Avila Brothers | Four-Time Grammy Award Winners
They say we’re all on a journey in this crazy life and we should enjoy the ride wherever it takes us. But every now and again you hear a story and you’re reminded that some people just seem to have had a really incredible journey that needs to be shared, not only because it’s a great story but because it happens to be true.
Such is the story of Bobby Ross Avila and his brother, IZ, collectively known as the Avila Brothers.
Among their many accomplishments, they are the first Latinos to receive not one, but two Grammy awards for their work on Chaka Khan’s song, “Funk This”.
Their stellar work has garnered more than 38 million album sales with mega superstar artists like Janet Jackson, Usher, Gwen Stefani, Mary J Blige, Missy Elliot and so many more. And as you’re about to find out, music is just one part of their huge success story.
So, take us back to the beginning and tell us the Avila Brothers story.
IZ: My father was a keyboard player and he had this band. That was his gig. And the interesting thing about my pops was that he was a decent player but never like you know a serious player. But he was a guy who always had the gigs. And the great thing is he knew how to put himself around great musicians. And he kind of built it up that way because in that era of live musicians, everybody just wanted a gig.
Growing up in the house, we couldn't really get any sleep because they were always rehearsing in the garage and the garage was next to our bedroom. So my pops would be like, ‘Hey if you’re going to be up anyway you might as well come in here and watch and listen.’
I would go sit by the drummer and Bobby would always go sit by the keyboard player. That's kind of where we really discovered instrumentation and our love of music. I remember getting my first drum set when I was five and I think my brother got a little toy piano or keyboard.
"The great thing is because I was into the drums and he was into the piano we were able to play together and just jam out and experiment together."
It got to a point where we would go see my dad play these gigs and he would sneak me and my brother up onstage and make us play while they were on the break. And so at a very early age we were playing 21 and over clubs. And the great thing about that was that I never really got to experience being nervous or being afraid because at that young age, it’s just fun.
"You’re just playing and you see the enjoyment that people are having."
So, because my pops was so in tune with the culture of music at that time you always had gear around the house, whether it was drum machines, vinyl, keyboards. So we kind of had like the best of the best and that eventually became the pathway for us to evolve as creators and transition from just being musicians.
My brother started making his own music, writing his own songs and ended up getting signed to RCA at 13 years old. He ended up landing a tour with New Kids On The Block, who were like the hottest thing on earth at that time. So, he was traveling the world playing in front of sold out crowds.
And to experience that at an early age just set the tone for everything that was going to come into play in the future.
And I pretty much just followed suit. I ran into the various roadblocks of life but I just kept pressing on. I believe my brother was mastering his project at a place called Bernie Grundman's and Terry Lewis (from the legendary producer team of Jam and Lewis) happened to call in to check on a Janet Jackson session. And he wanted to know who was playing in the background. So, the guy who was working on the record turned around and said, ‘Hey man, you guys have a deal?’ And we were like, ‘No we don't. Who is it?’ Next thing I know, Bob is in Minneapolis and working on his record with Jam and Lewis and at the time I was working on a rap album.
So, my brother tells them, ‘you know my brother raps’ and let Jimmy Jam hear me and then they fell in love with me and next thing I'm in Minneapolis. Ultimately, this was the bridge that was going to connect us to becoming producers working on the records that we've been able to work on, which became a huge part of our success.
That’s really incredible! But we all know there are always struggles in this business. I know you've had some struggles too. Can you tell us about that? And what kind of advice can you give to younger kids out there who are persevering through these issues?
Bob: I think when you engage and you allow yourself the most exposure to what your heart or what your spirit is drawn to it's a very touching thing, right. You're believing in something that no one else really believes in but you.
"And you devote your whole entire being to loving that. To becoming the best at what that is, whether you're an artist, whether you're a lawyer or even if you’re studying in college."
And you do that because you have a passion for what you want to do in life. Music is an art form so you get to just paint. You can produce and play whatever music you like. But there’s no roadmap to playing the right music and it doesn't really require you to have a certain credential like a doctor or a lawyer to get to where you want to go. So, therefore, it's really hard as an artist to survive. You face so many hurdles.
I mean look at Jaco Pastorius. One of the best bass players of all time and he was living in a park. Look at James Jamerson, who made the difference on so many Motown hits with his signature bass lines. He had to buy his own ticket to watch the Motown 25th anniversary. So, it's very challenging to devote yourself to something that you love that's beyond you and you love it whether you're getting paid or not. But if you love it and that is your passion you’ve just got to stay committed, as hard as it may be.
Now look at your product, the Eyeball. You created something so complex yet so simple and high quality. You look at all the posts that you guys have and everybody’s raving about you and your product. It's a living product that a lot of people have in the studio vs. the competition.
You were able to isolate the mic in a way that no one else has been able to do. You can be anywhere, in a hotel room or in a home. You could be in a professional studio. You can be in the control room at the studio. Now look at what you have. A brilliant work. A solution that’s cost effective that looks great and produces a real result. So how can you lose?
It's all about the process, you know. There's a process to everything and there's a science to everything. The Kaotica Eyeball went through the process and that's kind of like me and my brother.
