Lo-Fi Hip Hop is one of the trendiest genres in music. From working and studying to chilling out and relaxing, it can accompany many different parts of life. We recently interviewed guitarist/producer Jamie Skehan, the mastermind behind ‘Lush-Lo-Fi Anthems’, to dissect what this genre is all about and how to make it.
Jamie has had 10 years of experience with electronic music, working in genres such as Trance, House, Trap , Hip Hop, Lo-Fi and EDM. He’s released tracks on Ultra Records, Spinnin’ Records & Toolroom records. With such a breadth of industry expertise, it’s safe to say that Jamie knows a thing or two about Lo-Fi Hip Hop. In this blog, he explains what the genre means to him and a deep look into his creative process when making it.
What is Lo-Fi Hip Hop?
A fusion of many styles. Old School Hip Hop, Jazz, Blues, Chillout. Of course, the main backbone is as the name suggests – Hip Hop. The Lo-Fi tag comes from imperfect nature of recordings or performances that are left audible. It’s almost tagged as “low-quality Hip Hop music” but, of course, that is very misleading!
The imperfections and real grit of this genre of Hip Hop is what makes it what it is. Although deemed lower quality, this is what gives it the character. With ‘Lush-Lo-Fi Anthems’, I tried to bring some of the old styles of what makes Lo-Fi great, but in a newer more cleaner produced pack.
Why do you think it is getting so popular?
Technology is something I feel has really increased the popularity of Lo-Fi. On two fronts really – both supply and demand. Since the rise of DAWs and affordable powerful computers, the masses can literally make music, or at least afford too.
Playlists such as lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to have really helped the cause. Another reason why I think it's popular is that it's electronically produced, but has a lot of organic textures into it. From vintage crackles, old school pianos, it's a great blend of old and new.
Iconic 'Lo-Fi Girl' studying
How Do You Get Started?
To me, Lo-Fi is all about the feelings and vibe, whether it’s a happy feel-good style or a darker vibe where you take your listener on a deeper, more atmospheric path.
I find the method on how to start a track really depends on what the “task” is when starting the project.
If I want to begin a track emulating a certain track or style, then cross referencing is a great tool. If there is a certain track you love and want to emulate, then drop the MP3 into your DAW and follow the structure and feel. This is a technique which many use to great effect! (My only gripe with this is that I don’t always feel I’m acting on “intuition” or “gut” as everything becomes more “analytical”, but it’s a great learning tool.)
There are always debates on the best way to produce a song but the truth is, there is not one certain way. Everyone's process is different!
Some say you should start with the chords, others say the beat, others may want to start with a bass line or melody. 80 percent of the time, I start with the drums. Building the rhythmic backbone is a big part for me and I feed all musical aspects off the feel of the beat.
Before I even start a project from scratch, I want to know the BPM. If you have an idea already and are not sure on BPM., there’s some great websites where you tap your mouse to find the BPM quickly and easily. Check out all8.com – It's great if you’ve got an idea in your head already and don’t want to restrict your flow by starting a click in the DAW.
Sometimes by not asking myself too many questions and diving in, I get some of my best results, but it really depends! Some days it clicks, other days not so much. If you’re struggling for creativity, I find a walk around the block can really help and clear your head. Never force it.
How to Make Lo-Fi Hip Hop
1) The Beat – In Lo-Fi, the BPM is usually similar to the older school Hip Hop. 70-100 BPM is usually the sweet spot I find. In order to build my beat, I love the Algonaut sampler called ‘Atlas’. Do not underestimate the power of drum One Hits in this genre. Atlas uses AI to search your drum folders and map them out on your controller. It’s something I used to take hours and hours on loading one hit into exs 24 in logic (the DAW I use). You can start building a beat in seconds. Highly recommended.
A huge part of the genre is sampling, and Lo-Fi drums are no exception. There’s some great sample packs and old school tracks to sample. Full loops or even certain little licks & fills. You can chop & change. Don’t be afraid to sample.
2) Keys – In terms of instruments, after the beat, chords are usually where I'll go next. Most DAW’s have some decent E-pianos & Rhodes style sounds in built, so this is always a good start too. Any warm sounding 'pad' can be a great start. It really gives the warmth and mid-range that Lo-Fi is so known for.
3) Bass – Again no real rules, as Lo-Fi uses both real and synth style basses. You can use everything from a live upright bass, to a Reese synth bass – it just depends on the style you follow. Usually a less in your face, more subby and almost muddy-feel bass is common.
4) Leads & Plucks (or Hooks) – This is usually the icing on the cake. Not all tracks need this element, but it can really give some character.
5) FX & Transitions – This is the glue. A great starting point to FX is adding vinyl to the track. This doesn’t just add warmth to the track, but it also adds authenticity to the sound. A lot of Lo-Fi is inspired by 1950s vinyl where the old fizz was part of the recording. Digital has gone through great lengths to remove this authenticity at times, so don’t be afraid to add some noise you’d usually want to get rid of. You don’t need great recording equipment to record textures either. It can be as simple as recording on your phone when you take the dog for a walk. This really does add charter to the track. Simple reverse crashes will add glue to really finish off the track.
