Lo-fi is quickly becoming one of the most popular musical styles, spanning across genres and spawning new ones all its own. But what is lo-fi music? This article will explain what makes lo-fi music what it is and where it came from, with examples from its pioneers and influencers.
The term “lo-fi” is an abbreviation for “low fidelity,” which is a musical term for poor recording quality. Professionally recorded, high-fidelity music generally features crisp, clear sounds without audio distortions and noise. Lo-fi music, in contrast, highlights the things that professional music typically filters out.
Lo-fi, as a quality, can be found in music of all genres. It has origins and examples in jazz, rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. The first official reference to low fidelity as a quality of music was to a particular rock sound evolving in the form of grunge. But today, the term “lo-fi” as a genre of music typically refers to a family of chilled-out hip-hop, also called chillhop.
Lo-fi music today is a type of music that intentionally defies definition, aiming only to offer something that most professional music doesn’t. It spans multiple genres, taking bits and pieces from each to form a cohesive whole that is both easily recognizable and indescribable. However, there are a few standard features that you can identify across most lo-fi music.
- Downtempo Drum Loops. Lo-fi music generally revolves around a repeating loop of slow, dreamy beats. While there are exceptions, most lo-fi music is more of a groove than a banger. Lo-fi rhythms make you want to close your eyes and let your head sway. The rhythm gently drives you forward, creating the perfect background noise for relaxing, studying, or working.
- Heavy Sampling. Lo-fi hip-hop originated in part from the boom bap movement in hip-hop, where beats, vocals, and riffs were sampled, looped, and made into something new. Today’s lo-fi revives this tradition, taking samples from popular beats, melodies, and even video games and anime. A lot of lo-fi’s cozy vibe comes from the use of familiar, nostalgic samples.
- Retro Vibe. The characteristic record scratch, tape deck hiss, and background static of old vinyl, 8-tracks, and cassettes arguably define lo-fi music. What professional recordings try to erase, lo-fi music intentionally amplifies and features.
Lo-fi music also commonly revolves around chord progressions common to jazz music. These elements combine to give lo-fi music a groovy, retro vibe that’s nearly impossible to dislike.
If you’re looking for a Lo-fi music definition, it is a genre that is nearly impossible to define. While there are plenty of characteristics common to lo-fi music, there really are no rules in the genre. This factor means that no two lo-fi songs sound exactly alike, yet identifying an artist by the song is nearly impossible. Here are nine songs that demonstrate the range and scope of lo-fi music.
“Summer Lover” is a song whose name describes its vibe perfectly. It opens with the distant click of a jukebox changing discs and fades into a warm, sunny groove. The drum loop is a perfect example of a characteristic boom bap beat, and the maraca sounds give it a tropical feel. The cherry on top is the trilling melody reminiscent of a songbird in paradise.
The album by the same title follows up with the song “Don’t want to leave,” which hearkens back to the original roots of lo-fi. The looping Motown vocals and vinyl crackle exemplify the original lo-fi aesthetic of early blues recording artists. The album closes with “Goodbye autumn,” the winter holiday party yang to “Summer Lover”’s tropical yin.
The track “Lily” by Eevee features a dreamy lo-fi melody that sounds like it’s coming at you from underwater. The soft boom bap beat is a gentle, rhythmic pulse running through the entire track. It opens with a soft coo-cooing like digital doves and flows into the drum loop with the sound of a babbling brook. “Lily” is instantly recognizable as an example of lo-fi music.
The following track, “Lotus,” features samples of clanging dishes, like clearing the table away after a dinner party. The sound distorts like a vinyl record that’s just a little warped, bending upward and down almost imperceptibly. Every other track on the album “Unexpected” is an example of a lo-fi music staple, and the whole album has a delightfully chill vibe.
“Heaven Inc.” by Shlohmo opens with the nostalgic hiss of static and dropped objects but slowly builds into an eerie digital landscape of distorted beeps, flickers, and clicks. By the time the bouncy, uptempo melody appears, it’s a welcome relief to the tension Shlohmo builds with his unnerving selection of samples.
