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Indie chill…. What is it? What does it mean? Those two words open up a postmodern rabbit hole into a quantum universe of indeterminacy. What might make one person mellow, sleepy, happy, and calm might be infuriatingly boring to another? That's not even to begin to dissect that first word, as what is and isn't 'indie' is a whole separate conversation.
Why is this fuzzy, quantum descriptor taking over? Is indie chill a genre? A musical movement? Without getting into a metaphysical debate, we can default to Descartes' view on existence. Indie chill is real, because it exists, because people think it's real.
But why are so many people gravitating towards this fuzzy genre? What does it say about the world we're living in? Let's discuss, shall we?
The term chill as a musical descriptor came to prominence in the '90s, as information technology was really getting going in earnest. If 'chill music' is a genre, of any kind, it may be the first postmodern musical genre. Which is to say, it doesn't have a hard-and-fast definition, or even a consensus on its musical characteristics. So let's go ahead and dig into its etymology a bit in search of a definition.
The word 'chill' is the variable that's going to help us solve this equation. Because it's been used to describe legit musical movements, as well, that have some defining aesthetics we can expound upon.
Chill music is a shortened version of 'chill-out music,' which was an honest-to-goodness musical style in the late '80s and '90s. Chill-out music stemmed from the chillout rooms in raves and dance clubs. London's Heaven Nightclub featured the first high-profile chill-out room, where ambient music like Brian Eno would mix with progressive House, Techno, and Trance, from artists like The Orb, Orbital, or The KLF. These chill-out rooms were meant as a respite from the overwhelming stimulation of the big rooms. Which is also where we get our first hint why this music's so vital. And why it seems to be spreading.
Starting off as a mood, chill vibes started to permeate other genres. Most musical styles have some form of chill variant, especially if they've been around for a while. Downtempo/Trip-Hop is one variant, blending chilled hip-hop beats with noirish, jazzy vocals. Jazz, 'world music', hip-hop, and pop are all serve chilled, at times. Looking at this aspect of indie chill out also starts to illustrate some of its darker aspects.
One aspect of indie chill focuses on the relaxing, mellow, soothing, sometimes hypnotic aspects of a style. The other showcases how nearly any style, sound, or genre can be subverted, polished into sanitized, sterilized safety. This is kind of chill with digeridoos looped over stale house beats, looped ad nauseam. In our more enlightened, culturally-sensitive times, we'd like to think this style would've fallen out of fashion.
Not everybody's super adept at introspection, unfortunately. New Age-sounding beats paired with generic chanting samples are just as prevalent as they've ever been, if not more so.
Seeing as how we've made a case for chill being more of a mood or a feeling that a proper genre, per se, let's delve into some of the most popular variants of chill indie music.
One variant of chill music that is actually a genre in and of itself is 'chillstep.' Beginning in 2009, chillstep is a sub-genre of dubstep, toning down the bassy machismo of American dubstep and fusing aspects of more atmospheric genres, like Future Garage and Liquid Funk.
Of course, anyone who listens to non-American styles of dubstep realize its European counterparts were much lighter and more graceful, more romantic, even seductive. In a way, chillstep is just bringing that aspect to the forefront. This makes chillstep more suitable for your bedroom mixtapes, for the 'chill' part of 'Netflix and Chill,' which is, no doubt, what a lot of the genre is alluding to.
Chillstep is a breath of fresh air for those who love dance music but get burned out on constant low frequencies and blaring volumes. Much like the best love, the best dance music can be slow, subtle, delicate, and nuanced. It just makes it that much more satisfying when the climax comes.
Another of the first genres to use the 'chill-' prefix definitively is chillhop. Odyssey Magazine defines chillhop as "the intersection of jazzy elements, hip-hop, and electronic music." They position chillhop as a sub-genre of trip-hop, incorporating aspects of neo-soul and ambient music, first coming to prominence in the early 2000s. By that definition, Chillhop is essentially just 21st Century trip-hop. Which is to say, downtempo electronic music with all of the rough edges smoothed away, all shadows cast out, the darkness dispelled.
The ultimate representation of the chillhop sound is the Japanese producer/DJ Nujabes. Nujabes became popular with his soundtrack for the anime series Samurai Champloo. Adult Swim, who aired the anime in the United States, ended up picking up a number of Nujabes' other singles to air during breaks, becoming a bedrock of what would later become the Adult Swim Singles compilations.
For those that are familiar with that series or style, you're perhaps starting to imagine a sound - a mixture of shuffling, intricate polyrhythms; jazz samples; and sci-fi electronics. If you imagine what DJ Shadow might sound like if he limited themselves to sampling off of bebop LPs, '80s trance electronica, and Japanese City Pop, you're getting very close to what clickhop sounds like.
Nujabes' died too young, in a car accident on the Shuto Expressway. Another of chillhop's sonic visionaries died tragically, depriving us of his deep musical knowledge and magpie musical instincts. J Dilla also died in 2006 at the height of his creativity.
It's hard to imagine what might've happened had this fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music not lost its two most forward-thinking prophets. Luckily, Flying Lotus, sort of The Holy Ghost of clickhop, is still with us, ignoring musical boundaries and still creating some of the best indie chill songs out there.
