Screengrab from YouTube channel ChilledCow
An infinite loop of a tired anime girl, sitting in a picturesque Miyazaki bedroom, writing revisions into her notebook, or reading a newspaper with a hot cup of coffee, or simply staring out of a lonely window on a rainy day. A very particular, very millennial breed of simmering downtempo pours through your laptop speakers; muffled drum machine pitter, a few lazy nocturnal synth beams, perhaps an entranced, elliptical vocal sample sourced from self-help tapes, ancient cartoons, Nintendo 64 games, or public-access flotsam. These ingredients are simple and remarkably consistent, and they add up into a new incarnation of internet radio called "lo-fi hip-hop," or "chillhop," or more pointedly, "lo-fi hip-hop radio for studying, relaxing, and gaming." Endless, non-perishable YouTube streams that run 24/7, delivering the chillest, most amicable vibes to a legion of traumatized university students—like the perfect holistic alternative when the Xanax isn't cutting it anymore. Sometimes, all you need to do is trust the taste of an enterprising kid with a YouTube channel.
There are several of these channels, and they're all super popular. The most prominent belongs to an anonymous figure named ChilledCow, who has gathered 1.7 million subscribers over the year-plus they've been streaming. (ChillledCow was also 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.) On paper, the craft here isn't much different from someone throwing on an expertly curated playlist at a party. The streams don't require someone to be behind the boards at all times, unlike the constant monitoring demanded by any FCC-ordained FM station, but the music rotation is constantly updated with new, handpicked tunes—a stark contrast from the algorithmic mandates handed down by Spotify or Apple Music.Ryan Celsius, a D.C. based DJ who runs his own suite of lo-fi hip-hop channels, says YouTube became the hotbed for his work because of the comparatively lax attitudes towards copyright law. Twitch, the live-streaming titan, is notoriously picky about licensed music being reproduced on their platform, and when Celsius first set out to start his own station on the platform, he found himself quickly ousted after a Terms of Service violation. "It wasn't until early 2017 when I saw that YouTube Live streaming had come a long way that I decided to jump in and try again," he said.Today, Celsius has 286,000 subscribers to his channel, and stands as one of the true vibe barons on the internet. He theorizes that the chillhop renaissance can be traced back to a bygone nostalgia for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and Toonami. Adult Swim specialized in toothsome, twilit grooves for its bumpers and commercials, and they also engineered the crossover success of the zonked-savant rapper MF Doom, (if there is one shared touchstone for lo-fi hip-hop, it's probably Madvillainy.) Toonami, on the other hand, brought Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo to a western audience for the first time, with their incredible merengue-tinged soundtracks intact. The teenagers who loved this stuff are now entering their late-20s. Of course they're ready to feel those textures again.
"An entire generation of people were influenced by the smooth beats and trippy or relaxing background aesthetic of early 2000's Adult Swim," says Celsius. "[It] created a cross section of people that enjoyed both anime and wavy hip-hop beats."You might think anyone in their bedroom can start one of these channels and start turning a profit thanks to YouTube's egalitarian ad revenue, and to a certain extent, that is true. However, it does require some significant juice to pipe in video and audio at high qualities simultaneously. Celsius tells me the terabytes of storage he rents on cloud servers cost anywhere from $200 to $300 a month—which means that between ad revenue and Patreon earnings, he stands to profit about $1,500 a month. "It's less of a business for me, personally," he says.Other YouTube DJs have learned to consolidate a number of tangential financial interests to stay afloat. There are two British kids behind the 415k subscriber strong "College Music" chillhop stream—Jonny Laxton, 19, in Leeds, and Luke Pritchard, 20, in Reading. Together, they turned their radio work into a record label—showcasing their artists through Spotify playlists, building a brand that's not anonymous or disposable, in the way that people often stumble through the internet. "We don't want someone to find the stream and the next day be unable to find it," says Pritchard.Pritchard also tells me that occasionally, he's received inquiries from artists willing to pay money to get their tunes featured in the stream's rotation—like a nascent, new-media revival of payola. This makes sense, the artist and song are always projected on screen, and there's obvious market value in getting an up close introduction to kids in countless dorms across the globe. But College Music turns those propositions down, because it'd violate the outsider, pirate radio ethos of the scene."From day one, Jonny and I have always been about sharing music from undiscovered artists that we both love," he says. "Making money was never the reason College Music was founded. For this reason, we would never take steps to maximize 'profit' at the expense of our integrity and the quality of the music we share."It remains to be seen how long that lasts. Monetization seduces everyone on the web, and if these lo-fi hip-hop streams remain popular, the offers will inevitably get bigger. Still, it's cool that the global youth is pushing back on the Silicon Valley-shuttering of music discovery, where everything is piped into your discovery feed by a horde of whirring server blades somewhere in the middle of the country. "Popular platforms like iTunes, Spotify, and Google Music, despite their best intentions, will generally put people in a music vacuum chamber," says Celsius. "The 24/7 streams often give people music they didn't know that they would like."Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.