By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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Minneapolis's only suicide hotline. Leave your name, number, and your reason for wanting to die..."This is the message that greets callers when Eyedea's voice mail picks up. While it's easy to think that the rapper is just being morose, his friends get it. When they leave messages saying "Death to Eyedea," they're not wishing him ill; they're paying tribute to his newfound inspiration, the Pixies, a band whose fans used to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Death to the Pixies."
"I want to have the dynamics like the fucking Pixies have," Eyedea insists.
Eyedea (aka Michael Averill) and his partner, DJ Abilities (aka Max Keltgen), have ambitious plans to remake hip-hop in their own image, which, like the Pixies, is equal parts wise-guy punk and idiosyncratic intellectual. There's no questioning the mark the Pixies made, having influenced Nirvana and countless other acts. Still, it seems a little odd at first that two early-twenty-somethings from the Twin Cities point to the alt-rock supernova as a muse for their peculiar take on hip-hop. Upon further examination, however, the connection isn't all that far-fetched.
Both groups helped build a thriving music scene in their respective cities, with similar principles. St. Paul/Minneapolis's underground hip-hop community -- based around Rhymesayers Entertainment, the imprint that birthed Eyedea & Abilities and Atmosphere -- has the same type of grassroots, DIY vibe as the mid-'80s Boston scene that nurtured the Pixies. But even beyond their convictions, the two acts have a sonic kinship. Lately, in live settings, Eyedea & Abilities has been exploring the loud/soft paradigm that the Pixies made famous.
"I'm taking my voice from a whisper to a scream," Eyedea explains. "And we're taking the music from the quietest to the loudest, most biggest, explosive thing you have ever fucking imagined."
This direction is hinted at on the group's latest effort, E&A, which was released this past spring on Epitaph. Eyedea describes the tracks "Now" and "Glass" as his attempts at writing "hip-hop ballads." Bored with the monotonous loop-based music that dominates much of today's rap, Eyedea says he and Abilities wanted to take a more orchestral approach to their compositions.
"I mean, I'm not sure, technically, what a ballad is in music," he admits. "But to me, it is a piece of music that goes from one place to another. The thing about hip-hop in general is that it doesn't go anywhere. When you listen to an average hip-hop record, after the first four bars of the music, that's it -- you don't need to listen to it anymore. It's the same fucking thing. We're trying to take music and go other places."
Songs such as "Glass," which includes its share of quotables ("We keep our mirrors dirty in case our vanity backfires"), have distinct sections that break down into movements; structure-wise, they closely resemble rock songs from the '70s. What could be more punk than transposing prog rock into hip-hop? If this alienates some, Eyedea couldn't care less.
"I can't make any decisions or moves based on what people want me to do," he says.
This has been Eyedea's B-boy stance since he first started making records. In the fall of 2001, when he and Abilities released their debut disc, First Born, many expected to hear the spontaneous, witty punchlines that helped the MC prevail in his many freestyle battles, including 1999's Scribble Jam, RockSteady 2000 and HBO's Blaze Battle World Championship 2000. Instead, Eyedea hit 'em up with songs that paraphrased Plato ("Powdered Water Too") and rewrote Kafka's Metamorphosis from the viewpoint of a fish in a glass bowl ("Birth of a Fish"). Pretty heady stuff for an eighteen-year-old. Then again, coming from the same guy who once said that he wanted to write the rap version of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, it's not all that surprising. Not many MCs can lay claim to such literary depth. But Eyedea says that early on, growing up in St. Paul, he knew he was wired a bit differently than the rest of his peers.
"I didn't really feel like a regular kid," he recalls with a laugh. "I was so ambitious, it was almost psychotic. Nobody really wanted to hang out with me and do anything, because they were like, ŒThis dude's, like, instead of playing tag, he is sitting here trying to figure out how to build a three-story tree fort.'"
Such eccentricities led to feelings of isolation, until an older kid turned him on to N.W.A. It was then, Eyedea says, that he felt connected to something larger than himself.
"My mom always has troubled children living in her house," he explains. "Somebody's like, 'Oh I got kicked out of my house,' and she's like, 'Come live with me.' Well, she had this one situation with this one dude who winded up being like my big brother, and he showed me rap. He showed me N.W.A., and I was like, &'Whoa, this is fucking edgy.' I was like, 'Yeah, Fuck tha Police.' So then I started getting into rap."
As a result, Eyedea soon became known as "the dude who is thirteen and raps." Abilities, who had taken up residence at Eyedea's mom's informal home for wayward youth, was "the dude who was fifteen who deejays." The two dudes ended up collaborating. And in 1997, inspired by luminaries such as New York's Company Flow and the Bay Area's Latyryx, they started making music and doing shows around Minneapolis. Since then, the pair has developed a rapport that calls to mind such esteemed DJ/MC duos as Eric B and Rakim. On the old-school-sounding "Reintroducing," from E&A, for example, Abilities' scratches sound like scat singing as he manipulates the turntables to duplicate Eyedea's phrasing.
"I am one voice," says Eyedea. "He's another voice that's just as strong, if not stronger. His instrument is revolutionary. So I'm like, &'Fuck, let that be a prominent part of the music.' And obviously, he feels the same about me as a vocalist. So that's how our chemistry developed."
These two have barely scratched the surface of their potential. And, like the Pixies, if massive commercial success eludes them, so be it.
"If I'm never famous or never rich or never really all that good, I don't give a fuck," Eyedea concludes. "What I'm doing is trying be the greatest artist I can be -- every single day -- because that's all I can to do."
Words to live by.