Instrumental hip hop was previously known as a style of music that produced either groundbreaking pieces of conceptual art or instrumentals from a specific album, such as Dr. Dre’s 2001: Instrumentals Only. What this new, underground movement presents in the genre is a wave of DIY beat-makers producing lo-fi and often nostalgic pieces of instrumentals with either soul or hip-hop vocals. The strong dividing line between initial and recent incarnations of instrumental hip-hop is that this new movement features a heavy use of conceptual and anaesthetised nostalgia with an alternative/lo-fi edge rather than produced commercialism. If indie bedroom pop producers decided to turn to sample-based music, this experimental anti-strain of hip hop would most likely be their drug of choice.
Notable musicians involved with this movement include Nujabes, TMCT, BRRD, SENSEI HIMSELF, TOP$, as well as the entire roster featured on EL SERENO RECORDS. These producers and independent collectives all share a stylistic similarity within their lo-fi sound and nostalgic imagery. This obscure, unidentified strain of instrumental hip hop can be described as both a movement and a redefinition of its initial concepts and themes. Surrounded by tape hiss and VHS fuzz, this reincarnation of the genre is by far the most groundbreaking and thematically brilliant change hip-hop’s had in years. “Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. “And true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more.”
This movement’s artistic definition seems to be private among the artists themselves, yet hard to associate, this fresh, new concept is easily identifiable while endlessly scrolling through the YouTube channel thanksforloitering, which has played a major role in bringing some of the movement’s most important artists into the social media mainstream. Pairing art-collage-esque visuals of old action movies, ‘90s hip hop shows, interviews, music videos, and various break-dancing footage with songs by the artists listed above in the second paragraph, the best way to fully realize and grasp this movement’s aesthetic is by visiting this vitally important channel – effortlessly highlighting the fact that this is hip-hop’s answer to punk in the digital age.
Whether the musicians realise it or not, the intentions and fleshed-out concept of this movement is still widely recognizable. TMCT first grabbed our attention in early 2014 with the release of SNOW BEACH VOL. 01 (MMJ Review), which was later reissued on cassette via boundary-pushing netlabel bootleg tapes. Shortly after, BUBBLE GOOSE was equally impressive – carrying the same weight channeled through dusty, lo-fi vinyl samples, breakbeats, and interpretations of ‘90s boom bap classics. TMCT is certainly the most accessible yet enjoyable artist from this movement to listen to. His compositions are often jazzy and brilliantly capture some of the rawest and most intricate details of this avant-garde approach to rap instrumentals.
If there’s anything that beautifully captures the essence of the recently booming cassette tape-revival phase in contemporary DIY culture, it’s this movement which solely relies on tape releases to carry the weight of the musical style’s processed, lo-fi aesthetic. If artists like J Dilla and Madlib hinted at hip-hop culture in their songs, then producers such as TMCT, SENSEI HIMSELF, jalen, Ohbliv, and JAMES MATTHEW fully embrace it.