Lo-fi Hip Hop and the Sad Boy Culture

The rising popularity of lo-fi hip hop and what it means for the generation that’s growing up with it.

Lo-fi hip hop is a relatively new genre of composition that redefines the idea of concept music. If you’re in college or if you’re somebody who spends long hours in the office, you probably know of it by now. It’s not only great music by itself, but it’s great for relaxation, study, and focus.

The Music Itself

Lo-fi hip hop can be made in many ways; there’s no right or wrong methodology that comes with its production, it simply boils down to how good you make it sound and how close you come to achieving the signature characteristics of the music.

To understand the sound of lo-fi hip hop, you have to break down the title of the genre itself. Lo-fi stands for low fidelity, a term referring to the production quality and lower bit-rate of the exported music. This is in contrast to the popular music of today, which is high fidelity, or hi-fi music, that’s expertly engineered and exported in high quality.

The goal of lo-fi hip hop music is to blend an old-timey, vintage sound with the boom-bap hip hop sound popular in the 80’s that was more spatial and less crammed than most of the percussion you hear in the hip hop music on today’s radio. Lo-fi hip hop relies on sampling and occasionally original music composition to fill the gaps, with the former being a more widely utilized approach to its creation than the latter.

Lo-fi hip hop is meant to sound as if someone from the 1960’s was listening to an instrumental hip hop record on an old gramophone speaker. There’s something about the way the samples blend with this vintage hip hop sound that makes it so pleasant to our ears. This vintage hip hop sound can be created in many ways: some use the older SP-404sx sampler to process their samples and create the effects; other rely on their DAW, or digital audio workstation, to provide the tools needed to recreate this sound via software plug-ins, compressors, and EQ’s. Most use a combination of both.

The Samples

The sampling of lo-fi hip hop is what distinguishes the beginners from the professionals. It’s not hard to tell who’s new to the genre and who’s been producing it for years by listening to what samples they use and the way they’re layered over the beat. But more importantly, it’s the way the music makes you feel that lets you know who’s really gotten the hang of it.

The samples used by producers of lo-fi hip hop can really be anything; famous producer tomppabeats once used a Soulja Boy sample in one of his compositions. Others tend to sample the jazz music of the 60’s and beyond, providing perfect instrumentation in their music. Others sample bossa nova music, ukulele music, and basically anything else you can think of that would work within a lo-fi composition.

But the most unique thing about lo-fi hip hop music is the way movie dialogue and speeches are woven into the songs. Take a listen to the third track off the lo-fi hip hop album I linked above.

It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard. When’s the last time you heard a song start off with “Oh, shit!” followed by “Now why did I do that?”

It really makes you think. Hearing those pieces of sampled dialogue triggers something in all of us that sparks some kind of philosophical thought. This, coupled with the gentle music sampled behind it, creates something emotional, something that makes you want to keep listening.

This is a very common tactic deployed by many lo-fi producers because it just works. The challenge comes with knowing what kind of dialogue fits best with the type of music you’re sampling. This brings us nicely into our next topic.

The Culture of Lo-fi Hip Hop

What is commonly referred to as the “sad boy” culture of hip hop can be lumped in with the culture of lo-fi music. Although there are most certainly exceptions, lo-fi hip hop tends to, generally, be slower, emotion-inducing music. You don’t have to be clinically depressed to enjoy lo-fi hip hop, but there’s something about the way the music makes you feel that inspires a pensive mood.

I recently discovered Mt. Marcy’s Nietzche beat-tape, the album I linked above, and have been thoroughly enjoying its company because of the life-jacket functionality it provides me. Whenever I’m feeling down, depressed, lonely, whatever it may be, I find some quiet time to turn this album on, and I’ve found that it really does help.

It seems to fill a void I’ve been recently experiencing. It’s the girlfriend I don’t have. And while that may sound weird, it couldn’t be more honest. All you have to do is look at the comments section of a lo-fi album on YouTube for referral.

The generation that I’m a part of, what’s referred to as Generation Y or simply as millennials, is in the midst of an emotional crisis. We are products of parents who lived through the 60’s and 70’s, a time in history when the norms and standards brought about the conservative dating cultures of courtship and chivalry popular in the previous decades were thrown out the window and made fun of in hippy communes. A lot of us, a very large portion of us, were taught to suspend or even ignore the emotionality and perseverance that comes with emotional commitment to somebody and to instead rely on spending our youth as young and free souls unwilling to attach to anyone or anything at all.

When that’s how you’re raised, that’s most of what you know. And when the time comes to actually commit to somebody (which may be well after your 20’s and 30’s) there’s often tremendous difficulty that comes with it. You can’t expect someone who’s been a carpenter for his or her entire life to suddenly switch professions to masonry.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to live your life the way you want to, there are consequences to every decision you make. What I’m finding in my personal experience is that most people I meet who are my age are beginning to feel desires of commitment and companionship, but just don’t know how to go about it. Moreover, they don’t know the difference between healthy commitment and unhealthy commitment because they don’t have examples of the former in their lives. You just can’t expect products of the 1960’s to exemplify themselves as healthy examples of commitment.

This often leaves them trapped, stuck in a cycle of maturity that’s done away with the free-wheeling hook-up culture of today and is now searching for something greater, as the natural cycle of human nature will exhibit. But they as people don’t necessarily want to move forward with it. At the same time, they have no choice; bouncing back and forth between partners doesn’t fulfill them the way it used to.

What does this produce? A sad boy (or girl), somebody who now travels around with an emotional void they no longer know how to fill or have so much trouble doing so that it’s just not worth it anymore.

And that’s where lo-fi hip hop comes in.