One year ago this publication began covering beats music, or more specifically what’s referred to as “lo-fi hip-hop”, through this column. It wasn’t necessarily in line with the electronic music The Rust typically covers, but we felt an urge to recognize the broad community of producers who create these universally accessible beats. Lo-fi hip-hop is typified by dusty, percussive overtures, warped instrumental samples, and the nostalgic veneer of low-fidelity production. Whether by accident or design, the texture of the music became the genre’s namesake, distinguishing this distinct musical and emotive motif from the wider sea of hip-hop music.
Although it’s exploded in popularity in the past five years or so, lo-fi hip-hop is niche music. It’s written about infrequently, save for general overviews of the style which tend to focus on its Youtube popularity through 24/7 streaming channels. This emphasis can paint lo-fi hip-hop as more of a novelty than a serious approach to musical communication, and that doesn’t jive with the reality on the ground. So 51 beatmakers later, to mark one year of progress for this column, we decided to publish a conversation with one of the genre’s eminent representatives, Alexander Fjellerad Thomsen, better known as Axian of Aarhus, Denmark. In addition to covering who Axian is and just how and why he makes his renowned spacey, sample-cut music, we ended up discussing beats music generally, the “lo-fi community” at large, and how this music is beginning to fit, sometimes not so snuggly, into the wider music industry.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Axian’s beatmaking career is how recently it began; he’s only been producing music since December 2016. Before this, however, he was making mixes of other people’s beats and publishing them on Youtube and Soundcloud. Some, like his “Dozing Off” mix which has 3.2 million views on Youtube, have become classic artifacts or “standards” of the style. All demonstrate Alexander’s discerning ear for emotionally rich music and his strong sense for curation.
Alexander says he’s always been into experimental hip-hop, but he remembers when he caught the bug for beats music specifically. “My experience coming into all of this was through Blazo. That’s where I really made the bounce from hip-hop into straight instrumental, jazzy hip-hop.” Released in 2011, Polish producer Blazo’s Colors of Jazz LP is a foundational text, as it were, in the canon of beats music. “It brought along so many more incredible things in the world of underground hip-hop.”
For almost all of the nearly two years Axian has been producing, he’s been working on his debut LP Chronos, which was released by Inner Ocean Records in September and features collaborations with other eminent producers like Borealism and Kuranes. Like many contemporary producers, Alexander never seriously studied another instrument before getting into beats. As we spoke, he flipped his webcam to show the keyboard on the desk in front of him, remarking that he’s teaching himself to play keys. On Chronos he played about 45 percent of the melodic material himself and sampled the other 55 percent. Spacey, deep, and a bit dark at times, the record epitomizes what Axian has always honed in on - a sound that is deeply felt as much as it is heard.
As we continued to speak via video chat, our conversation began to explore topics larger than Axian’s own music. “When you look at something like lo-fi and how it started, it’s very free from all of this, how you say, ‘norms’ about music,” Alexander says. “It’s so careless, you can experiment in so many ways. I feel a strong connection to genres of music that allow for so much creative freedom.” If beats music is wide open in a creative sense, it also strays from certain norms of music promotion, distribution and marketing. As a result, lo-fi producers face an uphill battle accessing mainstream markets.
Coinciding with changes over the last decade to the ways in which people consume music, lo-fi hip-hop is mostly distributed and digested within fervent online communities. Copyright laws and royalty contracts create barriers to the legitimate distribution and sale of a genre historically rooted in the sampling and reconfiguring of composed musical material. While streaming platforms like Soundcloud and Mixcloud have somewhat lax regulations on what is contained in uploaded content, more monetized platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have strict rules on the nature and origin of the content they allow on their platforms.
One platform where producers have begun achieving wider recognition for their music is the plethora of playlists curated by Spotify itself. Songs selected for playlists like “Lush Lo-Fi” or “Lo-Fi Beats”, each with over 500k followers, reach huge audiences, and as a result the producer may receive royalties which are not insignificant. As these avenues towards recognition and compensation have grown, however, Axian points out certain unintended consequences, one being the establishment of “norms” where before none existed. “I’m sure quite a few people are tailoring their music to fit these playlists. I feel that these playlists and collections have garnered so much power that they are influencing the producers for the negative. I won’t take that to a super far extent, but I believe at least a small extent, that is a reality.”
The prominence of this playlist model for lo-fi hip-hop can be attributed in part to the work of Athena Koumis, former Music Culture Editor at Spotify. Athena led the curation of many of these large, popular playlists and communicated frequently with some of the style’s prominent tastemakers, ensuring the playlists were kept up to date with fresh, new sounds. If anyone has had their finger on the pulse during lo-fi’s rise in popularity, it’s been Athena.
