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Chillhop music isn't just muzak for the pandemic

Lo-fi's slow, smooth beats aren't just for studying and working. They represent the revenge of producers who have found a way to put their talent to good use in difficult times

by Mattia Barro (Rolling Stone Italia)

As I write this article on an afternoon in early June, the LoFi Girl YouTube channel (8.5 million subscribers), famous for its pastel artwork that mentions the protagonist of Studio Ghibli ‘s Sighs of My Heart , is broadcasting two livestreams. 24/7 (started in pandemic in late February 2020) followed by 42,000 and 7,000 users respectively. At the same time, another industry channel, Chillhop Music (3.1 million subscribers) is broadcasting additional livestreaming 24/7 with an average of 3,000 listeners per channel.

These are some of the numbers of chillhop and lo-fi hip hop, the two musical genres that most of all, during this first pandemic year, have managed to establish themselves vehemently in world audiences. Often used as interchangeable terms (the difference is often reduced to the qualitative choice in the mastering of the songs) or synthesized in the term lo-fi, these instrumental genres are formed on rhythmic down tempo beats, tendentially swinged (as taught by J Dilla, producer from Detroit which made the history of a certain drumming and sample flipping), relaxed harmonies with jazzy scents, dirty samples and dusty sound effects in the background. Something to put on to chill, something that does not require a high degree of attention being, in itself, background music. A sort of muzak, music for lifts, but cooler and aimed mainly at generation Z and its burnouts. Music to relax during the end of the world.

“These genres work because people can relate to them easily. They are very popular thanks to an abundance of resources, as evidenced by the various 24/7 live streaming channels. Musicians were also attracted to it because with the pandemic they had lost the opportunity to perform live and needed to look for new possible entrances.”

says Paul Pastourmatzis, aka Pueblo Vista , a Greek producer based in Austria. Paul is 40 years old and has a daughter and has recently released a 13-track album, Am épos am érgon, distributed by Universal Music, which fills up a discography that, on Spotify, seems infinite. A typical feature of lo-fi, in fact, is the hyper-productivity of the artists who, freed from the need for a vocalist, can devote themselves exclusively to the obsessive construction of beats, with the precious opportunity to remain quietly behind the scenes.

“Making music in this historical moment is certainly not healthy. An infinite series of activities are required of the artist – from producing music to interacting with fans, from social networks to the continuous search for new opportunities – and it is something that consumes you. With this genre, however, I may not be at the forefront, and this makes me feel good. It is certainly less stressful.”

Rolling Stone found out that between livestreaming channels and highly followed ad hoc playlists, lo-fi allows producers to find new financial resources directly from their home studio. 

Since there are no rappers or singers, the language barrier is broken down in lo-fi. In addition, the typical BPM of classic hip hop, slower than the current ones, benefits the human mind and its functioning. For a producer there is nothing better than being behind the scenes, perhaps in his basement of him composing or cutting samples. What we see in lo-fi is a revenge of those behind the machines.

confirms Alsogood , a Calabrian producer fresh out of the box with his new album Life’s Beautiful, nine short instrumental tracks that clearly summarize the idea of this slow hip hop with jazz references. A retro taste, but evergreen, a trend that fits perfectly in the theory of retromania of the English critic Simon Reynolds. Producing lo-fi is an exercise that stimulates the nerd / artistic side of the producer, acting as a conjunction between the passion for beatmaking and the possibility of economizing this interest.

While lo-fi sounds like “a white noise with a calming effect that speaks to your subconscious”, as Pueblo Vista defines it, it is interesting to note the same genre being communicated in its major channels. The aforementioned Chillhop Music, in its description, hopes that its audience can enjoy these listening to study, relax and work. And it is this last point that brings with it some reflections. As highlighted by Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker, this idea of music without edges often takes the form of an omnipresent productive tool rather than a mood music dedicated to relaxation (or escapism) as it happens in ambient music. Petrusich’s provocation is evident: lo-fi risks becoming yet another deviation of hyper-capitalism, apathetic music to be used as background while (hyper) working on the computer. A tool to increase productivity, making it monotonous, but cool, timeless, and therefore without fixed working hours. And that’s not reassuring though, as pointed out by Forbes, the audience in question is made up of 75% of young people between 18-34 years, or Gen Z and late millennials, the generation most at risk on the issue of work and related rights, especially in the most violent and subdued drifts of smart working.

Pueblo’s vision, however, is very far from Petrusich’s opinion, as he explains to Rolling Stone:

I think that selling lo-fi as a production tool is a step after commercialization, but in any case I don’t see anything wrong with it. All genres of music must, in some way, be accepted by the public. This has simply found its niche,” Pueblo Vista replies, “but still the whole concept of streaming is fucking capitalistic and hyper-monetized. At the same time, however, I cannot be negative towards something that brings food to the table of people who make music.

Alsogood is also not surprised by this direction:

Today everyone tries to comb something to sell it better and quickly so I’m not too surprised, I see lo-fi as a natural and necessary evolution of hip hop. I can assure you that there is an aware, interested public, and many important realities including labels and professionals who carry the matter forward.

The generalized idea of being faced with a genre that is perceived, due to minimal stylistic choices and hyper-productivity, as easy to compose, does not help however the critical perception of the genre. And on this Pueblo Vista takes a pebble from his shoe:

“I would not like lo-fi to be understood as cool background music . There is this common misconception that lofi hip hop is thought to be super easy to produce and that chillhop is just some piano or guitar riff salvaged from Splice or Tracklib loops. But the reality is very far away, there are levels and levels of work in these productions”

Business or place of creative freedom? Music from the background or evolution of hip hop and beatmaking? Music for no-specific-occasion or genre worthy of critical relevance? The discourse around lo-fi now seems to have polarized on irreconcilable extremes. As much as we struggle to find answers, lo-fi is here, now, now, with crazy numbers and an army of producers of the most varied geographies and ages who combine the love for beatmaking with the possibility of economizing a profession that is often poorly supported by music industry itself. Can we blame those who fill their plate by doing what they are capable of even if it involves a departure from the artistic ideal? In the name of art, perhaps yes. In the name of today’s economic realism, probably not.