturvedi described his half of the process:
“I like to start with melody first… A big part of the lo-fi process for me is to use tape and cassette effects, and to record things like toy pianos to try and come up with unique sounds. For me, the trick is to make something vibey and hooky that is just repetitive enough that it won’t distract the listener, but not so much that it’s boring.”
McMaster’s take on the process also offered insights into how broad yet personal this kind of production can be.
“I like to create a lo-fi beat as a canvas to start, and then I’m able to explore so many different styles and genres and really let my creative mind wander. The timing tends to be looser, with more of an unconventional feel… Many of my usual pop sensibilities as a producer and writer go out the window, making the process feel even more childlike in the sense that I don’t have to ‘colour within the lines’ in the same way I do when crafting a pop song.”