San Francisco is a mecca for dedicated crate-diggers. From specialized record stores to myriad DJ nights for unsung vinyl styles, we've long supported spinning the past into something really fresh. Hip-hop was, of course, the genre built on nicking the perfect snippet, but as the rising stars ascend the mainstream charts, many ignore the art of sampling subtlety that is prized here in the Bay underground. Local hip-hop producer Unagi puts it this way: The day Diddy "stole a Police sample and ad-libbed on top of it" was the day the major players stopped digging craftsmanship and started digging their artistic grave.
"A lot of the hip-hop on the radio is so minimalist," he laments. "It's a drum beat and a catchphrase you can repeat — just yell it out in an Auto-Tune robot voice for three minutes."
Unagi instead takes hip-hop on a maximalist ride that jells with his geography. He talks up living in the birthplace of Del the Funkyhomosapien, Hieroglyphics, and DJ Shadow, and his drive to "go for more obscure references than [sampling] the obvious song." His latest CD, Reinventing the Eel, jams his tunes with rich, (melted) buttery textures, from bossa nova to '80s electro to rubbery funk, jazz, and disco. Unagi meticulously layered the instrumentation "all day, every day" after getting laid off from a full-time job last year. Those unemployment checks floated his work on an estimated 100 tracks — edited down, of course, for the CD — swimming in electric guitar riffs, Latin percussion, drum machine beats, harps, strings, and horn sections culled from a MIDI keyboard and vinyl cuts. There are no easy karaoke staples referenced in Reinventing. Unagi's aesthetic is so lush and rhythmic that even his instrumental songs force a good nod-along.
The thirtysomething solo act can't help but cram from the album stacks: His childhood home in Massachusetts had an entire downstairs wing dedicated to albums. Unagi says his stepdad's record collection reached from floor to ceiling, numbering around 50,000 strong.
The future producer's role model was also a fixture in the music community. His stepdad taught classes in jazz, leads big bands of 20 to 30 members, writes music, and plays the trombone and euphonium. It wasn't the sort of household that cut corners in music appreciation, and so Unagi learned the long way, taking up five instruments as a kid, and trying out his sampling techniques at an early age. In 1997, he started focusing more seriously on hip-hop — taking the name Unagi in homage to his love for sushi and his part-Japanese heritage — and six years later he started 442 Records. The label, named after the famous unit his Japanese-American grandfather fought with in WWII, is his outlet to release his CDs and EPs.
Reinventing the Eel is his fourth full-length and the fullest-sounding offering yet. "Grown Man Flowin" features local legend Motion Man on the mike, his agile rhymes traveling in double time toward the dancefloor before the chorus commands folks to "stand up, get up" and party. The nine MCs included here mix bravado ("The Making" featuring Infinito 2017) and brazen flirtations ("Can I Have Your Number" features Uppanotch complimenting his lady with "You don't got a lotta baggage, you got carry-on luggage"). The rappers' points are punctuated by controlled blazes of horns and saxophones, or dropped into beats ranging in pace from slow jams ("Bird of Paradise" featuring Chee Malabar) to the complex drum matrix of "Come Get It" (featuring Gigio). Humor slips into the lineup on "Mondays" (featuring Substitute Teachers), a slap at the worst day of the week. The song starts with an alarm and lists all the ways things could go wrong. The MCs' advice? "Better luck Tuesday, it's a brand-new beginning."
Fresh starts are, of course, the theme to Reinventing the Eel, both in Unagi's approach to recording and in his view of hip-hop. In this perfectionist's hands, the genre doesn't sound right unless it's blooming with multiple styles at once, an approach that makes his music more timeless than today's rapping androids.