Just before Musikmesse Frankfurt, I had the opportunity to speak with Reavis Mitchell of BKE. You will probably recognize him for the product that his company BKE makes, The Beat Thang. He was smack dab in the middle of preparations before heading over to Musikmesse and battling a cold. But he graciously took time out of his busy schedule to speak with BBoy Tech Report for this interview.
Reavis and I spoke for about an hour and a half about the Beat Kangs, The Beat Thang and all of their humble beginnings to things as trivial, and as relevant, as the origins of the name “The Beat Thang.”
Being that we spoke at length, I’ve chosen to present this interview in 2 or maybe 3 parts. Here we have part 1 of what is more like a discussion than an interview. It’s been my pleasure to chop it up with Reavis and I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did the conversation it was extracted from. And on that note, let’s dig in.
Bboy Tech Report (BTR): So lets get started… Your product is just so interesting, and you know, I’ve kind of seen it from when in its early stages to now, so it’s cool to kind of see it come to the place where it is.
Reavis: Yeah, that’s what’s up, man. I appreciate that, man. Honestly, the whole reason why I really wanted to do this is because your questions were very applicable. I mean you’ve seen the development of this thing. There’s been a lot of hype, surrounded by it, you know, some of it was our hype. Some of it is just hype that other people create, and oftentimes when you have a hype based situation, then what gets lost is the real details, and the actual tangible and substantive aspects of the… of the product and the company. And I thought your questions spoke pretty well to those substantive aspects.
BTR: Oh, no doubt, no doubt. Thank you bruh. I appreciate you for taking time out to do this.Well, without any further ado and on that note, let’s get into it then.
Reavis: Okay. Cool.
BTR: So, I’ll just go straight down the line. We’ll start with the first one. Since we have a similar background with IT and hip hop production, etc., how did you make the transition from a technology support background to BKE and the Beat Thang?
Reavis: Oh man, that’s a long story. I’ll spare you all the boring details. Basically, my background is in computer science, and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from Tennessee State University, which is a pretty solid engineering school. I mean it’s a little bit unsung, but just to let you know, a brother who graduated right before me; he’s got about 15 patents in cell phone technology. And then there’s another brother who graduated from there that invented the card-swipe. And he still lives in Nashville. And you know, it’s just one of those unsung places, but it’s a hotbed for engineering. Actually, people come from all over the world to attend TSU. And I’m a graduate. Actually, I also have a Master’s in Public Administration, which is basically like a Master’s in Business Administration, but the focus is on government rather than the private sector.
So, from there I went to work with the government at the Department of the Interior, and designed databases for our clients. I’ve written databases for the Army, for the Air Force, for the Navy. I’ve done things for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Corps of Engineers. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. All the largest and most significant scientific organizations on the planet, you know, from NASA to the FBI… I’ve worked on stuff in conjunction with a whole lot of entities. But, you know, I’m a hip-hop kid, man. I love hip-hop; I love music, period. Ever since I was 12, I wanted to play and write. And you know, it’s just not the kind of career that’s encouraged a lot of times. When you’re smart your Mom is more likely to tell you to go and get a job with the government than to go pursue a music career. So I didn’t really get that… growing up, I didn’t really get that kind of encouragement to do that. So I played it safe and worked for the government.
I did that for about 12 years, till I got burnt out on programming. But the whole time I was building a studio in my house, and long story short, when I got tired of the government, which was about 10 years ago, a friend of mine told me about the studio he was building. But he was working over at Dell and they ticked him off, so he quit and about a month later he was making what he was making at Dell, just renting his studio out. So he gave me that idea, so I ended up renting my studio out and doing the same thing, and I quit the government in… back in ’03, and just started renting the studio out, which was a pretty… pretty nice studio at the time, because I was making decent money with the government. Now I started doing commercials, and actually had some success with that. You know, I’ve done some commercials for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
BTR: Oh very cool. So you do music for ads and various placements?
Reavis: Yeah. I’ve had some ads on USA Network, ABC Family. I’ve been getting some pretty decent placement. I still do work for McDonalds. So I’m still in that role. I’m a producer, first and foremost. I love music first and foremost.
BTR: So how did end up tying into developing your own drum machine, the Beat Thang?
Reavis: One of the production houses that I was working with was the place where one of my original partners, Aja Emmanuel, was working. So we linked up and it turned out he had the connections with Samson Pro Audio. He spent some time being an international product consultant or product specialist at Samson. So he hooked us up with Zoom, and you know, all producers have ideas about, “Hey, I want to do this with this machine; I want to do this with that machine. What if you did this? What if you did that?” Every producer has that. And we did too, but we quickly realized, “Hey man, you know, you got the connects with [Sam Ash]; you can actually walk us into the manufacturer. And I have the connects with the technology side. I’ve actually done the technology, and have done development in this field. So why don’t we actually try to make a little machine?
BTR: Nice well, you know there is a lot in an idea but so much more in the actual product. To go from idea to physical product is huge. How’d you go from this sort of idea to an actual product?
Reavis: Well, you know, it was kind of a joke at first; it was kind of like a silly kind of thing, but the more we got into it, the more we realized that it was possible. From there, Zoom Electronics in Tokyo let us repurpose the RT-223. That was our first shot at drum machine design. They didn’t want to build that design because it was too costly and involved. But they did let us repurpose the machine and… and handle the marketing and do the sound design. The success of that machine gave us the leverage alongside the industrial designs that we had, you know, artist’s renderings, that we started doing. We took all of that and we found a venture capitalist, because now we’d had enough time working with Zoom to really know or have a good sense of what it takes to actually build a drum machine.
