You might have heard about Nujabes, he was a Japanese hip hop producer known for his work on Samurai Champloo, as well as his collaborations with other artists and of course his beloved albums Modal Soul and Metaphorical Music. He also collaborated with artists like CL Smooth, Terry Callier and Shing02. Artists like Emancipator and Ta-Ku have made tributes to Nujabes, because of the influence his music had on their music. Jun Seba (yes, his artist name was his name spelled backwards) was born on February 7th, 1974, a birthday he shares with another very influential beatmaker, J Dilla. Sadly Nujabes passed away in February of 2010, due to a traffic accident in Tokyo. The thing he is probably most famous for is his influence on the current generation of beatmakers. Lo-Fi Hip Hop is a genre frequently, but in my opinion unfairly, associated with Nujabes.
A similar situation is going on with J Dilla (and a lot of other beat artists), but in this article I want to go deeper into why this is even a more serious issue in Nujabes case. If you want to read more about J Dilla in relation to Lo-Fi, you could read the following article on Okayplayer.
In the last few years a lot of instrumental music has been released, mainly due to two reasons. The first one being the accessibility of production software and the second one being how easy it is to release music.
But first we have to explain the definition of Lo-Fi, which is short for Low Fidelity. In music low fidelity means that the music is played or recorded at a lower quality than possible at the moment. Almost all Lo-Fi productions are made with that in mind, by using filtered jazz samples or slightly distorted drum sounds for example. The roots of Lo-Fi Hip Hop in the way we know it nowadays lays somewhere in the early 90s, when multitrack tape recorders and samplers came on the market. It gave a lot of people the opportunity to experiment with recording their own music and sounds, without needing to go to a studio or have a lot of expensive gear. Something we would call bedroom producers nowadays started here. However, music has been recorded on a lower than possible fidelity since the 50s. However, the cassettes came with one drawback: quality. Of course, this DIY sound has it's own charm, and I feel like the Lo-Fi music community keeps that spirit alive.
Back in the days, if you wanted to make music, you had to have at least some kind of studio or gear, like a record player and a sampler. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop can make music. And the way people find samples has changed too.
A lot of sample based beatmakers went crate digging in record stores until they found the perfect sound. But beside finding a good sample, crate digging is a fantastic way to educate yourself about music. Because other than looking at the artist on the cover, you’ll start looking at the label the record was released on, the instruments played on the tracks, and the names of musicians that played them. Even the studio it was recorded in can be valuable information. And I’m not saying that producers that have other sources for their samples (like YouTube or Spotify) are less educated than crate diggers, but crate diggers often have a lot of knowledge about music gained during the process of finding the samples. Another thing is quality, almost everyone with an affinity with music knows that vinyl is the best way to listen to music in high quality, because it is uncompressed. That stands apart from the fact that (older) vinyl can have a natural crackle or slight distortion in it, something a lot of Lo-Fi producers imitate.
Sampling itself became easier too. You don’t have to understand anything about music or rhythm to make a beat these days. When sampling with a piece of hardware, there is always the challenge of chopping it up the right way. Even when you quantize the beats you make, there is still some kind of skill involved. For instance, most producers are using a Digital audio workstation (DAW). It is an electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files. You can use it to slice and bend samples the way you want them to be. Note that this can also open up a lot of possibilities when used in the production of other kinds of music, but is not relevant in this topic.
As mentioned earlier, the way music is released has become almost too easy, as opposed to being kinda hard. You don’t have to get signed to a record label to release something. When you finish a track you can upload it to an aggregator or publisher of your choice and a few days later your track is on all major digital streaming services. Some of these aggregators charge a yearly fee, or every track costs a certain amount of money per release to publish it. But that is still nothing compared to the manufacturing costs of Vinyl and CD’s. And if that is still too much trouble, you can still upload your music to sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp and still have your music out there.
With how easy making and releasing music has become, services like Spotify have been drowned in releases that would have never seen the light, if for instance a label or an A&R (Artists & Repertoire Manager) wouldn't have considered it to be worth releasing. Because in a way, labels and radio acted as the gatekeepers of the quality and originality of music. Another modern trend that helped in the massive popularity of Lo-Fi is the playlist culture and the 2-hour long YouTube video's. You've probably heard of it, the Lo-Fi Study Music and Beats to Relax To video's. A lot of music, and especially Lo-Fi, is being made with playlists in mind. So instead of trying to make something original and different, a lot of producers try to imitate a certain sound so they can fit in a playlist and gain a lot of streams.
This is a very big difference between Nujabes and a lot of Lo-Fi producers, where Nujabes made an album with a specific sound and aesthetic in mind, and he worked several years on every album before releasing it. Production-wise there are some other, very big differences that people often seem to forget.
A lot, or maybe all of Nujabes music, is really detailed and intricate, and leans more toward Jazz than Hip Hop. 'Music Is Mine' is a good example of this. Something you can hear in a lot of Lo-Fi is muffled drums, probably to make it sound less sharp. But if you listen to the previously mentioned or any other Nujabes tracks, you will notice that all his drums sound very crisp.
What really makes Nujabes tracks come to life is the fact that besides the samples he flipped, he also had people, including himself, play instruments on a lot of his tracks. One of the key figures in Nujabes’ music is Uyama Hiroto, a Japanese producer and multi-instrumentalist who has appeared as a sax player on several tracks, and co-produced the Modal Soul album. He even finished the posthumously released Spiritual State. Uyama’s first album was released on Hydeout Productions, Nujabes imprint, and was also co-produced by him. From his second album onward, Uyama started releasing on his own record label, Roph Recordings. Nujabes’ influence is still audible in his work, but he also goes into his own direction. This is especially hearable in his work Freeform Jazz. Like the name implies, this record is more inspired by jazz and the freedom within jazz than his previous works.
However, for a lot of people, jazzy Hip Hop beats and Lo-Fi beats have the same purpose. Probably because both can be used as chill background music while you're doing something else. And in sound they can be very similar, since both genres are heavily influenced by Hip Hop and Jazz. But if you listen to music of Nujabes like you listen to Lo-Fi, chances are big that you are going to miss a lot of beauty and originality. Same goes for any other artist who has an ear for detail, making music that falls between these categories. To further explain what I mean, I've selected a few tracks with artists like Nujabes, his contemporaries and those who are still carrying the legacy of making quality music that is definitely not Lo-Fi.
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