When Apple launched Apple Music on June 30, Beats 1 Radio was a crucial element of the new platform: a round-the-clock broadcast in 100 countries commanded by slew of dazzling musicians, including buzzed-about youngsters (Disclosure, Drake), veteran stars (Elton John, Q-Tip), and producers that have radically changed the course of popular music, sometimes more than once (Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams). Also included on the Beats 1 roster was a name far less familiar: Soulection.
At first glance, Soulection seems like a clear outlier. The Los Angeles-based label/collective has no associations with celebrity and has never created anything resembling a hit. It doesn’t even have the name recognition of an indie artist like St. Vincent, who also has a show.
Yet Soulection is in many ways a better fit for Beats 1 Radio than any of its new colleagues. Over the course of its brief existence, Soulection has in many ways embodied what Apple Music aspires to become — a one-stop shop that provides consumers with a complete music experience, including not just streaming, but also radio and tools for bringing fans and artists closer together.
Soulection combines the classic record label work of DJs and producers–who constantly release mixes, edits, and original tracks — with Soulection radio, which originally grew out of a podcast named Illvibes. Both the artists and the radio station are followed closely by a tightly-knit community of supporters from a diverse group of countries.
One of those supporters is Tunji Balogun, an A&R at RCA Records who previously worked at Interscope, where one of his key contributions was helping the label sign the rapper Kendrick Lamar. “In the music industry we talk about how we are in the age of curation,” Balogun notes. “Soulection is successful because it’s immaculately curated. You’ll never hear a wack song. You’ll never see a wack photo. You’ll never go to a wack show. They have a standard that people have come to expect.”
While Soulection is growing steadily, its path towards the mainstream is unusual. Almost all its music is available for free (or for pay what you want), defying old-fashioned logic about the need to fund a musical enterprise by selling actual tunes. In a world of broadcast conglomerates, small labels mostly carve out an existence without the help of radio, unless they are lucky enough to have an artist with a big hit. But Soulection always embraced a self-directed form of radio programming that allowed it to publicize music it believed in without compromising its artistic values.
What might once have been dismissed as the quirky approach of a small label now seems prescient: Soulection was ahead of its time in the way it used the internet and airwaves to both distribute music and build a fanbase — mirroring Apple’s goal to use its vast resources to construct a similar organization roughly 400 times the size. It is no surprise, then, that the tech juggernaut would attempt to recruit Soulection’s network of artists and fans from the beginning.
The Soulection story starts with co-founder Joe Kay and the Internet. Kay credits part of his open ear and musical curiosity to his mother, and he’s been hunting for what he calls “The Sound Of Tomorrow” for years. “In high school, I was on Limewire [a popular file-sharing service] finding all the crazy, rare shit,” he remembers. He soon gravitated to the work of Flying Lotus, FLYamSAM, and the Cool Kids, who specialized in a “future-soul spacey kind of sound.”
The internet was a musical wonderland in the mid ’00s, a Wild West full of free tunes and few rules. Kay threw himself into MySpace and soon accumulated an estimate of 60,000 to 80,000 friends. “I had a custom player on my MySpace page,” he recalls, “and I was showcasing tracks every week that I was feeling.” He made his first podcast in the summer of 2007. Between his MySpace network and his penchant for finding unusual tunes, the podcast, dubbed Illvibes, eventually picked up around 30,000 subscribers.
Both Jacqueline Schneider, Soulection’s director of strategic communication, and Andre Power, the label’s art director, found Kay through his Illvibes podcast. Schneider had her own blog at the time called The Mint Collective. She describes herself as “one of those annoying bloggers who would reach out to the management of an artist and be like, ‘can I interview your artist — I have a little blog, are you down?'” Power was involved in organizing San Diego event, Art In The Park, which mixed art and music. Searching for potential DJs on the Internet, he ran into episodes of Illvibes. “It wasn’t until the fourth one that [Kay] actually spoke,” Power remembers. After hearing that voice, Power decided to get in touch with Kay. Kay ended up DJing Art In The Park, even though he had never DJ’d before. (Montalis Anglade, who eventually joined Soulection as director of technology & innovative marketing, initially linked with Kay through Twitter before being brought on board.)
With Power and another online connection — Guillaume Bonte, a Frenchman known as “96” — Kay started Soulection early in 2011, essentially as a two-pronged extension of Illvibes. The podcast morphed into Soulection radio, which at the time was broadcast over the regular airwaves by California State University Long Beach’s radio, KBeach. The second prong would be original material released from under the Soulection umbrella. The radio show’s official launch was on Jan. 24, 2011. “I knew when we were going to officially launch, we needed to come correct with a radio show and a release at the same time,” Kay explains. “All those artists over the years that I had been networking with – -I hit up all my favorite producers.”
