FROM THE VAULTS: Spitfire: An intimate conversation with EyedeaSt. Paul rapper Michael “Eyedea” Larsen — a frequent visitor to the Twin Ports — died this weekend. (See attached Star Tribune article for details.) To celebrate the 28-year-old's immense talent, we dug up an interview from 2008 between the emcee and the Budgeteer's Matthew R. Perrine.
Note: This article was originally published Nov. 18, 2008, in the Duluth Budgeteer News.
Though his name was once synonymous with the battle-rap scene, Eyedea is surprisingly easygoing. When the Budgeteer spoke to him earlier this week, the St. Paul emcee expounded on a number of topics: from his departures from the hip-hop scene to his latest obsessions (Bob Dylan, for one) and the relationship he has with longtime friend and collaborator DJ Abilities, whom he met when he was a teenager.
“He needed a place to live, so he moved in with me and my mom, actually,” Eyedea said, “and we became like brothers in that sense.”
For the past decade, Eyedea & Abilities have become hip-hop pioneers, moving their way up the Rhymesayers family tree from live tour backup for Slug (as the Atmosphere “group”) to recording a pair of well-received albums for the influential Minneapolis label.
Although it’s been three years since the release of “E&A,” the duo’s sophomore effort, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been keeping busy: Abilities has been touring a new DJ set and Eyedea … where to begin?
In addition to forming Crushkill Recordings, the former Blaze Battle champion has explored his diverse range by releasing a live, jazz-influenced freestyle record (Face Candy’s “This is Where We Were”) and two albums with his post-punk outfit, Carbon Carousel.
After reuniting in August to headline Minneapolis’ sixth annual Celebration of Hip-Hop, the old friends are touring together again, and are rumored to be recording the follow-up to “E&A.”
Budgeteer: So, how far along is the new album?
Eyedea: Ah, you know, we’re just making music; there’s really no direct goal in sight. We’re just kind of reconnecting musically.
You’ve explored a lot of different genres since “E&A” came out — has that influenced the Eyedea & Abilities sound at all?
I think so. In general, I’ve kind of been discovering more about how I think about things and how I like to present them musically. And it’s not necessarily a sound or aesthetic thing; it’s just kind of like different ways of expressing myself. I’d like to think that I’m getting closer and closer to a truer, kind of more pure way of expressing things.
What has DJ Abilities been up to the last couple of years? I haven’t heard much of his activities.
He’s been working on a solo DJ set, so he’s actually been touring with that. … He’s really into the potential of the turntable, and so he’s kind of always really focused on that in a huge way. While I was in my other bands, I think he dove even more into that.
Considering all your other projects, were you getting tired of hip-hop and rapping all the time?
In a way I feel like when I was younger I was trying to make hip-hop be bigger than it was — like different than it was, you know? And I just kind of got sick of some of the fight that happens within that — like how contrived stuff had to be. So I just picked up a guitar and started playing ... as opposed to pretending that I’m some great visionary who can mix every genre and create some new, big potent thing, it’s more like, Yeah, I want to play heavy guitar and yell — OK, I’ll do that. [Laughs] That’s kind of what it is. There’s a little bit of me being sick of kind of some of the parameters that hip-hop has built for itself. I’m a little sick of, on some levels, the young, kind of close-mindedness that went along with a lot of people who listen to it. But, at this point, none of that is relevant to me anymore. Now that I have all these different ways to express what I’m doing, I’m not as annoyed by the current state of the world. I’m like, This is what it’s like, it’s fine. [Laughs]
So now you don’t worry about alienating any hip-hop listeners because you can just say, “Carbon Carousel is nothing like E&A, so don’t come to the show if you don’t like that.”
Yep, pretty much. It’s nice if you want to give it a try but … the other thing is, E&A is further developed in a lot of ways than Carbon Carousel or Face Candy. You know, E&A is 10 years old at this point. We’ve been kind of refining that thing for that long, where Carbon Carousel … the first nine songs we ever wrote [became] our first record. There was a lot of like trial and error there — actually, right now, the Carbon Carousel stuff that we just finished up I’m really, really excited about. I think it’s really finally making its own statement, really kind of going somewhere.
Are the other members of Carbon Carousel old friends, or people you’ve met throughout the years playing with E&A?
They’re all from in town, and I’ve just met ’em through various people when I started breaking into more of the “jazz scene” and stuff like that. … We’ve known each other for a couple years, but hanging out with those guys has taught me so much more about music than I’ve actually learned in the past 10, you know? [Laughs]
It’s funny you broke into the jazz scene (with Face Candy). You don’t hear a lot about guys that into hip-hop doing that. Where does that appreciation come from?
