The Story Behind Kanye West's Stem Player

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Kanye West has influenced a lot of changes in the music industry throughout his career, and with his latest invention, he wants to revolutionize the way people actually consume music. 

In August, he launched the Stem Player, a device created in partnership between Yeezy Tech and Kano Computing. The pocket-sized music player, which was first teased on Kanye’s Twitter account, promises to give consumers the ability to “customize any song.” 

By sliding your finger across touch-sensitive controls on the face of the Stem Player, you can isolate and manipulate various aspects of a track—including vocals, drums, bass, and samples—to create the perfect remix. Advanced tools include the ability to create loops, raise and lower pitch, and even combine stems from different songs. The device is pre-loaded with songs from Kanye’s Donda, an album that was released with multiple versions of several tracks but you can also upload music of yourself, allowing you to customize any album (or even recordings of your own). 

The Stem Player has been in the works for quite some time now. Alex Klein, CEO of Kano and a friend of Kanye who has collaborated with the rapper for years (he even earned writing credits on Jesus Is King), tells Complex the device took a lot of inspiration from Ye’s Sunday Service, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and forward-thinking architecture. “The technology intent was always clear: How do we make a device that’s super small, loud, that brings people together, and allows you to take the music and hold it in your hand or in your pocket?” Klein says. 

Since its launch, the Stem Player has received positive reviews from customers. Throughout the streaming era, we’ve seen many apps and features that have enhanced the listening experience, but there’s never been a device quite like the Stem Player. “One of my favorite quotes was a customer who said, ‘This is the best first-generation technology product I’ve used since the iPhone,’” Klein recalls.

Just as much thought went into the actual design of the player as its technology. The device is circular and sits comfortably in the human hand, with a goal of “feeling like an extension of your body.” As Klein puts it, they set out to answer the question: “How do we make technology that doesn’t feel like it’s from an evil alien world?” Klein says he has a vision for a world “where people can create, not just consume.” As he explains, “It’s a world where the stuff that surrounds us is transparent and simple to understand, and people can make it themselves.”

Alex Klein hopped on a call with Complex to discuss the Stem Player, his vision for Kano, meeting with Elon Musk, and much more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 

You have a background in journalism, according to LinkedIn. How did you transition to tech? 
I never really expected that I would follow a route of building products and organizations. I was the kind of kid who was sketching on the living room floor and pirating anime and doing my own line readings and writing my own programs. When I was very young, someone close to me took my laptop, and in a fit of rage destroyed it in front of my eyes. They threw it to the ground and it exploded in a hail of components. That was actually a beautiful thing, because that was the first time I’d ever seen the inside of a computer. 

We’ve come up in a time where computers are sealed and opaque and more powerful than the mainframes that took Apollo to the moon by several orders of magnitude. But that power is restricted to a very small subsection of society. So that was the first moment the power was revealed to me. There was always a connection in my mind between revealing information and creating technology. So I did end up writing longform magazine and online pieces on topics like the Church of Scientology and Mitt Romney’s tax return. 

When I first met Ye in-person, we were having breakfast, and he asked me a similar question. One of the first things he ever asked me was, “So, you are the kind of person who thinks technology is the answer to everything.” He smiled, and I said, “No.” I told him about my background and he immediately leaned in on both of those subjects, on taxes and on the Church of Scientology. He had a really thoughtful response and analysis. And in keeping with the surprising, alternative, and bold nature of our projects and his approach, we ended up talking about so many different things aside from tech. 

Long story short, I always saw a connection between exposing information and revealing the truth in a way that was digestible. Great journalism is about comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, and giving people a way in. It’s about participation, giving people a connection to these parts of the world that might be hidden from them. Even in the Stem Player, you can hear different parts of the music that you might not always hear, and you can take something that has been traditionally given to you only in one form and put it into many forms.

What has your communication been like with Kanye over the last few years? 
We’ve been all over the world together. I want to be very respectful of his privacy and the privacy of others involved in the projects, but I would say that in terms of collaboration, direction, inspiration, and communication, Ye was and remains extremely generous, extremely open, and extremely welcoming into all sorts of spaces of his work and his life. We were communicating regularly throughout the whole period. I was fortunate enough to visit with him several times in Atlanta, obviously in LA, in New York, in Berlin and France. I’m very grateful for that, because there’s no one who inspires me more than Ye. And our team similarly has been really fortunate. I’m privileged to be the recipient of his communication and his vision.

How did the Stem Player idea come about? 
We started working on what ultimately became the Stem Player right from the outset. Many different musical devices were sourced and tested. Many different forms were prototyped and sculpted—ones that were shaped like hands, ones that were squishy like stress balls, ones that were kind of orb-like and totally symmetrical, ones that were completely asymmetrical. 

The technology intent was always clear: How do we make a device that’s super small, loud, that brings people together, and allows you to take the music and hold it in your hand or in your pocket? There was a lot of inspiration from Sunday Service. There was a lot of inspiration from James Turrell and the [Roden Crater], where we actually went together. And there were sessions with architects, musicians, and engineers who were on Jesus Is King and ultimately on Donda. I think Ye always wanted to present the device with the music. The timing, thank God, came together perfectly because we got to a point in the development where, in terms of sourcing, testing, materiality, user interaction, firmware, and platform, we were comfortable to make the commitment and to produce the first mass production batch. We got to that point through cosmic harmony, in sync with the extraordinary work that Ye was doing at the listening parties.

