Lo-fi hip-hop and its dashes
Joe Nolan | Monday, December 3, 2018
If you don’t yet, you should start listening to lo-fi hip-hop beats. Most music platforms have some derivation of the genre. Spotify’s is “lofi hip hop beats – beats to study/relax/game to” by Chillhop Music. Note the chillness seeping even into the title. No capitalized letters. Confidently redacted dashes for words that, all grammarians are agreed, require dashes, like “lo-fi” and “hip-hop.” It’s not that the title has anything against dashes (look at that em-dash that very practically separates the genre name from the suggested activities that go well with it). It just isn’t interested in the system of regulations and standards that dictate to us how to use our dashes.
A blood-pressure-reducing tranquility can be found at every level of the lo-fi hip-hop scene. One of its first 24/7 radios, ChilledCow’s “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” features an anime character on live video feed. It’s a girl at her desk, listening to music, casually writing something down, sometimes looking at her lazy cat, sometimes looking out the window, then turning back to whatever it is she’s writing (is it homework or a journal? The viewer can’t tell). But by the easy half-lids through which she views her work, her casually slouched posture, her chin resting in an indifferent anime hand, we are assured that she passes through her virtual existence with a carefully managed ennui.
But this isn’t a simple 10-second video script on loop 24/7. If you’re a devoted follower, your attention is rewarded by little details that change throughout the day. Our vibing anime student experiences the same diurnal light changes we do. Sometimes it rains. Through it all, she stays at her desk scribbling, with a most persevering ambivalence for whatever it is that occupies her constructed life. At least she has her beats.
The music isn’t advertised as a stand-alone aesthetic experience. We are meant to “study/relax” with these synthetic, conveniently wordless, musical concepts in the background as we hammer out an essay, for example. Long hours on a computer screen shorn of all humanity can feel really dull until you minimize whatever it is you’re working on and there she is, half-heartedly pounding away at her own journal or homework.
The music achieves the same thing. They are not complicated beats, but they are sort of subversive. “Lo-fi” is an excellent descriptor. The term refers to the fidelity (“fi”) of the recorded sound to the original instrument. It’s the opposite of hi-fi aesthetics, which aim to preserve the sound of instruments and the human voice as they are in the flesh. But lo-fi embraces and exaggerates the grainy, unkempt quality of poorly recorded sound, like voices on a muffled home video. It puts at a distance the world of real sound.
The actual melodies could also be described as lo-fi. These beats are typically constructed of a central beat, encased with an assortment of very eclectic sounds. But the music concepts (I must avoid calling them “songs”) habitually upset their own rhythm, are off-step by just a half-beat. This is part of the magic of lo-fi beats: they are meant to distract, but not sustain attention. High-quality music and pop music both call attention to themselves. They ask to be considered, if they don’t require all of your attention. But this can turn into another task. Lo-fi beats pull the mind away from its engrossing tasks without giving it anything solid to chew on.
Lo-fi hip-hop is essentially in-between. It is multitasking to avoid both tasks. It provides an escape from the practicals that routinely suck us in, determine our freedom, vanquish us. Without a spiritual sagacity that can tread above the various daily necessities, some of us must rely on this 24-hour access channel to create a space for a much-needed interior freedom. Even if it’s the dubious freedom of dash that breaks the rules, at least it floats freely between bad options.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.