Joe Kay, co-founder of Soulection, one of the few hand-selected curators with shows on Apple Music’s Beats 1 (alongside Pharrell Williams, Run the Jewels, Q-Tip, among others), became obsessed with radio through a chance excursion at the age of 5. His mother’s friend worked in the promotions department of Universal Music Group, and one day she invited him to tag along on her visits to local stations, such as Power 106.
“I was too young to really understand it,” Kay recalled, “but being around radio [at such a young age] is, I think, how I got the bug.”
These days, Kay and his label Soulection are representing the growth of digital music. In addition to their high profile Beats 1 show, they’ve established a massively successful series of global performances — selling out clubs from LA to South Africa — and Nov. 6, Soulection will release the highly anticipated debut album from DMV rapper GoldLink, “And After That We Didn’t Talk.” All before Soulection’s fifth anniversary in January.
Led by Kay and co-founder Andre Power (a third co-founder, Guillaume Bonte, left in 2013), Soulection was born in the aftermath of the 2000’s shift towards the producer-as-an-artist that gave Los Angeles Low End Theory and one of the weekly club’s staple performers, Flying Lotus.
And if Flying Lotus can be argued as the figurehead for the movement, then Soulection is its heir, representing those who grew up in a world where the producer has always been an artist, and where boundaries between genres are more porous than ever.
For example, the foundation of Soulection lies in an earlier podcast, called Illvibes, which was an evolution of the mixtapes Kay made when he was 15, blending classic productions from Jay Dee with beats inspired by the LA underground. “[B]eing able to voice your selection tastes to the world via the Internet interested me,” Kay explained. In 2011, Illvibes became Soulection.
Building on their collective experiences, Soulection fostered a dedicated, global audience online by trickling out free releases and archives of their popular radio show through Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Kay hinted in 2013 that household names from the world of hip-hop and R&B had become hip to the young label. “Sadly nothing came of it,” he said, “but having that access and those experiences inspired us to do something different and move faster.”
Ironically, it’s actually been in the live arena where Soulection has found its biggest growth in the past two years.
The Sound of Tomorrow, Soulection’s party series, which came out of humble beginnings in Orange County, set up shop within a year at the Echoplex, one of LA’s legendary nightclubs. “We sold out almost every single night,” Kay said. “That really helped us build a relationship with the city, to the point where our last two shows had unannounced line-ups and they still sold out.”
Soulection also hit the road, performing with a large roster of international artists in more than 80 cities across five continents. The relentless touring speaks volume about how the Internet generation, often reduced to stereotypes of online obsession, is harnessing the connectivity of today’s technology to build its own offline network, translating digital bonds into physical ones.
“Touring really comes off to the audience,” Kay explains. “I think it’s really helped to give us a global mindset and strengthen our presence.”
Also, while some may associate Soulection with a specific artist, such as some of its better-known producers, like Mr. Carmack or Sango, for Kay the growth in the past two years has been about letting Soulection become the attraction.
“It’s not about one of us, it’s about all of us,” he said. “I think people know now that it’s about a vibe.” It’s precisely that vibe that brought them to the attention of Apple Music. And all of this would of course not be possible without the music.
Soulection’s focus may be trained on the future, but Kay is also well versed in the treasures of the past and the different music that has made something like Soulection possible, going back to his beginnings as a toddler visiting the Power 106 studios. “It doesn’t always have to be new per se,” he explained of the Sound of Tomorrow party name. “It could be something old that our generation is discovering. We try to present older music to our audience like this is something you should know about.”
Two years ago, Soulection started releasing free music on SoundCloud with no promotion. They called it the White Label series, in homage to the standard industry practice rooted in house and hip-hop. The irregular series, featuring mostly unknown talent, acts as a sort of demo filter, allowing Kay and his team to pick the best of what gets sent to them and commit their names to it without running the risk of losing money or cluttering a release schedule. “We’ve seen artists develop from it, some of them have even toured off the back of it,” Kay tells me. Some also end up as Soulection artists.
The series also garnered some controversy, as traditional white labels are vinyl pressings without artwork (and often no sleeve) for unauthorized remixes or bootlegs, among other reasons. In releasing in digital format only, Soulection was flipping the White Label concept on its head.
“We know its origins and there was no disrespect intended,” said Kay. “It was more about taking an idea and changing the meaning of it, aligning it to our personal meaning. There are parallels, we just used a digital platform instead of the traditional vinyl format.”
Kay continues, “you agree or you don’t, that’s fine. The point is to challenge people’s perceptions. We’re a new generation and it’s a metaphor for how the industry is changing too. Things that were the norm then aren’t anymore. There are alternatives.”
Looking at everything Soulection has accomplished in the past four-some years, I ask Kay if perhaps it’s a case that the first phase of the label’s growth was online but its second phase has been taking this digital work out into the real world.
“Yes,” he replies emphatically, “a combination of real life and the Internet has definitely put us where we are today.”