Anyone that has spent any amount of time on YouTube would likely have encountered the term “LoFi music” at some point. This style of music has grown incredibly popular in the late 2010s and has become a cultural landmark in many online spaces. You may be surprised to learn that lofi-style music has existed for many generations and that it has undergone significant transformations since its first inception.
So join us as we examine LoFi music and its origins in greater detail.
What is LoFi Music? The Details
Before we can answer “What is LoFi music”, it is worth understanding what “LoFi” refers to. “LoFi” is an abbreviation of the term “low fidelity”. It stands in contrast to the term “high fidelity”, which typically references high-quality reproduction of sound. A HiFi mix generally has little to no audible distortion and faithfully reproduces the audio quality of the original track it is playing back.
With this in mind, “LoFi” refers to “low-fidelity”, which is the opposite of HiFi. Low-fi recordings generally contain a high amount of audible distortion. This is usually the product of recording tracks in a poor recording environment, and/or using poor quality equipment. However, many modern day LoFi songs are intentionally created to sound like this for aesthetic reasons. You will get a better understanding of why this is the case in the next section when we discuss the origins of LoFi music and its modern iterations.
History of LoFi Music
If you’re familiar with music recordings prior to the 1960s, you may already be aware that their audio quality was less than stellar. Many of the big hits from the era sound somewhat noisy by today’s standards. However, these were actually the HiFi recordings of their era.
Such tracks were recorded, produced, and mixed at expensive studios and were bankrolled by major record labels. If you were an artist who wasn’t signed to such a label, you were generally forced to rely on music equipment that produced low-quality recordings.
These “low fidelity” recordings weren’t broadcast on the radio as frequently as their high fidelity counterparts, and were less popular as a result. You can still find low fidelity recordings of such albums and singles on vinyl discs at record stores.
The first “low fidelity” album that did gain a significant amount of traction in the 1960s was The Beach Boys 1967 album “Smiley Smile”. The album contained re-recordings of tracks from the band’s unfinished album “SMiLE”, and was produced at lead composer Brian Wilson’s home studio.
The album’s recording quality was a significant downgrade from the band’s prior release “Pet Sounds” which still stands as one of the best-produced albums of the 1960s. Despite its low-quality recording, Smiley Smile still managed to reach #9 on the UK Albums chart and #41 on the US Billboard 200.
The next significant wave of LoFi recordings erupted in the 1980s and 1990s. This was the era during which many underground acts recorded music at budget studios or in hastily put-together home studios. This included acts such as Daniel Johnson, Guided by Voices, and Pavement.
Such music was recorded using low quality home equipment due to financial constraints. However, these artists still gained significant cult followings due to the quality of their songwriting. For example, Guided By Voices gained popularity for lead vocalist and songwriter Robert Pollard’s ability to write earwormy hooks. Such music possessed a “diamond in the rough” quality that attracted a significant number of fans in the 90s underground music scene.
LoFi music in the 2010s was driven by the rise of artists on independent music streaming platforms such as Bandcamp. Singer-songwriters such as Car Seat Headrest and Alex G took center-stage in this scene. These artists took LoFi recording cues from 80s and 90s artists such as Daniel Johnson and Elliot Smith. However, much of their recordings were created digitally with the help of computers. Such music attracted many aspiring singer-songwriters, many of whom were drawn to the “home demo” feel of these recordings.
The Rise of LoFi Hip Hop
If you spent a fair amount of time on Youtube in the late 2010s, you may have seen a livestream titled “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to”. This stream was started by a Youtube channel called ChilledCow and played exclusively instrumental hip hop tracks with a mellow, warm, and distorted feel.
Such music took cues from notable hip hop producers such as J Dilla and Nujabes. However, the style of music has evolved into something that is entirely its own. You need to listen to LoFi hip hop for only a few seconds to get a feel for its flawed or mildly off-kilter sonic qualities.
As the aforementioned playlist’s title says, this music was perfect for people to relax or study to. LoFi hip hop tracks today garner millions or views on Youtube, and have remained a staple in the Youtube music scene since 2017.
What are the Most Popular LoFi Hip Hop Channels on Youtube?
As mentioned above, the Youtube channel ChilledCow was responsible for popularizing lofi hip with its “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” live stream. However, the channel was taken down in 2020 due to a mistaken copyright claim.
While the original channel could not be recovered, its owner, a French user by the name of Dimitri, rejoined Youtube in 2021 and started another channel under the name Lofi Girl. This channel has close to 10 million subscribers and remains the most popular lofi hip hop channel on the platform.
Other popular lofi hip hop channels on Youtube include:
How to Make LoFi Hip Hop?
If you are an aspiring producer who wants to start making LoFi hip hop, you will be glad to know that the composition and production processes aren’t too complex. Some tips to keep in mind to get that distinct LoFi hip hop sound include:
- Use Nostalgic Chords and Melodies
LoFi hip hop stands out from other types of hip hop for its nostalgic feel. This is in-part due to the style of chords and melodies used in these compositions. While some LoFi hip hop producers play or sequence such notes themselves, many simply sample pre-1970s funk and jazz records that contain Rhodes or electric piano sections.
- Select Dusty-Sounding Drums
Crispness and clarity are the last things you want when selecting drum samples for your LoFi hip hop tunes. Many producers specifically seek out drum samples with background noise and muted characteristics that help drive home that sloppy and sleepy feel.
You can also use saturation, compression, and low-pass filtering to enhance that muted and choppy vibe.
- Add Some Vinyl Crackle
If your existing samples don’t have enough background noise, you can still give the entire track an old-school feel by adding some vinyl crackle to the mix. Ableton comes with a handy plugin called Vinyl Distortion that does just this.
The Future of LoFi Music
As you can see, LoFi music has undergone a wide range of transformations since its inception in the 1950s. No one knows what the next wave of LoFi music will be like. However, we can’t wait to get front row seats to hear what musicians and producers come up with next.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.