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Hunee is the fearless selector defying convention

Hunee is the fearless DJ with super-eclectic taste. As happy dropping disco, African rarities, vintage Italo, boogie or up-to-the-minute electro, he’s refused to compromise on his diverse selections despite playing some of electronic music’s biggest stages. DJ Mag hooks up with him in Paris and London to get inside the mind of a passionate DJ who refuses to play by the rules...

It’s mid-summer 2016 and Jeremy Underground is spinning on the main stage at Farr Festival in Bygrave Woods. High above the packed crowd in front of him, washing lines adorned with decorative clothing hang between bright-blue and purple bunting amidst the trees. The Parisian DJ has illuminated this small corner of the Hertfordshire countryside over the last two hours, working from the classic US deep house sound of his My Love Is Underground label, through discotinged tracks and into an extended section of trippy acid that peaks at over 130bpm as the clock works towards 2am.

Waiting in the wings to step up for the closing set is Hunee, an unassuming figure not many in close vicinity would fancy filling the shoes of right now. When the pair change over, the German-born DJ — real name Hun Choi — begins by mixing in the regular starting-point to his sets, an acapella of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Happiness’, before taking everyone by surprise and dropping a dub reggae track that can’t be much quicker than 80bpm. Where many would match the frenetic pace of the preceding set, the selection takes the sting out of the tail of what has come before, and allows Choi, known to his friends as Hunee, to rebuild that energy through an eclectic mix of disco, Hi-NRG, African sounds, Italo, Brazilian music, boogie, skewed house, razor-sharp electro, twisted techno and anything else from his far-reaching record collection.

It’s a bold move, and one that perfectly encapsulates the wanton unpredictability of Hunee’s DJ sets. It’s the product of a selector who’s unafraid to take risks and defy convention — somebody who regularly proves, in more grand ways than most, that when it comes to DJing, there really are no rules.

“I’m still overwhelmed with what I get away with on huge stages without being lynched,” Hunee smiles almost 18 months later when he meets DJ Mag in a café overlooking the river Seine in Paris. “It isn’t about forcing something, though,” he continues, sipping from a large glass of red wine. “But understanding where you are, what the potential is, and then maximising on that. I’m always very aware of trying to connect. I want to be able to deliver what’s appropriate in terms of energy — and that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep the tempo, but you do always have to be honest with who you are.”

It’s the tail-end of a year that’s seen Hunee play the closing set at Dekmantel, a festival and collective close to his heart, as well as Craig Richards’ inaugural Houghton Festival and Sónar in Barcelona, all while topping the bill at institutions like Panorama Bar, Smartbar, De School and The Block. Through 2018 he’s already been announced to headline Love International, as well as spin at Dekmantel Selectors and Gottwood, while maintaining his non-stop schedule on the club circuit.

“[Closing Dekmantel] was a moment where it became clear my DJ career has gone way, way, way further than anything I could have imagined,” he smiles, reminiscing on what was a huge year. “It’s like climbing a really high mountain. You never think you’re going to leave a 1,000-metre altitude, as you’re just walking on a path one step at a time and trying not to fall over. But then you look up, and you’re suddenly at 4,000 metres,” he smiles. “For the first time I thought, ‘Wow’.” Hunee is in town to play an ‘all night long’ set at still relatively unknown Parisian nightspot Djoon, a show that sold out weeks in advance. Sharply dressed, he wears a slim-fit black t-shirt, black jeans and leather loafers matched with his effortlessly coiffured quiff and envy-inducing moustache. His personality is as sharp yet relaxed as his demeanour, as he articulately talks through his career and the ecosystem surrounding it, while constantly apologising for the detail of his responses.

“The whole development of 90-minute sets is more due to economic considerations. They don’t leave enough time to really develop a narrative,” he explains. “So an all-nighter is always the most exciting way to play, as you can create what you want to musically, knowing people have committed to hearing you over a long time. “It’s something you have to earn as a DJ though, as you need to develop a connection with the crowd and understand what’s out there. Everything is not possible every night. It’s your recipe, made with your ingredients, but you always have to be in the moment and you can’t play something you have pre-planned in your mind but doesn’t fit.”