Clickhop is closely associated with another flavor of mellow, heady hip-hop, sounding from earbuds and dorm rooms all over the globe.
Browse through some random list of recommended lo-fi hip-hop albums. You'll notice a few things. You're likely to see a picture of some cute anime character focusing on something, most likely homework. You'll also see a list of titles from producers that you'd likely love but have just as likely never heard of.
Lo-fi hip-hop might be the most listened-to genre that no one actually listens to. It's the stuff of playlists, made to soundtrack all of life's demands. It's music for relaxing, for studying, for coding, for creating spreadsheets.
How you feel about lo-fi hip-hop will likely depend on how much content and context you like your music to have. At its core, lo-fi hip-hop is the ambient music of the 2010s, Music For Airports for bored, stressed college students and overworked office drones. If you're someone who responds to a strong narrative in your music, who looks for the human interest in the pop songs you sing along to, the punk anthems you pump your fist to, odds are very good you'll hate lo-fi.
Lo-fi hip-hop is also unusual in that it doesn't really have superstars. Some credit MF Doom's iconic Madvillainy. The real superstar of blurry, fuzzy hip-beats sans vocals, it would be YouTube user ChilledCow, who brought the genre to prominence when the streaming service began offering their live streaming option.
So here we have a genre created by curators just as much as creators, that sounds nice but is weirdly vacuous when you really boil down to it. Is lo-fi hip-hop the ultimate ambient music? Or is it empty musical calories? How you listen to music and what you use it for will be the judge of that.
Probably the most established of the various chill genres, chillwave's also probably the most popular, so it's one of the first to spring to mind when people hear the term. Perhaps fittingly, for a genre that got its start on the Internet, the term chillwave started out as a joke. It started with an anonymous blogger, writing under the name Carles for the blog Hipster Runoff, started throwing around silly genre names.
Chillwave ended up catching on in 2010, in earnest, when major publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times wrote pieces mentioning the genre. It became shorthand for a particularly strange, hard-to-pin-down blend of shoegaze-y, dreamy indie pop melded with various styles of underground dance music.
Some chillwave artists, such as Neon Indian, doesn't sound that dissimilar to indie rock in the 2010s. In many ways, chillwave is the independent rock of the second decade of the 21st Century. Independent music has always taken sounds from the reigning sonic zeitgeist of the moment. As a generation of independent musicians came of age, having cut their teeth of classic rock, artful '80s synthpop and plastic funk, and the somber earnestness of '90s and early '00s indie, the birth of chilllwave was perhaps inevitable.
Some popular chillwave artists, like Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, or Memory Tapes, are essentially ambassadors for other underground genres, like Alt R&B, neo-psychedelia, or even experimental, theoretical genres like hauntology or vaporwave. Chillwave is the sound of deep listening, of hard drives packed to the last byte with music from throughout time and all over the Earth. Decades of access to basically every sound ever laid to acetate was bound to have some sort of effect. We just didn't predict how weird, wild, and woozy it would sound.
We've already mentioned some of the arguments that folks have made for and against various mellow musical genres, particularly chillwave and lo-fi hip-hop. The most famous analysis would be the New Yorker article "Against Chill: Apathetic Music To Make Spreadsheets To." Author and musicologist Amanda Petrutisch, with her lifelong obsession over the value of musical artifacts, is no doubt appalled at lo-fi hip-hop's lack of caloric content. While listening to some lo-fi playlists during one of her classes, Petrusich wrote down some of her associations, listening to the genre. "Koi pond, medical grade Marijuana, boutique hotel, hot-stone massage, European airplane, cool dentist."
She goes on to discuss the word 'chill' itself, as we did at the top of this article, trying to find the heart and soul of indie chill. There isn't much of one, according to Petrusich. "These days, to describe someone as “chill” is to propose that they’re slightly apathetic, but in a delightfully easygoing way. The rise of chill as an aspirational state suggests that perhaps the best thing to feel is not much at all."
Anyone who's spent any time on online dating apps has no doubt come across these modern Boddhisatvas, those describing themselves, as well as potential partners, as "looking for someone chill." That's a nice way of hinting that they won't catch feelings, that they're down for whatever, no matter what.
If you've ever dated anybody, you most likely recognize how challenging it would be to legitimately pull that off. You might even wonder if that's a good thing to aspire to at all? Yet we can't help but think of the phrase, "Don't hate the player, hate the game."
Can we really blame folks for feeling burned out, tired, stressed, possibly pessimistic, certainly guarded? When even true love is replaceable at the push of a button, when we're working 60 - 70 hours a week just to pay rent and, hopefully, get a little food?
On one hand, indie chill is the sound of late-stage capitalism, triumphant. It's the sound of people working themselves tirelessly to the bone, trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while the ground's disappearing beneath their feet.
It's not up to us to decide if a genre's inspirations or motivations are valid. People are gonna do what they're gonna do. At We Are: The Guard, it's our job to find what people are listening, perhaps speculating a bit here and there as far as why. Mostly, it's our job to sift through what's out there, the playlists and music videos, new album releases and social media feeds, sifting through the detritus and bringing you the best indie chill songs we can find.