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The Crackle: What is Lo-Fi?

We explore it’s depths with three of the finest to do it.

22nd Dec 17

Lo-fi. To some that term is just an Instagram filter but for growing group it’s a revolution.

Categorised in a multitude of ways with no hard and fast definition of the style, lo-fi has been bubbling in the underground for the last few years; building a hard-core, dedicated fan base. It’s fans come from all over the world, from all types of backgrounds and from all ages. So what is it about lo-fi that brings all these seemingly disparate people together? To get to the heart of it we sat down with New Jersey based producer with 20+ years of experience, Nimzo, an up and coming beatmaker from Atlanta, Saiko and UK producer and co-runner of tapeday records, Byrn Morgan.

So first off, what is Lo-fi to you?

Nimzo: Lo-fi is an umbrella term for a couple of different types of music. Whether it be Golden Era music like early Wu-tang stuff, mid-2000s hip hop associated with Dilla, Flylo, and Nujabes, as well as the most recent incarnations since the turn of the century as seen in the more popular Soundcloud artists, e.g., Bsd.u, Eevee and Mujo - even more recently StlnDrums and Purple Dialect. That's just on the hip hop side. It even extends into the house scene and probably even a few other genres. The term lo-fi is definitely a battleground and open to various interpretations depending on who you talk to, but for me it really means a kind of imperfect, dusty sound that runs counter to your typical clean sounding radio productions consistent with what's popular on the radio.

Saiko: Lo-fi is a big part of my life in a sense that I can feel the nostalgic waves and draw people in with my own take on the genre. It's about the underground vibes and seeing the world through someone else's eyes. It's like, once you dive into it, there's a sense of peace as the story is being told.

Bryn Morgan: Tricky question, it is definitely something that is difficult to define, but in simplest terms it takes away a lot the pretense and production sheen from a lot of modern music whatever genre you apply ‘lo-fi' too. Lo-fi runs completely opposition to a lot of the sounds that are popular in Hip-hop at the moment and is much more inspired by the Dillas and Madlibs of this world. It’s a part of the texture and landscape of modern music whilst also drawing greatly from the past sounds in Hip-hop, the dust and the grooves of the music. As a term can be quite divisive, but to me it has really brought together a beautiful side of Hip-hop and given it a name people can attach to.

N: To me one of the founders is Rza. His sound was incredibly unique when compared to the clean sounding 808 productions of 1980s Hip Hop. Rza stripped that down and brought out this sound that was raw and dirty. I think you kind of start there. What we see now kind of goes back to that, as well as the jazz rap era dominated by Tribe, De La, Digable Planets and other like-minded groups. To me lo-fi is more of a sound than it is a personal or musical philosophy. I don't get too much into the nostalgia thread that other people do.

So it’s important to understand that lo-fi doesn’t just cover hip hop but what are some of the key features of lo-fi Hip Hop? Like which sounds or textures instantly make you think ‘lo-fi’?

BM: Well for lo-fi Hip Hop specifically, I feel nostalgia is an important factor. Those warm samples and sounds that make you think fondly of memories you haven’t had for a while. On a technical level the swing and offbeat nature of a lot of the drums, the crackle and hiss of the vinyl samples and generally a warmer sound. As David said I think the technical aspects outweigh the philosophical, but in a roots sense it comes back to that jazz-rap sound of Pete Rock, ATCQ and further on from that Dilla.

N: To me Tical is like one of the earliest lo-fi Hip Hop albums, just without the jazz. I don't associate lo-fi Hip Hop only with jazz. It's more of a sample style and production method. Any genre can be made lo-fi. Mujo is a great example of that. Stln Drms also has brought more soul into the lo-fi scene. But generally it's got that grit, that bounce, that swing, that dirtiness and muddiness. If that ain't lo-fi, I don't know what is!

BM: Also at its barebones lo-fi could just be defined as low fidelity, which is etched into Hip Hop's DNA in a very real sense all the way back to its early days. It never had sheen or backing on a mainstream level until years into its development, in a very punk and DIY sort of philosophy

S: Usually it's the gritty vinyl sound for me and the melody as well. If it gives that warm dusty feel, that's lo-fi. Dibia$e and Flying Lotus got me really into the lo-fi scene. Just the way they sequence and the beats they created over them. Makes you feel like you're swimming and I like that about a lot of music, its transportation abilities.

N: As well as grittiness there’s an edge to lo-fi that's very rough around the edges in many ways - the drums, the samples, for example. I've been making beats since the mid-90s and when I listen back to them now, there are a lot of things that strike me as what would be considered lo-fi now. I agree with Bryn though, that lo-fi is kind of like punk Hip Hop.