"Nothing happens overnight. We've been out here doing music for a long time."
We've invested years into the craft. Nothing easy about it. There's a lot of work that goes into creating a great result for people to appreciate art. It's very easy for them to think it happened overnight.
That’s so true. Here at Kaotica we went through a very similar experience creating the Eyeball as you’re describing with your music. And it’s not easy at all is it? So beyond your musical success, you guys have had a lot to do with creating some very well known products out there in the world. You had something to do with the re-branding for Akai and Beats by Dre right? Can you talk about that?
IZ: OK so Akai was once famous for making a legendary, iconic drum machine, the MPC 60, which was introduced in ’89. And through the legacy that this product left in the industry there was an opportunity to get involved years later to somewhat re-brand and reintroduce this product to a modern culture of creators and do it in a way that brought the core lovers of this product back to it.
That’s because over the years Akai went from making products that were considered professional studio quality to machines that began to get reviewed as toys because they just got smaller and smaller and became something that you couldn’t take seriously anymore.
RealIZing there were other people who knew this product on the deepest level, we felt we needed some help to get this right.
So we called a very good friend of ours named Bruce Forat. He’s the guy everyone went to for anything and everything to do with customIZing or fixing the Akai MPC-60.
So, we flew out to Rhode Island and began doing our homework, sitting in a conference room for hours and hours and hours with every drum machine they've ever made to really decide what this new product needed to encompass. That was like real R&D, as real as it gets. And so, we got this thing corrected. We got a new prototype, changed a lot of the positioning of the different sections and took it back to like the fundamentals of what this machine really needed to be.
"After doing a bunch of clinics with producers and artists, who offered their input into what this product needed to have, we had finally re-created a modern drum machine worthy of the original Akai legend."
And by the time it was time to launch we had the whole community of beat lovers and beat creators embracing this MPC, which was now called the Renaissance. And they couldn’t keep them on the shelf. They were backordered. And then it was off to the next.
So, let’s talk about headphones.
Bobby: So, we had known Bruce Forat for years, since I was like 12 years old and I'm 41 years old now. So when you have those long term relationships like that with a heavy guy in the tech sector it helps you cross bridges and got us into the world of beta testing early.
So he introduced us to the president of Monster cable, Noel Lee. Noel was a big music lover and former drummer. That musical passion was the basis for forming Monster. At that time Noel was trying to make the transition from taking a company known as a cable manufacturer and making it synonymous with music and that’s where I got involved.
Now as a kid I always said when it happens for me I want to be involved in this world of beta testing because I was so intrigued. You know I would cascade these different machines together, a D-50 with a DX-7 and an Emulator II. I understood truncating samples.
I don't know how but I just knew how to do that kind of stuff.
I was able to scratch and pick up the guitar, bass, I could play a talk box. I learned the harmonica also. I was just being progressive. I was beta testing for Yamaha when I was like 12, 13 years old. All the SY products, the Yamaha SY-77 synthesIZer, the SY-99, the TG-33. I was very involved with creating that product.
So, at Monster we tried a bunch of different things because we had this background. When you have a company like Monster cable we would come up with ideas and they would actually build it like in days. Ultimately, Noel saw that the modern day speaker was going to become the headphone.
So we walked down that road of figuring out what a headphone should sound like, what it should feel like.
As a kid growing up in the studio I always knew what AKG headphones sounded like. I mean, headphones weren't a new concept. And so once we learned the concept of marketing and packaging, from Monster cable’s perspective, we got exposed and opened up to this world of marketing and industrial design and learning about colors and packaging.
So, we started with this cool logo, which ultimately became the B in Beats headphones. We started there and the Beats were black ebony gloss, which came from a piano. So that’s where the idea of the Beats headphones being piano black and glossy came from.
And so they kind of just took on a life of their own. It was all about bass at that time because they were very urban driven. To make a long story short we were able to learn about sales and retail, that whole world in the space of audio and Home AV. So, we kind of went on this journey.
We gave it to a few artists and no one believed in it. Because Monster cable was synonymous with cable but not with anything to do with audio. So, for retail to accept a headphone from a cable company was hard. And then Dr. Dre ultimately became the first and last guy who took it home and saved us the work and the labor that went into selling the idea.
It was a crazy process. And at the end of the day we really changed culture.
On the audio side we were part of this revolution. It was kind of like lightning in a bottle because the iPod just came out and everybody was trying to figure out how people were going to experience music. So, there were all these dynamics that went into it. One thing that made Beats relevant was fashion. To have an iPod and have an Apple computer, it was very fashionable, and we were the only ones that had a fashionable headphone. Bose spoke to a very different consumer. And the rest is history.
So, we went through that big learning curve of how we need to connect, which gave us a really good understanding of how to create products that really speak to the consumer. It doesn't matter what industry it is, it’s about understanding how you make that connection from all aspects when it comes to packaging and experience. The same is true for music.
Wow! You guys really have been through an amazing, amazing journey. I just loved hearing your story. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
Bobby: Oh man, anytime. The feeling is mutual bro.