Conspicuously Goofy: The Rise of Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio
Stills of anime characters abound in the world of lo-fi live video.
There is a girl, probably a student, sitting at her desk, with her over-the-ear headphones on, writing in her notebook. She’s got one of those angle-arm desk lamps, a heaping pile of books – titles all in Japanese – and a cup of coffee. She looks tired. She nods off periodically: every twenty seconds to be exact. A couple centimeters on the screen to her right, about fifty people are talking incoherently in the chat box in internet-chum commenter-speak. But over 8,000 people are watching the video loop of her studying in total, or half-watching, or maybe just listening to the song playing in the background, “303” by COMODO, a lo-fi hip hop cut one YouTube user dubs “vibes!”
What’s going on is that Hana, the girl, a character from the Japanese anime Wolf Children, is trying to learn as much as she can about, well, wolves for the next day. More pertinently, though, what’s also going on is that the company Chillhop Records has cornered the chill vibes market in the world of lo-fi live video on YouTube with this now-legendary stream. By lo-fi, I mean “low-fidelity,” the only sound quality that was available to amateur musicians in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but I also mean the DIY subculture and aesthetic that still persists – and thrives – today on platforms like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and now YouTube. By chill vibes market, I mean something a bit more nebulous: a community of YouTube-based de facto radio stations with names like “Mellowbeat Seeker,” “ChilledCow,” “7Clouds,” and “nourish.” that cater to their incredibly low-key consumer base’s needs for calming ambient music, interstellar soundscapes, jazz-tinged bass-heavy hip-hop instrumentals, and samples of autotuned warbling spliced within poignant anime dialogue.
Economies of scale exist in the chill vibes market, in the sense that those pop-out YouTube chat boxes function much in the same way that old-school internet message boards did in the 2000s, with communities forming around respective favorite stations. In other words, beatmakers and listeners alike all want to commiserate about homework or drift off to sleep or get their mixes noticed with the same group of friends day-to-day. Which makes sense, but the really mind-altering thing about the phenomenon is that the bulk of listeners, “lurkers,” or those who never comment in the chat (almost everyone swears by a pet stream) will run up the view count to over twenty thousand daily viewers collectively; ChilledCow and Chillhop both boast subscriber counts that have broken one million. And it is Chillhop’s “Lofi Hip Hop Radio 24/7 (headphones emoji) Chill Gaming / Study Beats” that is far and away the most well attended of these massive communal relaxation spots. Or was, until this February, when the animators behind Wolf Children, Studio Chizu, filed a copyright claim against the channel, pulling the plug on the stream and leaving Hana’s devoted fanbase very much not relaxed on multiple fronts.
The haziness of Chillhop Records’ business model notwithstanding, it is only the rare grump that does not discover something undeniably soothing and downright pleasant about this conspicuously goofy genre of online video. The mixes on these streams are Muzak-inspired, nocturnal, lyric-less neutral beats, which recall the intentionally slipshod work done in the underground trap world by the likes of Lil Peep or Lil Pump on Soundcloud. Yet I find myself most intrigued by the looping cartoon videos that are meant to accompany these beats. They usually consist of anime characters taking it easy, urban environments with trippy light effects, neon signs sizzling in the rain, or freeze-frames of Simpsons characters tinted a moody purple, all of them a brand of image that consistently captivates by way of its own weirdness and always smacks of nostalgia. It is hard to believe that an online subculture so prone to Dadaism gets so much numerical traction, with offshoots of the seriously big streams belonging to artistic styles with names like “Vaporwave,” “Hardvapour,” “Seapunk,” “Synthwave,” and “Simpsonwave” (note the derivative: “Simpsthetic”). Five minutes of quick anthropological research yields a blurry video of a brooding Lisa Simpson sitting on a school bus in heaven that has for a title simply: “F E E L S.” I am now playing six different streams in separate browser windows at once and it sounds like I am there with her.
Now, Vaporwave and Vaporwave-adjacent aesthetics have been alive and kicking since 2011, satirizing internet culture and gaudy excess through parodies of lounge music, shoddy video game graphics, the Windows 95 OS, and, indeed, anime. Moreover, an important antecedent to Lo-fi Hip-Hop girl may very well be found in the Vaporwave album Floral Shoppe: created by the artist Vektroid and produced in uncanny valley, it is the inaugural and most prominent instance of the semi-divine muzak- and electronic-influenced subgenre. But the communal aspect of half-ironically listening to Lo-fi YouTube radio introduces something wholly new to these Dadaist art movements formerly consigned to the darkest corners of the deep web. Pretty soon users catch themselves returning to the site for reasons other than those low-key, spacey, undeniable, effervescent vibes.
PC: Shinkazo / Flickr