This versatile DJ and producer has effortlessly blended house, techno, and soul into an acclaimed debut album that gets a Toronto release party this weekend.
Who: Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based Stuart Li is a man of many talents. He’s an extremely versatile DJ, perhaps best known as one of the four men behind the jazz, funk, and disco-infused Footprints parties, which recently turned 10 years old. Li is also a designer who’s worked in a number of mediums and partnerships, including with fellow DJ Jason Ulrich as Lab.our Union Creative.
While Li has long contributed to this city’s creative culture, and is deeply respected in underground electronic music circles, it’s with his musical output as techno and house producer Basic Soul Unit that he’s attracted an international following.
What: Right from the start, with the release of “Basic Soul” on Toronto label Iwanai in 2003, Li has been clear about Basic Soul Unit’s musical focus.
“It’s house and techno with soul and a touch of rawness,” writes Li by email. “The obvious reference points are Chicago house and Detroit techno, but I’ve had many different influences through my experiences as a clubber and DJ.”
Li leans toward the deep, minimal end of the spectrum, but his productions range from melodic and soulful to crunchy and throbbing. He has consistently and lovingly referenced electronic music’s roots while inserting future-minded twists. In that sense, Basic Soul Unit is a refreshing bridge between past and present, especially as Li doesn’t limit himself to set sounds or clearly defined techno templates.
“I’m not the kind of writer/producer who has a preconceived melody or theme in my head,” he offers. “I just mess around until I find something to latch onto, whether it’s a sound, melody, sample, or beat. I think I’m just better at making decisions now, and I’m paying more attention to the sound design. That really helps to give atmosphere or feeling to a track.”
This is a humble assessment from a modest man. The music of Basic Soul Unit is notoriously detailed, with Li’s craftsmanship often earning him the tag of a ‘producer’s producer.’ He shrugs that off.
“I’m not all that knowledgeable on gear and production technology. In the end I go with feeling and instinct. I think maybe that translates into music that’s honest and sincere.”
It’s certainly translated into interest from a huge variety of respected electronic music labels, including Versatile, Ostgut Ton, Nonplus+, Crème Organization, and Adam Marshall’s New Kanada.
The current surge of interest in Basic Soul Unit comes especially with the recent release of his debut album, Motional Response, on Chicago’s Still Music, run by producer Jerome Derradji. The Still boss had first suggested Li record an album for his label five years ago, but distribution woes meant those discussions had to be put on hold. With Still’s resurgence came the opportunity to create an album of all-new music.
“I had a much more clear idea of the sound, or at least direction I wanted to do, because I’d had time to grow and evolve,” says Li. “As a dance artist, I didn’t want to make downtempo, ambient, or vocal tracks just because [I was working on] an album. It’s dancefloor aimed, but not just a collection of 12-inches either. I placed an arc in the tracklisting; almost like a DJ set, it increases in intensity and rawness towards a peak, and then comes back down to finish.”
Why: Motional Response has brought Basic Soul Unit attention on a scale that Li had not previously experienced.
Giving the album a four out of five, a Resident Advisor reviewer wrote, “We get 16 analogue explorations of rhythm and texture that peak with some of the man’s best work.”
An Exclaim! reviewer gave the album seven out of 10, calling it a “cohesive collection of futuristic techno that draws heavily upon familiar sounds,” while CBC Music ran a feature review and streamed Motional Response in its entirety in December. Respected electronic music site Teshno included the album in their top 30 albums of 2012.
Beyond the acclaim for his debut album, the swelling rise of interest in Basic Soul Unit is evident in markers like an increasingly intense tour schedule. Li now tours cities in the UK, Europe, Japan, and North America regularly. He’s also developed a BSU live show, which he’s performed at select festivals, including Montreal’s Mutek in 2012. The live recording of this set is phenomenal.
Li is appreciative of the different opportunities now coming his way. He’s not been deterred by the length of time it’s taken.
“Of course sometimes you wish things could happen faster, but the slow build has definitely been a blessing,” he says. “I’ve had time to grow, and I’ve mapped out an identity for myself. I like to look forward as much as I look back, but I look at these explorations as branches from the same roots, rather swinging from tree to tree.”
Li’s identity is very much tied to Toronto—a city that he champions in interviews, and in DJ mixes like his excellent recent podcast for XLR8R. There’s been a whole new wave of international interest in this city’s electronic music output, and Li notes that it’s about time.
“Toronto is a place with a long club and dance music history. It’s a large, diverse city with huge potential. We tend to underrate ourselves, but there is a huge pool of talent, both young and old, here.
“Bar the politics of the city itself, I think all it takes is a shift in people’s attitude to change things. I already see this happening with the younger generation. There’s a feel of excitement bubbling under that I haven’t seen in awhile, and I’ve noticed that it’s re-igniting the older cats, myself included. I think the only thing missing now is one or two proper underground clubs that we can call home.”
What’s Next: Basic Soul Unit will tour Europe in February and March. A new BSU track, “Untoward,” will soon see release on Nonplus+ compilation Think And Change (“It’s amazing to see my work amongst artists like Boddika, Fourtet, Joy Orbison, Kassem Mosse, SCB aka Scuba, Pearson Sound, Martyn and more.”), and he has a handful of releases “coming on labels I’m excited about, but will keep quiet for now.”
“Lastly, I’m looking at starting a label in the near future. I hope this will be a vehicle for growing the Toronto scene as well.”
When & Where: Basic Soul Unit’s official Toronto release party for Motional Response is this Saturday (February 2) at The Rivoli (334 Queen St. W.), where Li will perform live, joined by vocalist Sacha Williamson. Also on the bill are Pursuit Grooves (she’ll both play live and provide visuals), and DJs Kevin McPhee and Jason Ulrich. Cover is $10 before 11:30 p.m., $15 after.
“The most exciting aspect to me is the fact that everyone performing is Toronto based,” Li enthuses. “Also, there’s a diverse meeting of musical styles, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and age, which is what Toronto is about. Everyone playing is a little left of the field musically as well, but don’t worry—we all still have the dancefloor in mind.”
Fun fact: “I can cook a mean buttermilk pancake from scratch.”