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Joe Kay
The Artist’s Artist

Over two years since the Apple Music globally launched Beats 1, we meet with 6 of its longtime presenters to discuss how the radio station has not only developed its content and strategy but what it has meant for music and how we consume it.

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Joe Kay’s story is one that started from the roots up. From creating podcasts with a “$20 mic” to founding the collective Soulection and bringing the sounds of an unknown, often overlooked but an undeniable group of artists into the view of the world, Kay’s story is one about discovery, collaboration and respect. His story is also exemplary of a shift in perspective of music lovers, more and more interested in the artists behind the beats, and a  golden example of the art of curation.

“I consider myself an artist helper, not an industry guy, I’m shoulder to shoulder with the artist” Kay explains as he describes his first venture into the world of radio, a podcast of mixes using exclusive beats he got from his favourite producers. “Looking back, it sounds really terrible,” he says, however, it would eventually get him his first internship at an LA radio station. “Over time, I started building this massive network of producers and artists I was inspired by, and they would just send me stuff. Within the first year, I was able to get 30,000 subscribers on my own.” After his first real taste of radio, he realised he needed to transfer into university from his community college. “The first day in school I started Soulection radio, and we released a compilation, and that compilation contained music from all of those artists I believed in,” he says. “That was show #1 on the station KBeach. Then I just started bringing in people I knew and built a creative team around me.”

Soulection now has 300+ episodes (of which 126 have been broadcast on Beats 1), a combined social reach of 10 million and it acts not only an artist collective and label but a defining influence on the way we’re consuming music. As co-founder of the venture with Andre Power, Kay is also the label’s A&R, and continued tastemaker, exhibiting the sounds of artists across the world from rare and unheard-of tracks, samples and reworks, through to DJ sets and mixes. It’s a platform for discovery and one that Beats 1 wanted to incorporate into its model.

Though the audience has no doubt diversified since being broadcast by Beats 1, Kay disagrees the essence of the show would have changed. “We have access to those people, but as a brand, you still have to keep true to the sound. You still have to attract those people,” he says. “There are millions of songs on Apple Music and so many shows on Beats 1, so you have to do a lot to stand out.”

In the time of algorithm generated playlists, what the success of Soulection shows is that there are no limits to listener’s taste and discovery.  “You can create the craziest algorithm that can outsmart a human, but you can’t create one that digs for taste” Kay concludes. “I’m finding people that aren’t even on Apple Music yet.”

Who do you always listen to on Beats 1?
I always listen to the anchors. Other than that I always tune into OtherTONE, I’m really tight with Scott, he’s like the homie, so we always exchange music on iMessage. Pharell’s like my idol and I just met Chad Hugo last week. They were the reason I started Soulection – listening to the Neptunes.

What’s been your favourite episode or series of episodes from Soulection?
In terms of my guests, my favourite was Ginuwine, and I say that because at least from our background, classic RnB and that sound was so influential. Ginuwine worked with one of my favourite producers, Timbaland who worked with Aliyah and all of these people. I haven’t emailed Timbaland yet, but Ginuwine is the closest I’ve got to it. I was playing him old records that his tracks sampled, and it was really cool seeing his reaction, some of them he hadn’t heard in 15 years.

You just launched the first Soulection experience this summer, how did it go?
It went amazing, we had around 4600 people there, and it was a dream come true. It’d been in my head for a couple of years, and we wanted to do it right. It was our biggest show to date. We had a good mix of our people and artists from an external point. We had Steve Lacy, Sabrina Claudio, SiR… The whole approach is artists that inspire us that might not be the biggest right now but are on the verge of breaking. We didn’t need to get Travis Scott or Kendrick to headline it; the Soulection experience was the headline.

What are your hopes now for Soulection?
Our hope now is music first. What helped us get big was that we pulled in all these artists from around the world and now we want to start focusing on putting out music. I don’t see why Soulection can’t be the next XL Recordings, where we’re indie but still have upstream artists like they [have] Adele or Thom Yorke. Every real record label needs a proper infrastructure, so I want to build up Soulection Records and win Grammys and get our artists on the Billboard but without having to sell out. Instead of us converting to mainstream, it’s the mainstream converting to us. We want to do a lot of community events around the city and beyond as well. I feel like too many people, including us, we take and take and take, like buy my music and my merch and take people’s money but like outside of music and art we don’t give stuff back so on a community base and educationally do more for the community.

This article originally appeared in Notion 77, out now.

Listen to Soulection every Sunday 2 PM on Beats 1.

Photography Evan Dunning
Fashion Jenni Lee
Grooming Lee Rittiner
Photography Assistant Jeff Christensen
Follow Phie McKenzie on Twitter

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