Dion Lewis was trying to make the best out of a difficult situation. Last August, when a storm left his Chicago neighborhood without electricity for a week, he improvised. Lewis had recently created a YouTube page for tutorials about the various aspects of computer programming called Code Pioneers, and that first night, unable to record, he decided to gather his wife and daughter for some quality time. Together in their living room surrounded by flickering candles, the three of them sat listening to songs Lewis “previously downloaded to use as background music” in his video tutorials. They included tracks like RalphReal’s “Mix It Up” and “Wallflowers” by the Portland experimentalist musician Bad Snacks.
The next morning, moved by what he’d heard, Lewis grabbed his DJ controller, headphones, and used “the last amount of power” in his laptop to make “Late Night Coding in Chicago”—a 32-minute stream of soothing lo-fi hip-hop songs and, to date, one of the most-watched videos on his YouTube page.
As early comments on the post indicated, Lewis tapped into “something next-level.” The popularity of the video is not a total surprise for those familiar with the platform’s deep subcultures. “Late Night Coding in Chicago” is part of a booming genre of video—and sound—on YouTube that, according to the company, amassed more than a billion views in 2020.
Officially, the genre is called lo-fi hip-hop, and the essence of its sound spurns surplus. Like all of the selections Lewis featured in his first video, songs are typically relaxed and slow-feeling, contain no lyrics, and are so impressively low-key that it’s easy to forget music is even playing. They are meant to be mood-setters. The songs, which Lewis says ordinarily have a “nice mellow rhythm that is somewhere between 70 and 95 bpm” (beats per minute), often work as background filler while doing any number of tasks: working, studying, meditating, biking, cooking, or in the case of those who visit Lewis’ page, coding.
Lewis is a full-stack Web developer and has worked in IT for more than a decade. Code Pioneers started, he says, out of a concern for people who were “suffering layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.” As the description on the site makes clear, the page is for anyone who wants to learn the particulars of coding. On it, topics span the basics of HTML and how to make an iframe on a webpage. In one of Lewis’ earliest uploads, he speaks at length about “the #1 skill needed by developers” (the answer might surprise you).
The video that materialized from the first night of the power outage was “never a part of the original plan,” Lewis says. Seven months in, those videos are now “a prominent feature” of his page, a move that has gained him a faithful subscriber base of 17,000. “The lo-fi hip-hop videos have a greater impact on viewers than any tutorial ever could,” he says. Not long ago, one listener messaged Lewis and explained how listening to his video streams helped him “cope with loneliness” as a remote worker.
While the seeds of the genre existed in scattered corners of YouTube for a time, lo-fi hip-hop began to formally bubble in 2016 and has since pollinated outward. Made famous by the channels ChilledCow (7.5 million subscribers, 3 million of which he gained last year) and College Music (1.2 million), what all of them have in common is a core embrace for minimalism. The framework, which is heavy on instrumentation and atmosphere, borrows from producers like J Dilla, Nujabes, and Madlib, who helped to architect a similar sound in the early 2000s. On an Internet built around excess, lo-fi hip-hop practitioners abide by a single belief: the euphoria of less.
Though each lo-fi hip-hop channel has a distinct identity, they have all gained mixed degrees of notoriety by using the platform’s livestreaming component, which lets users play a single video nonstop. Most of the streams adhere to a static format and, visually, feature animations of some sort—a young person in bed or at their desk with headphones on, the exterior of a café, a city skyline at night. Users like Mr_MoMo (487,000) broadcast Japanese lo-fi trap and bass, or “Trapanese,” while others like Steezyasfuck (1 million) are more known to blend in the occasional jazz tune on his 24/7 “coffee shop radio” livestream. Bootleg Boy’s (4 million) “sad & sleepy beats 😴” stream has broadcast continuously since March 21, 2020. The shared result is a kind of experimentation that tests the boundaries of sound and time: they have created playlists without an end.
Lo-fi hip-hop videos garnered more views in 2020 than in any previous year, according to YouTube Music. But even with more than 1 billion combined views, those numbers don’t tell the full story. Individual songs and artists tied to or influenced by the sound have formed their own fan bases on the platform, even if they don’t explicitly state an affiliation with the genre.
Last year, Powfu’s meteoric Soundcloud hit, “Death Bed,” tallied over 700 million views globally across the official music video and fan uploads (sumptuously glazed in down-tempo cool and sadboy vibes, it’s a clear offspring of lo-fi hip-hop). It went viral on TikTok, surpassing 4 billion audio plays in a single month, and peaked at No. 23 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Cultural mainstays like Pepsi and Will Smith have also attempted to stake a claim. As the genre has gone mainstream, one of the more fascinating developments to arise is its sway in global communities. In Mexico, as part of its “eternal search to make new music,” the group Palmasur repurposed the sound into “lo-fi Mex” to speak to the elements of Mexican life.
For Lewis, the widespread appeal of the genre has a lot to do with its inherent adaptability. “This flexibility in a lo-fi hip-hop playlist means that you can traverse multiple genres of music within the same genre,” he says. “One song can have a classical melody, while the next song can have a jazz melody, and then the next song can have more of a pop or a rock theme. Some YouTube channels have a variety of lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack themes like video games, TV shows, and movie soundtracks—nothing is really off limits.”
But even as the genre draws from all around it, the real marvel of lo-fi hip-hop on YouTube is its partiality to minimalism, its desire for less. The songs are spare but luxurious. They greet the ear like a soft, gooey whisper. Listening to one of Lewis’ streams or getting lost in a nine-minute Kid Cudi melody that’s been reformatted to fit the genre’s delights, as I often do when writing, doesn’t ask much of us. It’s music that works against excess. Particularly the excess of what it means to be alive in a world that only knows how to turn the volume up, up, up. That’s what the genre does best. It gives us another frequency to tune in and tune out.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.