Our parent’s generation could not have foreseen the way we absorb music today. Between file sharing and streaming services, modern listeners are experiencing audio inflation. There are simply too many sounds to choose from, too much history to catch up on, and too much noise to filter through. It’s ironic that in an age where we can customize a playlist with anything, many of us would often choose a twenty-four-hour music stream on YouTube.

You might have noticed these lofi hip-hop radio streams popping up on your YouTube homepage lately. They are easy to identify, often sporting an anime GIF of a student doing homework with a title that presents itself as “chill music for studying and gaming.” While seeming to appear overnight, it leaves one wondering what lofi hip-hop is and how it found a comfortable seat in our “recommended for your” section.

Hear the official PureGrainAudio “A Noob’s Intro to… lofi Hip-Hop” playlist.

Everyone knows what hip-hop is, but what does lofi mean? Short for low fidelity, it can be simply described as any imperfect recording blemished with noise, distortion, background sounds, or the like. While clear high fidelity recordings are what encompass most popular music, low fidelity recordings are more prevalent in the underground scenes of many genres.

It is important to note that what is called lofi hip-hop today is not simply traditional hip-hop with rough qualities. Some of the earliest examples of hip-hop had lofi textures, given the independent nature of the recording process. Regional scenes like the Memphis underground of the nineties took lofi recordings to the extreme with acts like Graveyard Productions and Tommy Wright III. The lofi hip-hop of this decade has roots in jazz rap, which was pioneered in the eighties and nineties by universally acclaimed hip-hop acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. The incorporation of jazz samples into hip-hop rhythms became commonplace and were further pioneered by producers like J Dilla and Nujabes.

Here is Chillhop Records’ 24/7 radio station, where you can get your daily dose of chill instrumentals at your convenience..

The lofi hip-hop that blew up in the last couple of years follows these jazz rap concepts and adds a few key traits. Melodic jazz samples are cut up into choppy sequences rather than straight loops. Each percussive hit is sampled into slightly irregular rhythms, giving the track a sluggish, yet relaxing vibe. Samples are often run through filters and accompanied by subtle noises and distortions. Other samples include vinyl cracking, movie dialogue, and nature ambience. Vocal samples are sometimes included, but most lofi hip-hop streams consist of instrumentals.

The founders of small record labels like Chillhop Records and Inner Ocean Records, having grown up on jazz rap instrumentals, reached out to lesser known producers and began compiling a catalogue of these instrumentals. This eventually evolved into long mixes and live streams on YouTube and other platforms, containing the iconic visual loop of anime kids doing homework. The association with anime imagery dates back to the 2004 series Samurai Champloo, which had a hip-hop soundtrack, produced in part by the aforementioned genre pioneer Nujabes. In a short period, others began following suite and now there are over two dozen lofi hip-hop stations on YouTube, which often attain music through submissions.

Peep some strong examples of classic lofi Hip-Hop artwork.

Though modern lofi hip-hop isn’t a far cry from the original prototypes, it’s interesting to hear a new generation’s take on a popular style. What’s more interesting is the way in which the media is absorbed. Times were simpler when all listeners had was a modest record collection and a handful of local radio stations. Though it’s fascinating to explore a seemingly endless supply of music from all eras, the average person doesn’t have the time to put together a perpetual mix of their own. These lofi hip-hop stations show that radio, though evolving, is not a dying medium used only by our elders. No matter your age, it will always be easier to sit back and let the music find it’s way to you.

Vast numbers of long lofi hip-hop mixes appeared on YouTube, some of which have accumulated millions of views.