Dion Lewis was trying to make the most of a difficult situation. Last August, when a storm left his Chicago neighborhood without power for a week, he improvised. Lewis had recently created a YouTube page for tutorials on different aspects of computer programming called Code pioneers, and that first night, unable to record, he decided to reunite his wife and daughter for a quality moment. Together in their living room surrounded by twinkling candles, the three of them sat listening to songs Lewis “previously downloaded for use as background music” in his video tutorials. They included tracks like “Mix It Up” by RalphReal and “Wallflowers” by Portland experimental musician Bad Snacks.
The next morning, moved by what he had heard, Lewis grabbed his DJ controller, headphones and used “the last amount of power” from his laptop to create “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 her YouTube page.
As the first comments on the post indicated, Lewis tapped “something next level.” The popularity of the video comes as no complete surprise to those familiar with the deep subcultures of the platform. “Late Night Coding in Chicago” is one of a burgeoning genre of video – and sound – on YouTube that the company says garnered more than a billion views in 2020.
Officially, the genre is called lo-fi hip-hop, and the essence of its sound rejects the surplus. Like all of the selections Lewis showcased in his first video, the songs are generally relaxed and slow, have no lyrics, and are so understated that it’s easy to forget the music is even playing. They are supposed to be mood makers. The songs, which Lewis says generally have a “good, smooth beat that is between 70 and 95 bpm” (beats per minute), often function as founders while performing a number of tasks: working, studying, meditating, doing biking, cooking, or in the case of those who visit Lewis’ page, coding.
Lewis is a full-service web developer and has worked in IT for over a decade. Code Pioneers began, he says, out of concern for people who “were suffering from layoffs, time off 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 details of coding. With that, the topics cover the basics of HTML and how to create an iframe on a web page. In one of Lewis’ earliest downloads, he talks at length about “The # 1 skill required by developers” (The answer might surprise you).
The video that materialized on the first night of the power outage “was never part of the original plan,” Lewis says. Seven months later, those videos are now “an important feature” of his page, a move that has earned him a loyal subscriber base of 17,000 people. “Lo-fi hip-hop videos have a bigger impact on viewers than any tutorial,” he says. Not too long ago, a listener texted Lewis and explained how listening to his videos has helped him “deal with loneliness” as a remote worker.
While seeds of the genre existed in strewn corners of YouTube for a while, lo-fi hip-hop began to bubble in 2016 and has since pollinated outward. Made famous by the chains Chilled cow (7.5 million subscribers, including 3 million last year) and University music (1.2 million), what they all have in common is a fundamental adherence to minimalism. The framework, heavy with instrumentation and ambiance, borrows from producers like J Dilla, Nujabes and Madlib, who helped create a similar sound in the early 2000s. On an Internet built around excess, practitioners of lo-fi hip-hop adhere to one belief: euphoria at least.