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Unagi - It Came From Beneath the SFC

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Artist: Unagi

Album: It Came From Beneath the SFC

Label: 442 Records

Review date: Jun. 18, 2006

There’s always been a duality in the Bay Area rap scene, one embodied in the opposition between artists like Hieroglyphics and Too $hort. It feels as if two different factions are operating, one looking towards the jazz sounds and sample focus of the East, the other concerned with the gangsterism of Los Angeles. Popular conception of the Bay Area sound changes as the two styles ebb and flow, leap-frogging each other with fresh innovations. Recently, the hyphy club gangsters have gained the upper hand, with producers like Rick Rock creating sparse, Looney Tune responses to Atlanta’s crunk. Unagi’s It Came from Beneath the SFC is a retaliation of sorts, seeking to win one for the backpackers.

While many underground producers choose to limit their palette to classic soul samples, Unagi draws from a variety of decades and genres. “Rolling Ronnie” takes primitive synthesizer samples of ’80s soul music and transposes them with smooth jazz horns of the same era. “If U Wanna” uses similar materials to create a throwback to the Death Row G-Love ballads of the mid-’90s. Unagi is at his best when reinterpreting this lovemaking music of the ’80s, recycling its cheesy components into something fresh. Not content to rely on this strength, he continues to effectively run the gamut of source material, dipping into psychedelia, bossanova and more traditional soul samples.

Unagi has the eclectic sampling approach down pat – preceding It Came from Beneath the SFC are two equally accomplished instrumental albums. When this one falters, it’s because of a new addition to his formula: the presence of guest emcees. Unagi’s instrumentals are able backgrounds for flow; the problem is more in the hit-and-miss selection of rappers. It works on “Who Spilt the Beer,” with Bay Area artist Motion Man playing a frenetic CL Smooth over horns plucked from Pete Rocks’ walls of sound. The missteps, however, are particularly egregious. Unagi allows himself to hop on “Lost & Found,” rapping deadpan in a silly, almost sarcastic, cadence. Linkletterz appearance on “Stay Focus” is more problematic, spouting preachy nonsense about “positivity.” Much like the Beastie Boys’ post-Tibet claptrap, it’s a sure sign that an emcee has nothing to say.

Perhaps it’s unfair to characterize Unagi’s efforts as some sort of counterbalance to hyphy music. In fact, his choice of guest emcees is the only thing that betrays which side of the Bay Area divide he rests. The eclecticism Unagi engages in is indicative of a producer with little concern for categories and labels, not unlike the approach of fellow Bay Area sound-smith DJ Shadow. It Came from Beneath the SFC is the uprooting of one of hip hop’s central tenants – the break – and broadening its horizons, proving to Southern fanboys and Neptunes devotees that record sampling isn’t played out.

By Bob Hammond

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