Interview with DJ Stuart Li
Monday, December 6, 2010 at 03:55 PM | Lucy Watson
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Stuart Li has been making music for a decade now, with early releases on labels such as Iwanai Music and Left of the Dial. Stuart has always stayed true to his sound, a result of his strong influences from early Chicago House and Detroit Techno. Since 2009 with the release of Ostgut Ton’s Panorama Bar 02 EP featuring his track “Things Pass”, Basic Soul Unit has been flying a bit more above the radar. With a new remix out last month on Self Defence and a few other projects in the works, 2011 is looking like it could be the year for Basic Soul Unit.

Lucy Watson: Early in your DJ career you were known for being quite versatile, playing anything from Detroit Techno to Disco to Brazilian and Broken Beat, do you think it’ s important for DJ’s nowadays to be versatile? Or is it ok just being a “Genre DJ”?

Stuart Li: I think it’s okay to play within a certain range or spectrum that conveys the idea of the night. For example, if the night is a house or a Techno night, you’re probably not going to drop Funk or Brazilian (although not unheard of). But even within that night, there is a spectrum or range of music to play. Even if it is a “deep” house night, you can convey the feeling of deepness without resorting to just playing clichéd notions of deep house tracks all night. A night should (you’ve heard many times) have flow with peaks and valleys and I can’t really imagine a full night of just one narrow genre providing this. Vice versa, when you do an “eclectic night” you have to try to create a flow from a very diverse range of music.

LW: You tend to take your time between releases, how do you feel about some artists who seem to have a new EP out every week?

SI: For me, my release schedule has something to do with my time constraints (full time job, family). But aside from that I also want to try to have quality over quantity. I always dreamed of doing music full-time but then maybe that’ s not such a good thing on second thought. Not doing music full-time allows me to do music when I am inspired or motivated as opposed to doing it to pay bills. Although some songs can come together in a fit of inspiration in one day, I’ m not sure one can have top quality putting out releases every week for the full year.

LW: You’ve had releases on some notable labels such as Versatile Records, Ostgut Ton and New Kanada. Do you typically get approached to do a project? How does that work?

SI: Both happens. Initially of course, I sent them out to labels, but I have been getting more requests lately and I’m really humbled by it as some are labels and people I respect a lot in the scene.

LW: You’ve been producing music now for almost ten years and have really stayed true to your style. What has made you stay so close to your roots?

SI: I guess I just make music I feel. Probably the medium I use affects that a bit too. Hopefully I can evolve, have diverse material but still have an artistic identity. But at the same time I don’t consciously try to create this identity. Best to let it happen naturally.

LW: What software/instruments do you typically use when working on music? Are you all about the latest technology?

SI: I use Reason the most. I also rewire it to Logic to mix down sometimes or for certain effects. I’ve also used Ableton, too, but Reason seems to suit the way I work and sound better. I also have just got a Roland Alpha Juno 2, so we’ll see what happens once I figure out my set up. Most people think I’m an analog geek, but I’ m not. I’ m not even a software geek. I’m not technically adept and economically able to build a studio at this point. I’d like to learn more about it and incorporate it but it will take some time. Bottom line is these days you can make good music if you have good ideas whether you have a professional studio or Fruity Loops.

LW: DJing seems to be becoming more and more popular as it’ s getting easier and more affordable, now you just need a laptop a midi controller and the software of your choice, any Joe can be a DJ. How do feel about where the art of the DJ has gone?

SI: I think regardless of media, it really still comes down to the basics. If you have a sense of music programming (not in the software sense of course), have enough skill to do a mix and can read a crowd and convey your personality at the same time then that’s good for me. I personally place more importance on the programming than the mix technique. The controversy seems to be with laptops where one is not using the turntables anymore, and don’t need to mix. Are they really “Disc-jockeys” anymore? I mean I guess “DJ” is just a generic term these days which has deviated from its original meaning anyway. But yeah maybe DJ isn’t a correct term for a laptop performance. Still it’ s a valid medium and to me if you are true to that medium’ s potential and intended use then it’ s fine (meaning don’ t use a laptop to just auto-mix tracks and not do anything else). For me, I’ m still most comfortable with turntables and I use a mix of Vinyl and Serato.

LW: What do you think you would be doing right now if you had never made the move from Hong Kong to Toronto all those years ago? Do you think you still would be involved in music?

SI: Who knows, I may have ended up in music or design anyway but probably from a different angle. My experience in Toronto definitely defines my sensibilities. But in Hong Kong the pressure to have a decent or respectable job from society and from family is high so I may or may not my discovered my creative side.

LW: How often do you get back to Hong Kong and how do you feel about the music scene there?

SI: Hong Kong is dominated by pop culture. I used to go back at least once a year because of work, but now I go back maybe once every few years. The true underground scene in HK is quite small, but there are a small group of DJs still pushing on.

LW: What’s going on right now with the scene in Toronto?

SI: We always bitch and complain about Toronto, but in the end the scene is actually still quite healthy. There are many nights for differing tastes. Toronto has always been that way. We’ve had influences from all over because of the multi-cultural nature of the city. The thing that defines Toronto is not really a particular sound but that it has a lot of branches from the same roots.

LW: Let’s say I’ m heading to Toronto for the weekend, what clubs/bars should I check out?

SI: I may not be the best to ask as I’ve not been getting out as much these days due to having a family (and maybe just plain getting old). On most given weekends there are things happening at Footwork, Wrong Bar & Revival depending on your taste. There definitely other smaller venues as well. And there are a few after hours parties roaming different locations. From the current “ Disco” revival to deep house to soulful house, minimal to techno or tech-house to dubstep and drum n bass, there are promoters doing their thing.

LW: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Jason Ulrich. How did you meet?

SI: We met through playing at the same venue called IV Lounge (on different nights) at the beginning of our DJ’ing careers. We’d hang out at each other’s nights and see each other at the record store. Having similar taste and views of music (not to mention both being graphic designers), we eventually started playing a few nights together (as Lab.our Union which became our design/music studio name). We then decided we wanted to learn something about running a record label so we started helping John Kong (Do Right! label owner) do A/R for his Left Of The Dial sub-label.

LW: Who is Herman?

SI: Herman is my other production moniker which is a bit more open and less concentrated on 4 to the floor material. I actually wanted to keep everything under the “BSU” umbrella but the Herman name kind of came out of contractual obligation. Since it was a different name, I decided I might as well take it in a different direction.

LW: What’s next for Basic Soul Unit?

SI: My remix for Franco Cangelli on Self Defense was recently released. Another remix will be coming out on Sian’s Octopus label. I’ m currently working on a remix for Alton Miller on Mixed Signals Music and new original material (which I will wait until things are firm before mentioning).

Tags: BASIC SOUL UNIT, STUART LI, In The Booth, DJ, joonbug, self defence, miami, panorama bar, jason ulrich