Citizen DJ is officially open to the public and all sounds on this website are completely free-to-use for your remixing needs. Read a behind-the-scenes retrospective post on this experimental project and residency.
About Citizen DJ
The Citizen DJ project invites the public to make hip hop music using the free-to-use audio and video collections from the Library of Congress. By embedding these materials in hip hop music, listeners can discover items in the Library’s vast collections that they likely would never have known existed.
Why Hip Hop?
The concept of Citizen DJ is grounded in hip hop culture which is composed of five elements: DJ-ing, MC-ing, B-boy/girling, Graffiti, and Knowledge. The last element refers to knowledge of history and knowledge of self. As the legendary KRS-One puts it, “Knowing where YOU come from helps to show YOU where YOU are going. Once you know where you come from you then know what to learn.” We hope Citizen DJ can be a resource for Knowledge, encouraging the use of cultural heritage materials as a medium of self-expression and historical interrogation.
It is also important to highlight the origins of hip hop. There’s a lot of depth to this history, but a key thing to know is that it started in the Bronx, New York during the early 70’s as a medium of protest, empowerment, and documentation by young Black and Latinx communities that were neglected politically and institutionally. While hip hop has grown exponentially over the decades and has become a bridge between communities of all colors and backgrounds, it remains a tool for social change and amplifying voices of underserved communities of color. By making the materials and tools of Citizen DJ available for free and online, we hope to provide at least one more public resource for those who want to make music in the spirit of hip hop’s foundational values.
Why the DJ?
Since its beginnings in the 1970s, hip hop has become today’s dominant worldwide music genre and cultural movement. At the center of this movement is the DJ, whose role is to excavate, transform, and collage disparate and obscure sounds from current and past cultures to create wholly new, relevant, and infectious music.
The golden age of hip hop was said to be in the late 80s to early 90s when DJs had unconstrained creative freedom to collage from found sounds. This small window of time produced landmark albums such as Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising, both considered to be culturally significant and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. These albums were dense and intricate sonic collages composed of hundreds of found sounds. However, the increasing popularity of hip hop in the following decade gave rise to high profile lawsuits resulting in major restrictions on how audio could be sampled. Today, collage-based hip hop as it existed in the golden age is largely a lost (or at best, a prohibitively expensive) artform.
I believe if there was a simple way to discover and access free-to-use 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.
Why the Library of Congress?
The Library of Congress is our nation’s de facto library and houses over 3 million sound recordings. In the early days of hip hop especially, DJs’ reputation and knowledge were built on the size and diversity of their record collections. They would spend their time checking record stores, flea markets, or thrift shops, searching for the most obscure sounds from all sorts of genres and eras of music and spoken word; this phenomenon was called “crate digging.” A goal of this project is to identify what is in our shared and collective “crate” of sonic culture and history as citizens of the United States (or the World since these sounds are free to use outside of the U.S.)
The U.S. Copyright Office is also part of the Library of Congress. Since a goal of this project is to identify audio and video material that is free to use without restriction, it is meaningful if it is done within the Library of Congress since they are the authorities on copyright in the United States. In this way, the general public can feel confident that the audio and video materials that they find as a part of this project can be used however they want, for free, and without restriction.
What are the goals of your project?
- Cultivate the creation of new and transformative music using free-to-use audio and video materials from the Library.
- Connect the general public with culturally significant, underutilized, and free-to-use audio and video collections available from the Library.
- Engage communities, such as secondary school students and amateur musicians, that may have a strong relationship with hip hop music, but little to no existing relationship with the Library or the Library’s materials.
- Provide the general public (in particular, those with little to no formal research training) with the tools and resources to navigate the United States copyright system in the context of sample-based music creation.
- Contribute to human-computer interaction research and best practices for search and discovery of large audio and video collections.
What kind of sounds are you looking for?
I am looking for a diversity of audio and video collections that can include recorded music, field recordings, oral histories, and government film. I will be working with staff at the Library of Congress to help find and select audio and video collections that loosely fit the following criteria:
- Is free to use. This includes material in the public domain as well as material where permission was given for use in this project.
- Has cultural significance, is relevant, and may resonate with the general public.
- Is underutilized. This may be due to a variety of factors including a lack of metadata, is in an inaccessible format, or a lack of promotion.
How will you be making these sounds available, searchable, and discoverable?
This website will include three ways of accessing the sounds identified in this project:
- An interface for quickly exploring a particular collection by sound and metadata
- A simple music-creation app that let’s you remix collections with beats
- “Sample packs” that you can download which contain thousands of audio clips from a particular collection that can be used in most music production software
How will you deal with copyright law around digital sampling?
