Since his first release sixteen years ago, StuartLi aka Basic Soul Unit has carved out a rocksteady place in the ever-shifting world of underground dance music. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, Stuart Li attributes his musical upbringing to the multicultural landscape of his hometown of Toronto. Through the years, Basic Soul Unit traveled the world, scrutinised all kinds of music genres and played an immeasurable amount of shows. He always kept digging more and more into his exploratory approach, getting the most versatile sound you could imagine from his deep love for records, and for music as an actual universe.
The masterful producer and label manager will be playing Social Room on March 9, 2019 alongside Ocean Lam and Saisa Fraction for a welcome comeback to his birth land. You can already get the last remaining limited advance tickets for this one-of-a-kind House and Techno night as well as everything you need to know about the event here at Electric Soul. Explore our in-depth and soulful interview with him below!
ES: Hi Stuart. Hope you’re doing great! You were born in Hong Kong, but weren’t raised there. Still, you’ll be back very soon with a much anticipated show with our friend Ocean Lam at Social Room, alongside with Saisa Fraction.
What’s the story behind your relationship with Hong Kong?
BSU: I was born and lived in HK till I was 8 years old. Our family moved to Canada in 1982 (first Vancouver for 2 years, then Toronto). I have been back to HK periodically both for work (as a graphic designer) and leisure since then. In Toronto, we have a large community of HK immigrants so in some ways the culture never left me. Every time I visit HK, I always feel a sense of nostalgia and familiarity.
ES: How do you feel regarding this place, its audience and its evolution when playing here live in 2019?
BSU: I might not be an authority on the scene but I feel like there’s been a lot of progress in the underground areas of the scene. There’s been more interest in deeper and more experimental sounds and a younger generation interested (at least from what I can see). I’m also noticing more locals getting interested in the scene too.
ES: You grew up in Canada, notably with Chinese Jamaican relatives on your father’s side. This must have been an incredible set to discover and explore genres such as Soul, Reggae, Soca, RnB, … How did your family roots influence the way you apprehended music?
BSU: My family roots and also the multicultural city of Toronto were a huge influence on me musically. I wouldn’t have been exposed to that music in the same way if I didn’t come to Canada because here you are not only listening to the music on radio but are able to experience first hand how the people and culture relate to their music (for example at concerts and parties). You gain a deeper appreciation for it and you can feel it.
ES: Would you say this backdrop is still tangible in the versatility of your soulful releases?
BSU: For sure, even if it is in a subconscious way, we’re all shaped by our upbringing and experiences. I think the sense of melody and groove has always stuck with me.
A taste of Basic Soul Unit sound:
ES: You spent some time working at the vintage vinyl record store Cosmos Records in downtown Toronto. In what ways did digging great releases from various genres (Soul, Jazz, Latin, Brazilian, Disco, House, Hip Hop, …) extended your musical culture and background?
BSU: It just broadened my musical horizons further. Instead of just looking for party tunes, I really got into listening to the music on and off the dance floor. A lot of the samples House and Hip Hop tracks used came from these classic songs and that’s how I started getting into them. Just being open to different rhythms, melodies, cultures.
ES: You were musically raised in Toronto, where you must have felt the influence from huge points of reference for House music and Hip Hop such as New York, Detroit and Chicago.How would you describe the vibe of the city, its dance music centers and its uprising as a scene in the 90’s?
BSU: It was just very vibrant and there were so many new and exciting sounds reaching our ears from different places (including Europe). In a way we didn’t really develop a totally unique Toronto sound but on the other hand we got the best of all worlds. I think having so many different people from different backgrounds we were very open to all these sounds as well. You might go to a house night but hear soulful NY house, Chitown acid house, Detroit house and techno, and European sounds all in the same night. Beyond 4/4, there was a huge Drum n Bass scene, Acid Jazz nights and of course Hip Hop and Caribbean sounds were always big and growing in parallel.
ES: Can you tell us more about your experience at Toronto’s college radio stations and after hour house and techno parties?
BSU: I was a bit young to be DJing at these parties but I went to them as a clubber. Most of what I mentioned was taking place in warehouses and lofts as legal clubs had to close by 1 am back then (even now we can only serve alcohol till 2 am). Most of the parties I went to were intimate to mid-sized loft parties, but as the scene grew, raves became huge, really really huge (I mean like tens of thousands of people in an airplane hangar for example). Personally at that point I was not really into the rave side of things. I was into the deeper more soulful grooves. Back then there was a surplus of unused industrial spaces even downtown so it wasn’t hard to find spaces. And the cops mostly left you alone as long as things were pretty peaceful.
The College stations (CKLN, CIUT & CHRY) were instrumental in spreading the music as commercial stations did not support underground dance music at all. We would all listen intently to the shows then hit the record shops to find the hottest tracks we heard that week.
Record shops were also an important part of the scene as a meeting place for the DJs. I met a lot of people I still call friends to this day. Also you could find out info on where the party was that weekend too. I feel this lack of person to person interaction outside of the club is missing these days in the scene.
ES: You founded the Toronto-based label Lab.our Music with long time friend Jason Ulrich (J-UL) in 2013, launched with an original EP release of your own. You described the sound of Lab.our as “music for dark and dank basements with bass bins” to VICE. What is the vision and mission behind this label?
BSU: We see our label as mainly a platform to expose local artists from Toronto. We recently released a 2 vinyl compilation “Lab.our Intensive: Toronto Works” of artists all hailing from this city (available digitally via our Bandcamp site as well). A lot of our releases are house and techno but we never set a limit dependent on style or genre. Some are more experimental and darker while others deeper and soulful but I think in general that sense of groove is an integral characteristic. Besides myself and label partner J-UL, artists on the label include Maxwell Church, Pursuit Grooves, R, Adam Marshall, Chicago Skyway (the one exception not from T.O.), Hermans as well as newcomers Smoke, Walter, Xavier Gonzales.
ES: We saw quite an amusing post on your Instagram, which related your usual prepping for gigs. It appears you usually start by choosing over 200 records you love, before ending up with about 20 of them at the actual performance. Which elements make you choose the ones you’ll be playing depending on the show?
BSU: I guess it’s a good thing I also use CDJs these day haha. As I consider myself a versatile DJ, what I bring depends on the kind of night it is. But in any case, I always like to bring a variety of sounds. For example, if it is a techno night, I will bring Detroit oriented releases, industrial sounds, harder techno, Electro, Dub, and maybe even a couple of surprise disco or house records. I like to take the crowd up and down and to different places if I can. As far as what I actually end up playing, I always just go with the flow and feel out the audience.
ES: Since every show seems to be crafted as unique, do you already have any idea what mood and vibes you will bring to Social Room on March 9?
BSU: It will be a surprise, a good surprise. Seriously though I think with intimate spaces like Social Room, you can have the opportunity to go to different places in a set.
ES: What achievements can we wish to Basic Soul Unit and Lab.our in the upcoming months and years, apart from the best?
BSU: I’m the kind of guy to just go with the flow. As long as I’m spending time with my family and able to continue doing what I love making and spreading music, I’m happy.
ES: Thank you so much for your time and all these sweet vibes Stuart!
You can find more information about the event and book your tickets on Electric Soul right here. See you at the show!
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