"San Proper only had one pair of painting overalls, which he gave to me, so he got into his underwear," Choi says. "We had no music in the studio, just had an organ with all these generic rhythms." The pair stayed up painting and playing rumba and samba melodies until 4 AM. "We ran out of paint, so half the studio was pink, and then there was an area that was bright pink, turning white. And another bit we never painted." The painting may not have gone smoothly, but San Proper helped Choi feel at home in a new city. (Choi returned the gesture by buying pink carpet for the studio.)
It was in this mostly pink studio that Choi recorded his first album, Hunch Music, which is coming out this spring on Rush Hour. A Hunee album has been in the works for a long time. "I started working on an album in 2012 but I didn't like what I made," Choi says. "My heart wasn't in it. Or maybe my mind wasn't in it. I felt like I was just making some house tracks and everything was sounding the same. I was stuck. I became curious—I wanted to explore what else I could do in life."
Before he ended up in LA or Amsterdam, Choi was living in Berlin. He'd moved there at the age of 19 from Bochum, an industrial city in Western Germany where he'd grown up with his parents, who had sought a new life in Europe after leaving South Korea in the '70s. After living in Berlin for 14 years he'd built a comfortable life for himself—lots of friends, a nice apartment, a steady stream of DJ gigs.
But soon Choi started feeling restless. In 2011, he began working full-time at a friend's company that imported power convertors. Then he took another job at a technology startup in 2012. This amounted to 18 months away from the studio, though he still played gigs most weekends. He began to realise that in Berlin it would be impossible to have a truly fresh start.
"I was grateful for the situation I found myself in, but also worried," he says. "I didn't want to keep doing the same thing. I kept thinking about what would come next. My life as a DJ and producer might grow, but for some reason I didn't think it would. I didn't know where to go creatively. I needed to throw myself into alien surroundings and see how I would react."
In July of 2013, Choi and his wife packed their bags and left Berlin to live in LA. When he arrived on the West Coast, Choi had already earned a reputation as a DJ. He was mostly getting booked for intimate gigs with crowds of 200 or 300 people, playing house, disco, techno and soul. He'd also put out some nice records, including Tour De Force, his 2009 debut EP on Willie Burns's W.T. Records, and had made appearances on respected labels like Internasjonal, Rush Hour, Ostgut Ton and Dekmantel.
The move to LA didn't last long—Choi stayed about nine months—but the experience had a profound impact. He assumed the transatlantic move would see his bookings, most of which came from Europe, quiet down, but the opposite happened. "Promoters from Europe started offering to fly me back for gigs," he says. "I assumed it'd be over once I got to LA. I thought I'd fly to Europe on my own costs maybe once a year and do a few shows. But I never expected to be flown back out to Europe to DJ."
This attention from European promoters gave Choi confidence that he could make it as a full-time DJ and producer—something he had doubted up to that point. "It made me reevaluate what I had and what I did. It takes courage to be an artist, to commit to that practice, and back in Berlin I used to think: do I really have something to offer that's special or unique or valuable? Do I want to dedicate all these years of my life to it? Will I look back and think I could have done something else with my life? But I realised what I had built as a DJ and in music was more solid than I thought."
The uncertainty that had nagged at Choi in Berlin evaporated. "I started to see everything in a much simpler way," he says. "I make music. I play records. All of a sudden, I didn't feel like I should do something else. All these questions were gone. It flicked a switch in my head."
So in April of 2014, Choi and his wife moved to Amsterdam. He says this choice came naturally. "I really missed Berlin and my friends, but I know when I go back to Berlin it's over. I'm going to settle down. I'll have come full circle." Choi had existing ties in Amsterdam with Rush Hour—he's good friends with the founder, Antal Heitlager, and had crossed paths with much of the city's house and disco community.
Choi took up residency in San Proper's studio and got to work on his album. "I really felt like I was starting again from scratch," he says. "Before I arrived in Amsterdam, I thought I had achieved maybe 80 percent of what I could achieve in music. Then I started looking at things and thinking I had only achieved 20 percent. I had it all ahead of me."