The frayed distortion reemerges later in the song as a slightly off-key rock jam that blends with the poppy electronic, creating a new kind of tension. The song ends with a hazy fadeout and a binaural wave that soothes and disturbs at the same time. The official video is an epic journey of brilliant and uncomfortable imagery that fits the song perfectly.
“Pine Leaves” opens with a rising and falling piano melody that flows into a thumping boom bap beat. An electronic flute and soaring orchestra join in before the beat seems to skip just a fraction of a second as it loops back to the start. Each loop is punctuated by what feels like the slightest misalignment, an intentional error characteristic of lo-fi music in general.
The full BeatTape, entitled “Solitude,” is like a study in lo-fi musical elements. Sampled vocals, various electronic effects, and jazzy vibes permeate every track. The album perfectly demonstrates how Jinsang’s unique musical vision makes him a key figure in the lo-fi music scene.
“Cascade” is a laid-back, dreamy groove that feels like floating down a gentle river at sunset. Soft, dripping beats and echoing clicks pair beautifully with the looping vocal harmonies. This song has a natural ambiance that’s sure to remind you of the warmest days of springtime.
One of the mysteries of lo-fi music is how layering and looping a few simple tracks can create such an emotionally evocative soundtrack. “Cascade” is a perfect example in the way that the individual parts layer into a musically complex, compelling whole.
“24 hours” begins with a layering of tracks that sounds a bit like turning the radio dial until you get a distant station as clear as it gets. The samples fall into place into a rhythm that’s just a little off. The result is a mix that’s as disorienting as it is groovy. It’s a psychedelic twist on a jazzy lo-fi groove.
The rest of the BeatTape, “pook” by bsd.u, features similar eerie syncopations paired with retro jazz melodies. “shake n bake” introduces a spicy rap laid over the same formula, demonstrating the versatility of the lo-fi music genre.
“Life” opens with a slithery, gentle piano groove that picks up the tempo when the boom bap beat joins in a couple of measures later. The song is a perfect example of the traditional lo-fi hip hop formula that made the genre universally enjoyable, jazz piano and chill beats. “Life” is a lo-fi classic by J Dilla, one of the genre’s pioneers, and its influence is apparent.
“Aruarian Dance” from the Samurai Champloo soundtrack features a familiar melody since often sampled in lo-fi music. Listen to any lo-fi station on any streaming service, and you’re sure to hear some variation of this chill guitar groove. The melody is a commonly used sample. The soundtrack and the iconic sound of Nujabes popularized lo-fi music at a mainstream level.
“Beat For Paris” opens with the sound of emergency sirens, setting a tone that’s unusual for lo-fi music. DJ Shadow, one of the original lo-fi artists, demonstrates that there can be an uptempo dance side of lo-fi music. This departure from downtempo jazz features record scratches, drum beats, and vocal riffs reminiscent of the genre’s rap roots.
That’s not to say that there’s no jazz in “Beat For Paris,” though. DJ Shadow samples in the occasional horn and piano groove, too. This song is an excellent example of how musically complex and vibrant lo-fi tracks can be. As identifiable as lo-fi is, “Beat For Paris” demonstrates that it still has the power to surprise.
Lo-fi music is so accessible, almost anyone with a computer can become a lo-fi musician. It can be hard to tell music from different lo-fi musicians apart because many are pulling from a lot of the same elements. However, a few influential musicians appear on almost every lo-fi playlist.
Here are five of the most prolific lo-fi musicians you may have heard already.
Nujabes was a Japanese record producer whose musical style came to define the lo-fi genre on a mainstream level. He produced the original soundtracks for two popular anime, Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop. The widespread popularity of these two anime helped Nujabes to promote his music to a broader audience than lo-fi hip-hop had seen until that point.
Ahmed Ali, better known as Knowmadic, is a Poet Laureate, community organizer, youth worker, and musician. His music includes instrumental lo-fi and spoken word poetry and is just one part of his overall commitment to advancing the arts.
Shlohmo began producing beats when he was 14 years old, and by age 20 was an accomplished lo-fi phenomenon. His music is a psychedelic blend of hip hop and electronic synth, and his sound is one of a kind. Hip-hop clearly influences his music, but he’s not a hip-hop artist. Shlohmo’s impact on the lo-fi scene is just beginning, but it’s already fascinating.
