Originating as an ironic variant of chillwave, vaporwave was loosely derived from the experimental tendencies of the mid-2000s hypnagogic pop scene and pioneered by producers such as James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin and Vektroid (Ramona Xavier). Following the blueprint established by Vektroid's Floral Shoppe (December 2011), a circle of online producers were inspired to make music in the style. The movement built an audience on sites Last.fm, Reddit, and 4chan, with a flood of new acts, many operating under online pseudonyms, turning to Bandcamp for distribution. The wider exposure of vaporwave in 2012 led to a wealth of subgenres and offshoots such as futurefunk, mallsoft, and hardvapour.
Vaporwave originated on the Internet as an ironic variant of chillwave loosely derived from the work of hypnagogic pop artists such as Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, which was characterized by the inovation of retro popular culture, as well as the "analog nostalgia" of the chillwave scene. Amplifying the experimental tendencies of hypnagogic pop, vaporwave draws primarily on sources from the early 1990s and is made from "brief, cut-up sketches", cleanly produced, and composed almost entirely from samples. Early incarnations of vaporwave relied on the sampling of sources such as smooth jazz, retro elevator music, R&B, and dance music from the 1980s and 1990s, along with the application of slowed-down chopped and screwed techniques, looping, and other effects. Critic Adam Trainer notes the style's predilection for "music made less for enjoyment than for the regulation of mood," such as corporate stock music for infomercials and product demonstrations. Another critic, Adam Harper, describes the typical vaporwave track as "a wholly synthesised or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality." The style's visual aesthetic (often stylized as "", with fullwidth characters) also incorporates early Internet imagery, late 1990s web design, glitch art, and cyberpunk tropes.
Harper notes that vaporwave artists are often "mysterious and often nameless entities that lurk the internet, often behind a pseudo-corporate name or web faade, and whose music is typically free to download through Mediafire, Last FM, Soundcloud or Bandcamp." The genre's origins are traced to the albums Eccojams Vol. 1 (Daniel Lopatin as "Chuck Person", August 2010) and Far Side Virtual (Ferraro, October 2011). Lopatin's featured chopped and screwed variations on popular 1980s pop songs, with album artwork that resembled the 1992 video game Ecco the Dolphin. As he moved on to other ideas, middle-class teens and young adults used Eccojams as a starting point for what would become vaporwave.
According to Metallic Ghosts (Chaz Allen), the original vaporwave scene came out of an online circle formulated on the site Turntable.fm. This circle included individuals known as Internet Club (Robin Burnett), Veracom, Luxury Elite, Infinite Frequencies, Transmuteo (Jonathan Dean), Coolmemoryz, and Prismcorp. Following the release of Ramona Xavier's New Dreams Ltd. (credited to "Laserdisc Visions", July 2011), a number of producers took inspiration from the style, and Burnett used "vaporwave" to tie the disparate group together. Xavier's Floral Shoppe (credited to "Macintosh Plus", December 2011) was the first album to be properly considered of the genre, containing all of the style's key components.