Atlanta’s influential hip-hop music scene is dominated and heavily molded by trap music. Savage lyrics and heavy 808s make unrivaled club bangers that drown out a burgeoning hip-hop community usually overlooked or felt left out, but not for long. A demand for instrumental beat music is bridging the gap and it’s trickled into Georgia’s capital. Monday Night Garage, a low-key brewery in West End, is home to Controllerise.
The weekly chill session — filled with soothing beats, anime screenings, and video games — is set up like poetry open mic night; bashful producers spin melodic beats for 30 minutes each. While there is a master of ceremonies, the spotlight is on the producer. True to lo-fi’s attraction, attendees can passively listen to the set while playing Crash Bandicoot, sit on the edge of their seat as Michiko from Japan’s Michiko & Hatchin kicks a** and takes names, stuff their faces with food or mingle with other creatives.
But before the creation of Controllerise, there was the creation of lo-fi. Coming from the style low fidelity, its sound carries spirits of home recording or as lo-fi producer and DJ Eevee calls it, “bad quality sound.” Producers like Nujabes and the late J Dilla are credited as the fathers of its sound. The idea of the lo-fi beat collective started with Detroit native STLNDRMS and Atlanta native Blkcubes, producers who met through social media.
“I really try to take all the traction that I built up on Facebook and move it to Controllerise,” STLNDRMS said. “Controllerise is us doing all the stuff we do at home in public. That’s really it. There’s no grand scheme or large-scale plan.”
STLNDRMS, born Chris Wilkes, had a weekly segment on Facebook Live called “Beats And Chill,” where he tested his skills by making beats from scratch. Folks who tuned in had the opportunity to collectively make a beat, Wilkes including them in the beat-making process every step of the way. Other days he would play a beat set of instrumentals, some he favored from the last session while others he constructed off-camera.
Producers and lo-fi fans tuned in for two hours twice a week to watch Wilkes make magic. Even though it was well-received online, Wilkes wanted to make his well-adored hobby a profession.
“I didn’t have the real-life interaction with folks,” Wilkes said. “I had this ‘Facebook interaction’ with folks, which was so dope. I really appreciate it. But I was really at the mercy of what Facebook was doing so once I started doing it in public and got to shake hands and really talk to people, it was a whole other thing.”
Wilkes said the two just wanted to do what they loved. Thankfully their love for beats, beer, and anime wasn’t met alone. They combined their skills and in less than a week, Controllerise was born in the most millennial way possible–in pure D.I.Y. fashion.
“Controllerise is us doing all the stuff we do at home in public,” he said. “We sat down and came up with the name, made the website the next day and had a party the next week. By happenstance, we weren’t alone. There was hella people that was into the same s**t. A lot of people came out and supported it, and it became a thing, so I’m grateful for that.”
Birthing the weekly event with their own hands, Controllerise transformed online chat forums to offline chill sessions. The event allows lo-fi producers an opportunity to connect with their fans offline without the politics that come with booking a show in the city’s popular areas like Edgewood or Little 5 Points. In most cases, influence trumps talent and audience pull are measured by followers.
“People make records in their house and they don’t go through a booking agency,” Wilkes said. “If they’re dope, I’ll put you on next week. That’s it. I don’t care if you have 50,000 [followers] or 20. It doesn’t matter. If you got records, you got records. Period. It’s just a celebration of that [and] where we are right now in the sense that you don’t need [the] extra stuff. You don’t need a middleman, you don’t need 20 managers. You can really just get it on your own.”
Although lo-fi comes off as a new, innovative subgenre, Wilkes said it’s always been around. The style’s audio imperfections give it a nostalgic sound, almost like the grooves in a cassette tape or the crackle often heard when listening to vinyl. Since lo-fi is just a way to describe the audio quality of a track, Wilkes says anything can be lo-fi, including hip-hop. Trap is mainstream while lo-fi is underground. Trap music’s simultaneous love-hate relationship inside and outside the hip-hop community is comparable to that of the disco craze in the ‘70s.
“They just gave it a name,” Wilkes said. “People were making dusty dope hip-hop beats since the beginning of hip-hop. They’re just calling it lo-fi now as an alternative to a trap record. It’s almost full circle to where trap is almost disco at this point.”
