Starting today, Philadelphians will have their chance to make beats on a 10-foot-by-10-foot boombox. The new installation will give visitors an early taste of Monument Lab, the Mural Arts Philadelphia series that will officially launch in September. Titled Sample Philly, the interactive sculpture invites visitors to build compositions with elements drawn from local music. Intrepid musicmakers will find the piece in Franklin Square.
This Brobdingnagian boombox is opening two weeks later than expected. It was initially set to debut during Fourth of July weekend, perfect for Independence Day revelers wanting to put together a song in the park. But even with that delay, the project is launching sooner than originally planned.
Sample Philly creator Kara Crombie, a locally-based artist and musician, said the earlier start — before the rest of Monument Lab — was one reason the piece wound up behind schedule. Another, more critical factor was the project’s technical needs.
“They moved up our deadline two months, and it’s one of those things where it’s like — if we were painting a mural, that’s been done before,” Crombie explained. “You can give a pretty accurate idea of how long something like that’s going to take.” On its face, Sample Philly looks like a huge arcade game, but behind the facade is professional-grade mixing software. “When you think of all the variables involved, from parts, to the labor, to the analog side to the digital side, there’s so many things where things can go wrong,” she said. “You just have to re-do them.”
Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden said that sure, the delay was no bueno, but the organization understands the risk that comes with ambitious work. “Even with what you think is a perfect slate, there’s going to be setbacks in complicated areas,” she said.
Golden recalled Mural Arts’ initial reaction to the news. “It was like ‘Oh, no!’ Then we were like, ‘This can’t be.’” But when Mural Arts heard why, they understood. “We talked to the engineers, who said, ‘We want this to be right.’”
Tricking it out so kids can play
Crombie, who is also a music educator, is hoping the installation will provide underserved students chances to experiment with production equipment that is often expensive to access. In class at The Advocate Center for Culture and Education, she explained, she observes how creative, but also introspective her students are.
“Something that just struck me is the unbelievable amount of talent in the city,” she said, reflecting on many of Philly’s young people. “They just don’t have any way to record or document these expressions.”
This amped the desire to make the equipment sophisticated, which in turn made construction trickier.
“The touch screen processes are already there, but to make it so it interacts with arcade buttons is adding another layer of complexity,” she said. For example, Crombie explained, the volume adjuster is actually an infinity knob, meaning it resets for each new user, rather than picking up the volume from where the last user left it. “Right there, it just generated a ton of code for that one element of functionality.”
So far, users can mix samples pulled from 300 songs, but Sample Philly’s archive is expected to grow. And its output won’t rely on clips alone; there’ll also be access to an 808 drumkit and a 909 drum machine. Plus, after songwriters pick their samples, they’ll be able to play with them, changing their pitch, upping their volume, muting certain segments or even throwing effects on top. So, Crombie noted, the possibilities are nearly limitless. “If you know what you’re doing you can program an entire song.”
For now, visitors won’t be able to download their compositions, a decision Crombie chalked up to budget. At future installations with more resources, the software could allow people to enter their names when they play and save their results like a video game.
Mixing history with contemporary sound
The process for finding samples wasn’t too different from a DJ or producer looking for the perfect breakbeat, Crombie said. She tried to choose samples with a clear drum beat, guitar riff, or bass line, but also include some of the most iconic and recognizable Philly sounds.
“Summertime”? ✅ Rocky’s “Gonna Fly Now”? ✅ Even the Action News theme song is in the collection.
Though Crombie’s background is rock, she noted that’s she’s been discovering a wide range of underappreciated artists from a mix of genres.
“Disco inferno? I didn’t realize that was a Philadelphia production,” she said. “Philadelphia is so diverse, there’s like the rock thread, gospel thread… It makes for a really interesting archive.”
The earliest recording in the database, per Crombie, might be a 1929 Bessie Smith song “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out.” Contemporary work is represented too; she’s been receiving tracks from various local bands. And take note, Philly musicians: Sample Philly is still accepting submissions. The sculpture will be open to the public from July 15 through November 19. This summer they’ll be demoing the piece on certain days, but with the September launch of Monument Lab, Sample Philly should be fully open. For the schedule, check Mural Arts’ website.
Crombie has working with her students to test what’s the software can do. Recently, they mixed together a Schoolly D beat, an Archie Bell and the Drells bass line, and a Sun Ra guitar riff. “It’s hard to pre-visualize that combo but it totally worked,” she said.
If young people can hone their chops through the installation, Crombie will be happy. She’s concerned that the cost of professional music production equipment may have larger ramifications.
“Culture suffers from that too— if we don’t give [young people] the tools to express themselves,” she said, “we’re just dooming ourselves to horrible music in the future.”
Sample Philly opening, Saturday, July 15 from 1-4pm, Franklin Square, 200 Sixth Street.