One of the albums of 2003 that became my "diamond-in-the-rough album of the
year" was none other than Unagi's lo-fi hip-hop/jazz/lounge self-titled album on
Kimo Sciotic. It's an album that proves you don't have to have extremely
expensive production equipment to make a record that has a ton of character and
atmosphere. As someone who has always been fascinated with DJs and how they dig
for their treasures of gold, I just had to get in touch with the Massachusetts
native to learn a little bit about his style and approach to an ever-growing
genre. I wanted to find out his thoughts on digging for records, the city he
lives in, and most importantly, why Unagi?
TMT: Thank you for
taking time to speak with TMT. If you wouldn't mind, please tell us a little bit
about yourself: where you're from, where the name Unagi came from, your label
(442 Records), how long you've been DJ'ing, etc.
Unagi: I'm a beat-maker, DJ, and occasional rapper. I grew up in
Western Mass but have been in San Francisco almost 5 years. The name is Japanese
for smoked eel, a very mellow and delicious type of sushi. My label is called
442 Records after the 442nd Infantry, the all Japanese-American WWII unit my
grandfather was in. They were the most decorated unit in the war and sent on the
most dangerous missions but never really got their props. I've always been into
DJing, parties and radio and whatnot, but didn't start doing it for money till a
few years ago.
TMT: As a DJ, when were you first bitten by the
Unagi: I've been buying records forever, but started to get really into
it once I began making beats like 6 or 7 years ago.
TMT: With the number of music lovers scouring the earth these days for
lost vinyl treasures, it would seem that the bins have become somewhat depleted.
When you look for samples (or records in general), what do you do to keep things
fresh? Do you buy now and listen later, or do you look for specific things
(i.e., cover art/labels/year)?
Unagi: Even in SF, where every other kid thinks they're a DJ or a
digger, there are still plenty of gems to be found. Usually I go straight to the
cheap piles; I don't like paying more than a few bucks for a record. I'm not a
fan of those "specialty" shops where every record is $50 just cuz it's "rare" or
so-and-so sampled it. A dope cover is always good. I don't trip about years too
much. A lot of people are like, "anything past '74 is wack" or whatever, but I
think there's plenty of cool stuff in that weird post-disco realm when everybody
started messing with synths and drum machines. There are just so many random
records out there. I don't think I'll ever really run out of stuff to rock.
TMT: The first time I heard your self-titled album, I realized that a
lot of the music you sampled had never been pursued before by a lot of DJ's. Are
you able to find beauty in any genre of music?
Unagi: Pretty much anything except Techno. I can't stand that shit.
TMT: One last thing regarding samples – what are three albums you've
discovered in your digging journey that changed your whole paradigm of music?
Unagi: I don't know about changing my whole paradigm, but some recent
standouts would be Aquarian Dream "Fantasy," Mandre "M3000," and Willie Hutch
"Ode To My Lady."
TMT: In my recent review of your album I mention Quentin Tarantino and
how your music is stylistically similar to the way he celebrates lost genres of
film and music through a microscope. In some way, is it your intent to celebrate
these things and bring them to the forefront for others to hear?
Unagi: I guess so. I just try to make compelling music that's
interesting and catchy.
TMT: What in your life has inspired your music-making experience
outside of music? Are there any certain painters, directors, actors, etc. that
really affect your style?
Unagi: My step-dad is my biggest influence; he's a jazz musician who
got me into all kinds of tunes when I was young. Actor-wise I like Clint
Eastwood, Peter Sellers, and Jim Kelly.
TMT: Do you try to attend a lot of shows in your area? If so, are
there any that we should know about? Anyone you'd like to see get more exposure
than they're currently getting?
Unagi: I try to, when I have cash or am on the g-list. There are a
lot of good artists in the Bay. Some cats to look out for are Only Child Jones,
Motion Man, Feenom Circle, Forest Fires Collective, Goapele, and Zion I.
TMT: I understand you're working on some new material to be released
soon. What will be different on your new material than your previous work? Will
there be any emcees appearing?
Unagi: I have another instrumental record done that's just waiting
for some money or a label to step up. It's the same type of vibe as the first
record but better. I'm doing a "Unagi Presents…" full-length as well that is
gonna be all different emcees over my beats. That one should be out by the
summer. I'm also working on a bunch of soundtrack stuff and some love jams.
TMT: Are there any producers/DJ's/emcees that
you'd love to work with?
Unagi: Producers: Neptunes, Mannie Fresh, Madlib, maybe the Alchemist.
DJs: Triple Threat. Emcees: Ghostface, Cormega, Oktober, Big Moe.
TMT: What is one aspect of hip-hop you'd like to see progress more
than it currently is?
Unagi: More funny raps and breakdancing.
TMT: Besides DJing, have you ever had any interest in being a member
of a traditional band? Any instruments you are particular good at, or would like
to be better at?
Unagi: Yeah I used to play in a bunch of bands when I was younger.
I'm ok on the guitar, bass, and drums. There's gonna be more live stuff on
future projects; I got a Moog I'm messing with a little and I'd like to get back
into the trumpet again.
TMT: Five albums that have been on your heavy rotation list lately
Unagi: Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf Big Shots, Pete Rock
Lost and Found, Sol Uprising Sol Power, Ronnie Foster Delight,
M.I.C. Escape From Monsta Island!
TMT: Describe the city you currently live. What do you love AND hate
Unagi: SF is great. Love the weed, good restaurants, music,
neighborhoods, murals, hidden spots, etc. Hate the rent, cheesy hipsters, and
TMT: Do you ever wish afros would make a comeback? How about
Unagi: Not really.
TMT: Complete the following sentence: The hottest woman I've ever
Unagi: That's a tough one. Hilary Duff is doing her thing, though. I
like Trina too; she's a fox.
TMT: Which do you prefer?
Q: Beatles or Elvis?
A: Elvis was funnier, but the Beatles made better music.
Q: Bus or Airplane?
A: They're both lame, I prefer trains or boats.
Q: Blondes or Brunettes?
A: It's all good.
Q: Mac or PC?
A: I'm not a big computer head, they're both ok.
Q: Vinyl or CD?
Q: McDonald's or Burger King?
A: They're both trash. In-N-Out, no competition.
Q: Summer or Winter?
A: Fall is my favorite
Q: Star Wars or Star Trek?
A: I like em both but only the original joints.
Q: Jazz or Blues?
Q: Football or Basketball?
A: Basketball, go UMass.
Q: Mexican Food or Indian Food?
A: That's tough but probably Mexican, my neighborhood is all taquerias.
TMT: Any last thoughts?
Unagi: Buy the album!