“Real art, real beats.”
So promises “BeatHeadz,” the upcoming generative profile picture (PFP) project by Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum recording artist Aloe Blacc and renowned street artist Philip Lumbang aka Philish Lunchbag. Launching at Crypto.com/NFT on April 21, the first “BeatHeadz” collection will bring 10,808 headphone-sporting avatars to the NFT marketplace. But more than that, “BeatHeadz” is also attempting to foster what many music-centric NFT projects to date have struggled to deliver: a true sense of community.
“Community is the glue of ‘BeatHeadz’; it is everything we stand for,” Lumbang attested. And though “BeatHeadz” already has more than 6,500 Twitter followers and an active Discord with over 3,400 members and counting, the community it intends to continue building will ideally extend beyond social media or even preconceived notions of the metaverse — bridging the gap between collectors’ digital and physical selves in new and interesting ways. “I don’t want to try to copy and paste real life onto the metaverse,” explained Blacc. “I think we all need to figure out how to create a user experience in Web3 that is unique to the platforms and not just a digital version trying to imitate reality.”
“For a few years now, I’ve been really looking forward to robust, high quality virtual experiences. It would be great to push the edge of what user experience and entertainment mean in a Web3 landscape.”Aloe Blacc, Creator of “BeatHeadz”
Genuinely excited about the potential of Web3 ideology, Blacc and Lumbang hope to establish a community where creators can connect and collaborate with fans in the name of social advancement, unified by a passion for music, art and philanthropy. As for the latter, Blacc has pledged to set aside 25% of the BeatHeadz team’s proceeds from the initial mint’s primary sales for charities that support music education. A dedicated humanitarian, he and his wife Maya Jupiter co-founded Artivist Entertainment — a Los Angeles-based organization committed to supporting and creating music and art that inspires social reform — with other activist-minded artists. The couple regularly contributes to community causes and international philanthropic projects such as Peace Over Violence, Malaria No More, Community Coalition of South L.A. and more.
Music in the Metaverse
The genre-fluid singer of hit songs including “I Need a Dollar,” “The Man” and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” — and one half of underground hip-hop duo Emanon alongside producer Exile — also aims to evolve the role of music in the NFT space, driven by blockchain technology’s potential to democratize payment systems for independent artists and cut out traditional music industry gatekeepers and middlemen. From a purely creative standpoint, Blacc plans to experiment with generative music production and incorporate layered musical elements — similar to the visual traits common in PFP projects — into accompanying beats that the team will eventually airdrop to collectors.
“Selling enough cheese also cuts out the middleman, so you don’t need to use the traditional music distributors that have become so popular and successful. All that popularity and success can remain with the artists.”Aloe Blacc, Creator of “BeatHeadz”
Disruptive Renaissance: From Street Art to Web3
A veteran creative director who has worked with companies from Def Jam and beloved streetwear brand The Hundreds to celebrities including rapper Vince Staples and DJ Marshmello, Lumbang also uses art to encourage positive social transformation in his own right. Known for his iconic “Awesome Bears,” which have adorned walls all over L.A. and around the globe, the graffiti and street artist has earned a reputation for his inviting, cartoonish style that juxtaposes the often hard-edged aesthetic of his peers. In attempt to brighten the days of their onlookers, also known as “polite bears,” Lumbang’s characters are often depicted spewing friendly greetings and well-wishes.
“If you think about it, street art was a brand new medium that the establishment didn’t understand. Look at it now! NFTs have the potential to be that disruptive renaissance that could change the perception of art forever.”Philip Lumbang, Creator of “BeatHeadz”
Having launched his career under Shepard Fairey at the “Obey Giant” artist’s Studio Number One, Lumbang also collaborated with fellow Fairey disciple Ernesto Yerena Montejano on “Dead Relatives” — a series of animal calaveras depicting the predations of development in the L.A. area on native fauna populations, part of the National History Museum of L.A. County’s permanent collection. He even painted a mural of various awesome and polite animals in the pediatric wing of the LAC+USC Medical Center, a donation through the Art of Elysium’s Visual Imagery and Environmental Wellness Program — which brings art, music and drama into the hospital to uplift patients.
To the Negaverse and Back
Besides community enrichment, storytelling is also an important aspect of the “BeatHeadz” project. Its mythology centers on the corrupt Muse-sick Industry, a collection of evil parasites that prey on music festival attendees to fuel evil plans — pumping out stale, algorithm-driven pop hits designed to drain concertgoers’ wallets and suck their souls into a fictional realm called the Negaverse. As the story goes, eight brave “BeatHeadz” immune to the sonic garbage arose — dropping dope beats from their bedrooms and garages to awake everyone from their Muse-sick Industry-induced comas and kick off a revolution.
