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Photo by Dan MonickRapper Eyedea has bested hordes of lesser MCs in some of the toughest competitions in the nation. Big contests, too, such as the 1999 Scribble Jam MC Battle and the Rocksteady MC Battle in 2000, which earned him mad respect in the hip-hop world. The Blaze Battle, televised on HBO in 2000, even got him noticed in the supermarket.
But Eyedea—born Michael Averill—considers the battles nothing but a waste of rhyme.
"After the first, I never had fun," Eyedea admits. The 21-year-old prefers the wordplay and storytelling of freestyle to humiliating his fellow MCs. "Freestyling is the key to my freedom. Freestyling is jazz; it's about developing this beautiful thing. Battling is similar, but minus the freedom. There's the objective of kicking somebody's ass, but it's more like basketball, not jazz. It's an artistic sport."
That's something of a strange comment coming from a former jock. Eyedea claims to have been a sports nut while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. His interests changed when his right leg was shattered after being tackled in a friendly neighborhood football game. He spent six weeks in a body cast and then contracted spinal meningitis. His bad health weaned him off sports and onto a steady diet of childhood melancholy and rap videos. By the time his leg healed and his meningitis was cured, he had developed an obsession not only for rap, but also for the 40-ounce high life those videos often depicted.
He met his DJ, Abilities (a.k.a. Max Keltgen), at a party in 1995. Abilities needed a place to crash, so Eyedea suggested his pad, which he shared with his mom. Together, the boys took to hip-hop and partying with a vengeance.
"That was what rapping was about," Eyedea now says of his hard revelry days. "It was about getting fucked-up and freestyling."
Things changed for the pair in late 1996, when a drunk driver killed Sess, one of St. Paul's best rappers and a guy who encouraged their music. Overnight, they stopped carousing and began spending all their time doing music. They were also afraid they'd be the next to go.
"The underlying thing was a fear of death. Not that I'm scared to die—it was mostly a fear of not accomplishing anything during life," Eyedea says.
The focus on work and art has paid off. The two were invited to join Sess' old crew, Rhymesayers, who happened to be Minnesota's premier underground hip-hop force. They were also building a label at the time, Rhymesayers Entertainment, which has since blown up. Rhymesayers artist Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart last year. Eyedea & Abilities' own "Blindly Firing" single hit No. 3 on the CMJ chart.
That action, combined with Eyedea's battle victories, attracted interest from some pretty big hip-hop labels. But Eyedea & Abilities stayed with the Rhymesayers imprint so they could control their artistic destiny. The result was their First Born album in 2001, a disc on which Eyedea ponders existence like a teenage Camus, spinning surreal stories such as "Powdered Water Too" (a ditty about fish trapped in fish tanks) and more serious, pointed ones such as "A Murder of Memories," which touches on the very real plight of homeless Vietnam veterans. Amidst Eyedea's rhymes, Abilities keeps the sounds experimental with the pling-pling of xylophones floating above spare beats, minimalist jazzy keyboards and scratchy spazz-outs. It's definitely hip-hop for a new generation of Holden Caulfields, pouting, looking inward and even showing compassion. But it's not meant for nightclubs, Eyedea warns. "More for sitting down, thinking, reading and exploring all of these ideas and finding yourself."
Then there's the little matter of being white hip-hoppers—still controversial, despite the hegemony of Eminem.
"For a lot of black people, I was the crazy, drugged-out, weird white dude who could flow," Eyedea says. "It was cool. What was more disturbing was the white kids. I had this one guy in Detroit tell me that Eminem sold them out, that I was all they had. They fear that black culture and black hip-hop will infiltrate their lives. They like the sound of hip-hop, but they want a white person to do it. When people say that, I don't even shake their hand; I tell them they're fucked-up. Race doesn't matter; it's about being a great musician. That's all that matters."Eyedea & Abilities perform with Rhymesayers, Mystic Journeymen, the Grouch and others at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 8:30 p.m. $15-$17. All ages.