It's a dreary Thursday night, and you need some background noise to keep you going as you sit alone (save for the last two other people left in the library). Your natural click is to YouTube or Spotify to find a study buddy- “Chill lo-fi beats to study/relax to.” Now accompanied by a girl diligently writing along with you - you are urged along to churn out your essay before the midnight deadline. The beats are live and ever-changing - you never know what’s next, but it almost seems to blend into your surroundings as you lose yourself in concentration. The music contains clips of TV shows, tape hisses, record scratches, and other ambient noises that make the music feel part of your environment - that there is something homey about it. The other search results are similar after the familiar animated girl and her lazing cat: around 1-8 hour or “live” mixes of “lo-fi” music with gifs from old 90s animes helping you work all the way into the wee hours of the morning. If it's live, that component adds a comment section of other working students across the globe all driving your study session.
We’ve become so accustomed to our generation’s definition of that familiar word, but do many of us know where it comes from?
While nowadays most people who know of the genre would define lo-fi as a combo of soft hip-hop beats and ambient noise, the meaning of “lo-fi’ actually comes from low-fidelity; coined because of its low-quality audio. The term rose to popularity in the 1950s when artists like the Beach Boys and Johnny Ace began using their own not-so-expensive equipment to make “lo-fi” music. In the 1980s the fuzziness of the homemade 50s tracks emulated nostalgia, and low-quality was in. Home recordings were broadcasted and mixed with rap beats to create the sub-genre of lo-fi hip-hop. When doing my deep-dive into lo-fi and the sub-genres of this music I found a lack of recognition for someone other curious lo-fi obsessed college students may know as the biggest game-changer: the late ‘ne’ Jun Seba, better known by his stage name Nujabes (cleverly, his real name spelled backwards), who died in 2011 due to a tragic accident. The Japanese DJ, composer, audio engineer, and even record shop owner produced all his own music and while understated in his presence, his impact on “chillpop” is felt (if subtly) in both Japanese hip-hop and in most student’s study sessions. Even though he only formally released two studio albums, he remains the man who created the chill part of “chill beats to study/relax to.”
Nujabes is considered revolutionary for two main elements: his integration of jazz and the almost melancholic undertones he covertly combined with traditional hip-hop beats. One of his most famous works include the soundtrack of the iconic anime Samurai Champloo, where he combined graffiti rap and hip-hop while still managing to emulate stories of feudal Japan. With compositions like that he is already established as an innovator, but what you are left with after listening is that same feeling of nostalgia and reflection the 1980s artists were so focused on producing - now finally translated in the late 90s. This same feeling is what has appealed to current listeners whether they realize it or not. We tap into the ambience, transporting us to a different atmosphere completely as we work or go about our daily tasks - listening to never-ending playlists that seem to serve more as a soundtrack to our lives. By using jazz, he added an element of soul in the horns and soft looping piano that familiarizes itself to you quickly, the lowkey hip-hop beats steady enough to become a rhythm of your tapping pen or feet.
There is an element of his music that current lo-fi hip-hop producers have emphasized, and that is background noises in addition to the commonly used needle scratch or cassette tape hiss. In his track “Rainy day,” (a rare minute track) he added sound effects of rain dripping into a bucket, and the water in the bucket sloshing around a bit. Current lo-fi hip-hop mixes are now nearly always accompanied by the sound of rain tapping on a window, even with thunder if you would like. Sound effects envelop you into the atmosphere of the music even further - allowing you to pick and choose where you want to escape to: a cafe, warm and sheltering from the rain, or maybe a grainy car radio from decades ago.
The idea that lo-fi helps us set the mood for whatever the beat decides: sleeping, studying, chilling out with friends, and even the thoughts that only seem to occur at 3 in the morning. Our imaginations can run free when we listen, and Nujabes has let us feel this way with his genuinely unique touch on the genre.
Next time you go listen to “Chill lo-fi beats to study/relax to,” remember the artists who have made the genre what it is today. This is an ode to Nujabes and the way he transformed lo-fi and lo-fi hip-hop into something we students rely on whether we realize it or not.
Graphics: Lindsay Brunger
Editor: Tony Ninov