Jinsang’s music is a uniquely atmospheric blend of old-school R&B and jazz, strings, and hip-hop. As original and influential as his music is, he considers his lo-fi career a hobby. Jinsang says his inspiration from his music comes from the atmospheres and vibes he feels in his life at a given time. He uses his music to describe and cope with the ebbs and flows of life.
DJ Shadow is one of the original artists who experimented with lo-fi music in the early 90s. He blends funk, hip-hop, rock, jazz, and ambient music to create his specialty sound described as “trip-hop.” Today, he collaborates with recording artists like Run the Jewels, Ghostface Killah, and Raekwon.
If lo-fi’s defining characteristics seem unclear, it might help to understand how lo-fi music came to be what it is today. What emerged as a sound that came from technical limitations has become an intentionally nostalgic musical vibe. Lo-fi music may best be described by where it came from rather than what it is.
The sounds that are so characteristic of lo-fi music today weren’t always an intentional sound choice. The professional music industry was exclusive, and producing professional quality music was expensive and inaccessible to most musicians. As home recording equipment became available, musicians started making their own music at home.
Of course, the technology available to the public meant that these kitchen, bedroom, and basement recordings were previously limited. Pops, flares, distortion, and background noise weren’t stylistic choices in the past – they were inevitable limitations of recording music without the benefit of professional quality equipment.
One of the first acts to rise to fame using home recording equipment was The Beach Boys in the 60s, but the sound permeated the music of all genres quickly after that. Underground indie rock bands began to emerge, such as Beck and hip-hop artists like Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest. It quickly became strongly associated with hip-hop culture.
Home recording of hip-hop music spawned a new hip-hop vibe called “boom bap.” Recorded, looped samples of drum beats, often taken from popular contemporary music, define boom bap music. But what made boom bap most recognizable was the use of unconventional sounds, such as karate chops, jazz licks, and other unorthodox beats.
The result was a brand of music reminiscent of house parties and amateur jam sessions. Unfortunately, the complicated legal landscape of music copyright quickly made it impossible for musicians to use samples from professional recording artists. The threat of legal action caused boom bap music to fade into the background.
That is until amateur recording artists realized that they could make their own beats, riffs, and effects that sounded almost exactly like the professional recordings they’d been sampling. These clever musicians began building libraries of royalty-free beats that artists could use without running into copyright issues, and lo-fi music as we know it today was born.
The lo-fi music scene is unique in that it doesn’t have a physical location. In fact, for the most part, lo-fi music doesn’t even have a physical existence. Physical CDs or records don’t represent lo-fi music. Lo-fi music artists don’t often tour or even perform live. The amorphous genre that is lo-fi music exists almost exclusively on the internet.
Lo-fi music samples are easy to find and share and inexpensive to combine and produce. These factors combined made lo-fi music spread like wildfire. YouTube creators made playlists of lo-fi music collections and paired them with stills from cartoons and anime. Eventually, a YouTube feature made it possible to play endless playlists 24/7, which fueled the fire.
Suddenly there were dozens of lo-fi hip-hop radio streams on YouTube. Their accessibility and aesthetic made them the perfect soundtrack to everything from sleeping to studying to gaming. The nostalgic fuzz of lo-fi music became the background music of life.
One of the original artists of modern lo-fi hip hop was Nujabes, who developed his own library of legal, self-produced samples. Nujabes produced the soundtrack to two popular anime – Samurai Shamploo and Cowboy Bebop. What had once been a loose connection between anime and lo-fi music suddenly became explicit, and lo-fi became mainstream.
Today, lo-fi is one of the most popular genres across all streaming services. Whatever platform you use for your music, you can find free lo-fi tracks to groove to while you work, play, and chill.
Lo-fi music as a genre is a fascinating study of the power of a creative community. While it may be easy to listen to a piece of music and describe it as lo-fi, it’s much harder to define what lo-fi actually is, but that’s part of its appeal. As music technology becomes even more accessible, lo-fi as a genre is sure to continue evolving in new and unexpected ways.