I get you. I think swimming is a great way to describe it, that feeling of being totally immersed. Good lo-fi makes me feel totally free and weightless.

S: Yeah the depth is what defines it mostly in my opinion. Today, lo-fi is almost starting to become more main stream and that means everyone will attempt to make lo-fi music but the depth is what separates the real from the posers.

N: That's an apt way to describe it on some levels.

We touched on sampling a little already but why do you think it’s so prevalent? Like with all the technology and creative tools we have now why do you think lo-fi goes back to the classic art of sampling?

BM: I think there are certain hallmarks of the sound definitely; to me in lots of ways it’s got its roots in the limitations faced by producers. With regard to sampling and the kind of equipment that was available.

N: I think it has to do with the quality of sound you can get from sampling that you really can't replicate with instrumentation. No matter how you try to dirty it up. Combine that with the proliferation of cheap sampling technology, availability of songs to sample from on the Internet, and a generational mentality that leans toward rapid creation and consumption... Sampling fits that.

BM: Sampling to me is re-contextualization. It has revived jazz in a big way. The only time most modern music listeners will really tune into jazz is through sampling. Also I agree with David in that you can’t replicate completely accurately the sound of sampling with traditional instrumentation.

S: I think with sampling, it's about capturing those moments from the golden age of music. Songs that we've resonated with or just like in general, there's this urge to flip it like, "I bet no one will see this coming".

N: For me sampling is one of the most unique American art forms. It is like audio collage art. It's something that everyone can do, but few can do well. It’s a mirror on the past and a telescope to the future.

B: Yes exactly. Only few can really go in depth with it. It's all about the drive and motivation at that point.

N: Yeah that’s also a connection that isn’t talked about the music concrete and collage work that almost founded that sampling ideology. I also don't think sampling is just about flipping. A lot of people, I think, associate sampling with just flipping and chopping, but you can sample so many things that are completely unrecognizable from the original as to create something entirely new. That is the best form of sampling to me it's got to pass the fair use test haha.

Can you guys see lo-fi going into a more composed form in the future? Lots of people seem to be testing the water outside of sampling in lo-fi.

S: I think it's starting to go that way which I don't think is a problem. If anything it could generate a new wave in a sense off composed lo-fi songs. It could be the new Renaissance Era.

N: I want people thinking where did that come from? How'd he get that sound? And my answer would be; only I could make that sound, because I've taken something and changed it into something completely different. I liken my samples to snowflakes, never the same, never can be replicated - at least when I'm at my best.

BM: I think the composed side of lo-fi could really fill out into something as well. I point to an example like D'Angelo or George Smallwood as people taking the lo-fi sort of sound and applying it back into composed sounds.

N: Love that analogy. Renaissance Punk Hip Hop. That's lo-fi haha.

S: Got a good ring to it!

N: I gotta admit though that I do enjoy flipping and chopping and a lot of my recent work is reflective of that. Particularly since I started using the 404SX. When I use the SP-1200 and am limited by the sampling time, it is more collage like than flip style. So it kind of depends on what technology I'm using as well.

Do you think that punk feeling is almost an enforced challenge or boundary that producers set in lo-fi? Like enforced restriction makes you be more creative and thus have to work in more interesting ways with sound to create something beautiful?

BM: Yeah I think restrictions are often important, and I do think a lot of producers inflict that challenge on themselves. But I also feel that some producers just used what that had in front of them to create something fresh and any new iteration to try and touch that old school sounds are shooting further away from where it began.

N: Definitely restriction breeds creativity. Definitely feel that. I started on the SP-12 with five seconds sampling time, moved on the 1200 with 10 seconds. That restriction on time definitely forces you get creative. My beats completely changed when I moved to the MPC-2000 and had more time to use. Changed even more when I started using the 404SX. The medium is the message as McLuhan would say! I've had the luxury of being at it for 20+years, so I’ve definitely have gained a lot of experiences related to tech and how it informs the music is created.

S: Most definitely. Especially here in the states (Atlanta in particular), no one really understands lo-fi but I can only speak for my community of associates. I’ve developed that punky, rebellious style from people always saying I should make trap records. They have a hard time grasping the lo-fi scene so I’m bringing all these worlds together from my point of view.

N: Love that Atlanta scene. Really pushing the boundaries and reshaping lo-fi Hip Hop. Nice contrast to the Cali scene. To me the Atlanta scene is more soul based. Cats like Leem lizzy, Stln Drms for example.

S: Yes! I've had the pleasure of meeting both of them in person for a Controllerise session. The group gave me hope for Atlanta because I only though people praised lo-fi in L.A. so I was feeling out of place for a long time.

N: Controllerise is definitely a strong movement. Respect.

