Library of Congress wants you to be the next Kanye (or Dr. Dre)

With Citizen DJ, you can take a 1941 address from FDR and drop it into an 808 drum machine

The main reading room at the Library of Congress is seen from the glass enclosed tourists’ viewing area in 2019.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The main reading room at the Library of Congress is seen from the glass enclosed tourists’ viewing area in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 27, 2020 at 5:16pm

For those looking for a new quarantine project (besides baking bread or trying to survive), the Library of Congress has come to the rescue by allowing the public to make hip-hop beats using the library’s extensive audio and moving image collections.

“Citizen DJ” is the brainchild of the library’s “innovator in residence” Brian Foo and is designed to hark back to rap’s so-called golden age (debatable) of “the late ’80s to early ’90s when DJs had unconstrained creative freedom to collage from found sounds,” Foo said in a statement.

Citizen DJ allows users to pull sound clips from its vast collections, including political speeches and field interviews with ordinary citizens. That means you can take a 1941 address from Franklin D. Roosevelt asking Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, drop it into an 808 drum machine, and voila, you’re ready to pack a dance floor.

Or if you’re looking for something more subtle, you can chop up an oral history by a 70-year-old man from Meeker County, Minnesota, and splice in a ’70s funk drum beat.

The project is still under development but is expected to be fully launched sometime this summer. For now, users can cook up future Billboard chart-toppers by playing around on the test site.

Megastar producers such as Kanye West and Dr. Dre have used sampling to make classic rap songs and hit records and are probably the most famous masters of the practice.

But sampling, which involves splicing together audio from other songs or recordings, is almost as old as rap itself. In 1973, a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc would play funk records and use his turntables during a song’s breakbeat to continuously loop the sound, since that was the part kids wanted to break-dance to.

The art form arguably reached its pinnacle with the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album “Paul’s Boutique,” which contained more than 100 samples at a cost of about $250,000, according to a sound engineer who worked on the album.

Rampant sampling would come to an end after 1991, when rapper Biz Markie was sued for using an unauthorized recording of the song “Alone Again (Naturally).” The judge in that landmark case ruled that musicians wishing to sample another artist’s song have to get it cleared from the original artist beforehand, or else it constitutes copyright infringement. After the decision, sampling became prohibitively expensive for many.

But the Library of Congress samples are “free to use and reuse,” according to its website. “You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.”

The only thing left to do is start practicing your Grammy speech.