Kean Kavanagh has a confession to make.
When he first suggested to Kevin Smith that they should set up a record label, he had a bit of an ulterior motive.
“I called it a faux label, kind of like a fake label to trick people into listening to our music, if you know what I mean,” says Kavanagh.
They looked at labels such as Eglo Records in London and were struck by how different the reception is when a record is released by a label, rather than put out by a band.
“I just thought this was the next move that we needed to make. Even in terms of emailing events to people and stuff like that, it just looks so much better when you have some level of professionalism hanging above the email,” he says.
But since the pair launched it in 2015, Soft Boy Records has grown into something more, working with hip-hop artists across the island to put out music that will be taken seriously.
“We’re just trying to make sure every time we put something out it’s more and more legit and it’s being listened to by as many people as possible,” says Kavanagh.
“We strongly believe in the music that we’re making and the quality of it, and that’s the foundation of what we’re trying to do.”
Kavanagh is from Portlaoise, he says. “I’m from the midlands, which I suppose is not the heart of hip-hop or anything like that.”
We’re outside St James’s Hospital on a mild Thursday afternoon. He’s wearing a new Marvin Gaye emblazoned T-shirt and a navy rain jacket.
He and Smith met in the Gaelteacht, in Colaiste Lurgan down in Galway, where they were both working at the time. “We eventually became best friends and obsessed with music as well,” says Kavanagh.
When he moved to Dublin to start his law degree at Trinity College, he started to discover new music: hip-hop, and soul, and jazz. “Stuff that hip-hop comes from and draws from,” he says.
Smith was here in the city, too, and both Kavanagh and Smith were making music. “We were both starting to get more serious about it and wanting to release it,” says Kavanagh.
The two prepared for “about a year” before they launched their label. Smith has a background in fine art, so he did the artwork. Another colleague, Stephen Byrne, handles the online media and merchandise.
The in-house mentality of the label is “a credit to the DIY ethos of hip-hop music, where you have to make it and release it yourself”, says Kavanagh.
The Talent Is There
Smith, who performs and releases music under the name Kojaque, gained significant popularity in 2015 off the back of his music video for “Midnight Flower“.
In it, he raps the entire song while holding his breath underwater, looking right into the camera. The feat is so impressive and the video so striking that it has now had more than 340,000 views on YouTube. It also helps that the song is a well-crafted piece of music.
The Dublin native remembers first getting interested in hip-hop when he was 15 or 16 years old. Kavanagh was one of the first people he contacted about his plan to start releasing music, he said. He put out his first tracks when he was around 19.
Now 22, Smith says he draws on musical influences ranging from legendary rapper MF Doom to contemporary electronic singer-songwriter James Blake.
The pair agree that the talent and hunger for the art form is here in Dublin. But, unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into a profitable market, says the man known as Kojaque.
“There’s definitely a lot more people in Dublin making good hip-hop. One issue with Dublin, with Ireland generally, is that there really isn’t an industry here. I suppose there is a scene; it’s all underground, but there is no industry,” he says.
There aren’t many record labels in Ireland, says Smith. “That was one of the reasons why we set up the label,” he says.
Having left behind its days as a faux label, Soft Boy Records has collaborated with, promoted and helped release artists not only from Dublin, but from all over the country.
“We’ve managed to kind of make connections with a couple of different beat makers around the place,” Smith says. There is Nxstalgic_ and Jar Jar Jr in Cork, and Brién in Belfast.
Kojaque’s Sunday Roast EP, released in April 2016, and the collaborative record with Nxstalgic_, have both had more than 20,000 listens on SoundCloud.
Kavanagh finds that total bewildering. “I just thought that was amazing that it had spread so far,” he says.
A musician himself, Kavanagh released the beautifully ethereal and patient “Sing Through the Blood” early last year.
“Our Own Thing”
The pair behind Soft Boy Records are doing their own thing right now, not worrying too much about the paths that other indie labels have taken. “I don’t really know how other small labels have grown to be big,” says Kavanagh.
But in this digitised world that we now live in, the pair believe that branding and merchandise sales will be key to Soft Boy flourishing.
Merchandise is like free advertising, after all. “You see somebody walking around with a T-shirt on that you like you’re going to enquire about it,” says Kavanagh. “It’s kind of the only thing you can push nowadays because people just don’t buy music anymore.”
The duo stress, though, that their efforts at self-promotion will not distract them from keeping the quality of the music high.
“We could be washed up in a year, or in 10 years from now we still could be going strong. But we’re just doing our own thing and trying to make every release better and better,” says Kavanagh.
At the moment, they’re thinking of the immediate future. “In the next few years I would like there to be a Kojaque album out under Soft Boy Records. I’m currently working on an album as well that I would like to release that with a few videos,” he says.
As we finish up our chat outside of an old cone-and-wafer factory on Old Kilmainham Road, Kavanagh tells me that despite the uncertainty, all the work is worth it.
“It’s been really cool because we’ve gone from not knowing what the fuck this is – like ‘What the fuck are Kean and Kevin doing here?’ – to meeting people out in Dublin and they’d be telling me they’re interested in Soft Boy Records and the music we’re putting out,” he says. “You get such a buzz off that.”