VisUMD
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VisUMD

Visualizing the Remix

What can we learn about history through the exploration of music lyrics?

DJ working at a turntable

The above question motivated my efforts to develop a data exploration and visualization tool focused on a corpus of Hip hop lyrics. I set out with an understanding of Hip hop lyrics as a repository of cultural memory for Black communities across the United States and saw potential for thinking about history in new ways through these lyrics.

My design process started with the concept of the remix, a variant of a song produced by adding to or altering the original track. Remixes are a popular feature of Black music making, with roots in Dancehall, Disco, and Hip hop. Remix aren’t just limited to music; artists remix all types of media to produce new, provocative creations (You can check out a previous project of mine, Collapse, which is just this sort of remixing of various media forms here!).

Throughout the design process, I was interested in another type of remix as well: historical remixes. The ways that conflicts, laws, political systems, and other historical occurrences seem to remix themselves over time, reemerging in each new era under a different name and with a slight twist, but rooted in the same purpose.

This data visualization project seeks to explore both musical and historical remixes through Hip hop lyrics and is designed to reflect that purpose. You can explore the corpus of lyric data through an interface resembling a DJ’s turntable, with references to popular DJ tools such as the Akai MPC.

As you play with the visualization, searching through the lyric data with key terms, you begin to build a collection of lyrics that resonate with your understanding of a key term. This collection can then be generated into a playlist and timeline. This moment of generation reveals the songs that contain the lyrics you picked — and places those songs in linear time across the top of the visualization.

It was a challenging and fun experience to develop this visualization. One of the critical design decisions was whether to provide users with information about the artist and release year while they were collecting lyrics. Ultimately, I decided to present the lyrics in isolation from the rest of the metadata — my intent was to encourage users to collect lyrics based solely on their content. I didn’t want people to be biased towards lyrics from their favorite artists or against lyrics from periods that they didn’t particularly listen to.

It was quite fun to experiment with creating a data viz on top of a turntable. I wanted people to feel like literary DJs, exploring the possibilities of the lyrics and generating new combinations to interesting effects. This relationship between the visual of the turntable and the interactivity of the visualization is one of the areas I’m looking forward to iterating on as I continue with the project.

I had the opportunity to engage with several volunteers who tested the project with me as I was developing the visualization. Their feedback was invaluable and their responses to the visualization clarified the types of findings Visualizing the Remix makes possible from a research perspective.

These findings are rooted in the work of scholars and journalists such as Marisa Parham, Michelle Alexander, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have explored the salience of the historical remix and the ways in which anti-Black systems perpetuate themselves across eras of American history.

Visualizing the Remix helps identify and generate insights around these historical remixes through the lens of Hip hop lyrics. For example, collecting lyrics with terms relating to the U.S. carceral system and mapping them across time reveals the ways in which incarceration has been an active issue discussed by Black artists over decades. The specific content of each lyric tells us a little bit about how Black communities have understood the issue, responded to it, and survived. In this way, Visualizing the Remix can be a tool for understanding Black history and Black life through the words of Black artists.

The project also allows you personalize your approach. By plotting only songs that contain lyrics you’ve chosen, you can generate your own topical playlists that speak directly to your understanding of the issues and questions at hand. It’s often fun to share and compare the playlists you generate with others who used the same set of terms, to see what songs resonated with each of you, and what historical remixes you can discover through the timeline.

It should be said that visualizations like this have their limitations. Hip hop lyrics can only represent a fraction of the cultural memory of Black communities. It’s particularly interesting to see what does (and does not) appear in the lyrical data corpus and it’s important to remember how much exists outside of it. Still, I’m excited by projects such as this, that explore the content of Hip hop lyrics for insights into culture and history.

One of those projects which provided a motivating spur as I’ve been working on Visualizing the Remix is Tahir Hemphill’s “Picasso, Baby!”. Tahir describes the project as “a network graph that visualises the connections between rappers and the modern & contemporary painters they name drop in their rhymes.”

It’s an engaging visualization connecting sets of artists that are rarely thought of together in the public conscious, yet lyric data reveals otherwise.

Since Hip hop music emerged in the 1970s it has rapidly achieved mainstream consumption and spawned numerous genres and forms. Yet, alongside the commercial fanfare of superstar artists is a continuum of storytelling from the beginnings of Hip hop to the present and that holds a particularly important cultural memory for Black communities. I see Visualizing the Remix as a tool and method for understanding the storytelling present in Hip hop in relation to, and as a challenge against, currently dominant histories.

Moving forward, I have lots of plans and ideas for what can be done with this tool and I look forward to sharing exciting updates as I continue working on it.

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Andrew W. Smith

designer + developer + writer of games, AR/VR, and archival & interpretive web | irLhumanities | https://awwsmith.com