15 Jan Google A.I. Engineer/Rapper Wants Kids To Know It’s Cool To Be A Genius
Brandon Tory, Senior Software A.I. engineer at Google and rapperBixia Mac
Until last year, Brandon Tory, a senior software Artificial Intelligence engineer at Google and rapper, led a secret double life. Raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, a neighborhood known for crime and drugs, he lived with his family in a shelter as a teenager. Tory knew he wanted to be some kind of scientist, but also had a passion for music. He wanted to have a huge impact in both creativity and science.
At University of Massachusetts Amherst he studied computer engineering and then worked as a senior Apple engineer in Cupertino. He was also a rapper and songwriter but kept his secret life as a musician private. In 2014, Tory won the Microsoft and Lenovo Timbaland national song writing contest, beating out 6000 contestants. Still, his work colleagues knew nothing of his musical career. Last year, he went public in a music video, Seriously and was featured in The Wall Street Journal: “When Your Day Job Isn’t Enough; A Computer Nerd Who Raps.” I caught up with the dual-careerist in LA:
When you were first introduced to a computer?
My church had a summer program. It was my first time getting my hands on one and I became obsessed with coding and the idea of hacking — not in the criminal sense but just to understand everything about computer systems.
Brandon Tory coding in labRainier Rubin
You had no mentor. How did you learn?
There was a popular online network called IRC. I asked questions and got really good at a young age. I was living in an apartment with no internet, but I wanted to get online and learn about Intel x86 assembly and operating systems. People were upgrading computers in the neighborhood and I’d find a spare part here and there. With whatever extra money I had, I ordered parts. I installed my own AMD chip into a motherboard I found in the garbage and installed the Linux Mandrake operating system. It became an obsession for me but it wasn’t something that I talked about because I still wanted to be cool.
So in other words, being a genius isn’t cool?
Not in high school.
You graduated from high school and you decided you wanted to be a rapper?
Yes, I moved to Atlanta in 2012, with the goal of breaking into the music industry. I was tired of coding. I’d been coding since I was 13 years old. I wanted to be a star.
And then you moved to LA. Why?
Pretty much to change my style. One of the first things that happened when I moved to LA was I won the Microsoft and Lenovo Timbaland national song-writing contest. I was sure there was no chance of winning, but I believed in my song and entered. I got a call from the advertising agency hosting the competition and they told me I was in the top five and needed to make one more song, and if Timbaland loved the song, I’d be the winner. Timbaland called that night and I was in complete shock. He was a legendary producer and defined music for me and my friends growing up; it was so strange to even be on the phone with him. I made the next song and won, he put my song on his Instagram and I got my first big break. I started throwing big parties in LA. Timbaland was calling me week to week, pushing me to get better.
Brandon Tory in his videoJai Sabree
But apparently you were broke?
Not a single person knew that I was secretly a computer nerd. The last thing I wanted to tell my fans or Timbaland was, ‘Hey, I’m actually a computer genius and this is just something I do for fun.’ But financially, I wasn’t where I wanted to be. Would I stay in LA broke or cash in on the fact that I’m an engineer? What was tough for me was in that moment deciding, did that mean I’m a different person, or was there a way for me to combine these two worlds and just be myself.
And what did you decide?
I joined Apple as a senior software architect. I still maintained my secret lifestyle of putting out music and and driving back and forth to LA, but it started to take a toll. I continued to do these big parties and didn’t tell my friends I was a senior architect at Apple. I had a really big party in LA and shot footage so I could make a documentary and explain to people who I really was. I wanted them to know that the distinction between science and creativity is no longer important. I think we can just be ourselves. That was my goal.
At the end of one party my little sister said, ‘You still haven’t told your story. What you do in real life and who you are doesn’t match the online presence.’ She suggested create an ad with the footage and show it to Apple. I made a one-minute mock commercial for Apple that described this new generation of creators and scientists who no longer believed in the boundaries between science and creativity. I can be a kid from a rough neighborhood who loves to rap and is also a level five machine-learning engineer. And others can too. That was my message. I sent that to Apple executives and Jimmy Iovine, the top executive of Apple Music, immediately responded.
Then what happened?
I met with Iovine and he said he’d help me build relationships in the music industry, but at the end of the day, I had to have a focus and a clear set of objectives. It was a life-changing interaction for me.
Brandon Tory mixing soundFormless Studio
So you believe that as human beings, we all have the capacity to accomplish more than just one dream in our lifetime?
And do you think that technology can advance this dream?
Yes, because of the advancements we’re making in technology. The thing that’s so special about human beings is our creativity and that’s becoming more obvious as we create more machine learning models and artificial intelligence to do repetitive tasks. There’s going be a new generation of people who don’t have to say, ‘I’m an accountant and that defines my entire life.’ I think we’ll have skills that will span different career paths.
And now you’re at Google?
What Google is doing in artificial intelligence is something I was excited about. It was also an opportunity to grow and get back to LA so I could be close to the music scene and still do computer science.
What does music mean to you?
Music to me is the equivalent of code with emotion. I consider music to be software for the human brain. I believe that within the actual binary bits in the music there are encoded shimmers of the relationships and the things that happened to create them.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d like to have a cultural impact on kids like me, let them know you don’t have to sacrifice your culture in order to have success. As a kid, I couldn’t come out and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a computer genius,’ because that meant I would no longer be accepted by the culture in which I grew up. I think these things can be merged. It IS cool to be a nerd, and I want young black kids from every neighborhood to know that.
Video ShootGreg Gaffney