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I never could have predicted the secret slow-burning popularity of “lofi hip hop beats to chill and study to.” But in hindsight, how could I have missed it? We’ve been heading this way for a long time. We have always had music to dance to, sing to, cry to, mosh to. Music that accompanies our most emotionally charged states. Now, we have the perfect music for the in-between. Lofi hip hop is the music for the moments in between the other genres. It’s music that somehow seems to match a slice of life. Calm, yet driving. Simple, yet deceptively layered. Cerebral without being distracting. Music that feels smart and cool, new yet classic.
The Origins of Lofi Hip Hop
This wonderful marriage of genres has its roots in a half dozen disparate places. People have found jazz to be relaxing and mood-setting music for ages. But jazz is fairly complex and fussy to create. Since the beginnings of electronic music and sampling, musicians have integrated jazz vibes into electronic beats. Acid jazz remains an interesting footnote in electronic music, but it never really took off. Yet, lofi hip hop is picking up where acid jazz left off, in a way.
Separately, hip hop has explored the art of the groove. Using sampling, repetition, and layering to create satisfying rhythms, ideal for rappers to use as a platform to deliver their poetry. Hip hop has gone through many aesthetics, as all mainstream genres do. The charmingly naive, bouncy 808 beats of the 80s. The loud drums and whiny synths of 90s gangsta rap. The 2010s brought the rise of trap and soundcloud rap. Hip hop’s sound had been growing increasingly saturated, polished, and “big.” Suddenly, beats were mellow, synths were muted, and lofi distortion was left in. Rappers mumbled. The whole energy level changed, and in-your-face gave way to modest and introspective.
Suddenly, worlds converged and it just worked. Producers created lofi hip hop beats, and layered in ambient sounds and jazzy samples instead of rap. The smooth, sophisticated jazz, the urban hip hop, and the atmospheric lofi production are a match made in heaven.
It turns out that creating lofi hip hop is not the most challenging form of music to enter. The elements are in place, and it’s not that hard to learn how to fool with them. You can join the ranks of lofi hip hop producers.
I am a freelance producer, songwriter, and composer. I’m lucky enough that it’s my day job. While I don’t usually fool with hip hop or electronic music so much, I’m no stranger to the artistic process. To develop a musical vision, and to then produce music that fulfills that vision.
And honestly, the first step is always to listen to music, similar to the stuff you’d like to create. Has anybody on the internet in 2019 not seen this youtube channel? It’s always a great place to start. There are about a hundred similar channels, as well as youtube playlists.
Lofi hip hop is a sister genre to bedroom pop. You may also want to listen to some of the greatest bedroom pop tunes for aesthetic inspiration, such as the excellent how to say sorry and airplane mode. Check out CUCO too.
Lofi Hip Hop- What Makes the Sound
The genre is diverse. There are many ways to make it- writing your own chords, playing your own instruments. Doing your own processing. Sampling, and creating beats from sample packs. But the genre is a genre because it has its own unique flavor, and certain elements are common.
Drums and bass are important. They are repetitive and groovy. Tempos are laid-back, not tense. Bass sounds tend to be deep, not saturated. The drums often have the sound of classic drum machines like the Roland TR-808, processed with distortion and low-pass filters for that lofi tone. Arrangements are simple, featuring repetitive sampled keyboards playing elegant licks. The instruments are often processed with lofi effects such as tape distortion, wow, and flutter. Lofi and ambient sounds such as tape hiss, record crackle, or rain are layered on top.
Sure, the godfathers of hip hop were lucky enough to work in a time when a Roland TR-808 could be found used for $100. Now they are closer to $4k. But we live in the best time to be a music producer because the simplest home studio setups are more powerful than people a generation ago could have dreamed of. With a setup as minimal as a computer, an audio interface, a MIDI keyboard, and a decent pair of studio monitors or headphones, you can create almost any kind of electronic music at home.
