YouTube Sessions: Basic Soul Unit

The name Stuart Li has long been a name synonymous with high grade Dance music. As Basic Soul Unit he’s put out a steady stream of great records over the past 12 years, with labels such Non Plus, Dolly and Ostgut Ton – a versatile producer who is just as comfortable turning his hand to rich and soulful soundscapes as he is crunchy, snarling Techno. He’s no slouch as a DJ and live performer either, anyone who’s witnessed one of his hypnotising live sets of squelching acid bass, luscious atmospherics and jacking rhythm will vouch for that. Born in Hong Kong but raised in Canada, Li picked up his musical education whilst tuned in Toronto’s fruitful college radio offering and working in Cosmos Records, a store dealing in dusty Jazz, Soul, Funk, House, Latin, Brazillian and Disco music. Pivotal experiences in his formative years that reflect the aforementioned musical diversity.

Li recently released his second album ‘Under The Same Sky’ with Dekmantel (who are on quite the roll at the moment), a typically intoxicating blend of dense House and Techno that is probably his best work yet. With this in mind, Basic Soul Unit takes a minute for reflection and looks back at his personal journey and musical experiences so far. Really fascinating stuff.

Hong Kong, start of the boom. 1978 香港

Ok so lets start in the beginning. I was born in Hong Kong 1974 so this is what the world would’ve looked like to me when I was 4 years old. It was boom times as the description of the video states which my father confirms. Before the economic ‘liberation’ in China, Hong Kong was a manufacturing hub of a lot of goods for export. While not democratic under British rule, the laissez faire approach to governance and economics turned Hong Kong into an unfettered Capitalist utopia (for better or worse). By this time, infrastructure was improving and the energy and desires of the modern world could be reflected in the thousands of neon signs flashing over the streets.

The Horrible Plight of Hong Kong’s Poor

Let me just say I am proud of my roots from Hong Kong and there are many things I love about the city, but this is one of the unfortunate realities. I was going to put up a post of the famous walled city in Hong Kong but having never been there I couldn’t speak from personal experience. So, I decided to post this feature about the situation of the poor in the city. As for myself, my family was nowhere near rich but we got on ok (both my parents were teachers). The same Capitalism that spawned the quick growth and development of Hong Kong also created a huge divide between the rich and the poor.

Jamaican Chinese Community

Before my parents settled in Toronto, they sent my sister and I to live with my uncle near Vancouver for 2 years from 1982. That was the first time I met the Chinese Jamaican side of my family. My grandmother moved to Jamaica with my dad’s brothers while they were kids. My father was the only one that stayed in Hong Kong. I remember one of the first family dinners I attended there. I picked up a piece of what looked like roasted pork and found out the hard way that it was actually something called Jerk Pork. After moving to Toronto I met the rest of this side of my family as well. I also think that my love of dance music probably had something to do with growing up under their influence.

MuchMusic – Soul In The City (House Music Special Edition) [1989]

I remember sitting at home watching this feature on Much Music as a teenager (the Canadian equivalent of MTV). Ok some parts of this feature may seem dated but it does show that House music was already a mainstream concern by that time in Toronto. It was exciting to be growing up during that time with the explosion of electronic dance music. Everything seemed so exciting and fresh. Toronto’s dance music scene has a long and strong history that is not widely known. Because of it’s multicultural background, the scene was also varied and took in a lot of different styles and genres.

Timmy Regisford @ Club Shelter, NYC

My first proper clubbing experience outside of Toronto was in New York at Club Shelter when it was at Hubert St. This video is from the later incarnation at Varick St I believe. I went there with a bunch of high school friends either near the end of school or just after (somehow they let us in). Of course we had already heard about its legendary status, but to experience it first hand was something else. I mean Toronto had a pretty strong scene even when I think back now, but at Shelter the crowd’s devotion and authenticity seemed beyond anything I had experienced up to that point. I remember we got there early and the 30 odd dancers that were there in their sweats were already stretching and warming up with some serious moves.

Kenny Dope at Yellow, Tokyo

I first went to Tokyo as a graphic design student on a school trip. Subsequently I revisited quite a few times during stopovers from work trips. In my mind Space Lab Yellow (R.I.P.) was one of the legendary clubs not only in Japan but in the world. The entrance was on an unassuming street (as many Japanese clubs are) in Roppongi. Upon descending the stairs through the lounge and further down, the sound and vibe would slowly come over you. A steady stream of international and local underground House and Techno (and sometimes Jazz) DJs played there to an knowledgeable, appreciative and up for it crowd. I even got to play there once (with Hideo Kobayashi and DJ Khadji) which I am forever grateful for.

Keb Darge UK Disco Dancing finals 1979

Keb, a well known deep digger and Soul/Funk DJ originally from Scotland was a regular guest at the Movement parties (no relation to the well known London Drum n Bass night) that friends of mine put on at Roxy Blu in Toronto (early noughties). 1000-1500 people going off to Jazz, Soul, Funk, Latin, Afrobeat, House, and more if you can imagine. His compilation in collaboration with Dr Bob Jones “Soul Spectrum” on BBE might just be my favourite Soul compilation ever. You might ask what stories a Deep record digging, Northern Soul and Champion Disco dancing, DJing, Tae Kwon Do Master has? Well one day I came across an article detailing his experience and rescue efforts during the Philippines Typhoon disaster in 2013 (his wife is Philippine and he lived there for awhile). Certainly a sobering read, the man is a top dude.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – A Night In Tunisia – 1958

From about the late 90s I was getting into Jazz. It started from a process of digging deeper into sampled sources off my favourite dance tracks. Maybe because I was a DJ, I was initially drawn to Hard Bop because of its swinging and rhythmic feel. I was also learning about the UK Jazz Dance scene because of this interest. When I think about power and rhythm, Art Blakey is the first name that pops to mind. Great seeing Lee Morgan on Trumpet (another hero of mine), perform here as well.

Tania Maria – Come with me (live)

Tania Maria has always been one of my favourite pianists and not just of Brazilian Jazz but in general. She has such a great natural flow and from what I saw on Youtube, was a charismatic live performer. The last time I played in London, I walked by Ronnie Scott’s the day after while record shopping in Soho and saw “Live Tonight, Tania Maria”. I promptly walked in and managed to get bar seats at a sold out show. Another one on the bucket list checked off.

Digging at Cosmos in Toronto – Rare Jazz and Soul Records

Came across this incognito video taken at Cosmos records in Toronto where I used to work. You can hear Aki (the owner) and John Kong (Do Right! Music label boss) chatting with a customer (I swear I recognize that voice). You can also extrapolate from the stock shown in the boxes that I spent more money than I made there.

‘Under The Same Sky’ is out now. Pick up a copy HERE. 

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