A German producer friend of mine hit me up on AIM Monday. “Did you hear the sad news?” he asked, “Eyedea died.” What??
I’m going to attempt not to be too sentimental, abstract, nostalgic or rambling with this. I didn’t know Michael Larsen personally but he was a huge inspiration to me as an artist. He set the bar very very high and will go down in history as one of the greatest rappers to ever live. You can quote me on that.
Like most of us, I found out about Eyedea & Abilities after Atmosphere. Slug was the gateway. I was working at a summer camp in the summer of 2002 and on my days off I would check out the local indie record store in South Lake Tahoe (the place has since gone out of business but it was amazing). One day they were bumping Atmosphere’s “God Loves Ugly” – I asked the clerk what it was and he said, “Some underground group out of Minnesota. It’s dope right?” I was sold and listened to that CD all summer. Powerful angry break-up songs. Star Wars references. Creepy, sick beats. Personal lyrics. I felt like I knew Slug from listening to his poetry. I wanted him to win. I wanted Lucy to quit causing him repeated emotional trauma. I too knew that the modern man must hustle.
I went back to college in the fall. I was deep into Stanford’s station KZSU and had a hip-hop show called Pandora’s Beatbox. I played very quirky underground stuff and often had to fight to defend my tastes because it wasn’t the type of stuff that was big on Bay Area radio in the early 2000s. I’d play MC Paul Barman and old lo-fi Sole and Company Flow stuff. People would literally call my show and say stuff like, “Dude, you’re playing some horrible hip-hop.” It only spurned me on more because I knew the stuff I was promoting was great.
Good indie hip-hop was a mainstay on Stanford radio – yes – but the pomposity of a lot of local artists and DJs was disheartening for someone who wanted to love hip-hop like I did. I felt excluded from “authentic rap” because of my age (I didn’t come up kicking it with E-40 and Too $hort) and, to some degree, my race. One DJ who stayed on for twenty years after graduating wanted to make it known that I was an outsider. He thought I didn’t play enough local or old-school stuff on my program. His show was on before mine on Sunday nights and he’d make fun of me on the air every week when he signed out, saying things like, “What are we going to hear tonight? Some country? Some polka?” I got it – I was the white kid who loved rap. Hilarious.
It didn’t matter though. Indie rap labels sent their newest stuff to us and I was up on the underground. I’d spend hours and hours preparing, listening to the vinyl and enjoying the awesome cover art of the 12″s. I’d have local MCs come on and freestyle over the instrumental b-sides on my show. Vinyl was and is a beautiful thing. Sometimes I wonder how the shift from vinyl to digital has effected college rap radio, or not? Are artists as invested? As Sage Francis rhymed in 2007, “if I wasn’t hangin out in front of Fat Beats records, I was in the factory, mailing my 12-inches… nowadays, the DJs don’t even spin wax, so fuck a promo copy, buddy, you can download the track.”
We had received the “Blindly Firing / Birth of a Fish” 12” from Eyedea & Abilities “First Born”. After a few listens I noticed the RSE logo on the back of album sleeve and realized the Atmosphere connection. These cats had put together legitimate movement. I loved the hook on “Blindly Firing”:
This one’s for all my people lovin’ hip-hop that are truly gifted
Eyedea and Abilities, we only came to rip shit
DJs with no cuts outside their self-inflicted wrist slits
This one’s for you, this one’s for you
I met Eyedea in December of 2002. I was two weeks away from leaving to start my 2003 winter term in England and I had just finished my finals. I had only one paper to write and had some free time on campus so I decided to see some hip-hop shows in the Bay Area. I had seen Atmosphere play a sold out show at a garage in San Jose and loved it. I saw that Eyedea was playing at a tiny (now defunct?) venue in Gilroy, California (the garlic capital of the world) called the Gaslighter. Could it be possible? This MC was going to be having a concert in one of the smallest, weirdest venues in Northern California. I had to go.
I remember it was a really rainy night. I had trouble finding the club because it was dark and I didn’t know the area. A cop flashed his lights at me and pulled me over, asking me a bunch of questions.
“You’re from Carmel Valley?” he asked after checking my driver’s liscence, “what are you doing in Gilroy? You were driving five miles over the speed limit – in the dark and rain you’re likely to hit someone.”
“I’m here to see a rapper,” I stammered, “…. from Minnesota” (as if connecting my night’s entertainment to America’s heartland would soften the cop’s judgment).
“Minnesota huh?” he said, as if the idea of a touring rapper from that state wasn’t something that could actually exist. I was angry that even the California Highway Patrol had a snide comment to make about my tastes. “Your eyes are looking pretty bloodshot. If I take a breathalizer on you what’s it going to say?”
“That I haven’t been drinking… at all,” I responded. My eyes were red from weeks preparing for finals. I was exhausted and it was embarrassing. He let me off with a warning. If I didn’t bump N.W.A. driving home I should have.
I found the Gaslighter, paid for my ticket and entered the club. There were only about five other people there. Eyedea was in the corner with his merch.
“Are you Eyedea?” I asked.
“Yeah bro,” he said. He had baggy clothes and puffy jacket. He looked stressed and distracted and he was not what you envisioned your typical rapper to be.
“I play your single on my college show all of the time. It’s great.”
“I really appreciate that man, thank you,” he responded, making eye contact giving me a pound. He knew the power college radio had.
