When Oakland's Bosko Kante slips what looks like a glowing pair of headphones around his neck, begins tapping on a multi-colored pad on his phone and starts singing in a heavily treated voice that summons the musical ghosts of 1970s funk, it's hard not to suppress the giant grin that wells up.
Kante is the inventor and chief ambassador of the ElectroSpit talkbox, a piece of hardware that vibrates the throat through an app to create a sound that sort of sounds like a cool singing robot. It's Kante's modern version of the classic talkbox used by musicians like Peter Frampton, Stevie Wonder and the late Roger Troutman.
"I started playing talk box many, many years ago," said Kante, a Grammy-winning musician and producer who's performed on albums by Kanye West and Dua Lipa — and wrote the theme to the show "In Living Color." "I just became known as the talk box guy."
The problem, as Bosko saw it, was the original talkbox was clunky. It required a box connected to a keyboard and the performer to jam a plastic tube in his or her mouth. Kante, a former mechanical engineering student at USC, figured there had to be a way to make it more portable and less invasive.
His break came when he was accepted to the Zoo Labs music and tech incubator in Oakland where he began tinkering and refining his invention until he could replicate the voice with a slimmed down piece of wearable hardware and an app. Kante had a band named ElectroSpit, but soon it was hijacked as the name for his new product.
"We saw the future as being music — professional quality music created with your phone." Kante said, sitting in an industrial West Oakland that serves as ElectroSpit's headquarters. "So, we wanted to be part of that future."
Kante initially struggled to find funding for his invention as venture capitalists passed on the idea. He finally found smaller funding sources and then created a Kickstarter that raised more than $100,000. Kante planned to produce his new invention in China, but just as production was about to start, the global pandemic threw a wrench into those plans.
"At the end of 2019, the pandemic started to hit in China and we were having all these supply chain issues," Kante said. "We said, 'You know what? Instead of manufacturing in China, the dream was always to manufacture here in Oakland.'"
So, as COVID-19 began its march across the U.S. shutting things down, Kante's company launched manufacturing of the talkbox in its own building. With his wife Maya Kante as his partner in the company, the business quickly began to break new ground.
"It’s the first Black, female-owned, music tech hardware company ever," Bosko boasted. "And started right here in Oakland."
Just as the pandemic unexpectedly shaped the business, so did the death of George Floyd and the racial justice movement it would touch off. Kante realized he was not only the leader of a company, he was the leader of a Black-owned company, which came with its own set of responsibilities. In his own contribution to the movement, he's now launching his own incubator to bring guidance and support to Black-owned entrepreneurs.
"I’m definitely inspired to make a change in terms of empowering other Black businesses," he said.
Kante seems a rarified mix of technical and musical savvy — of unbridled joyous energy and a mind that can barely keep up with the flow of ideas. On a recent day, he spontaneously gathered five staff members into a room to ask about the importance being part of a Black-owned business.
"If you are able to go to a company that respects you being a Black person, is run by another Black person, that is on the cutting edge of technology, that is in the forefront of that, why wouldn’t you want to be part of that?" answered worker Machelle Brown,
Kante is happy to demonstrate the ElectroSpit — singing into it so often it seemed it would've been impossible for him to not demonstrate it. As the device around his neck glowed blue, his voice soared in a crooning spiral, dipping and weaving with a robotic pop sound that harkened back to some of the classic 1970s funk standards. Kante is well aware of the curious reaction his device invokes.
"It makes people's jaws drop and they’re just like, 'What the heck is that? And how is it happening? And what are you doing. And can I try it?'" he said.