Chillhop or Lo-Fi Chillhop to some.
Chillhop is a sub-genre of hip hop characterized by smooth downtempo hip hop that could be derived from Boom Bap, Trip Hop, or Electronic Music. The drums often have a lo-fi sound and are suttle. Early pioneers of the sound occurred in the 1990s by producers such as Pete Rock and J. Dilla. During the 2000s Japanese producer Nujabes made it a popular sound especially amongst the anime community. Since then the style has been coined as “Chillhop” and the instrumental version of it has become very popular background music during events or for studying.
SOUND AND CONTENT
Chillhop beats take on an ambient sound for Hip Hop that often has cords or horns with a smooth jazz feel or sampling. It usually has a warm “earthy” sound instead of being bright or upbeat. The production can vary from smooth boom bap beats all the way to mellow electronic beats. Tracks are typically below 100 bpm but can certainly be slower or faster.
It draws from jazz, soul, funk, and R&B in order to create a more smooth and warm sounding version of hip hop. When R&B music is performed with Chillhop beats it has been named “Neo Soul.”
Most of the popular Chillhop are instrumentals meant to be background music. It may contain vocal samples but it is usually not the focus. Rap music that includes rapping over chillhop beats is usually not referred to as Chillhop but on occasion it is such as spotify playlists such as “Lyrical Chillhop.” For the Chillhop Rap, the vocals are often inline with Alternative Hip Hop with grounded material that does not have the sensationalism, aggression, or vulgarity of hardcore rap, and does not have the flashy, catchy, or upbeat sounds found in crossover hip hop. Topics can vary from rapping about no particular topic to brag raps to conscious or personal topics. Rappers tend to be less animated to match the mellow beats.
Massive Attack’s Blue Lines album released on April 8th, 1991 is designated as the first Trip Hop album. Blue Lines featured breakbeats, sampling, and rapping on a number of tracks, but the design of the album differed from traditional hip hop. Massive Attack approached the American-born hip hop movement from an underground British perspective and also incorporated live instruments into the mixes. It features the vocals of Shara Nelson and Horace Andy, along with the rapping of Tricky Kid.
Blue Lines is generally considered the first trip hop album, although the term was not widely used before 1994. A fusion of electronic music, hip hop, dub, ’70s soul and reggae, it established Massive Attack as one of the most innovative British bands of the 1990s and the founder of trip hop’s Bristol Sound. Music critic Simon Reynolds stated that the album also marked a change in electronic/dance music, “a shift toward a more interior, meditational sound. The songs on Blue Lines run at ‘spliff’ tempos – from a mellow, moonwalking 90 beats per minute … down to a positively torpid 67 bpm.”
Trip hop is more often referred to as a fusion of electronica and Hip Hop as opposed to a Hip Hop subgenre. Some of the music contained rapping but much of it utilized Hip Hop style beats with singing on it. The rapping on the album was more relaxed than typically found in Hip Hop. Although considered a separate subgenre, it has heavily influenced the later Chillhop music.
Boom Bap Jazz
Boom Bap Jazz emerged in the late 1980s with acts such as Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, and Jungle Brothers sampling jazz into their music. By the early 90s acts such as Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest were making jazz sampled hip hop records that had a laid-back feel that is reflective of the later chillhop.
A Tribe Called Quest
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is the debut album by American hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, released on April 10, 1990 on Jive Records. The album production encompassed a diverse range of samples which functioned as a template for the group’s unorthodox lyrics. The production was often described as laid-back jazz with the raps being viewed as casual and conversational. This style heavily contrasted most rap at the time which was loud and expressive.
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was met with acclaim from professional music critics and the hip-hop community on release, and was eventually certified gold in the United States. Its recognition has extended over the years as it is widely regarded as a central album in alternative hip-hop with its unconventional production and lyricism.
Recording engineer Shane Faber taught Q-Tip how to use equipment such as the E-mu SP-1200 and Akai S950 samplers, and soon-after, renowned producer Large Professor taught him how to use other equipment, for which he would expand upon on People’s Instinctive Travels.
Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad would listen to records several seconds at a time, and re-work them in relationship with other records that would fit. Ali played all live instruments, DJ scratches and programming, while Q-Tip handled everything else with production, including sampling and mixing.