The show takes place a few days before Christmas, but the almost freezing temperatures outside don’t deter punters, as by 11:30pm the space in front of Djoon’s booth is packed with people dancing with their arms aloft to zouk music. It’s an intimate space, with the crowd right on top of the DJ and Sistine Chapel-like renaissance paintings on the ceiling, while the bar looms over the dancefloor at the top of a short flight of stairs at the opposite end to the room, holding the atmosphere in.

Hunee, flanked by a glass of red wine and a bunch of bananas, works his favoured E&S DJR400 rotary mixer while incense burns to his right. Bringing in disparate flavours to the mix, he’s exceedingly tight for a selector playing such an array of records, working the EQs to create his own drops in tracks with the low-end. A few attendees stand at the front, fixated on his every move. Part of a wave of artists challenging the concept of what a headlining DJ can be at electronic music’s largest events, Hunee plays records not often heard on dancefloors the size he spins, weaving sounds that create a new dialogue with dancers while remaining wholly cohesive.

EXPLORATION
Ahead of an all night long set at Leeds’ Wire Club earlier in the year, Hunee wrote a post on Facebook asking attendees to “bring a feeling and some curiosity, there is still a lot left to discover and explore”. And his exploration, alongside peers like Floating Points and Young Marco, means bigger dancefloors are becoming more open to increasingly experimental styles of DJing, allowing these artists to reach deeper into their record collections and continue to push things even further.

“The more freestyle type of DJing has definitely crossed over into a field where only tech-house existed before,” he continues. “A lot of the music we play has never been heard on the main stage at a festival, or in certain nightclubs at a certain time of night. The growth still feels surreal, as only a few years ago this was the music played to fifty people in a club’s third room.

“I’m still exploring, but it feels like size doesn’t matter anymore,” he continues. “My gigs range from a few hundred to a few thousand people, but I still play the same range of music. You just pick different songs within that range, and build the energy in a different way. You can have more of a pressure-cooker situation, where you add less heat but it boils really fast, or you have a really big pot that isn’t covered, and you have to fire it a lot to get it boiling. But people are so open now it means there is a lot more to discover.”

Hunee famously tweeted in 2015, “I never think of ‘killing’ or ‘smashing’ or ‘destroying’ it when I play music. I am searching for another relationship with the dancefloor.” This philosophy encapsulates much of what he is about as a DJ. “Obviously, it’s very tongue-in-cheek,” he smiles, reflecting on the tweet that sparked much conversation when it first went out. “I would be lying if I said I never go on stage and say, ‘I’m going to kill it right now’.

“I understand why people use those terms, but I don’t want to have a relationship where I’m doing something to people. It might sound cheesy, but I feel like we’re in this together — I want to feel, hear and explore with them. Not everything I play is aimed at making people smile, but it is aimed at them feeling something. Not necessarily just happiness or joy, but an emotional reaction. It can also be fear or irritation, too. When you multiply that by a few thousand people, it can be really powerful.”

Watching him spin, it’s clear that Hunee has a very close relationship with the dancefloor. Known for his boundless energy in the booth, he spends as much time dancing with his arms aloft as anyone in the room and is rarely static when he plays — pulsing on the spot when he’s EQing, and pirouetting at any given opportunity. He usually ends up shirtless by the end of the night.

“For me, if I don’t have that energy, I don’t even want to go out there, as that is what it’s all about,” he enthuses. “But somehow, it’s become a thing, ‘Oh, he takes his shirt off!’” he laughs. “I take off my shirt if I’m hot and I want to be comfortable. But I wonder if times have become so conservative that something like taking your shirt off in a nightclub at 4am is memorable. When I think about my influences — people like Larry Levan, the Paradise Garage, Ron Hardy, the Music Box — nobody is wearing a shirt in those clubs!”

The day after the show in Paris, Hunee flies to Manchester to play the Mastermix night at Warehouse Project alongside Floorplan and DJ Bone, shortly before a busy festive period that sees him spin eight times, concluding on New Year’s Eve where he plays in London, Manchester and Leeds. It’s the end of a year that’s also seen him build on several strong b2b bonds, including Floating Points and Call Super, as well as numerous shows with regular DJ partner, Rush Hour boss, Antal.

