In these times when major record companies are constantly trying to reinvent the platform appealing to a new millennium demographic, there are independent record labels still holding strong. To the newbie trying to find a place in the world of music and media, being an independent is an easy introduction to the music game but for music veterans, it’s a call to independent freedom.
Every major label started out as an independent label, gradually building a solid roster of artists, songwriters, musicians and eventually, a signature sound. In the 1960’s, Chicago was the home base for Chess and Vee Jay Records, which established the historic ‘Record Row’ on south Michigan Ave., now lined with rehab lofts and gleaming high rises. In Detroit, Motown Records manifested a movement that went global and whose catalog is still the crown jewel among publishing companies today. For young Philadelphians from the 1960’s into the mid-1980’s, Philadelphia International Records was considered the defiant step-child of Motown, owned by legendary producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
We can still hear the label’s distinctive sound today not just on the vinyl formats where Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes occasionally blasts from the airwaves. The Philly sound of today can be heard through the musical stylings of The Roots, Jazzy Jeff, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Jaguar Wright, Jazmine Sullivan and Kindred The Family Soul.
Each of these artists have been grouped into the industry category of ‘Neo-Soul’ because of it’s combination of Soul and Hip Hop musical influences, setting the stage to influence Hip Hop fans with real Soul music. But, rarely have we seen a husband and wife team capture the audience and create genuine chemistry onstage since Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Kindred The Family Soul is the musical brainchild of Aja Graydon and Fatin Dantzler, a singing and songwriter team whose first album, “Surrender to Love” debuted in 2003 on Hidden Beach Recordings. No stranger to the music business, Aja Graydon had a deal as an aspiring young singer on Delicious Vinyl and Fatin Dantzler was writing for R&B artists, Pebbles and Bell Biv DeVoe. Discouraged by some of the politics and set-backs in the business, they both decided to take time off from the scene, but fate would bring them together, eventually getting married and starting a family.
The couple gradually started performing around the Philly scene and caught the attention of Jill Scott during one of their live performances at the Black Lily Club. Scott introduced them to the President of Hidden Beach Recordings, Steve McKeever, who signed Kindred The Family Soul. Over the next twelve years, the couple built up a solid and loyal following with hits, “Far Away,” “Stars,” and “You Got Love,” releasing an impressive five albums.
Fatin said, “The business is a totally different place. Coming up, the internet didn’t exist, iTunes didn’t exist. No more CDs in the cases. People are not buying physical CDs like they used to – most record stores are now closed. A big difference but at the core of it all is still about music, making music and touching people. That’s the part that keeps me excited and going and wanting to continue on the journey.”
Aja adds, “The industry from when I first got started, was heavily based in how can the industry itself create and develop artists. The part they played (the artist) was a lot more proactive, whereas now, they exist as a way or vehicle to expose a fully developed artist to the world. Their involvement is very ‘hands- off.” When I got started, it was not that kind of business at all – the label was an orchestra where there were so many different parts to be played. It was a big shebang. Now, instead of various parts, they act more like a DJ.”
What makes their music attractive to listeners is the couple’s strong songwriting capabilities and their collaborations with other artists. They both credit their inspiration in writing most of their music on the influence of Hip Hop. A native of Philadelphia, Aja grew up on the movement of the Native Tongues – Monie Love, Queen Latifah, DelaSoul and feeling a sense of connection to the songs. “I’ve always liked how Hip Hop artists tell stories. I was inspired by that ability to paint a picture or create a scenario. Let people feel from the first person, how you want to be portrayed. Hip Hop played a big role for me even though it’s not the style of writing in which I do. I’m more of an R&B style of writer but the inspiration from it, in terms of writing comes a lot from listening to Hip Hop music,” she said.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Fatin co-signs, “The art form of our generation is Hip Hop. It’s probably the music we most definitely identify with when we make Soul music. We grew up on the music that our parents loved. So much of that is Soul inspired – Motown, Philly International, Stax Records.” He said, “We look to those great artists such as Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass and Patti Labelle. The ones that are strong vocalists and song- writers like Stevie Wonder who have great songs.”
The proud parents of six children, the couple find themselves staying connected between what they grew up listening to and what their kids are into today. Although the players have changed, the impact of the message is still timeless. As a father, Fatin proudly identified with why the messages in those songs were so impactful especially now.
“The prophets during our time were Hip Hop artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Chuck D. The kind of artists that sparked a lot of energy and passion growing up. They made you feel like, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’ We had a lot of that during my generation, even though it was recycled, it definitely hit the mark. It inspired so many people that are producing Soul music.”
Growing creatively, they decided to change record labels, leaving Hidden Beach Recordings and releasing, “Love Has No Recession,” on Shanachie Records. As their fan base continued to grow, the couple decided to create and produce a web series called, “Six is It,” inviting viewers into their professional and personal lives raising six children. After three seasons, and acquiring additional loyal followers—they decided to end the funny and relatable Youtube series.
Aja explains, “Even with the web series, people’s attention span were getting shorter. We knew that we had to make the episodes shorter. It’s catered to how people watch tele- vision now. Even now, looking forward – it’s even shorter,” she said. “We were early into social media so that was an amazing tool for us. Because of social media, back in the days of Myspace – we wouldn’t have known 10 years later that our social media and our presence on there would foster one of the biggest opportunities securing a national Walmart commercial.”
Taking a risk and investing $10,000 of their funds, the family decided to create a film bringing four new music videos together to tell a story; “A Couple of Friends,” directed by Malcolm Hill (“Brotherly Love”). Feeling proud of the accomplishment of fusing both their worlds of music and feature filmmaking, they lobbied unsuccessfully to acquire a net- work to show the film. A year later, they were approached by the agency team of Walmart to film a commercial outlining everything the couple had built up in the last five years. The biggest box chain store launched the, “Summer Fun with Kindred The Family Soul” campaign for the summer of 2015 ushering the entire family into the living rooms of mainstream America.
They didn’t feel their hard work and efforts were in vain, just another step to something bigger and better. “If you look at the commercial, it’s basically a shorter version of our film,” Fatin said.
“We filmed the commercial in the same location as the film. Walmart has spent $3.6 million on advertising and it’s been played over 7 million times on Youtube. You go back and look at, “A Couple of Friends” and see how many times that has been played,” He smiled. “All of the television stations that said no to us, are playing our commercial a zillion times. Yes, they get paid every time the commercial is played but so are we. It’s testing that people like it and they like Kindred The Family Soul.”
Aja recalled a conversation the couple had with the late Nick Ashford of Ashford and Simpson, He said, “People always compare you both with us but it’s different. The way that you do things are very conversational.” She points to her husband and partner. “It’s his point of view and my kind of view. Whereas traditionally, R&B is about these metaphors–’Love feels like…’. This is our experience – very Hip Hop. It’s the ‘I’ in my experience, and people can relate to this. We write love songs based on that.”