Really where that comes from is my love of improvising, to be completely honest — which is where a lot of the hip-hop stuff comes from. Freestyle rap is like the coolest thing in the world to me, it still is, and I got to a point where I wanted to do full shows that were just improvising, [so] I started checking out what people were doing on the free-jazz scene — just checking out kickass players who do amazing stuff. I live in a town, fortunately, where there are tons of brilliant people around. You just kind of have to open your eyes and check some s--- out. I always really wanted to start a freestyle band, basically, so I just started checking out some of the stuff there, and it all kind of evolved from there. I met J.T. Bates, started working on music. We started improvising a lot together, and that direction is now Face Candy.
So what kind of stuff do you listen to in your free time?
I’ve been getting into a lot of Dylan. Not even the newer stuff; just picking certain points to go back and check out. The latest one I’ve been on is “Highway 61 Revisited.” I like digging into some of what he has to offer lately. And (the Moldy Peaches’) Kimya Dawson … she’s kind of my favorite s--- ever. [Laughs] When I heard her album at first, I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been lying to everyone my whole life.” … She makes me feel like a liar. That’s why I love her music, it’s so f------ true. Literally some of it is children’s music with kind of adult content: really beautiful, really brutal — and true. Even [with] some of the stuff that’s a little more fairy tale-ish, imaginary or comic book-y — it’s not all really literal — you get the sense that you’re listening to some young girl just imagining things; as opposed to somebody trying to say, “Hey, I’m a brilliant artist, check out this picture I can paint” or just, “Hey, I can f------ scribble because I feel like doing that.”
What can you tell us about Sector 7g, one of this tour’s supporting acts?
It’s an MC/DJ duo, and … a lot of it’s pretty dark, actually. It’s pretty dreary, kind of sketches of what MC Impulse thinks about. I know him pretty well, so I know how he is as a person. I can kind of hear that in his music. I don’t know how exactly to describe it — I would definitely say it’s dark, kind of thought provoking … ahh, I don’t know, I’m not very good at describing s---. [Laughs]
Are they local, then?
Yep, they’re from Minneapolis.
And then the other supporting act is Kristoff Krane?
Yeah, he’s played in Face Candy, and he plays in Abzorbr. His stuff is going to be pretty off the wall, too.
How is your record label doing?
Oh, the Crushkill? Yeah, it’s pretty cool, but we’re not too focused on actually being a real record label as much as we are focused on being able to put out Carbon Carousel and Abzorbr stuff kind of at leisure. For all intents and purposes, we’re not really a record label [Laughs] — just kind of a way to put out records.
When did you first meet DJ Abilities — were you childhood friends who grew up together?
I was probably 13-14 when we met. He needed a place to live, so he moved in with me and my mom, actually; and we became like brothers in that sense.
Were you and Abilities always into hip-hop?
When we were younger, we were both really into rock — and both of us still are. [Laughs] … I started listening to hip-hop when I was like 10 or something, but, by the time I was in junior high, I was really interested in rapping and (Abilities) was really interested in DJing as well. So it kind of just naturally came together. We had a lot to talk about because we could sit and talk about records we liked and stuff like that.
That’s pretty amazing you’re still making music together after more than a decade.
Yeah, exactly. The break wasn’t as much of a … we didn’t say, “Hey, we need to take a break.” I just started doing stuff and he just started doing stuff. Coming back together and playing some shows, making some music again was definitely … I can’t remember exactly what the conversation was, but he was like, “Hey, man, do you want to make music again and play?” And I was like, “Yeah, why not?” [Laughs] “Of course.”
Were you 16 when you started rapping with Slug and other Rhymesayers members?
It was ’97, so 15, I think.
Since you were touring with Atmosphere so much back then, was it hard to come out of Slug’s shadow?
It’s always been weird for me. I’ve never actually had a traditional kind of career path. It’s been hard to get out of my own shadow some of the time. Some of the Slug stuff was there, too, because we were touring with Atmosphere almost as Atmosphere’s group. And, when we were doing that, people thought — and this is before Slug was recognized on a lot of different levels — Atmosphere was me, Slug and Abilities. So that was a little hard. It definitely wasn’t as hard as the Blaze Battle thing. … I’m still getting messages on MySpace from people who don’t even know that I’ve made records. They’re just like, “Dude, that Blaze Battle thing...” — and that’s all fine and dandy, because I did that too. We made “First Born,” toured that a little bit, then the next record I made I didn’t even put the name “Eyedea” on it. [“The Many Faces of Oliver Hart, or: How Eye One the Write Too Think” was released by Rhymesayers in 2001.] That was pretty confusing and weird for people. Then I made “E&A” and Face Candy and Carbon Carousel … it’s always just kind of a mess. [Laughs]
When’s the last time you did one of those rap battles?
I think the (HBO-televised) Blaze Battle was the last one. I actually tried a local one, really under the radar … just went and signed up under a different name. My goal — and this is probably still five years ago or something — was to go in there and try to win the battle without doing the typical, making-fun-of-you-you’re-stupid … you know, all that stuff. It’s cool as it is, it’s just kind of childish. So I went in and tried to do something that was more like Face Candy, where you go up there and talk about things you really think about — and I definitely got booed off stage: “Yeah, that’s probably the end of me trying that.” [Laughs]