Lofi Music: From DIY Rock & Roll to the Chillhop Phenomenon

From YouTube recommendations to curated Spotify playlists, the lofi hiphop sensation is hard to miss.

This cultural and musical phenomenon returns over 50 million results when searched for in Google and has amassed billions of views for some of the top lofi music creators on YouTube.

Despite the overwhelming popularity and sheer amount of discussion surrounding the emerging genre, one question continues to resurface time and time again: what exactly is lofi music?

What is lofi music and where did it come from?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a loaded one. Over the last 70 years, the definition of “lofi” music has shifted dramatically and frequently.

Technically speaking, lofi stands for “low fidelity,” meaning that a recording’s production quality is low. However, the term has come to describe certain aesthetics in music throughout history.

Closely relating to its definition’s origins, lofi music became known as a DIY style of production in the later half of the 20th century.

It was characterized by cheaply and quickly made songs, often recorded at home. Tape distortion, audible hiss, and fluctuations in tape speed are common aesthetics of the DIY style.

Going by this interpretation, much of the 1950’s rock & roll, the 1960’s garage rock, and the 1970’s punk rock could be described as lofi music, even though these genres were not labeled as such in their time. Many of The Beach Boys’ albums, for example, could fall under this lofi umbrella.

Moving into the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the lofi tag became a muddy description for raw, authentic aesthetics in music. Some of the many artists described as part of this version of the lofi genre include Beck, R.E.M., Ween, and Sebadoh. 

A decade later, in the late 2000s, lofi music birthed a new sub-category known as hypnagogic pop. This style, chiefly popularized by Ariel Pink, drew inspiration from nostalgic aesthetics and recording equipment from the 1980s.

The hypnagogic genre is cited as a loose origin for the ironic vaporwave music of the early 2010s, which in turn inspired modern day chillwave music. Through this rapid development of sub-genres and misinterpretation of its origin, lofi music is now used to describe the chillhop genre we see across streaming platforms.

The downtempo, relaxed tracks of our era contrast greatly with the original meaning of the tag in the 1950’s.

Lofi music is now interpreted as music made for easy listening and atmospheric background noise, free of lyrics. In fact, it’s primarily listened to while studying. Not only is it tagged as “study music” frequently on YouTube, but you can actually see massive dips in Google searches for the term around the holidays and the beginning of summer vacation in the United States.

What caused the explosive popularity of chillhop music?

In a 2018 Vice article, Luke Winkie interviewed a prominent lofi hiphop YouTube creator, Ryan Celsius, who gave his own take on why the millennial and gen Z audiences are so attracted to the lofi hiphop genre specifically. “An entire generation of people were influenced by the smooth beats and trippy or relaxing background aesthetic of early 2000’s Adult Swim.”

While the hip-hop and jazz elements generally vibe with younger generations, I find it likely that lofi beats has taken off so aggressively for an additional reason.

The rise of streaming has given many of us constant access to content and entertainment. When we aren’t at work, out with friends, or running errands, many of us probably turn on Netflix or YouTube — even if we aren’t actively watching and listening.

Combine the need for nonstop, ambient background noise with the dawn of YouTube live streaming, and a few brilliant minds filled a lucrative void. 

As the lofi hiphop label becomes more and more acquainted with smooth jazz beats, the original definition of lofi music becomes more and more murky.

A great resource for better understanding lofi music and its origins is Adam Harper’s thesis on the subject. The 300 page heavily-referenced document delves into the very depths of the genre and its evolution. I highly recommend taking a look.

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