“I enjoy playing back-to-back a lot,” Hunee explains when we meet for breakfast in East London on the Monday morning following his Warehouse Project show. “But it has to be with the right people, and not just a ‘Brangelina’-type pairing of names, so I’m also very cautious as there are only a handful of DJs that would work. It’s interesting when the partnership inspires, challenges and enables you to do things you wouldn’t be able to do alone, but feel you wished you were able to. But when you feel like you’re compromising, showing the least interesting sides of each other, then it leaves a huge feeling of dissatisfaction.”

CRYING
One of the most iconic moments of Hunee’s career came during his Dekmantel b2b closing set alongside Antal, with a video showing the visually emotional pair playing the Disco Mix of Marlena Shaw’s ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ as their final track going viral in the following days. “All I knew that night was that I wanted to leave a message,” he explains. “I didn’t plan it, but when it was playing I was just crying as I felt every word. It’s a bit mind-blowing to be able to create anthems out of such an obscure record for a club setting.”

The current boom in Hunee’s career has given his clear passionate dedication to digging out and unearthing obscurities a platform to turn past gems into current classics. Footage of Hunee spinning is almost omnipresent on pages dedicated to the online track ID phenomena, while YouTube videos of music now regularly heard at clubs and festivals are littered with comments like, “Hunee brought me here”.

“On a very daily level we are aware of it,” he smiles, gazing out the window as he sips his coffee at the Allpress Café in Dalston. “It’s a scary but also cool feeling. The fact that after you play something, there can be thousands of people watching it the next day is surreal, and gives you a big responsibility. But there is an obsession with knowing everything, and this feeds into the whole social media domination of dance music, which is also very frightening.”

Hunee and the circle of DJs surrounding him have such an impact that they occasionally contact each other when they pick up an old record that is still cheap on Discogs, to warn of the fact they are going to start playing it. But for as much time as he spends digging, he also gets sent a lot of music by fellow record collectors aware of the platform he has to push it further. And unlike many in the scene, he isn’t afraid to share his discoveries, with his social media pages a constant stream of tracks he’s found.

“Not everything I know about music was found by getting my hands dusty,” he smiles. “The majority has come from friends and older DJs. So, I have my secrets like everyone else, and there are certain things shown to me in confidence I don’t feel are mine to share, but overall I’m on the liberal side of the discussion. Generally, when people feel passionate about a song, it’s good that they know what it is and can listen to it. But DJing isn’t just about what’s on your USB stick, but whether you’re able to make more out of the tracks.”

The spotlight on Hunee isn’t always a positive thing, though. He says he is now barraged with requests for ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ at gigs, while a video of him playing Duke Dumont’s ‘Nicht Vor Mitternacht’ at Parklife suffered a backlash when it went online in June. “Apparently, it’s a huge EDM track,” he laughs. “I don’t know that world and have my own references, musical ones. People were commenting, ‘Oh my God, what is he playing?’ ‘He’s lost it!’ ‘I could never imagine Hunee playing such terrible music’. It was the first time I faced a bit of a shit-storm and I was wondering if I needed to make a statement, but then I realised it’s only like me playing a reggae track to a techno crowd. I was enjoying it and it felt like the right thing at that moment.”

Despite Hunee being a regular user of social media, the content he shares is always very specific to music and his career. “I’m very honest but I’m also very private,” he explains. “I really compartmentalise my lives. I have my DJ life, but then I also have another life and I have a very clear idea of what part I’m willing to share — it’s highly edited. I keep my privacy and intimacy exclusively off the internet.”

In a recent Facebook post, he revealed that when away from the booth he likes to “breathe deep, think clearly, read good books, walk often, dance a lot and love, always”. When Hunee talks about DJing and music, he’s excitable and at times rushes to get his words out. But when talkingabout his personal life he’s slower and more assured, almost guarding what he has to say until he’s entirely sure he’s comfortable to share it. “You get all this attention,” he continues, as his breakfast arrives at the table. “However, it’s important to know you get it for a certain part of what you do. The public appreciates your work, but it’s not like they can really appreciate you as a person. So I don’t want to mix these things up.”

IDENTITY
Born in Bochum in an industrial area of Germany called the Ruhrgebiet to South Korean parents — his father a coal miner and his mother a nurse — Hunee comes from a “communist political mining family”, with his sister now working as a political scientist in New York. He says he apportions a classic immigrant experience growing up — “I felt like I’m not really German, but when I went to Korea, I realised I’m not Korean either” — to part of his musical identity today. “I realised I never really had the desire to fit in,” he explains. “I felt like you don’t need to fit in anywhere because you wouldn’t know where to fit.”