Pete Rock is an American record producer, DJ and rapper that rose to prominence in the early 1990s as one half of the critically acclaimed group Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
Rock played a major role in the merging of elements from jazz into hip hop music (also known as jazz rap). Pete Rock builds his beats from samples, the majority of which are taken from obscure R&B, funk, and jazz records. Early on in his career he would also sample drum breaks. Pete Rock heavily used the E-mu SP-1200 as well as the AKAI S950 and later moved onto using the MPC for his productions. Pete Rock tends to use the samples as palettes for his beats, chopping (cutting the sample into smaller parts), filtering (altering the frequencies of the sample), and layering several samples, often within the same song. While this technique was applied long before Rock, Rock’s work is distinctive for the way in which he uses samples to achieve a hazy, droning effect that was a major influence for Chillhop.
He is also noted for his resonant basslines, horn samples, and gritty sounding drums. His beats often sound as though they were being played from an old vinyl record; he samples many of his sounds straight off these records. Another trait of his, more so in the earlier part of his career, is the way he uses horn samples to supplement his grooves.
Pete Rock has had a considerable impact on a number of record producers who have emerged in the hip hop scene since the late 1990s such as J Dilla and 9th Wonder. These producers have created the bulk of their productions out of samples, as well as the warm, mellow, and exuberant undertones apparent in their work.
The Digable Planets was a trio formed in Brooklyn that released the albums “Reachin” in 1993 and “Blowout Comb” in 1994 which both featured smooth Jazz Rap that’s style was a reflection of spoken word poetry.
Their debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was released in 1993 and certified gold by the RIAA and even won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
The group’s second album Blowout Comb was released in 1994. The album was noted by critics as a stark departure from the previous album, being darker, less hook-oriented and more overtly political in its references to Black Panther and Communist imagery.
While the west coast was dominated by G-Funk music during the early and mid 1990s, Pharcyde was a departure that utilized a Boom Bap Jazz on their debut album in 1992 which went gold. Their second album in 1995, Labcabincalifornia, featured a more mellow and introspective style that was an influence to the future chillhop scene. The album featured early J. Dilla production as he produced seven tracks for the album.
The Roots are a Philadelphia Hip Hop band that features drummer/producer Questlove and rapper Black Thought. It has gone through many incarnations but has also been a major contributor to the Chillhop sound. Although Black Thought raps more aggressively than many other rappers in this group they are noted for also making smooth Hip Hop Jazz as well as chill Hip Hop Beats. They have had significant success since their debut in 1993 but some of the noteworthy albums also include Gold albums “Do You Want More?!!!??!” in 1994 and “Phrenology” in 2002 as well as their sole platinum album “Things Fall Apart” in 1999.
James Dewitt Yancey, better known by the stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, was an American record producer and rapper who emerged in the mid-1990s underground hip hop scene in Detroit, Michigan, as one third of the acclaimed music group Slum Village.
He took up beat-making using a simple tape deck as the center of his studio. During these teenage years he “stayed in the basement alone” in order to train himself to produce beats with his growing record collection. In 1992, he met the Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who let Jay Dee use his Akai MPC, which he learned quickly.
By the mid-1990s Jay Dee had a string of singles and remix projects, for Janet Jackson, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip’s solo album, trip hop artist Crustation, and others. Many of these productions were released without his name recognition, being credited to The Ummah, a production collective composed of him, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.
In the year 1996, he formed the group Slum Village and recorded what would become their debut album Fantastic, Vol. 1 at RJ Rice Studios. Upon its release in 1997, the album quickly became popular with fans of Detroit hip hop. This style was replicated in an underground collective called the Soulquarians that included artists such as Common, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Mos Def, and more which earned him further recognition as he and Questlove of the Roots produced many songs for the collective.
The year 2000 marked the major label debut of Slum Village with Fantastic, Vol. 2, creating a new following for J Dilla as a producer and an MC. By 2003 J Dilla’s illness and medication caused dramatic weight loss forcing him to publicly confirm speculation about his health in 2004. J Dilla’s music has been used in various television programs, most notable Cartoon Network’s late night programing block Adult Swim since the mid 2000s. In February of 2006 James Yancey died of cardiac arrest due to his thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disease.
The Neo Soul movement influenced the pop world as well as Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” album (1997) featured many songs with that sound. Although the Neo Soul sound is still found in Hip Hop today many of the artists mentioned have branched out to other sounds as well.
Jun Seba, better known by his stage name Nujabes, was a Japanese record producer, DJ, composer and arranger who produced atmospheric instrumental mixes sampling from hip hop and jazz and is often referred to as the Godfather of Chillhop.
