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Library of Congress app lets you make hip hop with century-old samples

"Citizen DJ" was created by the library's innovator in residence Brian Foo.
Steve Dent, @stevetdent
April 27, 2020
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Library of Congress, Washington DC July 9th, 2019
Jordan Schaefer Photography via Getty Images

The US Library of Congress has unveiled Citizen DJ, a digital tool that allows you to remix sounds from its massive collection of film, television, video and sound recordings. It was created by “innovator in residence” Brian Foo to recapture the ‘80s and ‘90s golden age of hip-hop sampling. “Collage-based hip-hop as it existed in the golden age is largely a lost art form,” he said in a statement. “These albums were dense and intricate sonic collages composed of hundreds of found sounds.”

That form of hip hop, embodied by albums like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, largely disappeared in the following decades due to “high profile lawsuits resulting in excessive restrictions on how audio could be sampled,” said Foo.

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, offers nearly limitless royalty-free samples. Citizen DJ allows you to draw samples from six collections (including the Free Music Archive and Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures), and remix them into beats using patterns like ‘60s funk, ‘70s soul, and ‘80s/’90s hip hop. Once you find a clip, you can remix it using the simple browser-based DJ app.

The app lets you shuffle the samples and drum kicks from a variety of drum machines. I found the controls to be a bit rudimentary, but the project is still in a test site phase through May 15th with just a subset of available sounds. The Library will keep keep an eye on how it’s used during the beta and collect feedback to improve the app. (My suggestion: allow users to search by title or theme and not just mosaic, and make the sample snippets a bit longer.)

In the meantime, it’s a lot of fun to check out all the materials and use the app. “I believe if there was a simple way to discover, access, and use public domain audio and video material for music making, a new generation of hip hop artists and producers can maximize their creativity, invent new sounds, and connect listeners to materials, cultures, and sonic history that might otherwise be hidden from public ears," said Foo.

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