"Someday, I feel like we're going to be hip, because this is what we're doing in Nashville," says G.E.D. Soul Records' David Guy. He has reason to be confident. Over the past two decades, hip-hop's mainstream popularity helped revive the old-school soul and funk in which it has its roots, and in the past 10 years, a healthy market for the good stuff has emerged in Music City.
"I remember how exotic it felt to get to see a Daptone band when they first came to town," says Grimey's co-proprietor Doyle Davis. "Now, Alanna Royale is going to Bonnaroo, and funky sounds seem to be everywhere in the local clubs. ... I think we can all agree that Daptone Records — and Desco before them — set the template for how to do this, but G.E.D. Soul has really followed through in Middle Tennessee."
As host of D-Funk, a two-hour block of deep funk and soul cuts on WRVU-FM, Davis was for 15 years the most vocal proponent of soul-shoutin', hip-dippin' music in the Midstate, and no small influence on the G.E.D. Soul crew. Nick DeVan and Dave Singleton, the label's founders, were already becoming soul-funk aficionados when D-Funk inspired them to host their own radio show on the MTSU station, WMTS-FM. Soon after, the pair wrote, recorded and released their first single. The Grips' "Tennessee Strut" featured the core of what would become the label's marquee group, DeRobert and the Half-Truths: Singleton on bass, DeVan behind the drums, and the voice of DeRobert Adams, who brings ferocious testimony and classically trained control to every project he graces.
From that first release in 2007, DeVan and Singleton have treated the label as a serious business, nurturing a diverse yet cohesive catalog with fans all over the world and a fully functional DIY production infrastructure. Their 20 releases range from Donny Hathaway-inspired heavy soul by The Half-Truths, tinges of harder funk from A.J. and the Jiggawatts and Sky-Hi, and soul-jazz and other instrumental perspectives via The Coolin' System, Magic in Threes and soon The Gazelles.
DeVan records the groups at Poor Man Studios, his tiny but well-kept house on the less fashionable side of East Nashville, off Dickerson Pike. Also serving as the label's headquarters and warehouse, it's a testament to the difference between "full" and "cluttered." The sound may not compare to a million-dollar facility, but the most crucial component — a kind of audible sweat — is there by the gallon. Singleton does graphic design and screen-printing, and his wife Sarah, better known locally as DJ Eticut, handles the mailing list and website. Andrew Muller from funk outfit Deep Fried Five books and promotes shows and tours, including a monthly soul-dance party at The Stone Fox. David Guy manages G.E.D. Soul's relationships with individual record stores and distributor Traffic Entertainment. It's a role that requires an especially personal touch by a small label.
"They have bigger fish to pay huge amounts of money to," says Guy. But calling every pay period "eventually got us knowing that we're going to get a check every two months."
This bustling, well-organized operation sounds like a full-time concern. After six years, however, it remains a second job for everyone involved. What's missing is capital. While every G.E.D. Soul release is available digitally, vinyl releases drive the most sales, especially in a genre wherein the 45-rpm single is an icon. Unfortunately, you pay for what you get: The first pressing of an LP costs the label $2,000. Releases sell well enough to break even, but the proceeds always go straight to paying family, friends and banks who loaned the cash up front.
To break the cycle, the label launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, which ends June 24. For a year, G.E.D. has sat on a trio of albums: DeRobert and the Half-Truths' sophomore LP, A.J. and the Jiggawatts' full-length debut and The Coolin' System's swan song. Guy, Singleton and DeVan have budgeted pressing and promotion costs for all three, to be staggered across the rest of 2013. If the campaign is successful, it will be one of the most appropriate uses yet of the name "Kickstarter": Instead of paying back loans, all revenue generated from the copies not given to project backers funds the release of a suite of 45s, which pays for an LP, and so on, giving G.E.D. Soul a giant push toward its goal of quarterly LP releases sprinkled with singles and EPs.
Meanwhile, the staff keeps its focus right where it's always been: on the future. Exemplifying their networking skills, Muller sold a song to West Coast duo Myron and E., for which DeVan will record the backing tracks. Bringing the evolution full circle, DeVan notes upcoming collaborations with local MCs. Guy mentions that the impresarios of the hip-hop dance party The Boom Bap love G.E.D. Soul. His prescription for the next step — "All of these crowds need to know each other better" — seems to fit what soul music does best.