“Aloe and I came up with the mythology over a phone call… We really just rifted off each other; it was jazz.”Philip Lumbang, Creator of “BeatHeadz”
Harmonizing together, they cracked a hole in the Negaverse and fled back to the metaverse — bringing their powerful tunes with them, spreading a message of freedom and attempting to “a-tune” the rest of the souls still trapped. By minting “BeatHeadz,” according to the project’s lore, collectors are essentially rescuing the characters from the Negaverse. Accordingly, the eight champions will be interspersed among the 10,808 “BeatHeadz” NFTs and will be revealed over time — along with 16 one-of-a-kind, ultra-rare “BeatHeadz” designed by Lumbang in homage to various characters, archetypes and artistic movements.
As the altruistic creative team prepares to release their potentially transformative PFP project and confront the evil Muse-sick Industry, Crypto.com NFT spoke with Blacc and Lumbang about how they came together to conceive and develop “BeatHeadz” — as well as their experience in the NFT space, the future of music NFTs and more.
“The idea of festivals being the venues where different ‘BeatHeadz’ congregate to enjoy music but are sucked into the vortex of the Negaverse by the evil Muse-sick Industry was fun. It also isn’t so far off from reality.”Aloe Blacc, Creator of “BeatHeadz”
Read the Q&A with Aloe Blacc and Philip Lumbang below, and visit the “BeatHeadz” drop page for more information.
How did you both get into NFTs? What attracted you to the space?
Lumbang: Aloe was actually the person to really get me into NFTs. As an artist pursuing a gallery career, you will split the commission with the gallery 50–50 — and that’s how it’s always been. Selling art to a collector and even knowing where it [is] was something that always bothered me. Then here come NFTs, giving artists real equity for their creations and building strong communities. This, to me, was a signal of a changing of the guards. There was a better way for artists to take more ownership and sustainability for their creations.
Monetizing art is tricky. How can you put value to an idea? When I sell a physical canvas, that is a one time sale. If the collector decides to sell it later, I wouldn’t see any equity from it. That’s what’s different about NFTs: the smart contract that is tied to every sale after the initial mint. When I think about that as an artist that relies on creativity for a living, it sounds very interesting.
Blacc: I learned about NFTs from motion graphics artist Daniel Poschinger. He told me about Beeple doing a drop and I saw so much excitement around it that I was drawn in. I collaborated on a drop with Daniel and then another drop with my artist friend, Reyes. The conversation didn’t really include music and I was eager to engage songwriting and recording as art forms that are viable in the NFT space. What is attractive about transacting art on the blockchain is the opportunity to collect royalties for resales in perpetuity.
Aside from the commercial benefits, I foresee positive cultural experiences to come in unexpected ways.
Do either of you collect NFTs? Who are some of your favorite artists or projects in the community?
Blacc: My focus with NFTs is utility. I want to collect projects that offer commercial rights to characters so that I can build brands. I was able to collect a few Flufs and I plan to develop a band because they are 3D enabled characters. I tried speculative NFT trading, but I’m not so good at it. I held “Loot” for a short time, but I sold it. As a creative, I’m more into creating art than collecting. I’m working with a few artists to develop collaborative NFT drops in the near future.
Lumbang: I think, with the guidance of [“BeatHeadz” co-founders] Jeremy Levitan and Tom Ciszek, I have learned a lot about the NFT space. Jeremy gifted me a Ninjatown Dumpling and I love it. But getting to know Crypto.com NFT artists Ugonzo and Cody James really [made] me respect the projects they have created.
How would you like to see the space evolve?
Blacc: There’s so much room for growth in the area of diversity. It would be great to see more women involved. I realize it is a visual arts arena for now, but I’d like to see more acceptance for and involvement from people who are in the performing arts like dancing and acting. Sculptors and poets can also bring a lot to this new community. For a few years now, I’ve been really looking forward to robust, high quality virtual experiences. It would be great to push the edge of what user experience and entertainment mean in a Web3 landscape.
Lumbang: Honestly, it’s all about usability. I felt like obtaining NFTs was intimidating as a newcomer. What’s great, though, is that Crypto.com NFT is really that platform bridging the space — almost like a middle ground for collectors of all levels, making NFTs accessible to all. You’re telling me you can grab a BeatHead with [fiat money]? Amazing!
How did you all team up for “BeatHeadz” and work together on the project.
Blacc: I was working with Phil on my children’s book project when NFTs started blowing up. We discussed some ideas, but it wasn’t until he introduced Jeremy and Tom that we really began building the concept for “BeatHeadz.” Phil has really been phenomenal at developing the attributes for characters. He has a great artistic sense and can interpret any idea we develop as a team. He created many of the attributes independently, because he’s very imaginative.