Essential tools for making Lo-Fi HIP HOP
Great at building quick and cool drum kits in seconds.
Izotope - Vinyl
This is a great plugin to add authenticity to your tracks. Vinyl simulates the dust, scratches, warp, and mechanical noise reminiscent of old style tracks. Oh & it’s free!
Another great plugin which is available for as little as $5 a month is Retro Colour. RC-20 Retro Color. This is an effect plugin that adds life and texture to any recording. It recreates the warm, cozy feeling of vintage recording equipment, but is equally as good on new styles too. This plugin is perfect for Lo-Fi but so good for so many different genres. Highly recommended.
Native Instruments Kontakt
Vintage organs/keys are crucial in Lo-Fi. Kontakt has great sounding organs & e-pianos, warm & clear that sit nice in mixes.
Lo-Fi at times has some crazy chord progressions that the “average Joe” can’t play. I play keys on most of my music, but I wouldn’t say I’m a pianist by any means. Cthulhu is a way to play and even create chords with one button. There's some superb banks out there in the styles of Hip Hop, Jazz, Funk, Blues. You can create some amazing results with this. It's also a great tool to study more complex chords present in Lo-Fi music (i.e. Jazz).
While this may be on the pricey side but the sounds are unbeatable at times. Highly recommend it if you have a little more money to burn. The pads & real life sounds just sound so authentic.
I mix a lot of stuff in headphones and I can’t recommend the subpac enough. To be able to feel the bass like you can is not only great to listen to, but it means you can really perfect those low sub sticky parts that many struggle who do not have the correct studio or equipment.
What are the defining characteristics of Lo-Fi Hip Hop? How do you Add them into your productionS?
1) Lo-Fi has a distinct type of drums. Try sloppy drums, move the odd kick a MS out, layer a few different claps/snares and different times (forward or back). Make the hats clunky and stutter, it really helps give the beat its unique character.
2) Detuned, wobbly, lazy synths are a huge part too. Guitars are commonly used in this style, don't worry too much about your pre-amp or acoustics. Some of the best recordings I’ve done have been on the fly so it really doesn’t matter!
3) Not always quantising! Quantising is something that exists throughout all genres, however as the Lo-Fi name suggests, sometimes the imperfections are what give Lo-Fi the groove and feel it has. If I’m recording guitar or piano, I try and do a few takes and then select the best feel. The bass will usually follow the kick, but not always quantising gives the track groove. It's about finding a right balance between keeping this enough in time that is listenable and sounds good, but not everything perfectly in time so it moves away from the robotic nature that a lot of dance music has.
4) Textures like outside traffic, people laughing, rain, vinyl are very common. There’s no real rules what you can include here. You may hear recordings from old films used in Lo-Fi and anime styles with random samples.
5) Vinyl is a huge part of the sound as the sound emphasizes mid range frequencies, giving the track warmth. Mobile phone recordings can work! As mentioned, plugins such as Izotope - Vinyl & Retro-20 give your tracks that blend of old and new.
6) Samples! The genre is built on it.
Advice for beginners
Read & play. Don’t underestimate how important good samples are to have in your library. Whether it's a certain kick drum to start, or a melodic loop that inspires whole tracks. They are also a great way to study how music is all put together. Patience & persistence are important too. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the more you play the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll become. Construction Kits are a great tool to learn from, as you get to see what elements are placed where and how it all works in a full mix.
Finish songs! Everyones guilty of not doing it, but it's always a great feat to finish a song. This will help your discipline of learning when enough is enough with a track, and turning “ideas'' into actual playable pieces of music. Reading up on mix techniques sure helps, but it's easy to get bogged down (especially earlier on). Just have a play and see what happens, if it sounds good, it sounds good. I found earlier in my career that many could talk, but when you actually heard their mixing, really couldn’t walk the walk!
The best piece of advice for a cleaner mix down is control the bottom end. Low cut everything after 140hz other than kick and bass. This will give you a low end way more room and will help keep the mix tight and clear.
How do you see Lo-Fi Hip Hop evolving?
Some may see Lo-Fi as the new “fad” that will die out, but Hip Hop is a genre that is ever evolving. The jazz style has been great, I'd love to hear more blues inspired Lo-Fi but that’s a personal choice! I'm hearing a lot of really well produced Lo-Fi coming out and hearing some artists use it and there is no reason why Lo-Fi won’t hit the mainstream charts, but I expect the popularity to continue to grow as it is becoming more and more accessible. I think Lo-Fi Hip Hop is here, and here to stay.
More on Jamie Skehan
Over his time in the music industry, he's worked with the biggest names in the music sample industry, such as Producer Loops, Sample Magic, Cr2, Audentity Records. He also runs his own sample labels:
Catalyst Samples - All types of electronic music
Toolbox Samples - Lo-Fi, Hip Hop & Trap
Skeleton Samples - Techno & Tech House
He is also a producer and guitarist in his own band Y.O.U.N.G – a rock reggae group where he has supported The Script, Emilie Sande & James Arthur. Lastly, he’s worked & written with Dave Pemberton (Prodigy) and DJ Lethal (House Of Pain & Limp Biz).