Starting out as a hip-hop DJ, he moved to Berlin at 19, where he would play at political demonstrations before frequenting parties where acts like Jazzanova, Bugz In The Attic, Mr. Scruff and Gilles Peterson performed. Over the following decade he would get a job at Soultrade record store in the early ‘00s as he studied a degree in Musicology and Education, while also making a name for himself as a DJ on the local scene.

“It gave me an education,” he says of Soultrade. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know, but it was beautiful to experience record store culture pre-Discogs, and it gave me a foundation as I was listening to thousands of records.”

His debut productions came out via W.T. Records on the ‘Tour De Force’ EP in 2009, before more swiftly followed on Internasjonal, Retreat and Feel Music, introducing a trademark jazz and soul-infused deep house. Shortly after, he would begin work on an album for Rush Hour Records, something which almost brought a premature end to his career as a musician.

“I just didn’t like the music,” he recalls. “At that point, I felt like that was it, maybe I’d experienced all I could in that world and it was time for something else. I didn’t hate it, I just felt my 30s were going to be about something else.” He started looking for other jobs, eventually landing a role in Los Angeles. “Moving there was my ultimate exit out of the music world,” he continues. “I was totally at peace with it. But then things took a different turn.”

Before leaving for LA, Hunee was invited to play Boiler Room in Berlin — which was still very much in its infancy. “I didn’t really know what it was,” he laughs, reminiscing. “I just remember it was a terrifying experience as the camera made me feel incredibly self-conscious.” The same night he received five booking requests. “At the time that just wasn’t happening,” he smiles. So as quickly as he moved to LA, Hunee found himself on regular flights back to Europe for shows. “It’s funny,” he continues, “these were places I could have easily played when I was in Berlin, but now they had to fly me from the US.” He quickly realised he had to commit. “Either I had to do it again properly, round two, or forget about it.”

Hunee relocated to Amsterdam, just as Dekmantel began to find its feet and Rush Hour reinvented itself, both beginning to transform into the forces they are today, while the city began to blossom. “It was still a very different Amsterdam than it is now,” he explains of the Dutch hotspot. “But when I went, that’s when things started happening for me. I was lucky, getting there at the right time.”

In terms of releases, much of what has defined round two of Hunee’s career in music has come through his relationship with Rush Hour, which celebrates its 21st birthday this year. “It’s funny being so strongly associated with it but not being from Amsterdam,” he explains. “It developed through my personal relationship with Antal. We both have a very good surface where we can connect, but enough that’s different to be able to inspire each other. We’re good friends. However, a seed can contain a very beautiful plant, but you need to water it. And that’s like our friendship, we keep watering it.”

Hunee returned to writing new material for an album on the label, which would eventually see release in 2015 as ‘Hunch Music’, an extended play that fuses soul and jazz motifs on a rough house music template. In the same year, Hunee also curated a reissue compilation of long-lost material recorded in the early ‘90s by Japanese producer Soichi Terada. It would feature at the top of many end-of-year lists, become one of Rush Hour’s biggest exports, and launch Terada’s career some 25 years after the material was originally made.

“Seeing what it meant to him makes it one of the projects I’m the proudest to have been involved in,” Hunee smiles. “We had no idea what would happen, but it felt like a really beautiful thing as it was so honest. Even Antal said he’d never experienced something like it out of a reissue project.” The trio have since toured extensively together, with Terada’s live show now a regular fixture on the festival circuit. “It sounds really corny,” he explains. “But for all of us the last few years have been like a dream.”

PRODUCTION
2018 sees Hunee return as a curator for the label with his ‘Hunchin’ All Night’ compilation, which lands next month and is billed as a selection of “choice cuts for the dancefloor”. And while 2017 saw him record his first BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix — which would go on to be nominated for Essential Mix Of The Year — no productions have followed since ‘Hunch Music’ in 2015.

“After the album I felt really empty,” he explains. “I have a much more complicated relationship towards production. There’s human flaws I’m totally at peace with in DJing, because it’s all improvised, whereas in production you have a very false sense of perfection that you feel you should achieve because it’s unchangeable.” Hunee has recently moved back to Berlin, and says he has plans to start work on new music this year. He won’t be drawn on when that will come or what it will be, though, aside from saying that it will be very different to what people might expect.

