The Lo-Fi Revolution: How Minimalism Is Changing Music

Lo-fi has taken over the music world.

In 1969, Jim Morrison sat down in a now-famous interview with Rolling Stone to talk about the future of music.

"Some brilliant kid will come along and be popular," he said. "I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical...like an extension of the Moog synthesizer – a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra." He went on to say there was somebody out there "working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form." Morrison rehashed this quote in some variation throughout the entirety of his career, and his vision has been widely referenced by many of EDM's forefathers. Skrillex sampled the quote directly in one of his early singles, "Breakin' a Sweat," with the track's production seemingly an embodiment of the specific sound Morrison had predicted, leaning into the idea that Morrison had foreseen Dubstep specifically.

When Skrillex emerged as one of Dubstep's earliest mainstream success stories, his robotic crunches and overwhelming stimulation consumed young listeners, and for many millennials, it was just mind-blowing that all this chaos derived solely from a computer. EDM's popularity skyrocketed in the States, with acts like Skrillex presenting—loud and proud—the limitless potential of technology in music. Many traditional instrumentalists were resistant. "Shout out to all the bands still playing actual instruments," Arcade Fire's Win Butler said during the band's headlining set at Coachella in 2014. During their 2012 Grammy acceptance speech, David Grohl of Foo Fighters also pushed back against the rise of Electronic music. "To me, this award means a lot, because it shows the human element of music is what's important...it's not about being perfect...it's not about what goes on in a computer."

Now in 2019, the overbearing sounds curated by Dubstep, Progressive House, and the like seems to have faded into the background. While in-your-face EDM is still extremely popular in its own circles, a quieter subtext has exploded across all music genres. Minimalistic production and soft instrumentation are now at the forefront of a quiet revolution in music. Lo-Fi hip-hop had one of the biggest years on record, thanks to YouTube's "study" playlists, with producers like Jinsang and Sleepdealer garnering millions of streams as a result. Defined by the inclusion of elements deemed "professionally unappealing," Lo-fi's gravelly production and crackling phonographic imperfections have inspired countless artists to believe that less is more and that artists no longer have to adhere to mainstream standards. While lo-fi's forefathers include The Beach Boys and Robert Steven Moore, the movement has exploded thanks to computers and the ability to tweak and share on a global scale. Lo-Fi rap is now very much a genre all its own, with off-kilter artists like Earl Sweatshirt deeply connecting with it. His highly-anticipated third album Some Rap Songs was lo-fi in its definitive form, and while it was a drastic shift in sound for the Chicago MC, the project put Earl at the forefront of a budding movement, one that prides itself on nostalgic introspection more than lyrical braggadocio. Pitchfork wrote, "On Some Rap Songs listeners are challenged to take him...in the form he is in now: a poet philosopher who is also the face of an emerging sound and scene."

New York up-and-comer JPEG Mafia is also an MC who relies on low-budget production and raw energy. While still minimalistic and underproduced by mainstream standards, JPEG's industrial distortion and eerie soundscapes have painted the MC as an ever-changing enigma. He usually DJ's himself at his performances and no two JPEG shows are ever the same. Yet the seemingly low-value set up is overlooked due to "Peggy's" raw chaotic energy as a performer. His intense vitality at last year's SXSW gave way to one of the festival's most talked-about performances, and during a potentially disastrous show in Ithaca, New York, the MC stumbled on stage completely debilitated by edibles, simply played his Spotify in the background as he rapped along to his songs, and threw himself madly around the stage. Even with nothing at his disposal, he turned a tame crowd into a mosh pit.

Minimalism has also permeated R&B, with amalgamative breakout stars like Jorja Smith, Blood Orange, and Cautious Clay finding different ways to combine avant-garde jazz and electronic music. "Lost & Found thrives on emotionally raw minimalism, with [Jorja Smith's] voice as the central instrument," Pitchfork wrote of the singer. Blood Orange's latest project, Negro Swan, was also described as a "minimalist emulsion," while Cautious Clay describes his creative process as an unfettered "stream of consciousness," with his voice also taking center stage. Each artist offers a different variation of a sound that seems completely unedited, bringing forth a raw vulnerability that intellectually transcends mainstream overproduced club R&B.

On the other side of the spectrum, Indie Rock has been reborn thanks to lo-fi production. Frankie Cosmos, Snail Mail, SALES, Jay Som, and Soccer Mommy are just a few artists who have redefined the genre in the last few years, driven, in part, by a generation that cares more for raw poetry and lo-fi experimentation than it does crispy guitars and a full-band sound. "What we're hearing now, with a wider range in the mix, takes the music to arresting new places – a thrilling development for those who...turn their ears to vocals first," wrote Pitchfork. For the first time in rock and roll, the band comes secondary, if at all, to the individual and what is being said. Even folk music, which for years has been stale and melodramatic thanks to Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, is starting to find its footing again in a lo-fi world. Jessica Pratt and Helado Negro put out two of 2019's best albums so far, with the latter bridging the gap between lo-fi electronic and folk music and the former – whose album is fittingly titled Quiet Signs – offering only her soothing voice, the pluck of her guitar, and an occasional trickling of woodwinds and strings. Both projects are incandescent, powerful in their simplicity.

But the most captivating part of Lo-fi's expansive movement is that it has become the most inclusive sub-genre in music history. Indie Rock is now guided by young women, many of them queer or non-binary. Its implementation in Hip-Hop and R&B refreshed two genres that for decades have been plagued with sexism and masochistic ideals. Lo-Fi offers a platform for poetry, its introspection stirring young people to focus more on the individual, to think more deeply, and to re-evaluate what music can be and what can be said. "It is, at once, a continuum of the last generation and a clean slate," wrote Pitchfork. It is making an announcement just as loud as Dubstep. Some kid on a computer can create a flurry of emotions, grinding out tracks sometimes meant to captivate stadium audiences and at other times meant solely for a lonely teenager in his bedroom.


Mackenzie Cummings-Grady is a creative writer who resides in the Brooklyn area. Mackenzie's work has previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Billboard, and Metropolis Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @mjcummingsgrady.


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