Mark Dale sat down with Hunee to honestly discuss the doubts that once surrounded his career, his musical and personal development in Berlin and his relationship with Rush Hour.
6th Oct 2015
Hun Choi, more famously known by his DJ moniker Hunee, is a gentle, thoughtful and highly self-critical soul. Not that you could ever tell from his DJing. When at work he is one of the most arresting artists you might ever hear, instinctively and sometimes rapidly switching between the genres he loves, most frequently techno, house and disco.
'Hunched' over the decks, his body often dipping in time to the music, he radiates a confidence that is substantiated by the barrage of beats that flow from the speakers. So natural when in charge of a soundsystem, little would you guess that he very nearly didn't take this path or that the doubts he has in himself made him come close to quitting his life in music several times, including the not so distant past.
"I'm from a city called Bochum," he tells me in a cafe after a recent DJ set. I'm having coffee and cake. The more slender Hun is drinking organic fruit juice and eating a salad, trying his best to maintain a healthy diet despite being on the road almost every weekend and more throughout a summer that's been filled with festival appearances.
"It's an industrial area in the western parts, in the same region as Dortmund and Essen, a very boring place. I had quite a few older friends who used to DJ, but didn't any more because they got into drugs. We'd hang out and get high or something and I'd be like 'Oh, how does this work?'
"So I started to DJ when we were hanging out. My first records I got from friends who got more seriously into drugs and started selling stuff. They knew I liked it, so they'd just give them to me before they sold them. Then I was buying maybe one record a week. School time stuff."
Though his interest in DJing was piqued during his late teens in boring Bochum, this would only be an escape of the mind for now. His escape from these dull surroundings would come thanks to the compulsory national service every young German must do if not entering into higher education.
"I moved to Berlin when I was 19 and did my social service there," he tells me. "For me, it was impossible thinking of going to the army, the whole disciplinary nature of it. How could I think of joining an institution that executes violence on behalf of a government? But also I don't actually believe in the concept of a nation."
"I wanted to go to Berlin," he adds, warming up to the interview in no time, so much so that he barely finishes his drink and his salad is eventually stored for eating later on the train. "I looked into a few places in Berlin where I could do it. My sister moved there when I was 15 and I used to visit once or twice a year, so I already knew it a little. I loved it. I did one year in a HIV 'dying house'. HIV was like a foreign thing to me.
"Where I grew up I wasn't exposed to people who were HIV positive. I wasn't exposed to people who were gay, and at that time the largest percentage of HIV positive people were gay men. I met a lot of interesting people, people who were from the 1980s gay scene in Berlin. It was a very heavy environment because people went there to die. We had residents who were at the very last stages of life and then we had about 20 other people who were part of the programme, but who still lived in their own apartment," Hun explained.
"We'd go round, clean the apartments, run errands and cook for them, because some of them couldn't any more. We would also get weed for some of them, because they found it relaxed them. We'd push them round the park in a wheelchair and smoke with them and they'd tell you long stories.
After that Hun started to study. He completed one and a half years but then dropped out because he didn't like it. He later went back to study something else and finished musicology and education and thought seriously about staying in academia.
"I come from a politically conscious background, there was activism in my family. My dad is a unionist and a communist, my sister studied political science and works at a union. My parents are both Korean, but they met in Germany when they arrived in the 1970s. My dad worked in the coal mines at first, then he worked for Opel. Being a worker in Germany at that time is what politicised him.
"We weren't brought into that, it was just my interest. I wanted to do something with society or community. I was really interested in education for that reason. It wasn't necessary for political reasons, more to have access to the kind of work that deals with the change of society. And musicology was more of a personal interest."
Again through older friends, Hunee's interest in music developed during his time in Berlin. He started making tracks, hip hop at first, but this remained a hobby. Between his stints of studying he worked in a kindergarten and after finally finishing he worked at the university and at a call centre, still trying to find a suitable path in life.
It wasn't until he was in his mid-twenties that music became a full time occupation. That occurred when he landed a job behind the counter at one of the city's record stores, Soul Trade. Carrying a mixture of new and second-hand titles the shop proved to be a place of constant inspiration and learning for Hunee's enquiring mind.
"There was a time in about 2002, 2003 when a lot of classic and obscure soul, funk records were being reissued or bootlegged, but you couldn't find them in every store. That's what we carried," he remembers fondly. "I was 24. I worked at the counter three days a week. The first years were a really good time. People would come for coffee and hang out for hours and on Fridays all the DJs would come in. I was starting with the classics and I gradually got deeper into it over the years."
