Soulection has come a long way since it’s beginnings on California State University’s radio station KBeach in January 2011. As its sixth anniversary and 300th episode approaches, the platform has evolved into a global collective of forward-thinking selectors and producers. Soulection is a record label, a clothing brand, a club experience and even it’s own sub-genre of “Future beats, eclectic soul, forgotten gems and timeless sounds.”
As the brand reaches more listeners worldwide than ever before, 2016 saw head A&R and co-founder Joe Kay refocussed on its origins, doubling his efforts on the weekly radio show - which now broadcasts to over 100 countries via Apple’s Beats 1. Inspired by Los Angeles’ Low End Theory nights, and radio DJs in the vein of Gilles Peterson and Benji B, the 26-year-old takes to the station to inject a weekly fix of soul-cleansing, meditative hip-hop beats into listeners lives. Listeners tuning in can expect to hear anything from bootleg remixes to baile funk, throwback R&B to new releases from the label’s ever growing roster of affiliated producers including Sango, Monte Booker, ESTA and DPAT.
“I revolve my whole life around the radio show,” he admits, talking to Clash from Soulection’s headquarters, which is undoubtedly familiar to anyone that follows the collective’s Instagram - a beautifully minimal space, with exposed brickwork, dark wood beams, a basketball net and ping pong table. “I was doing a podcast before I even started this, so I really care about it. I think it stands out to people because it’s very well curated. The route I’ve always taken is playing the stuff that isn't readily available. It's like buying a limited piece of clothing that you really love. That's the way I feel when I find music that no one knows about. Everyone's a DJ nowadays. Everyone's a curator. So what separates myself or the radio show from everybody else? I feel that we have to dig harder than everybody to keep people listening.”
It’s this attention to detail that makes the show resonate deeply with its listeners. His interviews - refreshing insights into guest’s musical ventures, eschewing any unnecessary gossip and clickbait - are carefully chosen based on a combination of gut feeling and how their sound and story sit within the Soulection ethos. In this way, the show has been a great community platform for connecting dots between listeners, fans and musicians alike. “I think the radio show has always been the attraction for artists,” Joe considers. “We’ve had people like Mac Miller, Anderson .Paak, Jhené Aiko, Isaiah Rashad and Ginuwine. The artists are connected though the radio show. Then if we ever want to work with them on the record side or book them for a show, the relationship has been established.”
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A snapshot of a day spent at home in California sees Joe pre-recording interviews then digging online and in record stores ahead of the weekend’s show, followed by a bunch of meetings - some in-person and some over the phone - to map out plans for the future of the brand. Describing himself as a “true creative”, he’s striving to find the perfect balance of art and business, shutting himself off from emails while he digs and designs playlists, but knowing which meetings to say yes to and which shows to make a presence at. “The business can really burn me out and give me anxiety, so there's nothing like digging for music,” he explains during a particularly busy day. “The radio show is very therapeutic for me because it's a constant reminder to stop what I'm doing and make time for myself, to be creative and find music, so it's always a good feeling.”
He’s very hands on about every aspect of Soulection, and his days are packed with activity. “I just do whatever it takes to bring everything together,” he shrugs, nonchalantly. “I also DJ and I tour, but when I'm on the road it's hard for me to be able to focus and get business done or handle meetings or just catch a rhythm.” While the crew have collectively hit up 6 continents and over 200 cities in the past 36 months, Joe has been trying to hold things down in HQ as much as possible over the past year.
Nonetheless found himself making a few trips during 2016. “The most awakening experiences I've had was playing in India recently,” he reflects. “It was surreal for us to be able to come through and have a space to play our music and to people who identified with who we are and the music that we played - they knew the radio show. To be able to play and connect and hear the stories, that was powerful.” A trip to Dubai saw him meet a listener who suffered from a phobia of flying, but was able to make their first flight this year by allowing the soothing affects of Soulection Radio to wash out the anxiety through their headphones. “It's stories like that, If I wasn't on the road or there, I would have never have heard them,” he admits. “That really inspired me to stay grounded and to keep going with this.”
Experiencing other cities and cultures also directly influences the music that Joe selects for the shows. While travelling he’s found himself having to submit pre-recorded episodes from all over the world. “Even being in the airport, I'm observing literally everything I could, how I'm feeling, sounds and the food. I'm really taking in the culture. My library's so huge that I have just about any sound for any situation, so I start curating a mood board,” he explains. “The local promoters that are booking us for the shows, they usually have a good grip on the culture and who in the music scene is really prospering or next up. They'll pass us flash drives or send us links I'll go through it and pick what I like from the batch.”
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Logistically time zones, studio availability and Internet connection have caused problems from time to time, and Joe’s found himself recording episodes of Soulection Radio everywhere from hotel rooms to club backrooms and even once on a plane. “It's been very stressful,” he admits. “But when I look back at it, it made my character and persistence stronger. When I look back at the reaction from the people who are listening, getting that energy that I'm taking in from these cities, it's a good feeling. I'll do whatever it takes to risk whatever I have to do.”
In the current paradigm of social media obsessed upstarts there is an important lesson to be learned from Joe Kay and the Soulection ideology. “It’s not about your status, how many followers you have, how much money you have that equates to success in life,” he says. “The way I find happiness and contentment is when I'm making time, not just for Soulection, but for myself as a person. Giving myself privacy. Just thinking, writing things down in my notebook. Those are the small things that I don't take for granted in life.”
For many listeners Soulection’s radio broadcasts, music releases and playlists, serve as that time out to bring happiness, understanding and clarity to their lives. Having heard many stories similar to that of the Dubai listener’s first flight, Joe knows he’s on the right path and intends to inspire dream chasers and individuals, whether they’re fellow creatives or not. “There's a lot of different people who listen to Soulection such as lawyers, doctors, and people of walks of life,” he says. “The point is for them to listen and get inspired and empowered.”
There is a strong message about independence to be taken from Soulection’s story. “If you apply to an internship and don't get that call back, then start your own movement. Create your own platform,” he suggests, delving into his own back story for clarification. “That's what I did because I got rejected a handful of times at platforms, labels, companies that I really wanted to work for. I never got a call back so I was forced to create my own community.”
This self-sufficiency has been an imperative part of the process for Joe Kay and the whole Soulection crew over their six year journey from college radio to Beats 1. “I get a lot of people making excuses about why they're not happy in life,” Joe says, leaving us with a poignant final thought. “They need to start putting that time aside - even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day. If you’re making time to build someone else's company or legacy, what are you doing for yourself? That’s the message I try to push.”
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Tap into Soulection Radio with Joe Kay on Beats 1 every Sunday at 3am or 5pm GMT, or listen back to previous episodes via Apple Music.
Words: Grant Brydon