A veteran producer and as versatile a DJ as they come, Stuart Li, better known as Basic Soul Unit, has been a steady name in house and techno circles alike for over a decade. He’s had releases on many big name labels over the years such as Dekmantel, Dolly, Mule Musiq and also runs his own imprint alongside friend and collaborator J-UL called Lab.our Music. The Toronto native’s flexibility behind the decks is one well noted and is a result of having been an avid record collector and DJ before moving into the world of production. On any given night you may catch Basic Soul Unit playing a variety of styles and genres whether it’s behind the decks or via his live set.
Last year, Stuart released his second album and contributed a mix for Resident Advisor’s long-running podcast series which only helped to raise his already respected status. Behind the scenes he’s also a full-time father and husband as well as a graphic designer. We were lucky enough to squeeze out a mix and interview from the busy dad, covering all aspects of his hectic lifestyle in this installment of our MIXED BY series.
As someone who’s been producing for quite some time, you’ve had the chance to work with and remix some fantastic artists, as well as release music on some premiere labels. To date, do any past collaborations or remixes stand out for you and is there a label that you’d love to release on in the future?
Probably my favourite remix is the one I did for Jacob Korn on Dolly. I was honoured to be included on the inaugural release for Steffi’s label. I feel lucky and humbled to have released on so many of my favourite labels. I haven’t really thought about other labels I’d like to be on. Having released on so many labels, I’m now concentrating on running my own label (w partner Jason Ulrich aka J-UL) and working with the labels I’ve already established a relationship with.
You recently released your second full length album “Under The Same Sky”, this time on the acclaimed Dekmantel label. The overall feel of the album seemed to be a bit rawer and even harder hitting than some of your previous work. Can you give us a little insight into your creative process, whether anything has changed in your approach over the years and how you’ve managed to stay so successful in the ever-changing world that is dance music.
From the beginning I’ve never set out to make a track with a concept in mind. 90% of the time I am just messing around either the software (currently using Reason) or gear. Even if I do have a melody and a sound in mind, it always ends up sounding different then what I had pictured. For this album, I did have a vague idea that I wanted to strip it down a bit and play with sound design more but that was it.
As far as influences, I’ve always listened to and played a lot of different styles. I guess this and my exploratory approach to production helps keeps things fresh for me.
Resident Advisor’s highly coveted podcast series saw you as their guest for the 489th installment back in October of 2015. How did that come about? Was it an exciting moment for you and did you approach this mix any differently than you normally would?
I was definitely excited to do this mix. It came about as a result of my album release around that time. I’m usually more known for house leaning sounds but in keeping with the feel of my album, I decided to record a techno oriented set. I tried my best to express a wide spectrum of sounds within the vocabulary of techno.
Running your own imprint Lab.our Music, it seems that you’ve been able to focus on pushing a lot of local Toronto talent. Was it always part of the plan to help promote artists that were closer to home and can you perhaps identify any that have popped up on your radar more recently?
It’s not a strict requirement but we did want to be able to give local artists a platform for exposure. There are some releases in the works by artists new to the label. “R” is one name who’s already had a release on Crème Organization’s sub level Jericho One, Benjamin Wood had a release recently on Canadian label (by way of Berlin) Carousel and also Jerry Riggs (one half of Hermans) doing a colab with Krizzli.
A family man and graphic designer by day, how do you manage to find the time to produce new material, run Lab.our Music as well as tour internationally?
Truth be told, I never expected I would still be doing this seriously at my age. I never had a plan for how things would work out and basically just went with the flow. Of course it gets hectic sometimes and money can get tight but we (as in my family) have figured out how to make it work for us (much gratitude to my wife for her patience). The thing is even though I travel and am away from home time to time, I probably spend more time with my daughter than if I was working a 9-5. Doing graphics from home gives me the flexibility to work my own hours and also if necessary while I’m on the road. As far as time to make music, that’s probably why I work a lot in the box. I fit it in whenever I have the chance: on a day when my workload is not busy, an hour or 2 late at night, while I’m on the plane on or on the road. You have to make concessions and be flexible but where there is a will there is a way.
Growing up in Toronto, specifically during the rave boom of the early to mid 90’s, you’ve seen the ups and downs of the scene here. It feels like there was something missing over the last couple of years, likely due to the heavy municipal restrictions we have on alcohol, lack of venues and the falling Canadian dollar. More recently though, there have been a number of parties popping up, often in more unconventional spaces with a younger demographic pushing a lot more local talent and left-field music. Have you also started to notice a bit of a resurgence lately?
Those laws have always been around but what has changed is that people are moving to and living in downtown. With gentrification of course comes complaints and enforcement of these laws. There has definitely been more momentum in the scene lately though. Part of it is that there is a younger and enthusiastic generation coming in. Also, the older promoters and the younger kids are both finding creative ways and sometimes working together to keep the scene going in spite of the legal restrictions. This tells me that there is still passion in the scene.
Here at Bolting Bits we like to talk about gear. You were mainly an in the box producer for quite some time and then expanded to hardware further down the road. Can you give us a small tour of your studio and talk about some of your favourite pieces?
I still work a lot in the box especially on the road as I mentioned earlier. However, I did start buying a few pieces here and there both because I wanted to get a sense of how the music I grew up on was made and also trying a more tactile and improvisational approach to producing. Having a mortgage and a family, I don’t have much of a budget and thus most of my pieces are affordable. As I mentioned before, I’ve been using Reason for the last few years. Sometimes I will try to incorporate elements from the gear with it (with Reason being slave and the gear also running through Live). Sometimes I just jam on the gear alone and record it in one take. For drums I have an MFB503 (909 clone), a 707, and a Korg Volca Beats. I love the layout and sequencer on the 707 for live drum programming. It’s not my favourite as far as drum sounds but having the faders are great. I also have a Korg Electribe EMX-1 which I can use for beats or some synth sounds. I’ve got a Korg Poly-800 as well as a Juno Alpha 2 (which needs repair). One of my favourite pieces is a home homemade tone generator I bought off E-bay from Japan. It’s about the size of a pedal and it’s percussive meaning it makes a tone when you tap it. It has a few knobs where you can control pitch, decay, etc. I hook this up to a Electro Harmonix looper which has 4 recordable channels and a Memory Man and then hours of fun noise and loop generation can be had.
You were a record collector and DJ before you started producing and your sets tend to reflect your expansive taste. We’d love to know what some of your favourites in your collection are from both past and present, any genre.
The ones that come to mind right away are:
– James Mason / Rhythm of Life LP
– Fingers / Distant Planet/Never Lonely No More EP
– Tenório Jr / Embalo LP
– 4 Hero / Two Pages LP
– Pharoah Sanders / Journey to the One LP
But definitely too many others to count.
Apart from being a choice selector behind the decks, your live show is also a treat. Are you booked to DJ more often than you are to play a live show or is it somewhat a mix of the two? Any notable upcoming gigs?
It’s a mix of the two with DJing a bit more often. I really enjoy doing live shows but I suppose DJing was my first love and passion since I was a kid! I’m off to Europe again in the fall late Sept to mid Oct, with dates TBA soon!
Finally, can we expect any new Basic Soul Unit material this year?
I’m finishing up another EP for Dolly at the moment. I’ve got a track coming soon on a Finale Sessions V.A. EP with an all-star cast including Luke Hess, Patrice Scott and Michael Zucker. Also, I have an EP with some material from my archive coming on a new Italian label called Ribbon. I played for them earlier this year and was really impressed with their scene in a small town near Rome. There are also some remixes coming soon as well.
Interview by Igor