Reavis: And so, we looked and searched and searched for about two years, and finally we found a venture capitalist that was willing to give us about a million dollars to start, and since then we’ve used that leverage to get more venture capital, and we actually have an actual company now.
BTR: Beautiful, beautiful. That’s a hell of a journey.
Reavis: Yeah, it is.
BTR: Without a doubt. And you are right… There’s so many producers I know… We all these ideas about what products should be. Whether we like it or we don’t, like there are always those different suggestions, like, “This is dope, but it’d be real dope if we could do this, this, or the other.” So it’s commendable to see that you all took it from idea to actual physical product.
Reavis: Yeah totally. Totally. We were actually frustrated with the MPC and frustrated with the company Akai. And the fact that, you know, everybody was saying, “Oh, drum machines are dead.” It’s like, well the drum machines are dead because people don’t want a tactile experience. It’s that drum machine sales have slumped out because there’s only two or three people or companies willing to put the money upfront to actually make one. And they’re not doing anything new, and haven’t really done anything new for the last 20 or 30 years.
Reavis: That’s the problem. And so we wanted to step up and say “Hey, you know, you got the tactile capability in this box. We’re also gonna give you some integration and some functionality that makes it a direct companion for your production and in today’s mobile world we’re gonna give it mobility also.
BTR: Yeah, that’s… that’s dope. Well yeah, that was pretty forward thinking. I mean, at this point it seems that that’s becoming the norm in the thinking of how they’re designing these machines and these different controllers with tight integration. It seems that you guy were pretty forward thinking in that aspect.
BTR: So, and as far as R&D, you touched on a little bit about how you all developed the whole thing but how long did it take? Like how many years was it from the time that you and your guys said, “You know, it’d be dope if we designed our own drum machine,” to the point when it was actually on the market?
Reavis: Oh, wow. Let’s see… it actually really hit the market with… in a serious way… the hardware was really seriously released with the Best Buy exclusive – that was in 2011, I believe. And we had first started doing industrial designs and… and all the artist’s renderings and things, and working on functionality spec and laying out features probably in ’05. And so… that’s about seven years.
BTR: Wow. That’s persistence. That’s a good long time, but… I’m sure it paid off in the end to see your product come to fruition.
Reavis: Yes and you were talking about forward thinking. For me, I think that’s a testament to the validity of the design. I mean, think about picking something up from technology seven years from now.
BTR: Yeah. It’s a very good point. When I saw you at NAMM one of the things that hit me a little bit about the Beat Thang was when you picked it up… We were talking about all these different machines or whatever, and you picked up the Beat Thang and you said, “This one can do this.” And when you held it up…
Reavis: Oh, definitely.
BTR: …it didn’t have any wires and you kind of just took your hand around the outside perimeter of it just to show, like, nothing’s connected, and it’s still on, and it’s still banging. So, yeah, that’s a testament to the product design, without a doubt.
Reavis: Yeah, well, you know, it’s not that hard to get good products designed. All you have to do is to have a decent outreach to the actual users. And I think that’s where a lot of companies fall short, is the guys designing this stuff are not guys that are producers.
BTR: Yeah, yeah.
Reavis: You know, I’m not trying… maybe they dabble in music a little bit, and maybe they like audio and pro audio. But when it comes to making something for a producer, you really need a producer’s insight, you know. And the three founders, the original founders of this company produced this. We all did music commercially before we ever decided to make a drum machine. I don’t think that’s the case with most companies. I think you got a lot of bean counters running around the companies and they see themselves as, we’re gonna dictate to you how you are gonna make music.
BTR: Yeah, of course. And we never really challenge that sort of mentality.
Reavis: Right, so that’s what these other companies do. Rather than saying “we’re gonna open up listening to the people, and let them tell us what kind of machines they want to use and what kind of things they want to do.” And so, what you see is us being different as a company.We intend to make the machines that people will want to see us make.
BTR: That’s a good point. When I interviewed Roger Linn, I remember him saying, how he came up with the Lynndrum and the MPC – it was simply to fulfill a need. Here was a guitar player; he needed accompaniment. Well, he designed what he needed, and it became the stuff of legend. It spoke to a lot of people because it was obviously something that a lot of people needed. And it seems like those are the dopest products, though, when you have somebody that’s actually a part of the trade, a part of the musical culture, a part of the music scene and they design something that they know they need, chances are it resonates with a bunch of other musicians and producers.
Reavis: Absolutely. That’s what I think is missing. I think maybe bean counters and too much tech in my production, or in my development. And not enough people that just make music.
Reavis: I mean, we’re kind of like the FUBU of technology. This is for creative people, created by creative people; this is for musicians, created by musicians. This is, you know, for producers, created by producers. And that’s another one of our hooks and I agree with you.
As a matter of fact, we worked a little together with Roger [Linn], and know him pretty well. He was actually pretty instrumental in some of the beginning industrial designs that we did. We just kind of reached out to him, and… one year he was gracious enough to just open up. We talked and we worked, and we did a little work and eventually we kind of did our own things, ‘cause we couldn’t really make the deal with him the way that we wanted to. But everybody’s still cool and we learned about development and Akai and I think that the MPC hasn’t had a relevant change or a design or redesign since Roger Linn was signing ‘em.
BTR: Well, Roger’s words, from the interview when I spoke to him… I asked him what he thought of the new line of MPCs, and he basically said… he said something to the effect that, “It looks like, to me, that they’re only rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”
Reavis: That’s so true. Yeah, that’s true. And they haven’t innovated in about 25 years, really. That’s what happens when you take the creator out of creativity.
Stay Tuned for part 2 of our discussion with Reavis Mitchell