His show was awesome – it was the first time I’d ever seen a really technically proficient rapper kill a set to just 20 people using nothing but his DiscMan for beat playback and a mic. It gave me the realization that I could rock a show with just my laptop if the show was engaging enough. Kids shouted out requests for certain tracks and his banter was great.
“I’m not physically talented enough to actually do that song,” he responded to one of the requests. “That track was some ProTools magic!” We laughed.
At one point he stopped the set. “We’re all going to vibe out on this for just a minute,” he said and led the crowd in a meditation as he played a jazzy beat and swayed back and forth. It was new and different. He was having fun and being real. I had been running around campus studying for finals and in that moment I felt like I could finally let all of the stress go. I’d never experienced anything like that at a show. In part because of that moment, I meditate for an hour a day today and it’s helped me stay sane.
Every song Eyedea did for that tiny crowd on that cold December night in Gilroy was rocked with passion and intensity. Every word he spit, he spit with conviction. He was the real deal – the manifestion of the DIY spirit of hip-hop and punk, rolling up on a small club in a van or car, maybe selling only $50 in merch, but giving it his all to a small room. That’s what he knew he had to do. That’s what all of the successful Rhymesayers artists knew what they had to do.
“Does anyone actually live in this fucking town?” he asked towards the end of the set. We were all form other cities since it was his only Bay Area show that run. No one said anything. “I thought so,” he said and laughed. Keeping it real.
After the set I bought his solo album “the Many Faces of Oliver Hart: or How Eye One the Write Too Think”. He signed it for me: “Hi Lars – this statement is a lie. – Eyedea”. I have the CD at my parents’ house – I’ll photograph it for y’all for my site if you’re interested. I’m so glad I hung onto it.
Before leaving the show, I shook his hand. “Keep it up man,” I said. He looked at me and I now know what he was thinking. “Obviously!”. He took his art as literally as far as he could. He would keep putting out must until he died at 28. Coincidentally, I just turned 28, which is why this whole thing has been emotional for me. Why do some of the greatest artists die so young?
I’ve come to realize that the meaning we give life can be anything. Art is a huge part of that – it manifests that energy and intention. Eyedea knew this. Our time on this Earth is short but art walks a beautiful tightrope between impermanence and eternal dopeness. What hip-hop heads always mention when they talk about Eyedea was how young he was when Slug signed him to Rhymesayers. He was still in high school when he and DJ Abilities recorded “First Born”. I had always somewhat envied him for his head start – my parents had made me take the more typical college path – and if I finished that they said I could pursue my crazy plan to one day be an indie rapper. Eyedea had so much fire and didn’t need college. Our lives were totally different.
In 2008 when I was writing “Robot Kills” I was looking for some sort of hip-hop focus. I wanted see what was the illest documented underground stuff so I poured over his Scribble Jam freestyles and re-watched the battles. I found a DVD of the Blaze Battle on HBO that KRS-One judged. I read and re-read his lyrics. “E&A” is one of the greatest rap records of all time! The way he and DJ Abilities wrote performed together was unlike any MC / DJ combo I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw his Face Candy band open for ILL BILL in LA in 2005. I saw him tear the roof off at the Rhymesayers showcase at SXSW in 2009. I went to his show at Bottom of the Hill last summer with K.Flay and had a blast. I’m so glad that every time I had the opportunity to see him I did. That’s a lesson to y’all – don’t miss out on seeing your favorite artists perform in small towns.
Eyedea has shown up in my music a lot. I can think of three examples offhand. I did my own twist on one of Eyedea’s rhymes in 2004 when I put out the “Laptop EP”. I got called out for it in one of the reviews of the CD. It was from his track “Weird Side” (my other favorite from his solo album being “My Day at the Brain Factory”, which he killed live as an a capella at that Gilroy show).
He rapped “I like Jimi Hendrix more than any rap shit, my favoritre movie’s Dr. Strangelove – that’s a classic.” On “Straight Outta Stockholm” I rapped, “I still like Bob Dylan more than any MC, most depress me like hepatitis C.” A blogger who hated my EP surprised me be believing I “borrowed” this line from Eyedea. He was right! I had no idea anyone would find the connection.
Secondly, in “White Kids Aren’t Hyphy” I say, “San Jose rappers don’t want to hear, angry emo raps by Eyedea and Atmosphere”, a reference to South Bay people who would call up my college radio show and complain about my taste in indie rap in 2002. They had no idea what dope was – son!!
Finally, on “Birth of the Phish” with YTCracker, I end the song saying, “DJ Abilities called… he wants his MC back”, comparing YT’s prowess to Eyedea. The title of the song is a play on Eyedea’s “Birth of a Fish”, but we switched it toa “Phish”, computer fraud. Both YTCracker and I were always big fans.
Eyedea – you were so Zen with your flow – always in the moment – always creative and always surprising with your albums… even the later ones that strayed from the typical hip-hop approach and surprised some of us. You merged rock and melody with rap in an amazing way. It’s sad to see you go.
Dudes like him didn’t just plug their microphones into their computers and sit around waiting for their break. He got in a van and made it happen. He lived his art and constantly came with fire and passion.
Young rappers across the world – this is a lesson to you – the bar has been set high.
RIP Eyedea – you are missed. This statement is not a lie.
Brooklyn, NY 10/23/10