It’s interesting though because as much as individual scenes have their own sounds, lo-fi in general seems very comfortable not to 'be' from anywhere.

BM: Talking geographically, I get that feeling that UK has always had a great ear for electronic music but pushing the niche Hip Hop here has been a challenge. Probably still the second or third biggest market for it outside the States however.

N: I’ve been surprised actually about how little lo-fi has taken off in NYC. Now though it’s starting to take off a bit here in New Jersey. More producers out here doing lo-fi type stuff. I’ve gotta shout out Rocco Capotal though for running the LofiHipHop blog on IG. He's out of Brooklyn and has helped to bring some attention to it on the East Coast.

BM: Yup agreed he shines light to a lot of great stuff.

S: The movement is taking off everywhere little by little.

BM: I would love to get something similar to the Controllerise sessions out here as well, just something to really unify it locally.

Who would you say some of the major players in lo fi are? Like the originators and who is crushing it now? Who would you say is next up or to keep an eye out for?

S: Well for me it was always Flying Lotus because of that experimental style with the heavy, trippy Hip Hop beats. One person I've been watching lately is Dibia$e and he's going strong. I'd say keep an eye out for Leem Lizzy though cause that man is dangerous with those chops.

N: Leem got one of the craziest styles out there

BM: Preemo, RZA and Pete Rock to Dilla are the originators to the streamlining of the sound. I can confidently say most people in lo-fi have been influenced by those 4 names really and Dilla embodies a lot of that philosophy.

S: Most definitely. Dilla made music that made you feel like you knew him.

N: I think to get back to the NJ scene as well, that one of my partners, AudioArcade is doing a lot of interesting stuff with making lo-fi Salsa Hip Hop.

S: Interesting, I wanna hear the take on that!

N: Just doing same kind of techniques associate with lo-fi but using a lot of 70’s salsa samples. That’s why I don’t only associate it with Jazz. He’s using a 303 on salsa samples with boombap beats. Very unique.

S: Sounds dirty! In a great way!

So if you were to give someone just starting to get into lo-fi a name to check out, who would it be?

S: Hmm well I'm not sure if Fat Jon is completely lo-fi but I'd suggest that to anyone. His style has only gotten better since the Champloo days. His last album (think it’s Kontroller/Rapture) keeps that lo-fi feel with more underground jazz and French samples.

BM: If I was to talk personal preference I'd say check out someone like bluørangee but I might be biased because I know him and he works with us haha.

N: My favourite is Mujo. I also think Purple Dialect is one of the most talented and unique out here with his dual threat abilities. Big shout to the whole More Beats Less Sleep crew as well. They are also pushing boundaries and trying to revolutionize the lo-fi sound.

S: Yes that's another good group too! MBLS!

N: That’s my family for sure.

Lo-fi is really embracing collective culture as well. Why do you think collectivism has really worked with lo-fi?

S: It gives a platform for other underground or unheard artist to be seen and noticed. It builds great foundation for producers in general for teamwork/networking.

BM: Yeah I think the idea of bringing artists together has been crucial for the movement, especially to solidify scenes. I think labels work in the scene too. Musically inclined people like to run through a label to hear likeminded artists. It acts as a hub for that, with tapeaday I definitely feel we are trying to unite a lot more of the European sounds, or sounds from territories that aren't heard of often in the music. Like South Africa with AKUA for example. It also brings artists together in unusual combos like Saiko said; there’s such an opportunity for collaboration.

S: I love it! Your world opens and your brain expands with all the different elements people bring. You can be inspired AND inspire.

BM: Yeah perfect description really. I do like the term collective for that reason. It’s a collective of likeminded music makers. I could talk forever about how quickly the label stuff started to build momentum and how supportive people are of a platform.

S: You don't feel so small in the world haha.

N: I think for me getting involved with More Beats Less Sleep was really key for a couple of reasons. One it helped validate my work amongst my peers. Not that I needed it but it’s nice to have. MBLS has also motivated me to be better. It’s competitive in a good way. You hear some collective member put out some ill ass beat and that inspires you to put in your own work. I’ve also just met a lot of people, who despite never having met them; I would consider my friends cause we vibe on stuff that’s outside of music too. On the personal side, I’m a working professional and family man and the people I’m most connected to in the collective are similar. We’re all around the same age, have established ourselves professionally and have families to take care of.

That’s an interesting point about ages. I’ve found such a diverse range of people and ages through this music. Do you think lo-fi can bridge the generation gap we are experiencing in Hip Hop as a whole?

N: It has with me for sure. I’m 39 and vibing with the young cats has definitely changed my perspective on their generation and musical tastes in a good way. I’ve experienced no ageism or anything like that at all.