Axian’s discussion of the playlist model, however, points toward deeper ethical implications. As these playlists are the locale for popularity and recognition in lo-fi hip-hop, are they impacting the fundamental ingredients of the music contained within them? “I know it, because I see it on a daily basis with producers I’m friends with on Facebook and through submissions I receive for my own playlist [“Dozing Off”],” says Axian. “I don’t want to complain too much about Spotify, because I’m doing pretty well there, and it’s doing good for the community as a whole. I feel you just need to also realize the negative aspects.” Despite his observations, Axian does recognize the playlist model as the best game going right now, although it could be better. “As a community, I don’t know what we should do exactly. It’s complicated, and playlisting is a fine solution.”
In the wake of Athena’s work with a plethora of lo-fi labels and producers, lo-fi hip-hop now has a firm and well-deserved foothold on Spotify. In addition, a number of labels and artists were simultaneously following the same pattern. The label Chillhop Music has garnered over 750,000 followers on their most influential Spotify playlist, “Lofi Hip Hop Beats”. A recent change to the submission guidelines for their label releases, however, highlights a fundamental issue in the propagation of lo-fi.
“Personally, I love Chillhop, and I support them to the end because I feel like they’re doing the right thing,” says Axian, whose EP Gaia was released through Chillhop in 2017. “But when they stopped the sample usage, or they stopped accepting music with samples, that was such a big transition in the community. Chillhop was the frontman or whatever. They’ve always been supporting hip-hop of all kinds in the underground community, and it was kind of weird to see that happen, but I get it.” This summer, Chillhop Music announced that they would no longer accept label submissions that included samples. Alexander suggests that Chillhop’s motive was to stay on the right side of publishing and copyright laws. He hits a major nail on the head, as running afoul of such laws can quickly result in the seizure or forfeiture of profits and/or having entire domains and labels shut down overnight.
“They started making money, getting bigger than they may have thought they would. In one way I get it, but in another way, you can mess with a sample so much that it’s unrecognizable. As an artist trying to understand a label [Axian himself runs a label called Celestial Blue with rappers Obijuan and loom], I get where they are coming from, but I think it split up the community a bit. A lot of the older lo-fi heads, said ‘oh man that’s a trash move’. Then there are the new heads who are trying to get into sample-less music. And I consider myself somewhere in the middle, maybe a bit more on the older head side.
Axian is noting a phenomenon that is as old as the music industry itself, wherein artists will curate their musical content to fit the desired motif of the labels that are sponsoring or highlighting the music. This potentially calls into question the fundamental integrity or “authenticity” of those productions. Conversely, these unforeseen barriers and obstacles to publishing lo-fi music have brought about a wave of innovation and creativity amongst new producers. Instead of sampling content from external musical sources, artists are training themselves in conventional instrumentation, recording that instrumentation, and sampling their own arrangements from scratch. In this manner, one can create everything that is holistically lo-fi music and simultaneously be able to own and distribute that music without issue. As stated before, Axian is himself learning the keys.
This was not the first time Axian has spoken on the subject of how and why music is influenced the way that it is. Indeed, “I think about this all the time,” he said. Beyond how the music is influenced, there is the function of that influence itself. In an interview with Public Pressure in 2017, he said “Everything has to be fancy, or about money, drugs, and sex to make it in the mainstream, and I think a lot of people are conforming to the belief that that’s the way things should be.” Alexander believes this is not coincidental. “At some points in my life, I’ve thought that we’re all controlled to a certain extent. It is funny thinking about these things, because not everything is coincidental. It’s not just trashy music. It’s not just popular because it’s popular. There’s someone making the decisions behind the board. There’s a great logic behind it, but it’s just not the right ethic.”
“It’s about who they’re appealing to,” Alexander continues. “I have some friends who are school teachers for the lower grades. They always talk about how all the kids are referencing all this music that is so inappropriate for kids. I think that’s something we may not be so aware of; how it affects the kids. I’m personally very against that.”
For his part, Axian will continue to make music which speaks “the language of feelings”, as he referred to it in Public Pressure. He continues to release deeply emotive singles regularly, many of which, like his latest, “Evocation”, are included in our curated playlist. He’s also working on a side project with another producer. Their first release will have some “soft beats” as well as some “hard slappers”.
“Slappers!” I repeat gleefully.
“Yea, slappers, that’s what we refer to them as in the community. Something has to slap in the hip-hop community.” For an example of one of our favorite slappers from Axian, check out “Rockin” in our curated playlist or “Adamite” from Chronos. Regarding his side project, “it’s beats, but it’s a lot of different stuff. Lately I’ve been moving towards more electronic stuff. Not to make electronic music, but to make hip-hop, or ‘synth hop’.” By earning himself popularity, Axian can create freely and continue to chase that language of feelings without worrying so much about whether or not it will reach people’s ears though this playlist or that label. “I’m basically in a place where I can do whatever I want to, as long as I keep it real. That’s my philosophy.”
So again, this Sunday we encourage you to kick back, relax, perhaps put on your thinking cap, and enjoy a curated playlist of music from a talented beatmaker. Regardless of the methods for promoting, naming, selling, or making lo-fi hip-hop, there’s one quality to this music which almost all can agree upon, and Alexander verbalizes it well. “You can convey so many things without saying a single word, or you might even spark something inside someone that you never intended to, and that's the beauty of it in my opinion.”