What it’s really like to work with Kanye West

Alex Klein’s technical inventions have passed through the hands of some of the most powerful people in government, music, and business. Barack Obama, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all promoted music creation hardware, personal computers, and software in the 32-year-old Londoner. This year, his company, Kano, launched a sand dollar-shaped digital music player that he hopes will become a transformative new way of listening to music and distribution platform.

However, a fan of Kano’s Stem Player angered Klein. Kanye West, the artist who now performs as Ye, released his latest album “Donda 2” exclusively on Stem Player in February. At first it seemed like a coup for Klein—a futuristic iPod/DJ booth/sculpture, packed with an album from the music and fashion giant.

Eight months later, West was sucked into a tearfull of antisemitic, conspiratorial, and far-right rhetoric that evaporated his career. His longtime record deal with Def Jam concluded; Talent agency CAA dropped him and fashion partners including Adidas, Gap and Balenciaga cut ties or let deals expire, which could cost him billions.

Klein was one of the last collaborators to collaborate with West prior to Spiral. His promising tech company is left with a flagship product whose most famous user has insulted himself, insulted Klein (who is half-Jewish) and tried to take control of his company. West and Kanoo are also facing licensing lawsuits over West’s samples on “Donda 2”.

Alex Klein holds his own stem player.

(Alex Cline/Kano)

Klein tells The Times that over the past year, his feelings have erupted between elation at what Kano achieved with Stem Player and angry disbelief at West’s actions since. He’s hopeful the company can move forward from its partnership with West, and he’s already launched a new iteration of the device, so any artist can upload their own music. But after surviving a front row seat due to the rapper’s meltdown, Klein tries to understand who she’s become.

Klein said in an email interview from his home in London that Kanye was “very funny and can be very outspoken”. “But these modern things are a lot different.”

Klein, a soft-spoken, meticulous engineer who wears a freelance uniform of black glasses and plaid buttons, founded his company eight years ago using a laptop and home software kit. Kano has now sold more than 1.5 million units of its various products and has more than 100 employees. In 2019, they had high hopes for the new Stem Player to change how artists and fans interact physically with music.

The soft-shell amplifier breaks tracks into components (vocals, drums, bass and arrangements) and users can manually remix them. “Our physical products are more human,” Klein said. “You can build on them, like Legos.” Artists on Stem own the rights to their music, get paid what they want and keep all profits from the content.

In 2019, West reached out to Kano, smitten with the company’s tactile approach to computing. “He told me he wanted ‘this clear psychedelic tablet,’” Klein said, referring to a demonstration of one of Kano’s computers. “I brought a bunch of our technology over to his house, which he loved. He asked me if he could put his album on our speaker. He also asked me to teach him how to code.”

While aware of West’s ups and downs, Klein said, “I’ve always been a fan of his music.” “There was so much beauty in every one of the elements we were hearing in the studio. I loved working with him, I loved him as a person. We spent some time together in Cody[Wyoming]where the music was being composed for ‘Jesus Is King,’ which was an unbelievable time.” He is forgotten and I am very grateful to him.”

Kano prepared to release Stem Player as a standalone product in 2022, when West asked at the last minute if the device could ship with files for “Donda 2” as an exclusive version. Klein agreed—the new Ye LP is sure to turn heads. But there were squabbles early on. Unfortunately, Kanye did not want to allow other music artists onto the platform. “This was a disagreement that we had a hard time resolving,” Klein said. West offered to buy the company and the rights to the Stem player, but Klein refused.

A man in black clothes is walking in a field

Alex Klein at West’s ranch in Cody, WA during the “Jesus Is King” recording sessions.

(Courtesy of Kano/Alex Klein)

Nevertheless, Kano sold over 100,000 of the first batch of Stem Players at $200 apiece. While reviews were mixed for the album and its unorthodox delivery system, it fits with West’s history of experimentation (he famously went on to remaster his 2016 album, “The Life of Pablo,” weeks after its release). West’s visual aesthetic of minimalism has moved billions of dollars in footwear, and Stem Player feels in keeping with his fashion accomplishments.

Eight months later, it all fell apart.

Beginning in October, West posted threats on social media to go “3 death to the Jewish people,” violating abortion rights and appeared infrequently on The Tucker Carlson Show and on the “Drink Champs” podcast, where his antisemitic remarks shocked and upset his family, fans and business associates. . His purchase of the right-wing social networking site Parler confirmed that he was delving deeper into the far-right ecosystem.

Klein watched, in amazement, as the public face of his new product became the most venomous figure in popular culture. Asked how West’s anti-Semitism affected him personally, Klein said, “These comments deserve no further comment.”

“West tried to call me a racist when I kindly told him that attacking an entire group of people isn’t good for him or Steam,” Klein wrote in a Reddit post. In a conversation on Discord last week, Klein said that “Good engineering is about getting the right information and acting on it…at the end of the day, as long as what’s flowing through Ye is hate toward a certain ethnic group…it’s very hard for us to collaborate creatively .”

“I told Kanye not to go the way he’s going,” Klein said. “We told him we weren’t able to work together while he brought up racial conspiracy theories.” Klein said he had dissolved all trade relations with the West. “There is no deal in place,” Klein said.

West, who currently has no legal or public relations representation, could not be reached for comment.

A man in a red coat, red pants and a mask on his face

Kanye West at the “Donda” listening event in July 2021.

(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music)

Their relationship grew further after Klein and Cano were named in a lawsuit that alleged West’s song “Flowers” used unlicensed samples from “Move Your Body,” Marshall Jefferson’s 1986 house music single. Phase One Network, which oversees Boogie Down Productions’ catalog, sued West and Kanoo, alleging that “Life of the Party” used unlicensed samples from KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock’s 1986 single “South Bronx”.

In a statement about the lawsuit, the company said: “Kanye Wizzy has confirmed to Team Kano and Steam that they will provide to the music “all intellectual property rights, licenses, and approvals.”

Since West’s breakup, Klein and Kano have moved forward with a new, Ye-free version of Stem Player, open to all artists and hobbyists to upload music and play with mixes. While Stem Player has likely been associated with “Donda 2” for some time, it has been used to remix over a billion songs, and Klein said more than 90% of the traffic on the platform is unrelated to West. Klein hopes that future iterations can use the extensive music catalog to “deepen people’s understanding of what they love”.

Meanwhile, to de-stress over the launch of the Stem Player, Klein and a group of friends climbed Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, this summer. Like many in West’s orbit, he had to reconcile the music he adored with the ugliness of West’s recent downfall. In Stem Player, there is at least one neat solution for that.

“Stem lets you customize the music,” Klein said. “You can turn down Ye’s voice if you like.”

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