Seba was born on February 7, 1974, in the Nishi-Azabu district of Minato in central Tokyo, Japan. Seba was the owner of two Shibuya record stores, T Records and Guinness Records, and in 1998 founded the independent record label Hydeout Productions.
Seba adopted the stage name Nujabes (his name spelled backwards) and became notable for his approach to producing hip hop beats, often blending jazz influences into his songs creating a mellow, nostalgic and atmospheric sound. Seba collaborated with Japanese artists like Uyama Hiroto, Shing02, L-Universe, and Minmi, and with various underground American hip hop acts such as CYNE, Cise Starr, Apani B, Five Deez, Substantial, CL Smooth, Fat Jon, Terry Callier as well as British rapper Funky DL. Seba was also a member of the production duo Urbanforest, an experimental collaboration with Nao T.
He released three solo studio albums: Metaphorical Music (2003), Modal Soul (2005) and Spiritual State (released posthumously in 2011). As the founder of the independent label Hydeout Productions, he released two collection compilations: Hydeout Productions 1st Collection (2003) and 2nd Collection (2007). Additionally, Seba produced the soundtrack for Shinichirō Watanabe’s anime series Samurai Champloo in 2004 which caused his music to really blossom amongst anime fans worldwide. Tribute concerts from rappers in the chillhop community and the Otaku (Anime fans) Hip Hop community continue to occur today.
On February 26, 2010, Seba was involved in a traffic collision upon exiting the Shuto Expressway at 22:14. He was pronounced dead at a hospital in Shibuya Ward after efforts to revive him failed. His grave is located within the Japanese section of Tama Cemetery.
Seba’s death has elicited many tributes from other artists around the world. On Bandcamp, the New York-based Digi Crates records have released a series of tribute albums performed by various artists in a style reminiscent of Seba’s. In addition, Seba’s label Hydeout Productions released a tribute album titled Modal Soul Classics II featuring a number of former collaborators and with lyrics and song titles referencing select tracks from both Modal Soul and Metaphorical Music, such as the track “Music is Ours”, which directly references “Music is Mine”, the 5th track of Modal Soul.
Otis Jackson Jr., known professionally as Madlib, is an American DJ, music producer, multi-instrumentalist, and rapper. He is one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed hip hop producers of the 2000s and provided a more psychedelic, experimental version of Chillhop.
Madlib was born in Oxnard, California to musician parents Otis Jackson, Sr. and Dora Sinesca Jackson. In the early 1990s, Madlib formed a loose-knit collective composed of rappers that worked with Madlib in his Oxnard-based “Crate Diggas Palace” studio. Madlib went on to record music of his own with the group Lootpack. This caught the attention of Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of the Stones Throw Records label, who signed the group in 1998.
The Lootpack’s 1999 debut album Soundpieces: Da Antidote ushered in a string of releases on Stones Throw centering on Madlib’s production work which would continue for a decade. His first solo work, under the guise of Quasimoto, The Unseen, came in 2000.
In 2001, Madlib moved away from hip-hop music and began a series of releases from Yesterdays New Quintet, a Jazz-based, hip-hop and electronic-influenced quintet made up of alter egos or fictional musicians played by Madlib. Over the next several years, through several record releases on Stones Throw and other labels, the growing number of pseudonyms and fictional players came to be known as Yesterdays Universe.
Returning to hip-hop music in 2003, Madlib announced two collaborative projects. Working with hip hop producer J Dilla, the duo known as Jaylib released Champion Sound. The other was Madlib’s collaboration with rapper MF Doom, known together as Madvillain. The 2004 Madvillainy album was highly anticipated and well-received, topping many critics’ year-end lists.
Doom and Madlib started working on Madvillainy in 2002. Madlib created one hundred beats in a matter of weeks, some of which were used on Madvillainy, some were used on his collaboration album with J Dilla Champion Sound, while others were used for M.E.D.’s and Dudley Perkins’ albums.
In November 2002, Madlib went to Brazil to participate in a Red Bull Music Academy lecture, where he debuted the first music from the album by playing an unfinished version of “America’s Most Blunted”. Madlib also went crate digging during his time in Brazil, searching for obscure vinyl records he would sample later for the album. Most of the album was produced in his hotel room in São Paulo, using a portable turntable, a cassette deck, and a Boss SP-303 sampler.
Those were the early days of internet leaks, and we thought it would completely ruin sales. People were approaching Doom and Madlib at shows to tell them how much they liked the album, so they were like, ‘Fuck it, I’m done.’ Madlib started on other stuff, and Doom, well, you never know what he’s doing.
