Chillhop Records might be the perfect label for those who need to get work done. Much like ambient and classical, the music on Chillhop can easily block distractions. The sound is a sample-based blend of smooth jazz and boom-bap to which people have caught on: the label’s most popular YouTube stream, “Chill Gaming/Study Beats,” has up to 6,000 people tuning in each day (the channel itself has 1.1 million subscribers). “A lot of people have just started to realize that this music is really good for studying,” says Bas van Leeuwen, founder of Chillhop Records.
The godfather of the Rotterdam, Netherlands-based Chillhop label appears to be Nujabes, the late Japanese hip-hop producer who first became known for contributing to Shinichirō Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo soundtrack. Meanwhile, Chillhop songs, as if part of some vast music library, have been featured in videos by BuzzFeed and by YouTube personality Casey Neistat. This year, Chillhop also provided the soundtrack for the cs_summit tournament—as in first-person shooter Counter-Strike—which, to some, was a welcome respite from the dubstep the game designers usually incorporate. “There is a lot of potential for commercial licensing—for restaurants, coffee shops. So we’re trying to build that out as well,” van Leeuwen says.
But he also wonders whether Chillhop artists, who tend to be newcomers if not relative unknowns, could ever be the main attraction. “People don’t relate to the artists at all because they put the music on in the background,” he says. “That is a challenge we’re trying to overcome: to create a real connection between the artists and listeners, rather than have music that is kind of interchangeable.”
“Chillhop,” a term van Leeuwen coined with his friend, became the soundtrack to his life six years ago. They discovered this type of music through skateboarding videos, a medium that dates back to at least the ’80s, where unexpected song choices like Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” can play up a skater’s surprising artistry. From there, van Leeuwen found “chill-out” mixes on the now-defunct LimeWire and Kazaa, and music by Nujabes associates through YouTubers like Bob42jh. Emancipator’s Soon It Will Be Cold Enough got played during a road trip to several national parks in the United States, while Fujitsu’s Corals reminds him of when he explored remote parts of Australia.
In 2015, van Leewuen got to the point where he wanted to tell everyone about the music he loved. He founded Chillhop Records and would spend 10 hours a day developing the site until the label became his full-time job a few months ago. Chillhop began as a promotional tool, offering free single downloads and EPs by anyone van Leeuwen could find, whether those artists described their music as “jazz hip-hop,” “jazz-hop,” or “lo-fi hip-hop.” But the project that really set the tone for Chillhop Records was Appetizers, released two years ago. This was the label’s first compilation to feature exclusive tracks, and from artists with whom Chillhop still works with today (including Birocratic, who would executive produce future releases).
“We’d been working with a lot of artists, and I wanted to showcase them all, but doing an album with all of them would be hard,” van Leeuwen says. “So it’s nice to have every artist make a track based on that theme. You get a nice compilation of different styles, but still with an overlapping theme. Artists don’t have to make a full album, so there’s less pressure.”
Chillhop has gotten the most name recognition with the Essentials series. Inspired by one of van Leeuwen’s favorite albums, SoulChef’s 2011 Long Hot Summer, Chillhop has up to 21 artists contributing tracks inspired by the changing seasons. The best-selling Essentials compilations have been Summer and Winter 2016; van Leeuwen thinks that’s because those seasons have “the most specific atmospheres.” (Meanwhile, Chillhop Essentials Summer 2016 is the label’s best-selling release, period.) But the Essential series also lends itself well to our current streaming culture, where services like Spotify use playlists to set themselves apart from one another. For a good portion of those playlists, the point isn’t necessarily artist discovery—it’s to take the guesswork out for listeners when it comes to setting a mood.
Chillhop, and the microgenre it promotes, benefits from that shift. On any given day that “Chill Gaming/Study Beats” is playing, there are at least eight other YouTube channels with similar live streams, complete with an anime-themed thumbnail image (Chillhop’s is from Wolf Children)—what has to be a sign of growing ubiquity. But van Leeuwen is uncomfortable with that fact. “I feel like the balance is shifting to where the platforms and the channels themselves benefit too much from the music, and the artists don’t benefit enough,” he says, adding, “They get featured on this playlist and get a bunch of streams. They think, ‘Oh, I’m growing an audience. But they get off the playlist, and their streams drop to zero. They don’t grow an audience, because that audience is listening to the playlist.”
Van Leeuwen can’t help but feel protective. “The scene is still very genuine,” he says. “For me, when I look at EDM music, the big EDM channels, it’s always business—getting something out of it. Whereas for me, working with people in this scene is like working with friends.”
That is why these days, Chillhop concerns itself most with helping said friends out. Going into their Essentials Fall 2017 and Winter 2017 compilations (which was slated to be released Dec. 11), van Leewuen told featured artists to take stylistic risks. He suggested that they prioritize original compositions over samples, and to get more elaborate writing-wise, despite the microgenre’s overall soothing nature. Chillhop also started selling releases on vinyl, to promote “a more conscious and active way of listening to the music.” (Over a thousand LPs have been sold so far.) In November, Chillhop’s official site started hosting a live stream that posts the artist’s name and links to music in real time. The default playlist on this page is “Chill Gaming/Studying Beats,” but at least this way, connecting to artists feels like the natural next step.
Back in April, Chillhop Records threw its first-ever show, “Chillhop City Nights,” in Paris, featuring Philanthrope, L’Indécis, Birocratic, and Eevee. Based on the live stream, and like at most concerts, period, people wouldn’t always devote their entire attention to whoever was on stage. Sometimes they danced. Sometimes they talked among themselves. Still, it was proof of their growing attachment to Chillhop, beyond times whenever they needed to concentrate on something else.