Soulection is often grouped with other Los Angeles independent record labels, especially Stones Throw, which shares an interest in woozy, off-kilter hip-hop, and Brainfeeder, which was founded in 2008 by Flying Lotus, one of the artists who originally inspired Kay. But according to the co-founders, Soulection was not aiming to replicate those organizations or depend on their networks. Kay’s mindset was to “just do it our way. If I would’ve depended on them to put me on, I don’t know if I would be here.” “We wanted to do something different and do something more,” Power adds. “Create more of a culture around music, do something much greater than music.”
Soulection currently has more than 247,000 SoundCloud followers, and Kay is quick to point out the dedication of these fans. “We actually have a real following,” he declares. “Think about major labels. Those people don’t have fans. When do you hear a fan say, ‘I fucking love Warner Music Group?’ Never.”
But Soulection doesn’t just have an unusually deep connection to its fans, it has what Julio Galvez, the label’s director of worldwide bookings, describes as “a deeper understanding and connection to our artists.” “Our artists are our friends,” he adds. “There’s a sort of family aspect to what we’re doing. It’s more than just us wanting to push a single or be like, ‘hey, let’s take eight months to package 10 songs and put it out.’ We’re going to help you with your booking; we’re going to help you with your artwork; we’re going to help you with whatever creative direction you need in the event that you need it. We want to really empower our artists.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — his major label association, Balogun also speaks about the Soulection family with reverence. “It’s not just the music,” he notes. “It’s also a live thing. It’s a whole world they’ve created, a whole aesthetic beyond the music. People feel like it’s a tribe that they’re a part of. They’re literally a bunch of kids in their bedrooms that made beats and now they’re touring the world. I think a lot of young kids especially are inspired — you see how these kids are living their dreams. Everybody wins.” The DJ sosupersam echoes Balogun, referring to Soulection as, “an endlessly growing network of good people.” “I haven’t met Sango,” she says, referring to another producer on the roster. “But I know that when I do, I’m going to get along with him. I know he’s a solid dude.”
Soulection reinforces the tribe-like aspects of the organization with its recruitment methods: artists frequently serve as A&Rs, scouting out fresh talent. Power, who is also a DJ on the roster, encountered Abjo (whose projects were Soulection’s third and 24th) at Art In The Park. Power later found ESTA (Gradient, the 26th release) as well. Another DJ, Kronika, originally suggested that Kay listen to Sango (projects 7, 14, 29, and 40). Sango in turn connected with Dpat (In Bloom, project 30). “Dpat was working with the Weeknd at the same time I was,” Sango notes. “Unfortunately things didn’t work out [with the Weeknd]… through that connection we made a friendship out of it.”
Dpat brought Soulection to the attention of Balogun, who was familiar with a few affiliated acts — he mentions IAMNOBODI and Mr. Carmack — but not the larger enterprise. That changed when one track caught his ear. “A song came out by Wiz Khalifa and the Weeknd called ‘Remember You,’ and I just thought the beat was crazy,” he explains. “I ended up doing some research and finding the producer: this kid named Dpat.” Balogun tracked him down, and Dpat sang Soulection’s praises. Intrigued, Balogun listened to more, and discovered what he calls “some of the freshest music I’ve heard in years” — high praise from the man who helped Interscope bag one of this generation’s most important MCs.
Soulection’s business strategy wasn’t honed in marketing classes. None of the founders had any experience running a label, so they decided to build the organization around basic, yet surprisingly rare, concepts. First, profit was not an objective: “There wasn’t much money made,” Kay says, especially early on. “But whatever money was made, I just gave it straight to the artists.” (For several years, he was juggling his Soulection duties with college and a job at Olive Garden.) Second, ubiquity was key: “Let’s just keep putting out music that’s high quality,” Kay strategized. “People may not notice this release, but they may notice another record. At some point people are going to get trapped, in a good way.” (Much the same manner that Illvibes had earned the attention of Schneider and Power years before).
Schneider had worked with labels and PR firms in San Francisco, so when she joined the organization, she brought a familiarity with the mechanics of business. (Bonte eventually parted ways with the group.) “The boys were: ‘no structure! No rules! No meetings!'” she jokes. “I came in to be like, ‘let me help you with the messaging. Let’s figure out how to talk about what this is and what it means for the larger music landscape, so we can get more people interested and involved.'”