This renewed vigour fed into the recording process, but Choi hasn't burdened himself with the expectations that accompany an artist's debut album, which might be a sign of his growing confidence. "For me this album is just some music I made over a few months. It's not a big statement, not the accumulation of ten years' work. I'll share it with the world and then I'll work on something else."
Before Hunch Music was finished, Choi had already put together a compilation on Rush Hour, Sounds From The Far East, which showcased the work of Soichi Terada and his label, Far East Recording. The compilation was well received—for a few weeks I couldn't log onto Facebook or enter a record shop without seeing that wonderful photo of Terada's smiling face. Choi, who is reluctant to take any credit for the record, had pitched the idea of a Terada compilation to Heitlager, and from there things came together smoothly. "Soichi was very kind and very open," Choi says. "He just sent me photos, then sent me all the tracks, and then we worked together on a tracklist."
Though Choi has been busy with travel and studio time in the last couple of years, he's continued to reflect on his DJing philosophy. He comes from a digging background—during his early years in Berlin he worked behind the counter at a record shop called Soul Trade—but distances himself from the cult of rare and expensive records. "The whole record thing has become such a fetish," he says. "For me, it doesn't matter how rare a record is. As a DJ, you work in your own little field. You're on your own journey. Maybe you discovered Jeff Mills or Fela Kuti in 2014, and you're excited about it, and that's new to you. Well, that's also exciting to me—the fact that it's new to you. And that you play it like it's new to you."
These days Choi is more in demand than ever. I've seen him DJ a few times now, most recently at Dance Tunnel in London. There are a few things that stand out about a Hunee set. First, he's almost always smiling and dancing while he plays. Second, he's gutsy enough to play classic tunes to a crowd of heads and adventurous records to packed dance floors.
"My aim is always to maintain a certain freedom," he says. "Very early on I realised there are two kinds of paths with DJing. You can really specialise in what you play, but I knew pretty quickly that's not how I work. I've always liked to explore different sounds. You have to stand your ground a little bit. Now when I go to gigs, I really feel free to play whatever I want. I can play dark, industrial techno for 30 minutes. Or I can play disco. Or I can play African records. And most of the time, the crowd appreciates it."
Choi's arrival in Amsterdam coincided with Trouw's last hurrah—the club closed in January of this year. It was the first place he played in Amsterdam, back in 2010, when he was still living in Berlin. He's friends with Trouw's owner, Olaf Boswijk, who he met at the wedding of Steffen Berkhahn, AKA Dixon, where Boswijk was a guest and Choi was the DJ.
"The last two months at Trouw, every weekend was the final night of something," Choi says. "You know, the final Tom Trago night. The final Cinnaman night. The final Rush Hour night. So you had something like 20 final night experiences, and the energy must have been pretty special at most of them." What really lingered in Choi's mind about those final weeks was the crowd's open-mindedness when he DJ'd. Little-known gospel, disco and African records were met with elation. "There would be 600 people in front of you screaming like you dropped the latest hit or a Larry Heard classic. I'd be playing a song that people don't really know, but everyone would be so excited about it musically, and that's something that you don't really see at that level very often."
At the beginning of March, Choi and his wife made yet another move—"the last one for a while," he promises. This time it was only a few miles, from a trendy part of Amsterdam called De Pijp to a leafier, quieter street near Westerpark.
"I live a very quiet and simple life, and it's nice," he says. "I really see things day by day now. I wake up and say, 'OK, do some work.' And I just do it. I go to the studio and make music. Or I go to the record store and dig. Or I go someplace and DJ. I've spent years thinking about an exit strategy—you know, how can I get out of music? Not that I hated it, but it was really just… What else can I do? What else is there in life for me? And now I think there is something else for me in life later, but not now. I feel at peace with a life in music. Maybe it's OK, what I do now."
Hunee is playing at this year's Gottwood Festival in Wales, which takes place 11th to 14th June, 2015.