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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 served 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 didgeridoos 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.