Keeping It Eel

Having learned to love himself -- literally -- instrumental hip hop producer Unagi has arrived with a sensual debut

"I don't think you have to be having sex to be able to listen to the album," insists Brolin Winning, aka Unagi, describing his eponymous debut LP of sultry instrumental hip hop in his Mission District bachelor crib. "Like, you could be masturbating," he says, laughing.

His joke, besides conceding the disc's mojo, makes an interesting point. His mostly mellow music, full of groovy congas and strings -- not to mention harps, chimes, xylophones, saxophones, steel drums, and plenty of negative space -- is layered so indulgently that it might indeed be best enjoyed alone, through a pair of headphones; his luscious arrangements feel less soft and wet than intimate and obsessive.

The music's steamy fastidiousness is based in no small part on how it was constructed. Winning built his songs using only a four-track recorder, a keyboard he rigged to trigger banks of obscure samples, and a drum machine. By dancing his fingers along the keyboard he was able to cut between samples like a turntablist juggling beats. And he played the drum machine live, instead of setting up loops. The inherently improvisational quality of such techniques, combined with Winning's quirky taste in source material, helped produce the record's gliding, slightly swollen sound, which falls somewhere (everywhere, actually) between Blue Note ballads and the Love Boattheme -- that is to say, dead center between cool and camp. A hilariously offbeat fellow in person, Winning on wax frequently accomplishes something rare for hip hop: He makes you grin.

It took some time achieving this sound. Born in quiet suburbia, Winning spent years getting turned on by music, then falling on his face as he tried to create it, cranking out jams destined for the trash bin. It was only recently that he was able to go behind closed doors, make love to himself and his machines, and conceive his gorgeous little first-born.

"I've wanted to make an album for as long as I can remember," the lanky, rumpled 29-year-old claims. As a kid growing up in the leafy college town of Northampton, Mass., Winning and his younger brother, at his jazz musician stepdad's bidding, spent summer weekends hawking homemade treats at the many music festivals that rolled through town. "We'd see all these rad jazz bands, reggae bands, blues dudes, and whatever, and sling popcorn and soak up those tunes. ... It was a huge influence in terms of just turning me on to making music."

After many failed bands in high school -- whose sound ranged from punk to "spaced-out drug rock" -- Winning traveled the country and shifted his attention to rap music, eventually settling in San Francisco, where he began writing reviews for and East Bay Express, DJing, and rapping over homemade beats at his not-infrequent house parties. He created a label, 442, and a Web site,, for his self-released music; the number references his grandfather's entirely Japanese-American combat unit in World War II, a reminder to Winning of the sacrifices required to transcend outsider status without compromising one's identity.

Last summer, Winning's latest round of sacrifices for hip hop came in the form of a star-crossed tour. By allowing friends back east to book his shows, he found himself launching the tour in a brightly lit juice bar in East Northampton, Mass., rhyming for goths and hippies half his age. They danced and all, but somehow he felt his dignity had taken a hit -- as if, once again, he'd been caught playing merely for, if not with, himself. The trend continued, and the tour's conclusion -- a disastrous rain-flooded warehouse party in Brooklyn -- convinced Winning that "if I was gonna make shit pop off, I had to plan it all myself. ... Also, those shows I was rapping, and I've since decided to put the mike down and just do beats."

It turned out to be for the best. Winning's more clever than charismatic on the mike, but, as his alias implies (Unagi means "eel" on a sushi menu), he brings a delectable, smoky flavor to his production. Call it an outsider vibe -- tough but tender, and not a little rebellious. As willfully as Winning shuns commercial hip hop's vacuum-sealed bleeps and explosive kicks, he also sidesteps what he calls "the DJ Shadow syndrome -- where anyone who puts out an instrumental album gets compared to that cat." Although Shadow's (early) aesthetic of moody, crashing drums has been bitten more times than Marv Albert's mistresses, it's conspicuously absent in Winning's tracks.

Instead, the producer presents a spectrum of sounds, usually in modest two-minute runs, spanning sunny, old-school rap romance ("The One"); disco-era bells and whistles (the Marvin-sampling "Gaye Pride"), Caribbean calypso ("Mentos Party"), and, as he describes it, "weed-scented" jazz ("Blown Away"). And because it wasn't programmed but improvised, the album's journey through instruments and tones "has more of a live feel than a lot of people's stuff," he explains. "Even if it's on drum machines, it's less sterile. It's more evocative. I tried to make something that's kind of timeless, where you could listen to it 10 years from now, and it's still going to be dope."

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