As It Happens

Library of Congress unveils tool to 'reinvent, reinvigorate' classic hip-hop sampling

Citizen DJ, a new tool at the U.S. Library of Congress is a searchable database of free sounds, going all the way back to the time of Thomas Edison. 

Music and archival tape are available for free via Citizen DJ

Kelvin Mercer of the hip-hop group De La Soul performs at the J.A.M. Awards, in New York City in 2007. De La Soul uses a variety of samples in their music. (Andy Kropa/The Associated Press)


Sampling is a foundational hip-hop tradition that's become harder to do thanks to prohibitive copyright laws. But Citizen DJ, a new tool at the U.S. Library of Congress, aims to make free sounds more accessible.

To sample, DJs and music producers take sounds from outside sources then remix and reuse them. Citizen DJ, now in beta, is a searchable database of free sounds, going all the way back to the time of inventor Thomas Edison. 

Musicians can take the sounds and use them for any purpose, even commercial, Brian Foo, Library of Congress innovator-in-residence, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"We're providing online tools that allow really anybody with an internet connection to access ... free-to-use audio and video material from the Library of Congress and use it in a way in which it's completely unrestricted."

Brian Foo, Library of Congress innovator-in-residence, made a tool to help music producers and DJs find sounds to sample. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Modern copyright laws mean the type of sampling featured in the music of artists like De La Soul and Public Enemy has become expensive and sometimes illegal. Recent lawsuits against popular musicians including Drake and Katy Perry hinged on samples. 

"I've always been fascinated with the idea of the DJ, somebody who, especially in the early days of hip hop, would be this collector of sounds," Foo said.

"They would be in the backs of thrift shops and record stores, digging through crates of old records and vinyl looking for the most obscure sounds they could find."

Users can use the tool to remix sounds from a wide range of sources, add beats and download sounds in bulk. 

"They really gave me a diversity of different types of sounds," Foo said, including some of the oldest sounds of the Thomas Edison wax cylinder collection from the early 1900s, contemporary music, spoken word, oral histories, government film and radio broadcasts.

Foo, a break dancer and lover of hip hop himself, said this project stemmed in part from a personal desire to make sample-based music "in a responsible way."

"I'm not as much as a rebel as Public Enemy or something. But I wanted to honestly ask: What is the sonic material in our shared culture that we have access to really, just freely imagine what can be made with them?" he said. 

Rapper Flavor Flav of the band Public Enemy jumps in the air as he performs at the O2 Arena in London on June 16, 2016. (Mark Allan/Invision/AP)

"I'm really excited to hear what can be done from it. And I hope that it's music that would just be really surprising and would otherwise be impossible to make.

"The hope is that we can possibly reinvent, reinvigorate some of the collage-based music that was so prevalent in the late '80s and early '90s."

Written by Justin Chandler. Interview produced by John McGill.

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