Lumbang: “BeatHeadz” is a culmination of all four of our ideas, and [us] really understanding that this is a music project at its core. When we came up with the headphones concept, I hit the ground running. We would get together on weekly Zooms and go over all the art, [and] I would take notes and adjust. It truly was a collaborative effort.
Who came up with the mythology?
Lumbang: Aloe and I came up with the mythology over a phone call. You guys have to understand, Aloe is a multi-talented, multi-layered creative genius. We just came together about what music meant to us and our first experiences with it. We really just rifted off each other; it was jazz. I wrote down a first draft from my notes and Jeremy helped tighten it up.
What was the inspiration?
Blacc: Developing the narrative and origin story was a fun process. It was also quite interesting, because many PFP projects involve extraterrestrial or supernatural phenomena — so we had that cultural trend at hand. But I wanted to ground the story in our lived experiences here on earth, related to music. The idea of festivals being the venues where different “BeatHeadz” congregate to enjoy music but are sucked into the vortex of the Negaverse by the evil Muse-sick Industry was fun. It also isn’t so far off from reality. The concept of freeing these “BeatHeadz” from the Negaverse by minting them back into the metaverse helps us engage the collectors with the origin story and offers an opportunity for second generation collectibles. The original eight “BeatHeadz” to escape the Negaverse become our leaders of the revolution.
What can you tell us about the eight “BeatHeadz” that led the revolution?
Lumbang: The eight “BeatHeadz” are the ones that found each other in the Negaverse. They went through a gauntlet to find each other. They knew that there was a way out [of] the negativity, and created a harmony so powerful [that]they created a rift to the metaverse. They have given us the power to crack the code and it is up to us to free the ones left trapped in the Negaverse.
Blacc: These eight “BeatHeadz” are carefully crafted characters that will represent the diversity we commonly see at festivals. Every type of person from every walk of life can be found at a music festival. They represent different genres of music and different blends of genres.
Aloe, do you think the music industry at large has really figured out NFTs yet?
Blacc: The music industry has not yet figured out NFTs. Several artists have had unique success with the hype around NFTs, but it’s not a scalable phenomenon yet. I think the real answer to scaling NFTs for the music industry is related to streams that directly pay the artists who created the music. Presently, the system works such that huge digital service provider companies collect subscriptions and pay a pro-rata share to artists based on the amount of streams they received that month. This doesn’t really work in a fair way, because the subscription money that an EDM fan is paying may largely be going to a hip-hop artist they never listen to.
What are some of the practical applications and opportunities NFTs present musical artists?
Blacc: Music artists can use NFTs to create scarcity for their music, which in turn should increase the value — because the demand will be higher, according to basic economic theory. Right now, in the current state of the NFT space, musicians and recording artists are at the mercy of a marketplace that requires a visual component. I’m hopeful that there will be an embracing of a strictly audio component to NFTs. One really beautiful thing about NFTs is the smart contract structure that allows for royalties in subsequent sales of a token.
How do you see the role of NFTs evolving in music?
Blacc: I think that NFTs will help to revolutionize the indie artists’ access to direct payment from fans. There are several different crowdfunding platforms where artists can receive payment from fans [in] exchange for delivering whatever is promised. But NFTs offer the opportunity to transact in cryptocurrencies otherwise not available in the traditional systems. Selling enough cheese also cuts out the middleman, so you don’t need to use the traditional music distributors that have become so popular and successful. All that popularity and success can remain with the artists.
Do you plan on utilizing NFTs in the rollout for any of your upcoming releases?
Blacc: I’ll definitely be utilizing NFTs to release future projects. There are some very special songs that I believe will create cultural moments like I’ve done in the past with “I Need a Dollar,” “The Man” and “Wake Me Up.” Introducing these songs as NFTs will give fans and collectors an opportunity to be part of the financial success of these future recordings.
What can you tell us about the music of “BeatHeadz?”
Blacc: “BeatHeadz” music spans across all genres, sounds and styles. Of course, as a recording artist with my own style and vibe, there is a bit of Aloe Blacc in every beat that comes from the project. However, I grew up playing the trumpet in symphonic band, listening to Caribbean music because my parents are from Central America, making hip-hop music as my first form and so much more. Each “BeatHeadz” character will have its own soundtrack eventually develop through generative beats.
I’d love to hear more about these generative beats and how that element will work; can you elaborate?
Blacc: In the same way that visual attributes can be layered to create a “BeatHeadz” character, music can be synthesized by layering sonic elements. I’m going to curate different instrument sounds and rhythms based on the visual attributes of the “BeatHeadz.” Our algorithm can either make them randomly or can assign them specifically and attribute a specific theme to a character based on how they look.
