The internet is a powerful tool. It facilitates invention, bolstering trends until they occupy prime real estate in popular consciousness. And then, just as quickly as fads rise, they are lost and are absorbed into the constant stream of content creation, where they are bent, twisted, shaped into something new that then takes center stage.
Within this ever-changing environment, the liminal space between birth and collapse, the music subgenre of lo-fi hip hop emerged.
This past summer, Nick Imparato PO ‘20 and Dale Macauley PO ‘20 received funding from the Pomona College Summer Undergraduate Research Program to interview lo-fi hip hop artists from the music streaming and distribution platform, SoundCloud, and create a documentary about their findings.
I sat down with Imparato and Macauley to learn more.
TSL: To start out, what exactly is lo-fi hip hop?
Nick Imparato: Lo-fi hip hop is a modern iteration on a more classic hip hop style … a more chilled out sound, and a simple, slower rhythm.
Dale Macauley: It feels more like somebody is actually playing the music rather than it’s being created by a computer. Lo-fi rappers often use filters that will make the song sound like it’s on vinyl or it’s on a cassette tape so it has that crusty, crunchy, dusty feeling.
NI: And as the general aesthetic: a lot of heavily filtered samples from anime and hip hop, a lot of synths and piano melodies, but a happy melody for the most part.
DM: Also in my personal experience in high school, I was really into chillwave music and other SoundCloud music. Lo-fi is born out of the same community and is kind of the logical progression of that type of music. Right now on SoundCloud there are so many subgenres that are constantly being created. When a subgenre like chillwave dies, the natural progression is onto a new form of music and I feel like lo-fi hip hop seems to be in that scene.
TSL: Can you talk a little bit more about what SoundCloud is?
DM: SoundCloud is a music distribution platform, but unlike Spotify, where you need to have a certain amount of followers or clout or listeners per month, it’s a truly democratized space. Anyone who joins SoundCloud can publish their own music.
NI: The other thing that’s really important is that SoundCloud has a lot of tools built in that cater to a group identity … SoundCloud feels explicitly like a social media in that who you follow and who follows you is pretty important. Reposting and commenting are things you can’t do on Spotify … SoundCloud functions in its own independent sphere.
DM: What’s interesting about the project is that from the first day we conceptualized it to now the genre has changed drastically. People are moving away from lo-fi hip hop and people are coming into it, and so even though we do plan on making a final documentary piece, our research is more of an open-ended question because the genre is continually evolving. I also feel like there seems to be an uneasiness about identifying with any one genre because that does put a specific brand on your music … so people are moving away from lo-fi but not necessarily in a declared way, just organically letting their music take its path.
NI: Part of the whole vibe of these crazy internet subgenres is that there’s this idea that it has its cool phase and that it gets bigger and bigger and then it’s oversaturated or too popular so it’s no longer the cool thing … I think it’s highly likely that lo-fi will end up there in a couple years.
DM: I think that it’s even arguably already past its peak, but even going into the genre of chillwave or vaporwave you know that there’s an expiration date associated with it, that it’s super wont to perish along the rises of the other small subgenres.
TSL: What was your favorite part of your research?
DM: I think that we as researchers were really trying to be non-hierarchal about our research in the way that we were just trying to give a platform to the artists to say what they wanted to say. In trying to create that vibe, and the added fact that they were our age a lot of the time, it didn’t feel like it was intense research, but that we were just chilling and that was super nice.
NI: We went to a cool show in DC. It just felt special to be there because it was her first live performance ever. She has like 30,000 followers and had just graduated high school … It was also the first time that a show had ever happened in that space. It was beneath the street of Dupont Circle [in Washington, D.C.] in an abandoned subway line.
DM: I also feel like this artist that we’re talking about, her name is Sophie Meiers, had a lot of really interesting things to say about lo-fi and just getting to hear her perspective as a woman in the genre, I think that was my favorite part.
TSL: What did she say?
DM: Basically we came to the conclusion with her help that there do seem to be extreme biases within the lo-fi community that create a hierarchy, gender being one, because it’s a super male saturated website in general, but especially the genre … It really did seem like a lot of lo-fi producers weren’t treating her as an equal. Also, there seemed to be a hierarchy amongst rappers, singers, and producers with producers at the top and singers and rappers as more expendable.
NI: The other interesting thing about Sophie Meiers is that pretty much all of the other people we interviewed had a different SoundCloud name than their real name and their real face was nowhere on their page. Sophie Meiers used her real name and her face – part of her brand was who she was. I felt that a lot of these other rappers, partially because they were white dudes from the suburbs, their brand was trying to move away from who they were.
DM: We were really trying to figure out how these white men saw themselves within the debate about cultural appropriation, because lo-fi is sampling directly from rappers and the history of hip hop, a black genre. A lot of these producers were not self-reflexive about the fact that they were white, that there was a larger debate about cultural appropriation, and that they were thriving off the anonymity of the internet to completely disavow their whiteness and operate in this non-racial position, whereas obviously hip hop has a huge racial context.
NI: The other thing that was really surprising was how much money people were making. I came into the project thinking that nobody made money off SoundCloud … A lot of people were using outside monetization services that would take a cut but would monetize plays on SoundCloud … A lot of these artists were students and it seemed like their parents were paying for their rent and their tuition and they didn’t work campus jobs … They were like “I’m making enough money to be comfortable just through music.”
DM: Also these more famous producers, the people that we talked to were mostly white male teens, were selling their beats to lesser known SoundCloud rappers …That re-establishes the hierarchy in that it’s not truly a non-monetized space but rather if you have a lot of money and can buy a good beat then maybe you could get famous.
TSL: So would you say you’re disillusioned with SoundCloud now?
DM: Not SoundCloud at large ….
NI: Just because it’s such a huge platform. I would rather that there was a less hierarchal system, but I guess there are other genres that are more self-reflexive inherently. Part of the issue with lo-fi is that at the end of the day it’s music by white men for white men. All that being said, people of color are in lo-fi … but if we’re trying to make generalizations about the dominant culture, I would say, for the most part, it’s by white men for white men.
DM: The fact that SoundCloud exists is still in my eyes a really good thing … I don’t know if you heard that SoundCloud was about to go bankrupt and Chance the Rapper saved it. That’s super important. That’s him trying to represent the mentality that anyone can make it … and I think there is a future for women and people of color in lo-fi if people continue to practice resistance. I feel like Sophie Meiers was really standing for some good stuff and trying to be self-reflexive about her role in the genre and in the larger debate about cultural appropriation. So there is a future in there I would say.
NI: I also think just one other thing that was interesting was, while we knew of women producers in lo-fi and reached out to them, there’s definitely a perception that white men are producers, black men are rappers, and white women are singers. And that forms this trio of power relations … But yeah we’re definitely disillusioned. It goes up and down … if we’re just chilling in our dorm it’s usually not lo-fi anymore.