Scroll through Spotify’s prolific hip-hop playlists or search lo-fi hip-hop on Youtube and you’ll find dozens of playlists and live streams dedicated to the burgeoning genre. Clint Choi, creator of a New York-based live music event service and promoter IRL Music, attributes lo-fi’s newfound popularity to algorithms and YouTube 24/7 live music streaming channels, Chillhop and Chilled Cow. About 16,000 people passively spend several hours online, viewing the live streams, chatting in the sidebar or handling miscellaneous tasks while the stream plays on.
“YouTube Live streams help because people can engage but at the same time not engage,” Choi said. “People are engaging in this content very passively and the trend reflects that there is a demand for passively consumed music. It’s easier to do tasks with the music at hand because it’s energetic, it helps amplify your concentration but it’s not overbearing that it prevents you from doing the task at hand.”
Choi added although YouTube helped brand lo-fi, Spotify helped push the underground genre to new heights. Its algorithms and lo-fi playlists made it easier for fans to discover new artists that would otherwise be overlooked.
“Spotify is probably one of the first streaming services in history to give it a main category and actually push it and use its full resources to push this genre,” Choi said.
A growing dependency on music streaming platforms also plays a part in leveling lo-fi’s exposure. Genius reports 1.3 billion people turn to YouTube to listen to music in August 2017 and a 2017 Nielsen Music report said 74 percent of those who stream music online do so by playing online playlists. The high accessibility of music production software and hardware paired with the decentralization of music distribution thanks to Spotify, Soundcloud, and Youtube, is slowly bringing little known lo-fi artists who are quietly hitting outrageous streaming numbers, like Eevee, into the spotlight.
The Netherlands based producer Eevee started making beats as a hobby. She said her boyfriend at the time downloaded FL Studio, an audio editing software, on her computer and she’s made beats every day since then.
“He taught me some basics and from that point, I just started making music every day,” Eevee said. “That’s kind of how I got into making music.”
She has over 49,000 followers and several thousand listens per song on Soundcloud. After a rush of positive feedback came her way on the social platform, she decided to take her art seriously.
“Soundcloud helped me a lot to believe in myself more and continue making music. It’s funny because you [upload a track and] think oh this is so s***ty and someone comments, ‘This is really nice’ and you’re like ‘You like this?’ Like what?”
Eevee isn’t alone in her quiet success. Knxwledge, an LA-based producer dedicated to “sample and loop-based” beats, has been releasing beat tapes since 2009. Steadily dropping joints on Bandcamp, he had zero intentions on “having super rappers rapping on my sh*t.”
“Randomly f***ing Joey, the s*** that he rapped on is from my first ever beat tape ever on Bandcamp,” Knxwledge told Fader in a 2015 interview. “F***ing Kendrick raps on some other s**t from Bandcamp. What if I didn’t share that s***? That’s crazy. It’s stupid. It’s all up to you. You can’t hoard s***.”
The Stones Throw Records signee co-produced for Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, produced for JoeyBada$$’s debut EP 1999, merged with Earl Sweatshirt to produce a Mach-Hommy LP and shares a collaborative project NxWorries with Anderson .Paak.
Lo-fi still has a long way to grow, but Choi said major labels are paying attention.
“From my observation, yes, they do notice the trends of this music,” he said. “We aren’t itching to sign lo-fi hip-hop artists to a major label, but we do observe the behavior of consumption.”
J Dilla and Nujabes’ legacy lives on through the DIY music culture via lo-fi. While it birthed the “SoundCloud rappers” some people love to hate, it also resurrected a forgotten beat tape culture while including a community of people in hip-hop usually cast aside. Wilkes said Controllerise is a celebration of that.
“I think that’s where Controllerise is from as far as DIY music culture,” Wilkes said. “All that stuff that [J] Dilla and Madlib have really set the tone for that went away when trap music kind of took over the radio, it’s kind of like that, extended on. That’s the cool thing. There’s this real horizontal energy. There’s not this big giant hierarchy where it’s like the top dog and the little dog, and you gotta pay your dues and go through all this stuff. You got beats and they’re dope, cool. Somebody finds you, you’re lit. That’s it. There’s no weird stuff.”