This project will focus on audio and video material that has been identified to be free to use without restriction. This material will be identified and verified in coordination with Library of Congress staff. Some example materials under consideration include:
- Music commissioned and recorded by the U.S. Government
- Field recordings collected by government fieldworkers, where signed releases by the performers were collected and the underlying songs are identified to be in the public domain (e.g. traditional songs)
- Sound recordings dedicated to the public domain by the owner
- Collections in which the Library has obtained explicit permission by the owners to use the audio materials as outlined in this project
Furthermore, all audio clips distributed by this project will contain detailed information about how to attribute and credit the creators and will be limited to audio clips that are short and non-continuous.
Lastly, a large focus of this project will be to provide an accessible and user-friendly guide to educate the general public, particularly those with little to no research background, on U.S. copyright law as it relates to sample-based music production. Existing Library resources and guides will be leveraged and referenced as much as possible.
How will you deal with the ethics of digital sampling?
In addition to providing a guide to copyright law as it relates to digital sampling for music production, I will also provide a guide to the ethics of digital sampling from cultural materials. This is particularly relevant to materials such as field recordings and oral histories where the performers or subjects in the source material would benefit from attribution, compensation, context, and a generally respectful approach to creative re-use.
How do you select/create the audio clips?
For each collection, I use custom computer algorithms that:
- Cut up the audio files into short clips that are usually under one second, using onset detection.
- Each of those clips are analyzed for their music-making potential, with preferences with those clips that are sufficiently loud, have less noise, and have a clear musical pitch.
All of my custom software and computer scripts that do this are free and open source. You can find them and documentation in this project’s code repository.
Who are you?
My name is Brian Foo and I have worked in libraries and museums for nearly a decade, specializing in the visualization of large collections of media for the public. I am a 2020 Innovator in Residence at the Library of Congress and a data visualization artist at the American Museum of Natural History.
In terms of my relationship to hip-hop, I was an active breakdancer (b-boy) for about 15 years and continue to dance whenever I can. From a young age, I have always been drawn to the culture and different artforms of hip hop (dj-ing, mc-ing, breakdancing/b-boy-ing, graffiti.) I particularly connect to the idea of individual expression through the mixing and collaging of disparate sources.
Who made this project possible?
Many, many Library of Congress staff from many different parts of the Library:
- LC Labs - facilitated and hosted my residency
- Office of the General Counsel - copyright advising
- American Folklife Center - content curation and research, project advising, and community outreach
- Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) - content curation and research
- Web Archiving Team - content curation, technical support
- Design and Development Teams - technical support, user research and testing
- Office of Communications - outreach
What is the timeline of this project?
This experimental project ran for one year from September 2019 to September 2020. The website will be maintained for at least 3 years and you can follow LC Labs for further updates.
How can I give feedback?
You can follow the instructions on the feedback page for sending feedback for this project.
For press inquiries and collaborations, please contact [email protected]
How can I save music created on this website?
This website is primarily an audio discovery tool, so the music production functions are limited. The typical use of this website will be to discover new audio, then download that audio for use in your own music production software.
That said, there are a few ways to save and download audio that you find on this website:
- When “remixing” a collection, a unique URL will be generated when you select a new sequence. You can save that URL for future reference
- Also on the “remix” page, you can click “Download pattern” which will save the current pattern as .wav file that you can seamlessly loop in your own music production software.
- Also on the “remix” page, there is a “record” button that allows you to record the current sequence until you stop recording. A .wav file will automatically be saved to your computer.
- Also on the “remix” page, there is a button “Save pattern” which will save the current pattern in your browser that you can come back to later. These saved patterns will continue to be available on your browser as long as you don’t manually clear your browser data.
- All the sounds that you here can be directly downloaded to your computer. This includes individual clips (downloadable via the download icon) and bulk downloads if you click on the “Browse & download” button for any given collection.
Can I share my music through your project?
Yes! We would like to showcase new music that this project helped make possible. It is also beneficial for the Library of Congress to know how projects like this can make an impact. You can email [email protected] or tweet @Librarycongress or @LC_Labs
If I make new music using sounds from this website, what can I do with it?
All the sounds that are available on this website are free and available for unrestricted use for creating new music. This means whatever new music that you create, it is yours and can do whatever you like with it, including selling and making money from it!
For uses beyond creating new music, please refer to the “How can I use these sounds” section for each collection of audio.
Can users outside of the U.S. use Citizen DJ as described on this website?
How can I use your software and app?
All the code that powers this website is in the Public Domain unless otherwise noted. You can use, extend, and adapt this app and underlying software however you like. More details can be found in this project’s code repository.