In early August of this year, Kenny Fresh, founder of the Fresh Selects label and champion of a new breed of independent, modern soul artists, was at home in Portland, Oregon, when he received an unexpected call. Dave Free, the president of Kendrick Lamar's label Top Dawg Entertainment, was on the end of the line to compliment him on the label’s work after finding it on SoundCloud. The conversation led to an invitation to Los Angeles, and the very next evening Fresh found himself sitting in on a session for TDE rapper Jay Rock's latest album, 90059, along with Lamar and Free. Also present was the Fresh Selects artist SiR, an R&B singer and songwriter whose debut album Fresh had released in July. At Lamar's suggestion, SiR was invited to contribute vocals to the chorus of album single “The Ways.” Meanwhile Fresh bonded with Free and got a front row seat to TDE’s creative process.
When I call Fresh three months later, he still seems somewhat incredulous. “For someone of [Free's] calibre to see the worth in what I'm doing is reaffirming,” he admits. In June, the Fresh Selects SoundCloud page had reached a million plays, a process that had taken a year and a half. By October, another million streams were registered. No small feat for a label born of a blog with the modest intention of re-issuing free digital projects.
Born in New Jersey, Fresh moved to Beaverton, a short drive west of Portland, as he entered high school in the early 2000s. In 2005, a month after his high school graduation, he got his first break in the music business when Bling47, a label founded by Detroit producer Waajeed, offered him an internship. Over the next three years, Fresh, who was “never really good at school and only interested in music,” learnt the ropes of the business by doing “a little of everything:” social media, tour management, and assisting with A&R.
“I’m into movies so I looked at the The Criterion Collection and how they compile great films from different eras with their seal of quality.”—Kenny Fresh
In 2008, inspired by Waajeed's entrepreneurship, Fresh set up the Fresh Selects blog as a home for soulful and edgy music—a blend of hip-hop, soul, and electronic—that reflected the underground’s changing sensibilities away from notions of purism. The site showcased artists Fresh had come into contact with such as singer Tiombe Lockhart and producer Ta’Raach. “I was frustrated by the lack of coverage,” he explains. “There was no one website championing this sound, so I decided to be it.” One of the first exclusives Fresh shared was a remix of “Shotgun” by Platinum Pied Pipers—Waajeed and Saadiq’s collaborative project—featuring an unreleased verse from the late producer and rapper Jay Dee.
Fresh took the site offline in 2010 to rethink the concept while running a Fresh Selects Presents… concert series in Portland that featured Erykah Badu, Madlib, and more. It returned a year later with its focus shifting from writing about artists and tracks towards collaborating with artists to giveaway free releases— Raider Klan member Key Nyata, hip-hop newcomer Knxwledge, St. Louis singer Coultrain. It was a label in all but name. “There were no budgets,” Fresh explains. “It was a test run: teaching myself how to put projects together, how to executive produce, how to art direct.”
It took Fresh eight years, and a variety of odd jobs, since his internship with Bling47 to learn that running a record label “was what I was meant to do.” It had never been a case of if, but rather how. Money had always been an issue until late 2013 when Fresh realized he'd been staring at the “how” all along. His friend, L.A.-based producer Mndsgn, was selling home-dubbed beat tapes on Bandcamp and Fresh suggested they treat the release in a professional manner—manufacturing, distribution, promotion—rather than the DIY standard of the times. This became Fresh Selects' first official release, breatharian, released November 2013.
Fresh Selects was at first intended as a home for physical re-issues of free digital projects, to preserve the music after links to online lockers had died off. But after two such releases, Low Leaf, an L.A.-based singer and harp player, reached out to ask if Fresh would help with her new album. In the spring of 2014, Fresh Selects released Low Leaf's AKASHAALAY and since then Fresh hasn't looked back, signing a variety of artists and projects. Alone in Portland, Fresh knew the label couldn’t be “a physical crew of artists collaborating and hanging on the regular,” so he instead decided to focus on careful selection and presentation of releases, old and new. “I’m into movies so I looked at the The Criterion Collection,” he says, “and how they compile great films from different eras with their seal of quality.”
Just as Fresh’s blog had been a collection of music and artists related by an aesthetic more than a genre, so too has the label become home to a wide range of artists—SiR, Coultrain, Iman Omari, Low Leaf—linked by what he calls “an emotional resonance.” A few hours after our conversation, Fresh emails to explain this common thread: “I want the label to be music for everyday life. I'm always drawn to music that deals with some part of the human condition.” Fresh Selects reflects this interest with albums that touch on spirituality, heartache, and relationships and retain something of the ineffable quality that makes soul music what it is. The next release is an EP from east London duo Equals—producer James Low and vocalist Ade Omotayo—which stands in stark sonic contrast to previous releases yet remains in line with Fresh’s vision. He continues, “the music doesn't need to fit a mould, it just needs to be great.”
As Fresh enters his tenth year in the music business, and Fresh Selects turns two, the affable young label head feels confident. “I have a clear sense of what I want to do so that the big picture of what Fresh Selects is continues to reveal itself,” he admits. With new artists lined up for 2016 and a distribution deal for Europe and Japan, it won’t be long before more of the Dave Frees of the world come calling.