Doom and Madlib decided to work on different projects with Madlib releasing Champion Sound with J Dilla and Doom releasing two solo albums. Nevertheless, after the release of these albums, they decided to return to Madvillainy. For the final version of the album, Doom altered his voice, described by Peanut Butter Wolf as going from “really hyper, more enthusiastic” to “a more mellow, relaxed, confident, less abrasive”, and changed some lyrics to coincide with this change.
Madvillainy incorporates Madlib’s distinctive production style, based on using samples, mostly obscure, from albums recorded in different countries. The album consists of 22 songs and contains no hooks or choruses. It has been described as a “sonic feast” with a non-traditional hip hop direction and segued vignettes from old movies and broadcasts.
Madlib continues to release experimental Chillhop music and has worked with acts such as Talib Kweli, Erykah Bady, and De La Soul.
Chillhop didn’t become a popular subgenre term until the 2010s to describe the smooth instrumental hip hop often played as background music or studying music. Specific artists have not been as dominant in modern times but the community is thriving from several different producers creating chillhop music. Examples of this can be found in streaming playlists and YouTube channels.
Streaming became the dominant source of music industry revenue in 2016. During that decade, Spotify engendered a trend that became known among the industry as “lean back listening”, which refers to a listener who “thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities”. As of 2017, the front page of the service’s “browse” screen included many algorithmically-selected playlists with names such as “Chilled Folk”, “Chill Hits”, “Evening Chill”, “Chilled R&B”, “Indie Chillout”, and “Chill Tracks”. In an editorial piece for The Baffler titled “The Problem with Muzak”, writer Liz Pelly criticized the “chill” playlists as “the purest distillation of [Spotify’s] ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper”.
In 2013, YouTube began allowing its users to host live streams, which resulted in a host of 24-hour “radio stations” dedicated to microgenres such as vaporwave. In 2017, a form of downtempo music tagged as “lo-fi hip hop” or “chillhop” became popular among YouTube music streamers. The root word “lo-fi” refers to music of an unprofessional nature, and contrary to popular conception, is not synonymous with qualities such as “warm” and “punchy”.
By 2018, several of these channels had attracted millions of followers. The widely known YouTube DJ, Ryan Celsius, theorized that they were inspired by a nostalgia for the commercial bumpers used by Toonami and Adult Swim in the 2000s, and that this “created a cross section of people that enjoyed both anime and wavy hip-hop beats.”
Nujabes and J Dilla have been referred to as the “godfathers of Lo-Fi Hip Hop”. Vice writer Luke Winkie credited YouTube user Chilled Cow as “the person who first featured a studious anime girl as his calling card, which set up the aesthetic framework for the rest of the people operating in the genre” and suggested that “if there is one shared touchstone for lo-fi hip-hop, it’s probably “Madvillainy” by MF Doom.
Trip Hop – Smooth downtempo fusion of hip hop and electronica until neither genre is recognizable that originated in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, especially Bristol.
Alternative Rap – Rap music that stays away from the crossover sound and does not feature the styles associated with hardcore rap, gangsta rap, or pop rap.
Jazz Rap – Hip Hop featuring jazz instrumentation whether sampled or recorded.
Hip Hop Soul – Soul singing style vocals sung over mid-tempo hip hop production.
Neo Soul – Soul singing style vocals sung over mid-tempo chillhop production.
Some of the key Chillhop Producers
- Ali Shaheed Muhammad
- Pete Rock
Some of the key Chillhop Rap Acts
- A Tribe Called Quest
- Digable Planets
- Slum Village
- Black Star
- Mos Def
- Talib Kweli
- The Roots
- Black Star
Classic/Popular Chillhop Albums
- Digable Planets – Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993)
- Slum Village – Fantastic Vol. 2 (2000)
- Dilla – Ruff Draft (2003)
- Nujabes – Metaphorical Music (2003)
- Madvillian (MF Doom & Madlib) – Madvillainy (2004)
- Common – Be (2005)
- Nujabes – Modal Soul (2005)
- Dilla – Donuts (2006)
- Dilla – The Shining (2006)
- Dilla – Jay Stay Paid (2009)
- Nujabes – Spiritual State (2011)
- Dilla – The Diary (2016)
Some Classic Chillhop Rap Songs
- A Tribe Called Quest – Bonita Applebum
- Pete Rock – T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)
- Digable Planets – Rebirth of Slick
- Common – I Used to Love H.E.R.
- Pharcyde – Runnin’
- Common – The Light
- Nujabes – Lady Brown