In the early years, Soulection did not have much exposure aside from the Internet — its artists weren’t on many bills. “I had all these emails like, ‘we want to book you guys,'” Kay remembers. But he didn’t have the time to answer them. That’s where Julio Galvez, who had years of experience as a DJ (the Whooligan) and booker, fit in. He met Kay in 2013. At the time, he says “no one had any gigs, so no one was able to push The Sound Of Tomorrow.” For Galvez, joining Soulection offered “a perfect opportunity to utilize the connections and the networks” he had constructed over the previous decade.
Sosupersam calls Galvez “the missionary of Soulection,” and he’s helped bring the label’s artists and DJs to six continents and 150 countries. But all the DJs serve as apostles. Balogun points out that one of the label’s strengths is its ability to be in many places at once: “Soulection is being rep’d at least two or three places around the world every night.”
Though Soulection’s sound plays a crucial role in its growth, the music is usually described in vague terms. The label is partially responsible for this, since it has a gift for coining nifty phrases that do as much to obscure as enlighten. “The Sound Of Tomorrow” has the ring of revolution, and the vagueness that often accompanies revolutionary rhetoric — The Sound Of Tomorrow is everything, and it is nothing.
What Soulection really does is make a particularly ferocious brand of mood music. The label tipped its hand on its fifth release, Evil Needle‘s Mood, still one of Soulection’s most downloaded projects. Mood music encompasses a wide range of genres and remains consistently popular across its many incarnations. A few purveyors of mood include Joao Gilberto, who kicked off an American bossa nova fervor, and Sade, whose exotic brand of cool helped ship more than 50 million albums worldwide. (In March, Soulection released an entire compilation of Sade remixes.) A more recent member of the club is Aaliyah, whose cool, hushed delivery softened the edges of brittle beats.
These artists share a sense of sensuality and groove, but little aggression. They float rather than bludgeon, oozing under listeners’ defenses and hijacking auditory pleasure centers. Gilberto or Aaliyah can be as intrusive as you want them to be. This makes them suitable for nearly every playlist — no easy feat.
While mood music has frequently been maligned — dismissed as suitable only for elevators and fancy lobbies — lately the critical attitudes have started to shift. For proof, look no further than Drake, an Aaliyah super fan whose innovation was to make rap into mood music. Beloved recent projects from the producer Jamie xx — both in and out of his group, the xx — Tinashe, Daft Punk, FKA Twigs, and Wet are all about mood. The resurgence of interest in New Age music represents yet another strand of the mood revival.
Schneider uses the term “conscious music” to describe Soulection’s output, and the practice of limited invasiveness is crucial to her idea of consciousness: “All the specific activities you do when you’re listening to music — if you can do any one of those and really focus on what you’re doing, but there’s still music playing, that’s conscious.” These tunes lend themselves to a wide variety of audiences as well as a diverse set of activities. “Conscious music is stuff you can leave on if your family comes over. Anybody can listen to it. It’s not exclusive.”
For Kay, you know you’re listening to a conscious record “the moment you start thinking about your life.” But like Schneider, he believes consciousness lends itself to multiple situations. “You hear the beat, and it’s so deep and so crazy — you start thinking about what you need to do that day, you start thinking about what you want to achieve. That’s a conscious record, straight up. You can play it for anybody. You can use it to work out, to make love, to study, to create.”
The musical ancestors of Soulection’s consciousness are varied. Power mentions Brian Eno‘s ambient work — a chic reference point, to be sure, but a fitting one: Eno’s ambient projects were inspired by Erik Satie’s idea of making “music which is like furniture.” In the same manner as Schneider and Kay, Satie described several circumstances where this music would be ideal: “softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometime fall between friends.”
Schneider brings up a different strand of Soulection’s musical DNA with less cultural cachet: Mark Farina‘s Mushroom Jazz compilations. She and Galvez both worked for a while at Om Records, which released Farina’s work. “[Om] are the people who really made compilations pop off, in my mind,” Schneider says. “Downtempo, house, lounge type of music — that’s San Francisco style for sure. At least in the States, San Francisco really put lounge music on the map.” While Soulection is L.A.-based, their music is definitely lounge-friendly.
Power also talks about his affection for Zero 7 — not a group that comes up often in interviews. “It’s like some magical music,” he says. “If you’re on a plane, you can put your headphones on [and] turn it up full blast to avoid the babies and the nonsense. You seriously just stare out the window and play ‘Destiny.’ That shit zones me out. It makes me just feel good.”