Then we got together in LA for the finalization of the Donda album. And then, right on time, the stems were loaded onto the devices. Just before the album came out, we put the product live on Kanyewest.com and Stemplayer.com. It was such a rush. The reactions have been extraordinary. And I think one of my favorite quotes was a customer who said, “This is the best first generation technology product I’ve used since the iPhone.” 

On Twitter, you shared a photo of the early Stem Player shapes. How did you settle on the current shape and design? 
I think the feeling in the hand is wonderful. The combination of the weight, the circularity, the subtle grooves that your fingers just naturally find, it’s almost like braille. Ye was very, very wise and brilliant. At one point, midway through, he said, “Let’s study products that have been made for people with autism or people who communicate in unconventional ways.” We picked up on that and we found a lot of them had these textural communication means. So the symmetricalness of the four sliders, the circularity, it feels so nice in the hand at this weight. Because of that, you can actually use the device without even looking at it, because your fingers just naturally find the grooves. 

This shape was useful to the acoustics. It was useful to the vibration engine that gives you a sense of forced feedback when you reach the end of each slider or when you localize a particular stem. The object itself is comfortable and feels like an extension of your body. That was a big thing as well. How do we make technology that doesn’t feel like it’s from an evil alien world? How do we make technology that we just naturally feel that we can control? Ye was always wise on this. He has a great line. He says, “Humans are God’s greatest technology.” So, when we humans make technology, it should feel more like an extension of our bodies. It should feel more natural and organic, but also decidedly human. 

It sounds like it was a collaborative process. What were some of the qualities that Kanye wanted the device to have? And what suggestions did you and your team make? 
What’s wonderful about Ye is he’s incredibly determined, and he has an extremely high bar. As a company [at Kano], we’ve shipped over 1.2 million units, and we’ve done it with major brands like Microsoft and Disney and Warner Brothers. Although there’s so much to love about everyone I’ve worked with over the years on all of these products from a design perspective, Ye as a product thinker, his bar is so very high. It’s hugely inspiring. You come, you show, you interact, you converse, you sometimes even debate, but then, ultimately, you learn together. 

That all sounds a bit abstract. From a more concrete perspective, there were efforts to make the device smaller that succeeded. There were efforts to make the device louder that succeeded. There were efforts to make the buttons easier to press and the sliders easier to slide that succeeded. All along the way, Ye, myself, and the team were in this constant back-and-forth about how we could make it even better. It’s about doing something that’s really different and building our own world, because we live in a time where the tools are available to us, and are available to artists as well, to reach people more directly. To improve not only how fast they can communicate on a smartphone screen, but how they feel in their day-to-day lives. This really animated us, and Ye was always exposing me to inspiring things. And I hope vice versa.

He’s a driving and demanding and determined visionary. And I think on our team, we have those qualities as well. There’s a lot of respect. We’re a young team and a lot of us came up on his music and his work. There’s a lot of respect and affection for this person. So it encouraged us to really pull out all the stops to deliver something excellent, polished, and enjoyable, in time for the biggest album of the year. 

How do you think the Stem Player could revolutionize the way we listen to music, in the same way that something like the iPhone or iPod has? 
I think we’re at the beginning in a lot of parts of the culture and the economy. Also, COVID has had an impact on this—on a major shift from consumption to creation. Those are the yin and yangs of human existence. I think people around the world are interested in not just being fed a social media feed, and not just being fed and delivered prepackaged things that the algorithm thinks they might like. I don’t think anyone really likes when somebody’s telling you something, and you know that they’re telling it to you because they think that you want to hear it. People have an instinctively negative reaction, compared to when somebody gives you a toolset and some inspiration. 

What the Stem Player does is, it gives you not just a blank canvas, but the material that you have to play with. The Lego bricks that you have to put together is nothing less than one of the greatest albums, some of the greatest songs from the greatest artists, as well as the variations on those songs that you, your friends, and other artists have made. From a consumer perspective, that’s very powerful. You can have a way into something that you love. I think music is something we all love in our day-to-day lives, in terms of the culture or our experience. It’s so personal to us, and when something that personal can become malleable, that’s a big change for the music listener. 

Here’s a way for those materials to make it to the end consumer. Creating a close connection between artists and listeners on an interaction level is the first step towards creating a music industry that works better for everyone. That’s where you have more worth. You have more power than you think through making art, when your art becomes something that is a customizable plaything to a user, almost like in-game content in video games. 

What’s the biggest misconception people have about your work with Ye, or working on the Stem Player? 
One thing that has been cool to see is people get really excited about the product as being a way to customize the album Donda. And then they realized that you could customize any song on it. So that’s been cool. We put a lot of work into the software paradigm that separates the channels and then applies a compressor to those channels so that they sound really good and clean on the device. And there’s a really magic moment putting your favorite song into the Stem Player, then isolating the vocal, putting the drums in at the moment that you choose. That’s the thing I definitely hope people continue to discover. 