S: I think it's great to have the two generation combine. Samples will play a huge part in that bridging process too.

N: Something would be lost without it I feel.

BM: Yeah there has never really been an issue with ageism in this niche as opposed to Hip Hop as a whole which has definitely had problems with it.

I think generally lo-fi communities are really good at fostering that friendly competition and camaraderie. Lo-fi brings together such seemingly disparate groups but unifies in ways I haven’t seen with other subgenres.

BM: Yeah totally agree about the unification aspect. There’s crazy support in these communities as opposed to say an electronic music background.

The sound does seem to be creeping more and more into mainstream Hip Hop. Why do you think that is? Why is the mainstream starting to embrace that sound now?

N: Underground always influences the mainstream without getting the recognition. Underground is always ahead of the mainstream, always the forerunners in creativity and experimentation, which boils up to the top and forces those in the mainstream to add some elements of it to their work. Without the underground, the mainstream would be even more wack than it generally is.

S: I feel like maybe it has something to do with the waves that are floating around the world. Lo-fi has the promise of being mainstream because it's blown up tremendously and there are a lot of vocal artists that are gonna bring it more to the forefront.

N: People in the mainstream live in little boxes Cut out for popular consumption. The underground works in the opposite fashion. No rules, no parameters, no borders.

BM: I think it’s similar to a movement like vaporwave in that it’s a niche that’s built up steam in the underground and a lot of the songwriters making radio friendly music have their ear to it. I feel as though they streamline underground sounds and waves to stay relatively 'fresh'.

N: That’s what brings out creative freedom and expression. The mainstream gets jealous of that because it’s something they use to have but have lost because they need to fit into a paradigm to sell their music. It reminds me of the old Buddhist saying (to paraphrase roughly) ‘the best mind is the beginners mind.’ Which I interpret as being open to anything without any constrains or self-censorship. That’s the underground.

S: Fully agree with the mainstream comment.

N: Operating without any cultural constraints, musically speaking.

BM: The whole idea of being super commercially successful is very anti-art in a way.

N: Yes. Commercial is rarely artistic.

BM: Because you have to please so many to sell at the end of the day.

S: Yeah, it's almost making a mockery of it.

N: Real art is rarely for the masses. We make art, they make products. Huge difference.

S: That's a great way to put it.

Where do we see lo-fi in say 5 years’ time? Where do we see it going?

N: I hear a lot people saying lo-fi is already dead. Not so sure about that but if it keeps up with the copycat nature and over-saturation, then I would tend to agree.

BM: Yeah a lot of people are saying that. I don’t really believe it as so many are killing it right now.

N: However I really feel for lo-fi to continue to grow, it needs to move beyond the jazzy, bsd.u ripoffs. The culture has to be open to new sounds and not just think lo-fi equals a kind of distorted jazzhop. I think also, as I said before, medium is the message. Tech and social media change so often. It’s almost hard to forecast 5 years out.

BM: Yeah definitely think that true. With tapeaday stuff I think we are really trying to be open to more abstract expressions of the genre but there will always be a place for the sound. Perhaps under a different name, it matters very little, but the dust groove n crackle of lo-fi will always have a place 100%.

S: It's gonna get stronger but only in the right hands. I can see the mediums for creating lo-fi will get broader and broader. Especially with these new machines dropping and sampling techniques.

N: Tech and Social Media have had such a huge influence on lo-fi. Soundcloud and SPs for example. Where will those be in 5 years?

Yeah I feel that. The pace of evolution is so rapid it’s hard to predict but essentially at lo-fi’s heart is innovation and experimentation. As long as that spirit remains vital then it can continue to grow and be interesting and enjoyable.

S: We gotta make sure we keep that spirit thriving.

BM: Yeah I think it will have to evolve really for the sake of the genre. One thing that’s important is the live scene. I think that is something that should definitely be expanded on in the coming years. Really take it out of the internet and make it something entirely more. Think bigger, broader and more daring really. I think the only way to do all this to keep it continually community based and not fronted by specific artists really.

Thank you so much for sitting down with us. Where can we find all of you?

N: No problem man! You can find me on insta @nimzo_0. Also all my releases so far are on bandcamp. Just search ‘Nimzo’

S: Much love bro. You can find me on FB, search ‘Saiko Red’, and Insta @saiko_the_hedgehog.

BM: Cool. Thanks man. So you can find me on insta @byrnmorganmusic and searching on FB ‘byrnmorganmusic’. To find tapeaday on FB search ‘TAPEADAY’ (all caps) and on insta we are @tapeaday. 

Listen to Nimzo, Saiko, Bryn Morgan and tapeday below:

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