As industries go, the world of musical equipment is about as staid as they come—there are rarely, if ever, seismic aesthetic and technological shifts. The electric guitar, for example, hasn't changed a whole lot since the familiar solid-body contraption coalesced into its modern form in the 1940s. And in the decades since 1969, when Robin Gibb introduced the drum machine to the Top 40 with "Saved by the Bell," the manufacture and marketing of said machines has remained the province of old, white engineers and monolithic Japanese electronics corporations. This despite the fact that hip-hop was a primary factor in the popularization of electronic music production, and despite the fact that hip-hop has been one of pop culture's predominant forces for the last three decades. In short, the industry that builds the tools used to create hip-hop music hasn't reflected its customers and their culture—and that's where The Beat Kangz step in.
Based out of an anonymous office park off Hillsboro Pike in Green Hills, The Beat Kangz are a crew of beat-makers and MCs who are bringing the rawkus to straight to the lab coats and pencil-pushers thanks to their contribution to the music-gear universe: the Beat Thang. It's basically a sampling drum machine with too many functions to mention in a quick aside. Let's just say it does everything you'd expect a drum machine to do, plus about a whole lot things you wouldn't—like chopping, reversing and freaking samples, for instance.
From their very first product demos on YouTube (featuring live beat-building and hilarious impressions of uptight industry execs) to their appearances at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade shows, they have been a lightning rod for detractors and enthusiasts alike—ruffling feathers with their informal, dudes-hangin'-out-and-havin'-fun approach to viral videos and rallying the faithful with the promise of robust functionality and a shared aesthetic. You could say they're a little too black for the Guitar Center crowd. You could say they don't fit the profile of beat-machine makers—which is ironic, of course, since the histories of hip-hop and beat-making machines are pretty much inseparable from each other.
Even the design of the Beat Thang—a sleek, black steel case with blue back-lighting that looks like it light-cycled straight out of Tron—has caused controversy simply because it's not the industry-standard beige plastic with gray buttons. We won't even start on the fact that their closest competitors, like Akai's MPC-5000, are offering half the functions at twice the price. (And even that's a generous assessment—The Beat Thang comes with 3,000 pre-loaded sounds, whereas the MPC-5000 doesn't come with any.)
If you talk to Beat Kangz president Aja Emmanuel, it's easy to see that he's loving every minute of it. After years developing the technology—including two years spent recording samples for the extensive-bordering-on-ludicrous sound library—The Kangz are weeks away from shipping the physical incarnation of their mean machine, weeks away from showing the music equipment industry what's what. This fall, they released a computer-based version of the Beat Thang, Beat Thang Virtual, and it's been silencing haters with its ease of use, quick load times and cloud-computing capabilities. (Users can store their beats online and collaborate with others.) While gearhead Internet forums have been debating whether or not The Beat Thang will turn out to be vaporware (nerd-slang for nonexistent product), The Beat Kangz have been redesigning their hardware, upgrading components and working with an international crew of programmers and manufacturers to create a product that will turn the industry on its ear.
A huge part of the Beat Kangz philosophy is making the technology accessible—getting the means of production into the hands of people who can't spend thousands of dollars on a pro rig but also don't want to be hindered artistically by entry-level, cookie-cutter features and sounds. They've built a setup that's fiscally attainable for your average kid with a fast-food job, but professional enough to supply the beat for a hit song. If you think that sounds far-fetched, consider this: The Beat Thang provides the rhythmic backbone for 50 Cent's latest single, "Do You Think About Me?" Rockwilder, the hip-hop super-producer of Redman's classic Muddy Waters LP and Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty," is using Beat Thang Virtual to crank out hits like the aforementioned "Do You" and the upcoming album by Method Man—which means that your little cousin could do the same on his parent's PC. Keith Shocklee, who helped make sampling the definitive postmodern art form during his time with The Bomb Squad producing genre-defining albums by Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Ice Cube, has given his blessing to the Beat Thang. If it's OK by Keith Shocklee and Rockwilder, then it's definitely way more than OK by us, and more than enough power to get your cousin up and running.
When Léon Theremin (yes, that Theremin) introduced the world's first rhythm machine, The Rhythmicon, in 1932, he had no way of knowing what it would birth. In 1960, if you asked Raymond Scott what would become of the sequencer—invented for his Soothing Sounds for Baby series—he couldn't have predicted that it would become a central device in the music of the 21st century. No one in 1980 knew the 808 would become so iconic. And from our vantage point in 2009, we can't really know what's going to happen to music production years from now. But when you talk to Beat Kangz President Aja Emmanuel about what he sees in the Beat Thang's future, his eyes light up, and a devilish grin creeps across his face. The possibilities are endless when you put next-level tech within reach of the average kid, and he knows this. The Kangz are looking to shake up the world of music equipment, and nothing will shake up that world more than a generation of kids empowered by the knowledge that not only can they make their own music, but they can also make the equipment to make that music.