Soulection artists twist this concept by constructing a rhythmic foundation that is mostly borrowed from a very specific branch of hip-hop, which Galvez triangulates between Slum Village, A Tribe Called Quest, and “the early, dope Soulquarian stuff.” One of Slum Village’s members, the producer J Dilla, had a heavy influence on both Tribe and the Soulquarians, a loosely-connected group of musicians that included the Roots, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and others. Dilla famously favored a drum sound that the Roots’ Questlove likened to beats “played by a drunk three year old”: thick but playful and artfully sloppy.
But it is R&B that provides the warm textures in Soulection’s music. This is spliced in — via sampling — from a very specific period: usually the second half of the ’90s and the early ’00s. J Louis samples Raphael Saadiq; Louie Lastic uses vintage P. Diddy; Lakim loops an R. Kelly hook from a Notorious B.I.G. track; Atu draws on Janet Jackson and Boyz II Men. sosupersam DJs a monthly R&B-only party which takes a wider view, romping gleefully through the last two decades of the genre.
The label’s sound continues to evolve, with a new phase arriving earlier this year in the form of the Sango and SPZ RKT collaboration Hours Spent Loving You. Sango encountered his vocal partner on a Christian music blog, and many of the lyrics on Hours are vaguely religious. There’s nothing vague about the sound though — this is mood music pushed to the edge, as desolate, golden vocals get chewed to bits by serrated beats with the rapid-fire qualities of contemporary R&B and rap hits. Next to Hours Spent Loving You, much of 2015’s R&B sounds thin and unformed.
Sango — who sosupersam believes “best encapsulates the core sound of Soulection” — is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream. In 2014, one of the producer’s beats appeared on Tinashe’s Aquarius. He originally created the instrumental in 2012, but it fit easily next to songs overseen by star producers like DJ Dahi and Boi-1da. Lately Sango has been working with Bryson Tiller, a Louisville rapper/singer who is rumored to be connected with Drake’s label OVO.
Balogun actively tries to link Soulection with what he calls “the conventional monolithic music industry.” “This music is amazing,” Balogun told Kay when they became friends. “But it’s not really going to go anywhere until you start matching vocals and put vocalists over it. And I know a lot of artists, so I’m just going to start introducing you to people who can use that production and complement that.” That group includes Isaiah Rashad (another labelmate of Kendrick Lamar), Vic Mensa (who recently collaborated with Kanye West), and Alina Baraz. GoldLink, another MC who has worked with several members of the Soulection roster, was one of Kay’s many SoundCloud finds.
Of course, these links with the “monolithic music industry” don’t come without risks: traditional growth models naturally strain the familial relationships Soulection prides itself on. This is a common feature of capitalism, which replaces the ties of kinship with the marketplace’s profit-driven interactions. sosupersam praises the efforts the leadership team has taken to prevent this from happening. “I can see that the founders and the management, as much as they are undertaking now, they really try to keep everything tight and make sure that all the values are still the same.”
Can Soulection weather a jump to the big leagues? After all, Apple and the major labels operate by a very different set of rules. Soulection has already faced some backlash from its core constituency — when Kay moved the radio show onto Beats 1, he was criticized for bleeping swears, which some regular listeners saw as a sell-out move. Kay calls that response “pretty ignorant.” “For the kids and the younger generation, [the show] couldn’t be played in the classrooms, at youth centers, for families. For every person that we lose because they’re so bitter and prideful about some cursing, we gain 100 new followers.”
As Soulection starts to merge more with the conventional industry, the restrictions on sampling might also hamper its development. It’s easy to post an Aaliyah or Diddy flip on SoundCloud, but in the mainstream, regulations throttle this sort of creativity. You have to pay occasionally prohibitive amounts to use the source material, which creates a two-tiered system, where only the wealthiest artists have access to some samples.
“We have a lot to work on,” Kay acknowledges. “I’m thankful for the success, but in my eyes, we still ain’t shit. A lot of us have a couple hundred dollars to our name as we speak. Right now we’re just this cool Internet platform, but we’re not where we need to be yet.”
Balogun has a more charitable view of Soulection’s progress. It’s been two and a half years since he encountered the label, and “they’re still the most inspiring crew that [he’s] listening to.” But it is Soulection’s missionary-in-chief who offers the best advertisement for the label’s future. Reminiscing about the first time he heard the sounds being made by Kay and co., Galvez remembers thinking, “this is the type of music I was waiting my whole life to hear.”