Stuart Li aka Basic Soul Unit [and Herman] has very recently released his full length album “Motional Response”
The Hong Kong born DJ/Producer, residing in Toronto Canada, has had an affection for the “underground” sounds since as far back as the 90’s. Spending time in clubs around NYC, Chicago and Detroit where the music was anything from Deep House to Industrial Techno.
We were fortunate to have a skype conversation with him and find out more of what happens in the world of Basic Soul Unit.
Hi Stuart, it’s amazing how this music thing connects people from all around the planet. We’ve never met, yet it feels like we know each other for a bit. Thanks for taking the time out to chat to For The Record.
Thanks for having me…
You do of course have another South African friend in Lerato Khati, so there’s a connection…is there anyone else you know from South Africa besides the two of us?
Not really, I do not know anyone else.
It’s quite interesting that there are lots of similarities between the two cities and the scenes
It’s always the case, like in North America where it’s very “mass-media oriented”…of course every city has some kind of underground scene, whether it’s relatively large or small, but even with the large [underground] scenes, it’s not like there’s a lot of commercial radio support.
We find that here as well, we have your commercial artists like “Goldfish” who will blow up on commercial radio stations, but obviously that has financial reasons attached to them…and it’s the same with doing events, you’re more likely to get someone like Fur Coat or DeadMau5 [hahaha] say no more…
Moving on then…
Yeah, I don’t know, you probably know Nick Holder…he’s from Toronto as well
Yes of course, we know Nick Holder! Summer Daze is pretty much an anthem in South Africa. He is HUGE in South Africa, based solely on Summer Daze and also his influence with his DNH label. Then there’s Louie Vega…I mean some of the guys actually have houses in South Africa, they come here in the summer and spend time playing gigs in Johannesburg.
On Nick Holder…ask anyone who has an affection for house music about “Summer Daze” they’ll say that track pretty much is the ‘benchmark’ for what the scene was like back then. It’s a pretty cool tune
Yeah, he has a great ear for samples…hahahahahahaha
So what does a general day in the life of Stuart Li consist of…
I do graphic design and I do free-lance, which gives me the flexibility to travel the world and wake up late when I need to [hahaha].
Nowadays even when you have somewhat of reputation or name, it’s kinda hard to make a full living solely from music, of course with the whole digital thing, you don’t make much money from releasing or producing music.
I mean I don’t have any regrets, I kinda just take things as they come and go with the flow and every year it seems to be getting a bit busier for me and I’m happy about that.
At the end of the day [as we were discussing off-line], for me it’s more about the love of music, because once you start to make a living off of it, you get more stressed about paying bills…and maybe releasing music that you wouldn’t otherwise have released, making stuff that you don’t really stand behind
Moving to the “Scene” in Canada. In Cape Town we have the “house scene” and the “House scene”…what i mean by that, the latter being the one where the music is real [it’s quality], the punters are interested in the tracklists, they’re interested in the artists and they actually come to get down. How different is it over in Canada, is it very similar?
Very similar. I think almost anywhere there’ll be that two types of scenes…there’s gonna be the underground/the heads where people are really interested in the music and then there’s the bigger commercial scene, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s the same game.
I was chatting to David Moufang [Move D] when he visited South Africa and he alluded to the fact that he doesn’t get booked as often in Germany as he does abroad. Is this the same for you?
Well, I did my own parties in Toronto for a long time and actually it was more jazz, funk, soul and latin styled stuff…even afro-beat, but as far as my house/techno stuff…
I didn’t really get a lot of bookings in Toronto, until i started producing, but I think that’s the way it is, because…well for one thing [like I told you] I’m almost 40yrs old, so I don’t go out a lot any more and haven’t made a lot of connections with the local scene in a while, so it was kinda explainable that people didn’t really hear or know of me until they heard my music through other channels.
In the last few years through the gigs I’ve played here, I’ve made a lot of connections with the younger promoters and connected with the younger crowds.
Talking about gigs and cities, which is your favourite city/club to play at?
Erm….well, that’s always hard to say…I don’t really have a favourite, but of course I’m in Germany quite a lot, in Berlin of course there’s Panorama Bar that’s great and a lot of other smaller clubs.
Then I have very good memories from a lot of other places like Singapore, Norway and England, so it’s hard to say that I have a favourite…although some of my most memorable parties are not necessarily the big ones.
