When it comes to innovation and creativity, hip-hop has had its share of converts and critics. From sampling, to beatboxing, to using Auto-Tune, technology has been central to the genre’s evolution.
“Hip-hop has been innovating technology from the beginning,” says Reavis Mitchell, 40, a vice president of Beat Kangz Electronics L.L.C., a music technology startup in Nashville, Tennessee, that develops hardware and software. But when Mitchell and co-founder Aja Emmanuel, 29, took a serious look at the industry, they discovered something was off-key or, rather, offbeat: the MPC.
The MPC, or music production center, a powerful type of drum machine, provides sample beats to create the rhythms of hip-hop; it’s been the standard in the genre for the last 30 years, though, as Mitchell says, “the MPC was never meant for hip-hop—it was created for rock.”
Emmanuel, president of Beat Kangz, says at the core there’s a disconnect between the developers of the technology and the artists. “The music equipment industry is run by older white men. They just don’t understand hip-hop and they don’t know how to speak to the market.”
To address this gap, the team has developed the Beat Thang Music Production System ($999), a portable music production machine, which will be released later this year. “Beat Thang supplies not just synthesized drum sounds, but a full range of synth and acoustic instruments to create with—keys, strings, guitars, bells, special effects, vocal effects, etc.,” notes Mitchell. “The MPC needs an outlet, but BT can be charged and then run on batteries like a laptop.” The company has also created Beat Thang Virtual for the Macintosh and PC ($149), a software solution that ships with more than 3,000 original sounds. It’s available at Beat Kangz’s Website and through retailers such as Guitar Center and Sam Ash Music. And, of course, they’ve created an iPhone app, Playa Thang.
With the products, Mitchell says, “We’re speaking to an audience that hasn’t been spoken to before.” Emmanuel adds, “The kinds of machines we wanted weren’t being created. We wanted to show the industry that there’s a whole group of people that are underserved.”
The two are not novices in this space. Mitchell, a former computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, helped adapt GPS from military to civilian use and is an award-winning artist and producer. Emmanuel is a former international representative for Sam Ash Music Corp. and Samson Technologies, and an independent hip-hop artist. In 2004, the two collaborated on the SB-246 StreetBoxx for Tokyo-based Zoom Corp., developing the concept and sound set design, and identifying the target market.
Mitchell and Emmanuel combined forces (with another co-founder, Luke Jackson) to form Beat Kangz Electronics in 2007. That same year they secured $1.5 million in venture funding from BPI Entertainment Group L.L.C.; they expect revenues of $9 million by year-end.
“There is a paradigm shift taking place in the music industry,” says Mitchell. Lately there’s a flood of artists looking into tech. It just makes sense to service the independent artist.” What’s next for Beat Kangz? “We’re listening to the market,” Mitchell says. “We want to be driven by the voice of the people.”