Since the beginning of hip hop and turntablism, the best DJs have been the best crate diggers, people who would spend hours flipping thru old vinyl, unknown titles, rare cuts, and sometimes seriously out-of-fashion, embarrassing old records for those brief moments of music that when looped, could be spun into modern magic.
At the same time, hip hop sampling has also been a minefield for copyright law, so much that modern DJs shy away from sampling lest they spend months and or years seeking clearing rights.
Artist and computer scientist Brian Foo knows where there are plenty of crates that have yet to be dug: the Library of Congress. Already the author of several projects that turn data into music, Foo received a grant from the Library this year to do something amazing with their collection and offer it to the public.
Citizen DJ is the result and currently you can play around with the beta version. The above video features Foo leading you through the site, and I highly recommend you watch it before diving in.
Sound sources come from the Library’s many collections: Edison sound recordings, Variety Stage recordings, Joe Smith’s interviews with early 20th century celebrities, a collection of American dialect recordings, government information films, and their more modern free music archives.
You can browse these as a color-coded graphic tapestry or as a list, with plenty of filters to narrow down your search. Once you find a sound you like you can chop it up in a sequencer and then bring in loops, change the bpm, and create some very, very odd modern music. (If you're lucky it will also be funky!) Everything can be downloaded offsite into a (digital audio workstation) DAW of your choice.
Whatever you make, by the way, is yours to do with whatever you want, and that includes selling it as your own track. (Although it’s best-practice to credit the source and the Library).
Foo notes that the project is fully launching in late summer, but is really looking for your feedback, whether you are a professional musician or a curious citizen. (We also want to hear anything that you wind up making, so let us know.)
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.