He also talks of an inner turmoil he used to face about dedicating his life to music. “We all wonder if we can do more,” he muses. “But I would have to be ignorant to be left cold by the experiences I’ve had over the last two years, as it exceeds everything I ever imagined.”

After staring down the barrel of a gun, his music career has never looked so bright. But he still says he tries not to focus too much on the future. “I’m never going to get management,” he affirms. “There is no business strategy behind what happens in my life. The growth happened so surprisingly that there wasn’t any time to think about it.” He laughs. “It’s still very much about direct social relationships for me though, and removing that would suddenly make it feel like working for someone.”

It’s clear his sudden rise to headline status hasn’t broken his romantic image of clubs. “I’m still grateful for the feeling of togetherness that still sometimes exists in nightlife,” he continues. “Where everybody feels something connected to the people around them because they have so much joy for that moment — a place where thousands of people congregate peacefully. It’s not something I experience anywhere else.

“There are a lot of analogies related to religion, and I have a lot of respect for spirituality, because I feel it’s a very human expression and desire,” he continues. “Eventually, the questions being asked in an idea of belief are much deeper than what happens at a festival, but I have a lot of respect for what can happen in dance music as well. I just want to be adding something valuable. That’s all one can hope for. Who knows how long I’m going to be able to do this? But maybe this will last for longer than I ever thought,” he concludes. “And I’ll continue to live in this dream. All I want for now, though, is to concentrate on the basics: finding music and playing it.”

‘Hunchin’ All Night’ is out on Rush Hour Music in March.

Hunee: In his friends’ words

Antal
Rush Hour boss and regular b2b partner “Hunee is a very social human being, and playing together is something that came naturally. We take turns, one record each, and there is almost never a moment where we can’t answer each other no matter what direction the music goes. He is very open-minded and quickly manages to incorporate new things into his sets. And that hunger is not limited. It never stops. I really like that because it is a challenge to be able to keep up with. What do I most admire about him? His six-pack!”

Finn Johannsen
Works at Hard Wax and co-runs Macro Recording “He’s the kind of DJ that’s really infectious and always surprising, introducing records or whole genres he just fell in love with. You cannot expect every DJ to be as enthusiastic as he is, but there is no harm in trying. He also didn’t compromise the bigger his dancefloors got, he only got more diverse. That sets a good example for what you can do.”

Hamish Cole
Co-founder of Butter Side Up and KMAH Radio, resident and club booker for Oval Space and Wire Club “He always looks like he’s having fun when he plays, one of those DJs you really watch as well as hear. He’s super-friendly, humble, funny and easy to look after. Even if he’s had a crazy schedule he’s always the politest guy to work with. On his rider, he once asked for a piece of ginger, some hot water, a knife and some incense. Quite the contrast to champagne.”

Three sets that showed Hunee what DJing can be...

Mark Seven at Love Room
(Tape Club, Berlin, 2007)
“After being obsessed with every track of every mix I knew from Mark, I invited him to a party series I ran in Berlin. It was the most perfectly executed, diverse, soulful and sophisticated set I had heard live and a blueprint of what a club experience can be. I played Javaroo’s ‘Breakin’ In’ in my second Boiler Room set as a tribute to all the things Mark has taught me — an unsung hero.”

Traxx at Cookies
(Berlin, 2009)
“Traxx is a force of nature. I remember hearing records I knew inside out and not recognising them, for how deeply he deconstructed them in his mixing. The night ended with me on Finn Johannsen’s shoulders, both of us screaming and singing over acid tracks. Traxx is a true visionary, with the skills and substance for his visions to become a reality.”

Sadar Bahar at Holy Water & JAW
(Secret location, Berlin, 2010)
“It was a long-time dream to hear Sadar in Berlin, and in 2010 we invited him to play his first party in Germany at a 150-capacity illegal space — the code-word to enter was ‘Soul In The Hole’. It was a disco fantasy come true. I have rarely felt the liberating and unifying power of music more intensely and deeply.”

(All photos by Dan Medhurst apart from live shot one, by X, and live shot two, by X)

Want more? Check out DJ Mag UK’s feature from last year on the return of electro.

Rob McCallum is DJ Mag’s deputy digital editor. Follow him on Twitter here.