As a two-time Grammy Award-winning producer, Ramon "Illmind" Ibanga Jr. has an impeccable resume in the music world.
He has co-writing credits on legendary labels such as Def Jam, Aftermath and Cash Money. He has worked with Drake, Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Logic, Future, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj, even Marshall Mathers. He's also worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the "Hamilton" Mixtape and Disney's "Moana."
It's not surprising to see someone with his cultural cache enter the Web3 space with the March 2022 launch of the NFT project, Squad of Knights (SOK).
It was launched a bit after the heyday of NFT hype in 2021, but it also has clearer goals and utility than most PFP projects. With SOK, Illmind sought to make his NFT holders part of a supportive community of music makers.
What is unusual for someone with Illmind's fame is that he came to the Web3 space — and stayed. He continued to participate, growing the SOK community and appeared as a speaker, educator and performer at Web3 events — including Benzinga's Future of Crypto conference, on Dec. 7 at Pier Sixty in New York City.
Just days before the big conference, we took a moment to check in with Illmind to talk about the SOK community, the upcoming collaborative album, "The Chronicles of SOK" and the future of blockchain and music.
The Chronicles of SOK, pre-release cover art/liner notes. Source: www.squadofknights.com
BZ: How has the community for Squad of Knights developed since its launch?
Illmind: "The project is great. We're dropping the first official Squad of Knights album in the first quarter of next year. I've been spending the past two months mixing and cleaning up the album. It's crazy. There are 22 tracks, all produced, performed, written and mixed by our Squad members, which is super, super exciting.
So, we're going to kick the year off with the launch of the album, which is kind of a combination of Web2 and Web3 launch. So, it will be on Digital Service Providers (DSPs) such as Spotify and Apple music, but we're also going to release NFTs, which our members are going to keep 100%.
It's 22 tracks and it's completely produced, performed and arranged by all those Squad of Knights members, and you know, all, all the revenue that comes in for the album goes to them."
Did the Squad of Knights community experience a dip when the market started to turn down?
"We definitely noticed it. But we're maintaining a core group of members who are always looking to do more. The fact the market is down right now and we're still feeling the energy from the community is a sign that they weren't really there for the money in the first place. They want to make music. They want to get in the studio and build with each other."
How do you think the down market for NFTs has changed what people expect from their project communities?
"I think people are forced now to deploy projects that have an actual meaning for people to want to be a part of and a purpose. I think [NFT project] founders are they're realizing, 'Hey, we can't just like pick an animal and do 10,000 of them.'"
How advanced are the music artists in the SOK community?
"It's a combination of all skill sets and all levels from intermediate to advanced level, just super, super talented. And they're lifting each other up. It's crazy. Every Squad of Knights member is super unique and dedicated to what they do.
I'm always interested in seeing what they can do together. When you look at the tracklist, you can see there are three or four producers who collaborated on one beat. And then you have two different rappers, two singers and 10 people on the song. We had close to 300 song submissions in 2 1/2, and we had to narrow it down to 22 songs, so I'm super blown away by that, and the album is fire."
Do you have any examples of members that really blew you away with their abilities?
"So many of them. For example, there is one member named MiaMei. She's a singer. She came to the L.A. meetup, and we everyone plugged in and played their music.
Dude, she blew everyone away with her music. She raps, she sings and she's got charisma. She writes everything herself. She had worked with members of the community before that meetup, but in person, we saw her superstardom.
That night, one of Dr. Dre's A&R reps was in the studio. When MiaMei came on, he was like, 'Yeah, you're special.'
There's another member, a rapper named Profit. And when we first started doing the collaboration challenges, this guy would be on every song. He is on four songs on the upcoming album. They're all super motivated to do more, and it's inspiring."
What kind of events do you have with the SOK community?
"We have events with the Knights both in the metaverse and in real life. We've been doing metaverse meetups through Spatial, which have been super fun. But we definitely want to do more in real life (IRL) stuff.
In our last IRL meetup in L.A. over the summer, we had 40 Knights that came. Some people flew in from out of town and we went to the studio and spent the whole night playing music. It was such a dope experience."
How does it feel to be the biggest producer in Web3?
"Oh, man! Fun. Some pressure. But mostly fun, and it gives me an opportunity to step out and do cool, weird new things, which is always what I've been into. Stepping into Web3 was no different than when I released my first drum kit in 2011. This is a tool and potentially a new income stream for music producers. I'm definitely not afraid to jump into something, and having it not be perfect, because that will just lead me to the next thing that will eventually land me somewhere that works."
Are you interested in playing music at more Web3 shows in 2023?
"Absolutely. Yeah. That's in the cards. I started my career as a DJ. My manager and team have been aggressively preparing a strategy to get me on the road more and do more gigs in the Web3 space. Especially now that I'm here in Miami."
How would you describe the Web3 music vibe?
"They just like to have fun. Nothing too serious. They're there to be part of a community and get to know each other and dance, hopefully. And that's it. When I think of that, I think up-tempo music, so it could be hip hop, it could be EDM, it could be house music."
What does the future of crypto mean to you?
"The future of crypto will become a mechanism to make our lives easier.
If handled right, Web3 technology and just cryptocurrency will improve the quality of life for people around the world. That's what I hope."
The Last Word
It is wonderful to visit a NFT project nearly a year after launch — and deep in the chilly climes of crypto winter — and find that it is still going strong.
In terms of providing ongoing utility, SOK's approach reminds me of VeeFriends because both Illmind and Gary Vee were able to take an approach from their media career and build value for their communities with it. Vee had been producing conferences with VaynerMedia for a decade before VeeCon 2022; Illmind had been holding seminars for aspiring producers and musicians long before NFTs.
I strongly anticipate the new album — not only is it likely to be dope, but I think it's one of the most sincere expressions of the higher goals of Web3 because the SOK community is both the audience and the creators.
I hope to see more NFT projects like this that know and understand their audience. Utility isn't something you should tack on after the launch of a project — it should be the reason for the project to exist.
This story is part of the Benzinga Future of Crypto 2022 summit-related content. Some of the best minds and most important projects in Web3 will be in attendance on Dec. 7 in New York City, including Rarible, Cosmos, Yuga Labs, Solana, Laguna Labs, and Algorand. Keynote speakers include Kevin O'Leary and Anthony Scaramucci.
Photo: Courtesy Ramon "Illmind" Ibanga Jr.