I always tell this story that I played for a friend [Darand Land] in Buffalo [in the US] which is a small city and there’s not much happening there, but he’s a good friend, he has been there from the old days and has traveled to Chicago to New York to Detroit…he knows the old-school stuff and he’s also really into the new deep stuff.
So he invited me to play at his house for him and his friends, and it was one of the best parties because No.1 they were there to get down and also, they know the music, they love the music…and they’re heads so they love both the old and the new stuff.
So I was playing anything from disco to house to techno…and it was one of the best times I’ve had.
You released your “Motional Response” album on Still Music earlier this year…can you give us some insight into the inspiration and story behind this work
Actually the label approached me to do the album about 5 to 6 years ago. At that time I kinda jumped at the opportunity cos it was there and I was like “yeah let’s do this”
Then the label kinda had some difficulty around distribution…so it got delayed until earlier this year. In the mean time, the few years that passed was actually better, as it gave me more time to develop my direction and gave me time to think about what I wanted this album to be like
So yeah, it took quite a few years, although “Clouds” and “Breathe” were already produced when we had discussed it.
So there wasn’t really a specific inspiration, it was more just a snap shot of what i was feeling at a specific point in time. I just did a bunch of tracks and picked the ones I liked.
The one thing I did decide about this album, is that it was going to be a dance music album. I guess it’s deep, but it’s still dancefloor based. I didn’t have a lot of beatless tracks or downtempo tracks, because what I do is dance music, so I didn’t want to incorporate that just because it was an album.
The other way I also looked at it was, that it was definitely going to have a variety of tracks from the more soulful house to the more jackin’ and banging stuff and I wanted the album to flow [for the listener] from beginning to the end.
I totally got that on the album! You can definitely see the progression as well as the different elements in the music, as I was saying to you offline earlier. There’s definitely the more emotive side to it as well as the industrial techno sound further down the way as well. The album certainly tells a story, which many artists forget to do when they put out albums and it should tell the story of the artist…and i certainly got this with Motional Response!
I can fully understand the description saying “Motional Response is a work of art”…there’s so much light and shade listening to this album. The techno elements, the emotion brought through with the house influence. Really class work. So speaking of music as an art form, I find that many modern-day artists have forgotten this and churn out “hits” for the sake of it, rather than attaching a sense of self to it. What’s your thinking around this?
I guess there’s always a sort of developmental period with most artists. You know that with artists who have been around for 10 years or more, the ones who have stuck around longer will have a more defined sound and more of a personality in their music.
I mean, when you’re young, you’re 20-something and you’re just kinda coming out onto the scene [making music], I think it’s more about having a party, you don’t really have time to mature [i guess] musically, so at that point you’re more than likely just churning out the hits or following a trend and that’s fine.
For me and the guys who have stuck around, once you’ve been in it for more than ten/fifteen years it’s not about money and fame, it’s about the love and doing it for the love.
The label you released the album on, Still Music, is of course the label of Jerome Derradji, on which you’ve also released the Breathe EP as a follow up to this album. Tell us about the relationship between you and Jerome and how it started?
It was about 6 years ago, he just hit me up via email, saying he liked my stuff and he was interested in doing some releases and we talked on the phone and that’s how it started.
OK, so it was rather similar to this where I heard your music, we connected and the rest is history.
Yeah…that’s how it happened for a lot of other labels that I’ve done work for. The first release I put out was in 2003 on a local label called “Iwanai Music” which is a friend of mine’s label. When we put it out, it was like “let’s just do it, see what happens” because it was something that we wanted to do for a long time.
Then i checked around and noticed that some people were charting it and playing it. It wasn’t a huge hit, but people started recognising it and then I noticed that Gilb’R from Versatile Records in France played it on his show…and so I just sent him an email saying thanks.
He then said, he really liked the music and said if I had anything I should send it to him, and that’s how I got a release on Versatile Records.
So it’s just always been about networking, making contacts, meeting people and taking opportunities where I can, I guess.
I would say to young producers though, take opportunities when they come, but also be “picky” about the opportunities too…cos if you put out your music on any label, you have to make sure it’s a label you know and respect. If it’s on a label that might not suit your sound, you’ll get misrepresented or might not reach the right audience…or you might not reach any audience.
I would sooner give twenty demos to labels that I like, and be rejected, than to send a thousand demos out to just whatever label is out there.
You’ve since started your own label called “Lab.our” which has Maxwell Church’s release on the 002 release. Tell us a bit more about how you decided on the name for this label and also your relationship with Maxwell, who is also from Toronto, I believe.