Hunee simultaneously learned his trade as a DJ, producer and as a collector of music in Berlin during a decade that began with his work at Soul Trade and ended with him issuing respected releases on house labels such as W.T. Records, Internasjonal, Ostgut Ton (below) and Dekmantel.
But although his days and nights were often spent surrounded by music, as he gradually began to pick up more DJ work in Berlin, Hunee's doubts about a career in music remained. Incredulous at this revelation and his indecision, I ask when DJing and music started to look like a viable career path.
"To me, only two years ago," he says, even more surprisingly, "but as a fact, maybe around 2009. But it didn't really feel like it. Young people now seem to know immediately that this is what they want to do. I never had this feeling. To me, every invitation to play somewhere on an international scale is a surprise. It never felt like I was working at a career, it was more like 'oh wow, I can go to Warsaw to play some records'.
"Looking back on it, it was after making the first records that I started to earn the majority of my income out of it. But I still thought that it could be over tomorrow. I had so many interests. Maybe it was a confidence thing? It's a specific lifestyle and you have to be committed to everything that entails and I wasn't sure I was. Maybe I had a lack of confidence in it sustaining as a career? I saw each record I released, each gig I played, as a singular event."
Hunee's inability to commit to music full time was a constant, even after his DJing and music started to pay most of the bills. As recently as 2013 he was willing to give up most of the DJ work he was getting with a move from Berlin to LA. I went on to ask if he had grown bored of Berlin.
"Bored is not the right word," he replies, after pausing to think about it. "My wife had a hard time accessing work there and she didn't like it so much. I'd say I became indifferent to Berlin. I knew I wanted to live in another place at some point and, I guess it's like some women who want to have children, the biological thing. As time goes by you have to think, well, if I really want to do something, I should really think about doing it soon.
"We didn't go with the idea of moving again after a few months. We shipped everything there, including my record collection. I didn't even keep the apartment in Berlin and we had such a cheap rent I could easily have sublet it. I knew that some of the DJ work would fall away, but I wanted to force myself to look for doing some work outside of music.
"But I ended up DJing so much while I was there that it was really difficult trying to establish a life, because I was gone every two or three weeks, for a few weeks, touring Europe or The States. I had to. That was still our main income."
Although LA didn't work out as he and his partner expected the move there served a purpose. "I came to terms with my music life when I was in LA," Hunee tells me. "I realised this thing's not going to wait for me forever." After giving up on a life in California, Hunee moved to Amsterdam in 2014.
Although he already had a considerable reputation as a producer and, perhaps more estimably as a DJ, it was there that he truly began his career in music without any doubt that this was what he wanted to do. "I realised that for the last 10 years this is what I've really been doing, aside from the other stuff I did. This is what I wanted to develop, " he says and after setting up home in Amsterdam he refocussed his efforts.
"I made a few rules. One was go to the studio every day. Even if you're going to procrastinate, just go. And I would procrastinate like hell. I'd be on Youtube for two hours, then research a synth to buy for two hours, then buy a synth, then get lunch, then get buyer's remorse and call the online store and cancel the order in a panic. I did that 3 or 4 times.
"Four or five hours later there would literally be nothing left to do, so I would make music. I got a lot of gear from friends in Amsterdam. A lot of friends would visit from Berlin and bring me things, like a mixer. Friends from Dusseldorf brought me speakers. Marcel Vogel sold me his 909 really cheap, San Soda gave me a synth that arrived by care from Berlin."
Although with no fixed project yet in his mind, this studio work would eventually form Hunee's debut album Hunch Music (listen to 'Error of the Average' from the LP above), which was released earlier in 2015. He didn't have to look far for a place to release it. Hunee already had an existing relationship with Amsterdam's Rush Hour store and record label, which was co-founded by his friend Antal with whom Hunee frequently DJs with.
"I was supposed to do an album in 2012/13 for Rush Hour," he tells me. "I had already sent them 12, 13 tracks and we were in the process of choosing tracks, but then I scrapped it. I think maybe one track is left on there from that 2012 selection. I just extended the deadline.
"They rang at one point and said 'We guess this isn't going to happen?' and I had to tell them that I didn't like it any more. So I felt I had this unfinished project there. But when I came back to it (making music), I wasn't really thinking of the release format, I was just going to the studio every day to see what happened."
Hunee's debut album has been well received and Rush Hour are currently working on remixes of some of its tracks, not that Hunee has had much time to notice. He's played at major festivals like Dekmantel and Dimensions all summer, many times alongside Antal.
Now that season is over it's back to the early morning nightclub work and Hunee takes on this responsibility again at upcoming gigs around the UK over the next few months including High Hoops at Hidden in Manchester, operating with a fresh sense of purpose having finally decided that DJing is his true calling.
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