Tomppabeats, Kupla and Idealism are being listened to by millions of people monthly. They are respected producers in the of lo-fi hiphop community – almost a rebellious movement born in opposition of the post-millennial hectic and fragmented life – and virtually unknown outside it.
There aren't many articles written about one of the biggest musical phenomena of the last few years, at least compared to its popularity. We are of course talking about the genre known as chillhop, jazzhop or lo-fi hiphop – you can find it on numerous Youtube channels with titles like "beats to relax/study to", where warm and nostalgic downtempo instrumentals stream endlessly. No doubt, the music can be used for either of those purposes, but it definitely isn't just sonic wallpaper.
The genre’s most popular Youtube channels have millions of subscribers and the top producers earn a good living from streaming platforms. For example, these three Finnish producers gather an impressive count of almost four million monthly plays on Spotify alone, at the time being.
Major labels have also tried to benefit from the trend but thanks to the DIY ethos and the tight-knit community, the scene is protected by thick walls. What started as chatting with like-minded people on Soundcloud has grown to global producer collectives and artist hubs such as Rotterdam based label Chillhop, in just a couple of years
I had made music for such a short time that the success didn't feel deserved. – Tomppabeats
The forefathers of this genre are well known: the holy trinity of lo-fi hiphop is formed by the ever-thriving US producer Madlib, as well as late legends J Dilla and Nujabes, who can be credited for the anime aesthetics heavily associated with the scene. Even though the current big names clock more monthly streams on Spotify than the aforementioned trio combined, you almost have to know your way into the community in order to name these low profile superstars. The playlists are the be-all and end-all in lo-fi hiphop.
"I felt guilt at first", recalls Helsinki-based producer Tomppabeats about the time when his beats were first picked to certain playlists and his stream count exploded.
"I had made music for such a short time that the success didn't feel deserved. What a healthy way of thinking...", he now laughs.
Focus on the music
Tomppabeats, now 22, is globally one of the most influential and successful artists in the genre. For him, the success was scary and he struggled a lot with handling it. Soundcloud’s social aspect, that he first fell in love with became horrifying and he ended up deleting his accounts multiple times.
"Now I've found the right distance to it all and I keep my focus on producing music. That's what people, and myself, want at the end of the day, not my face or my opinion."
Tomppabeats has released two albums, Arcade (2017) and Harbor (2016), and his beats – distinctive with deeply melancholic acoustic guitars and surface noise – are featured on all of the essential playlists. He is signed to the German label Vinyl Digital but is considering about continuing completely independent when his contract expires. Tomppabeats sounds motivated in pushing the envelope in his own art and at the same time fed up with the current state of the genre and its byproducts.
Now I've found the right distance to it all and I keep my focus on producing music. That's what people, and myself, want at the end of the day, not my face or my opinion. – Tomppabeats
"The genre became saturated when people smelled the opportunity of making money out of it. Producers make monotonic and stale beats and shady labels pop up hoping to get picked up by playlists and stations. I'm hoping that this whole trend would come to an end soon, even though it would also mean that most of the listeners would disappear. There's a bunch of experimental producers who don't get the recognition they would deserve, but they are the reason behind my motivation as well", Tomppabeats says.
It's a family affair
On the other hand, Kupla, a 30-year-old Finnish producer living in London, is working on making it last longer. Earlier this year he released an album named Imaginary which is filled with piano heavy beats characterized by clarinet and field recordings. His music is streamed by over two million people monthly on Spotify. Tomppabeats calls him "a great guy!" – and it seems that Kupla is the networking guy of lo-fi hiphop.
"I've made lifelong friends from this community. I belong to the Dream Easy Collective, which is a network of approximately 30 producers mainly from North America, and also the Cookie Dough Records collective. In the last couple of years I've met a lot of producers, label bosses and managers. I've studied material related to this business: contract laws, promotion, digital distribution ja publishing", Kupla explains.
I've made lifelong friends from this community. – Kupla
His latest venture is with the founder of the Youtube channel Chilledcow. What started in 2015 as a promotion tool for talented beatmakers has become the most popular live radio on Youtube with over three million subscribers. Chilledcow has its own merchandise store and curates a Spotify playlist followed by over 800 000 users. The next logical step would be a record label related to Chilledcow's Youtube channel, and that is what Kupla has been asked to be part of.
Kupla is a self-proclaimed ”Excel nerd” and seems to take music seriously: he speaks of career opportunities, strategies and goals. His daily routines sound disciplined and include playing the piano at least two hours and studying other instruments as well. He tries to record at least something every day.
”It can be frustrating at times but in my experience you just have to push through the bad days. The outcome can turn out to be great when you force yourself to work mode.”
Self-managed and self-released, as he calls it, works for him but he likes to keep all doors open. Most major labels have already contacted Kupla and he keeps himself engaged in the dialogue. He understands the resources and networks only the majors can offer but the community comes first.
”The communality and do-it-yourself mentality are so strong in instrumental hiphop that it’s difficult to estimate how working with majors would be welcomed among the producers and the crowd.”
Licensed to chill
Idealism, another 22-year-old, seems like the opposite of the seemingly calculative Kupla. The Edinburgh-based producer is the most popular Finn not just in lo-fi hiphop but music in general according to Spotify: he has 2,5 million listeners per month, which is currently about the same amount as Alma, our most visible international pop star, has.
”I don’t think record labels could bring anything to the table I could benefit from!”, Idealism says.
Idealism was recently interviewed by the Finnish broadcasting company Yle. In the interview he expressed having struggled with similar feelings as Tomppabeats: he was worried that he might not deserve the success and contemplates whether it’s fair or not. What helps him is his easygoingness.
”I’m not planning the future that much. I only concentrate on the next beat I’m working on. The bar for releasing music is getting higher and higher and it’s difficult to feel satisfied with own music. But on the other hand, that helps me in finding my own sound and drives me to experiment with new techniques.”
I’m not planning the future that much. I only concentrate on the next beat I’m working on. – Idealism
Idealism’s track "Controlla" has been streamed a stunning 30 million times on Spotify. The track from his 2017 ep Rainy Evening could serve a description when opening the dictionary to look up the term lo-fi hiphop: the melancholic piano sounds like it’s lifted from a jazz album from decades back, the muffled bass drum takes the listener back to the glory days of backpacker rap and the sound of dust in the record groove generates a warm and earthy atmosphere.
It’s easy to lose the track of time and just stare out the window while listening to these beats. Idealism’s own theory on the success of this music is equally simple:
”It is easy to listen to and really calming!”