You were recently in the room with Kanye and Elon Musk. How did that meet up happen and what was the conversation like? 
I want to be very respectful of the privacy of everyone involved. It was a meeting between Elon and Ye, first and foremost, who I know have been friends for many years. And all I’ll say about that is, I’m very grateful to Ye for including me, because it meant a lot to me. And I’m very grateful to Elon for the generosity he showed in walking us through Starbase, introducing us to his outstanding team, and answering my extremely geeky, over-excited questions about production techniques. I was just totally geeking out. I will say, I left that experience with an extremely high regard for Elon. I thought he was humble, inspiring, and welcoming. It was super duper cool. It was just a meeting of friends. You’ve got to pinch yourself sometimes. I never expected doing anything like this. It also shows you just how far you can go. We’re still babies in a sense. Elon has done such extraordinary things and there’s still so much more to do as a human society. 

People always seem to keep a level of secrecy when meeting with Elon Musk. But from the sound of it, it seems like those meetings can be enlightening and intense. 
Well, when you’re working on technology—and I think it’s similar to design and fashion—you can sweat and bleed and cry for an invention. And there’s a respect to that process, because anyone can come along after the fact and say, “Oh, I’m going to take the fruits of that labor. And I’m going to photograph it with a long lens camera and I’m going to incorporate it for 1/100th of the cost into my invention.” That’s just the game. And trust me, we’ve seen that with every single product we’ve ever done. And we’ve also seen attempts made on the Stem Player. And I know Ye’s stuff gets ripped off all the time, because he’s a genius and he makes great stuff at great cost. This is hard work. 

How involved were you during the early stages of Donda
I can’t really speak to that process, but I can say that we were very focused on the tech, because there are some significant technology challenges involved in the Stem Player, and not least the capacitive interface that has to operate smoothly through multiple layers of only semi-conductive material and the sliders themselves. We use a backfiring LED solution that we pioneered, which effectively allows the lights to shine through the sensors. The outer material itself is a blend. It’s actually a material we’ve invented. It’s a blend of different polymers, treated twice with different sprays and a light electromagnetic radiation treatment. It’s light treatment at a particular wavelength to give it the correct shore, the correct bounciness, and the correct “squeeziness” without introducing stickiness. 

It is kind of interesting. Maybe there’s some kind of parallel there. I think in the early stages, when the work that ultimately becomes an album is laid down, you’re doing something similar. I can’t really comment, but if there is a similarity, it would be a blessed sort of cosmic harmony. At that period, what we were effectively doing was transitioning a larger object with slightly more complex communications protocol into the smaller, more refined stem-and-music-focused object that we felt comfortable to release around Donda’s manifestation.

I guess we all wear different hats in life. One thing that I really love about Ye is he’s far beyond an artist. Ye is a business person. He’s a product person. He’s a rhetorical and philosophical leader. And I think at that point, me and my team had absorbed so much creative inspiration and so many references. I have literally thousands of images, architectural spaces, for Donda here.

What is the ultimate vision for Kano? 
We started the company seven years ago, and as I mentioned, we’ve shipped over 1.2 million products. We’ve had over 1.5 million creations by users with code, with music, with art. And I think the original vision of the company is a world where people can create, not just consume. It’s a world where the stuff that surrounds us is transparent and simple to understand, and people can make it themselves. It’s kind of like Blade Runner. It’s kind of like the “Minecraftification” of our day-to-day reality. It’s making every person on Earth feel like Neo at the end of The Matrix.

The long-term vision of our company is not far off from, and has in fact been influenced by the vision that Kanye West—as I know him, Ye—has so compellingly communicated to me and others: to build a new world. I think we’re the last generation that will remember a time before the internet. And around the world, we’re reaching a phase of population plateau. We have connectivity almost everywhere at this point. So I think that the vision is to build our own world. 

I reached for it in a conversation with Ye recently: a more soulful, integrated civilization where people’s day-to-day lives are more in their control, more connected to God, as I would say, or more connected to the universe and the natural rhythms of the universe and patterns of the universe, as others would say. It’s a vision that’s so big, it may not be achieved. In fact, I think it definitely will not be achieved in either of our lifetimes. But if we can make some meaningful progress, we can reverse trends of distraction and division. We can create circular living and urban environments where things are more soothing and healing than they are aggravating and accelerating. So much of our modern industrial economy has been built around speed and efficiency. And I think when we reach the internet era, our eyes and ears open to what that intensity has done to our art societies and our cultures.

What else is Kano and Yeezy Tech working on together? 
I mean, we’ve talked about different things moving forward for the Stem Player. There’s also active development around projects that will have some of the same characteristics as the Stem Player, but enter entirely new mediums. I wouldn’t want to commit now or reveal anything that Ye wouldn’t want to reveal now, but suffice to say, in the past three years, there have been many, many projects worked on. And many, many projects are at quite an advanced stage. So, watch this space and God willing, we’ll be able to bring something really interesting out next as part of the collaboration.

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