Lab.our before we even started the record label, was the name of the creative company myself and my partner Jason started. It was just a banner company where we did all our design work, as well as music. Jason hasn’t released anything as yet, but he’s helping me with the label and starting to work on his own tracks.
We thought about starting the label, after the album and after various releases, so I felt it was the right time for me to start a label.
So we kept the name Lab.our, which is a play on words for “our lab”
As far as Max, well he is a young guy from Toronto, who had always been sending me demos and I thought he was really talented producer. I met him through parties that he did with another guy called Dan [the event was called Deep North]. They’re young promoters in Toronto, who were just getting into this whole techno thing.
They booked me a couple of times, we got on quite well and then they sent me some tracks and ja…that was that.
With the label, it’s not exclusively local [not exclusively Toronto], but I definitely wanna highlight and showcase local talent and that’s why I really wanted to put Max’s stuff out as well.
That’s fantastic, as I mentioned to you earlier, that’s actually my vision for For The Record SA as well, obviously showcasing international high-quality artists, but also punting the local DJ’s and Producers who aren’t necessarily getting the hype or attention they deserve, and it’s evident your vision and mine are pretty similar when it comes to this blog and your record label.
Yes, that is totally, exactly what I want to do and achieve.
The Herman alias is home to some of your deeper and more experimental work, I might be wrong?
You are right. It was the initial reason I started the Herman alias. It was on the label “Fine Art Recordings”…
He wanted to do an album with me, but I said I had already agreed to do an album on “Still Music” so then he suggested that we use a different alias, which is how Herman came about.
The story behind the name Herman is that my mother, when I was born, wanted to name me “Herman” , but my grandfather didn’t really like that name, so eventually they settled on Stuart, which I’m kinda glad about actually.
I thought it was a pretty funny name to use as a producer, that’s why I used it.
So, because it was a different alias, I decided, why don’t I try and make different [more experimental] music with it…stuff that’s a little less “4/4 oriented” and more experimental.
I’ve only had two releases on it and then it stopped as I found that my work as Basic Soul Unit was starting to cross over and I was experimenting [on BSU] with a lot more sounds and rhythms, so I didn’t really feel the need to use a second alias anymore.
There might come a time where I may feel I need to start it up again, if I do something REALLY far out.
Finally, being on the books of Uzuri Recordings, you get to ‘rub shoulders’ with some of the finest in the industry. Tevo Howard, Fred P, DJ Deep, Portable, Aybee etc. Is there any on the list who you gain [most of] your inspiration from or do you find your inspiration on your own?
Well it worked two ways actually. The reason why I initially signed with Uzuri and why I’ve stuck with them for so long, is cos it feels like a family.
I know quite a few of the artists on the label, and we’re all down to earth and we all get along on the same wavelength musically, so that really helps.
On the other hand, yes because we are in the same spectrum of music, I think we do gain a lot of inspiration from each other, but as far as inspiration goes, I get that from anywhere.
Musically, I think my taste is pretty wide. I mean sure, production wise, a lot of people might associate my stuff with Detroit or Chicago stuff.
I mean I grew up listening to as much Masters at Work and New Jersey, New York City vocal house as much as Chicago and Detroit, house and techno. You know, like I said, I even play some jazz and funk sounds. I even listened to Drum n Bass for a while.
Basically if it’s good music and it’s got some kind of soul and rhythm to it, I’ll see it as good music. I try not to stick to one thing or the other, i guess.
Yes, totally! Irrespective of the genre, if the production quality is good and you can feel where the artist was coming from emotionally and you’re able to relate, then you’d be able to appreciate the sound.
Yeah, there was a time where I wasn’t listening to jazz and disco and stuff and was like “this is real music” and I stopped listening to the Chicago and Detroit sounds, but after a while I realised that that music was very much a part of me and something I related to and I started digging deeper, finding the guys like Moodymann, Carl Craig and Theo Parrish. Which in a way made me come full circle.
Now I’m in a happy place where I judge the music basically on whether I feel it or not, not based on the genre.
Yeah, that’s excellent and totally the way to go about it.
Well, that’s all I really have to ask you. I really appreciate you taking the time out to chat to us.
Yeah man, no problem.
So what I’ll do is I’ll fly you out tomorrow [hahahaha]
Hahahaha, that would be amazing.
Seriously though, thanks again and we’ll definitely keep in touch.
No problem man…good night.