How do you intend to build community around the project?
Blacc: Great art brings people together. We look forward to offering live music VIP experiences. We also look forward to offering our own branded festivals. In whatever way music can be shared, we want to engage. The big dream is to create a brand that can bring people together and help our collectors find maximum utility. My personal goal is to lead with exclusive and advanced access to music releases for our “BeatHeadz” community. “BeatHeadz” is for music lovers, and who doesn’t love music?
Lumbang: Community is the glue of “BeatHeadz”; it is everything we stand for. When I see our Discord booming with conversations, it really brings a smile to my face. I am very active on our Discord, because I love getting to know people and spreading the good word of “BeatHeadz.” I do weekly live drawings every Wednesday, Twitter Spaces and speak at the Crypto.com NFT Sunday Spaces. The more I can be a part of the community, the more it will grow. It’s not about building hype, it’s about building an active community.
How do you see “BeatHeadz” evolving?
Blacc: The evolution of “BeatHeadz” will begin with our first generation mint, and it will be a collectible profile picture — but ultimately, it will be an investment in the future of our collectors and a community that embraces music-forward Web3 experiences. We want to push the envelope with generative beats in future generations. We want to offer new recording artists and musicians a community that they can launch their careers in. We want to continue to create value for collectors, but also offer philanthropy to deserving organizations teaching music to youth.
I’m excited about the opportunity to donate proceeds of our generation one mint to programs that teach youth music. In order for great music to continue thriving in our culture, we need to reinvest in the youth who will interpret their experiences and their era with music.
I certainly am going to continue pushing the envelope with music. One thing that I’m working on right now is using technology to break the mold of what we accept from artists and what artists can deliver. I don’t want to try to copy and paste real life onto the metaverse. I think we all need to figure out how to create a user experience in Web3 that is unique to the platforms and not just a digital version trying to imitate reality.
Lumbang: “BeatHeadz” will forever be evolving; we are here to build a brand that will affect generations. The fact that we are committed to [donating] 25% [of our] overall profit for music charities is really a part of how we can create real change. If Web3 is the future, our future creators will pave the way. I intend to explore more of my personal art [in] the NFT space, really committing to who I am as an artist and the story I have to share.
Phil, I understand you have a bit of an unconventional artistic evolution, when it comes to graffiti and street art. Can you speak to your career path, from graphic designer to street artist, as well as the evolution of your bears?
Lumbang: Art has always been a constant in my life. Through the ups and downs of my life, I always was able to create. I got my start as an intern for Shepard Fairey aka Obey Giant, and that really gave me the confidence to be my own artist. From paint to canvas, and stylus to screen, I was able to hone my craft and be a part of a lot of influential projects. I have always considered myself a Swiss Army Knife; whatever you need, I got it. My strength is the ability to execute any style with authenticity. The “Awesome Bears” were really an experiment of perseverance and confidence in my ability. I am privileged enough that I have made my living solely by being creative, expressing myself and [my] passion.
What did you learn or take away from working with Shepard, early in your career?
Lumbang: I can honestly say [that] without Shepard Fairey, there wouldn’t be “BeatHeadz.” He taught me the foundation that I still practice today: you are only as good as your references. Understanding how to pay homage to graphic design from the past and create your own story is a powerful tool. One echoing reminder he always preached was, “Measure twice, cut once.” “BeatHeadz” is putting everything I have ever learned into practice: bold iconography readable at any level.
How does your process change, from the streets to the studio to your computer, tablet, etc.?
Lumbang: My process has changed, for sure. I used to draw on letter-sized paper [in] pencil and ink with a light board, scan in the images and go from there. Going digital affords you the ability to be reckless with ideas, thanks to the undo button. What’s even better is that there are brushes that can mimic pencil and ink, so I can work through ideas even quicker — without a barrier.
From your experience, how has the street art community responded to NFTs?
Lumbang: The taller the tree, the more wind it catches. There will always be a vocal opposition that will try to downplay the effect NFTs have on the community; it really is a polarizing subject. As long as you know where you stand, it’s the right way. If you think about it, street art was a brand new medium that the establishment didn’t understand. Look at it now! NFTs have the potential to be that disruptive renaissance that could change the perception of art forever.
I understand there are some ultra-rare, one-of-a-kind originals you added to the “BeatHeadz” collection, besides the generative pieces; any chance there’ll be an “Awesome Bears” version of “BeatHeadz?”
Don’t trip! I have one!
Browse the “BeatHeadz” collection by Aloe Blacc and Philip Lumbang.
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Editor’s Note (Oct. 13, 2022): an earlier version of this article was originally published on the Crypto.com NFT Medium blog on April 14, 2022 and has since been edited and/or updated to republish.