The only limit is your own savvy. I highly recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or one of its competitors for your audio interface, the AKAI MPK Mini MkII or an alternative for a MIDI keyboard, and one of these for your speakers or headphone needs.
Your DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is like a virtual music studio. Using this program, you can record audio, create beats, and arrange sampled instruments. You can also load effects to process the sounds, and mix and master your music. There are dozens of choices these days, but for lofi hip hop, I recommend Ableton or Fl Studio. I personally love Reaper, which can be a bit fussy to learn. But a one-time payment of $60 means you legally own Reaper, which is absurdly inexpensive compared to its competitors.
Drum Sample Packs
Your software will probably come packaged with some stock sounds. You can always process these stock sounds to get that lofi sound. But getting your hands on a sample pack is a much simpler way to get started. Since this genre is so popular, there are about a million packs of drum samples out there. These are individual snare, kick, cymbal, clap, etc sounds, that have already been processed to sound “dusty” and “vintage.” You have free options and paid options.
Loops and Jazz Samples
Lofi hip hop often features a rhythm instrument like keyboard or guitar that was sampled from an old jazz or soul tune. In the past, producers would sample from vinyl records and tapes, and this is still possible if you feel like investing the time into it. Now, you can actually download or buy packs of loops. If you find a digital recording you like and want to sample, there are ways to do this as well. You can use a physical cable connecting your audio interface’s output and input, and record on your DAW (be careful that monitoring is turned off, or you could get feedback.) Different audio interfaces have their own way to “loopback” audio internally without a physical cable. This can be used to sample streaming music or music files.
Using VSTs to create lofi music is fun. Digital music has a very clean, perfect sound by design, so it’s like creatively and intentionally making the music sound flawed. Interruptor’s Wow and Flutter is a VST I personally use here and there. It’s fun, and surprisingly powerful, with lots of parameters to fool with. Vst4free has a selection of other great lofi toys, like Lo-Fizer, LOFI, Imperfection, Radio Junk, Regressif, Spili, Ferox, FerricTDS, Tal-Tube, and Tape Simulator. With all these options, you can have a lot of fun messing with your sounds.
Creating Lofi Hip Hop Music
Once you have your gear set up, you are ready to roll. I recommend starting with a jazzy keyboard loop. This can be a loop that you sampled or downloaded, or you can make something up with a keyboard patch and some jazz chords.
You may need to stretch or warp your sample to make sure it fits with a good hip hop tempo. Typically tempos of 70-85 are good for lofi hip hop. Different DAWs do this in different ways. For instance, this guide walks you through the steps to match a sample to a tempo.
Once you’ve got your jazz loop, build a beat around it. Load some nice vintage-sounding drum machine sounds- a kick, hi hat, and a clap or snare. There are as many ways to build a beat as there are stars in the sky. Here’s an example I’ve come up with. The bottom lane is my kick, then snare, then hihat.
A bass line is a good addition next. It will bring the whole beat together and make it sound powerful. This can be trickier, as the bass notes will depend on the loop that you are using. If you’re not sure, try your best to guess by ear. Sometimes the right kind of wrong can sound good too- and if it sounds good, it is good!
Try searching for some random sound effects in a free library. Vocal samples or ambient background noise can add distinctive character to your track.
Finally, experiment with some lofi effects to further your vibe. I love adding tape distortion, wow and flutter, or even a low-pass filter to the sample to give it that grainy vintage sound. Try adding some vinyl crackle or tape hiss. Run it through any of the VSTs linked above and see what happens.
Making lofi hip hop is almost like collecting pieces and making a collage. The music does not really deliver a message, in terms of a traditional melody with development or lyrics that tell a story. The music is more about a vibe, a memory, an energy. A combination of feelings that shouldn’t go together, but do. The feeling of nostalgia for a place and time that never was, and can never return. Keep listening, keep experimenting, and you will fine-tune your skills. Keep feeling the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.