Before music was an on-demand commodity, it existed purely as collaborative performance. From our earliest human prehistory to the advent of the phonograph, if we wanted to hear a beat then we had to get in sync with others and bang it out. Paleoanthropologists have suggested that this capacity for rhythmic coordination coevolved with our capacity to craft stone tools; put differently, our ability to improvise music and our ability to improvise technologies are one and the same.
In stark contrast, today’s big streaming platforms optimize for passivity. Spotify funnels us seamless “chilled-out” playlists to half-listen to while we sort through emails and industry strategists harp on about “lean back listening”— a distracted, disengaged form of engagement focused more on a vague sense of mood than an artist’s distinct vision. As we’ve become increasingly dependent on these platforms, we’ve become locked into a culture of tuned-out listening. As music critic Amanda Petrusich puts it, the major streaming platforms are warping music from a purposeful activity into a ubiquitous but unremarkable productivity tool intended merely “to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet.” For artists and audiences alike, music is devalued from mind-expanding artform to user-optimized sonic wallpaper.
Spores is plotting an exit from the numbing immersion of platform-based ambience. Taking inspiration from the live edits of dub culture and the creative appropriation of hip hop sampling, the music NFT platform is enabling a new kind of listening experience more akin to jamming on a drum machine than drifting off to a curated playlist. A “Spore Player” is an interactive music NFT that can be remixed on the fly. More instrument than interface, each song minted as a Spore is kitted out with four sliders that allow listeners to pitch, stutter, and wobble elements of a track as it plays. Every listen is unlike the last, each containing a fractal infinity of possible variations.
Against algorithmic homogeneity and in alliance with their fungal namesakes, Spores spread, mutate, and proliferate into novel forms in an evolutionary cycle of organic creativity. Ultimately, the plan is for every playback-performance to be recorded and made available onchain, with the song’s creator able to pick out “official” remixes from this inexhaustible archive. These aren’t songs, but hypersongs “that perpetuate themselves via infinite remixes spread on chain.”
Helming the project is Keyon Christ, a producer for the likes of Rihanna and Kanye West, whose previous projects include a quantum machine learning-powered synthesizer created in collaboration with a NASA engineer. Zora’s Latashá spoke with him about the genealogies of Black music, hacking worlds that weren’t built for you, and the trippy nature of networks.
Latashá Alcindor (Zora): What were you doing before Spores?
Keyon Christ: I grew up obsessed with music and technology. I started coding when I was 13. Signed my first deal at 18. The music industry is a little fucked up. I signed some slave deals along the way and just realized I had to take back my own power through my true passion which is technology. I put out my first NFT Black Skin Machine with Nvidia in early 2021, which was the first time I had taken a neural net and trained it on Black artists. That led me here.
LA: That’s fire. You sound like you have an accent. Where’s your family from?
KC: That’s what Rihanna said too, “You sound like you’re from the islands.” No, I come from East Atlanta, Georgia.
LA: What was your first computer?
KC: My first computer was just a Sony PlayStation One.
LA: What transformed games into deeper technology for you?
KC: I wanted to create my own world, got tired of diving into other people’s worlds.
LA: Atlanta’s an interesting place for creativity. How did your upbringing inform that?
KC: While the culture there is dynamic, it’s also one-dimensional. Everybody was getting sucked into it. When Young Thug first popped off, I was living in Decatur and thought it bumped. But honestly, I didn’t know the difference between him and every other sound around me because it was all the Atlanta sound. It’s all fixated on one thing.
LA: When was your first studio experience? When did you first get into music?
KC: When I was 12 I stole my mom’s credit card, bought this USB microphone, and made my own little studio set up. I realized I couldn’t afford beats at 13 so I started making my own. That’s why I’m more of a producer today. My mom wanted me to stay in school but all I would talk about was signing a management deal. I got approached for management when I was 14. Started talking to APG publishing when I was 16. When I was 18, my mama made me sign up for Georgia State University. I enrolled there and then two months later my mom got sick and had a stroke. She couldn’t pay her bills and that’s when I signed my first slave deal to help her out.
LA: Did you feel like the deal was a means to an end at that point? When did you start building your own system?
KC: Definitely. And that’s been going on for a while. I would make internet browsers growing up. I made my own antiviruses.
LA: Then you started making beat machines?
KC: Yeah, virtual beat machines. I collaborated with this NASA engineer to make the first quantum granular synthesizer in the world. It’s like an alien telescope—searching for life within computing but with sounds.
LA: That’s so next level for somebody who was not going to school. How did all this education [come] to you?
KC: I was googling. A lot of DM slides. Hitting up talented people. Some were receptive to me.
LA: I love the concept of your first NFT series— Black Skin Machine—finding diversity in the AI vocal. I’ve had a lot of conflict with AI because of the homogenization that comes with it and the lack of diversity. How’d you contend with that?
KC: It’s dope to be able to inject your own reality into the ether. The world is too homogenous. It’s a serious problem in the field. I need to bring the grease to the song, the soul food. That’s my biggest inspiration. My mom was an amazing singer—R.I.P.—and she taught me everything I know about music: how to fill it and put soul into it. I heard parts of her singing back to me in the AI that I was chopping up and it sounded like heaven, as though she was trying to speak to me through technology. That’s how we know we have something. This technology should allow our ancestors to interface with us.
LA: AI and the use of technology to be ancestrally connective—that’s our whole existence. That’s quantum physics. I love this idea of your mother being in the voice of the AI. Do you feel that you’re creating a safe haven for our future in music and art?
KC: 100%. That tribal futuristic aspect of what we’re doing on this call together, we’re forming our own tribe right now. This is the template for people to have in the future. We’re like Atlantis. If something happens to us, at least there’s a template saved up in some satellite in space so that humans have the blueprint.
LA: The idea of putting Black voices into AI is something that we haven’t had a lot of opportunity for. Pivoting to Spores, can you explain the project for people who don’t know?
KC: Almost all of humanity’s innovations and societal contributions are powered by remixing. Remixing is our manifest destiny. Spores enables remixing for the next generation of music in the most soulful way possible.
Spores creates a new paradigm where fans can co-create hit records with their favorite artists by remixing them, and then mint those remixes on new hybrid playlists. The world loves remixes already—we’re just bringing the power to millions of fans in a condensed, AI-powered, beautiful, and ignorantly futuristic way.
You can get variations on any song that you listen to. Whether you’ve released through Spores or not, we can add sounds from other worlds into any track. It’s like a video game for sound. Platforms like imeem and Spotify made it so you don’t have to download music. You can stream it. Spores makes it so you don’t have to wait for new fire music. You can infinitely expand the music that you have and personalize it in dope ways. This takes advantage of blockchain technology with every song onchain. We have the ability to make Web2 jealous. How do we enable the next generation of culture with the best technology made by people from the culture? It’s creating a whole new type of DJing for someone to be able to intercept a futuristic song and determine its outcome. You can then propagate so many strains for songs across the internet, from Web3, trickling down into Web2, creating a beautiful Web2.5 bridge powered by Spores’ mycelial networks. It’s really the most 2023 approach to releasing music that the world has seen in a hot minute.
The Spores team is stacked and I’d like to do some shout-outs. Alec Resende is our lead developer and CTO. He can figure out any design problem or next-level idea I wanna do. He always finds a way. I’m not sure how. Francesca Simone is powering some amazing creative algorithms for future live performances. She’s toured all over the world with Beyoncé as her lead guitarist since she was 19 and is now co-founding Spores with us. We’re blessed to have someone of such immense talent on the team. Our “Acoustify” feature is powered by her guitar playing and key detection algorithms. Last but not least is Hunter Martin, an incredibly talented front end developer who never shuts down a dangerous idea for prototypes.
LA: With something like Spores, we have this opportunity to sample and play and reform music. Do you think that’s a benefit for the artists? How do you feel about the replication of music and the reforming of music from the artist’s side?
KC: It’s a benefit for both people and artists. It’s a new way for artists to spread their music. That’s the reason why it’s named Spores; it’s based on psilocybin, it’s based on getting high, it’s based on the trippy nature of networks propagating sound. You don’t have to promote your music as much because the fans spread it every time they stream it and personalize it. That’s a blessing to the artists. You could connect into Spores right now and, if people made some dope remixes to your shit, that could generate additional revenue.
LA: Remixing, sampling, and the utilization of IP is a problem for the industry. It’s also why we started hip hop in the first place: to utilize whatever we had and to create with the systems that oppressed us. Spores is doing that. You’re creating technology for hip hop’s advancement. What do you think is the next stage of hip hop and how will it connect with technology like this?
KC: It’ll be pretty profound. Drake could release an album with a hundred different 808 sounds. Some of them are distorted. Some of them are squelchy. Some of them are squishy. Some of them sound like they’re underwater. You could release a project and have them swap out automatically and expand the song’s DNA. With Spores, the credits, stems, lifeblood, and history of songs are expanded and viewable onchain. We’re working on a dynamic traits and credits system that is rearranged every time a fan makes a remix and shows them their prospective split in the song. It’s a new economy for IP rights in sound built around our adaptive music player. It’s a way to get people inside your head even when they’re creating sound in the studio, but it’s also a way for the artists to get inside the heads of fans and connect in new ways.
LA: It’s giving the idea that music is forever. Especially now with streaming services and TikTok, it feels like music doesn’t have that forever essence that it used to have. There are so many songs that we’ll listen to for three months and then disregard. This technology feels more timeless. This song should last and be replicated and recreated and dubbed in so many different ways. That’s really powerful—the essence of hip hop coming back to us. Spores is going back to the future. It’s Black Futurism. How does that feel? Does always living in the future give you anxiety?
KC: It does. I stay present just by making music and I stay in the future by making technology. Black futurism hasn’t been injected into technology enough. My goal is to create sonic artifacts that survive the complete destruction of the human race, sort of like the pyramids in Egypt. We should leave something behind that inspires whatever inhabits this planet in years to come.
LA: What was your favorite aspect of hip hop growing up?
KC: How colorful it is. Using synesthesia, admiring the textures and the colors that can be assembled as recipes in really soulful ways. How colorful people are able to assemble the same colors in their music. It’s all about the color choice. What’s the most fearless and unique color palette you can go with that’ll hit certain frequencies neuronally and command a feeling of respect from other humans? That’s it. This is what we came for.
LA: Do you feel like there were other forms of music that helped create this kaleidoscope of sound in Spores?
KC: I would say punk rock. Black people made rock. It’s just the rearrangement of colors. They’re still using the same colors and textures and shapes to make those sounds from the 1960s, just in a new way. That’s why Spores is the new dub culture. That’s what we want to push forward. Black people invented rock, but it’s also dope to hear how other races embodied rock and fleshed it out. I respect the energy that each human, regardless of skin color, puts into the craft.
LA: That connects heavily with reggae and dancehall, too. What do you hope people gather from Spores in the next couple of years?
KC: I’ve been making mostly futuristic reggae projects for the last six years. I’m hoping that it helps people understand that all we are trying to do is get high by listening to music. I hope it spreads like wildfire and infects the world, morphing, adapting, and creating sound that is conscious of who’s listening to it.
LA: One of your ancestors pulls up right now and asks, “What have you been doing?” What would you say?
KC: I would show them my favorite piece of music inside Spores and give it to them as an artifact. I may or may not smoke a blunt with them.