Underground Rapper of the Week: Eyedea

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

In general, the purpose of this column is to bring attention to living artists you might not have heard before, but the influence of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen on the underground rap community is simply too large not to explore here. When he died on October 16, 2010, less than a month shy of his 29th birthday, a huge and vitally important part of the Minnesota music scene was lost. Ask any young underground rapper in the Twin Cities, and they’re sure to testify that Eyedea was a major part of their decision to get into the game. His victories battling at Scribble Jam in 1999 and the Blaze Battle New York in 2000 basically put Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene on the map, and his legacy can still be felt in the scene today.

I first encountered Eyedea as a teenager, in a high school talent show where he was breakdancing, and subsequently freestyling in the courtyard of Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul. When he began releasing music in my senior year (he was two years ahead of me), I instantly became a fan when I heard lines like “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, don’t drink alcohol / Don’t carry I.D., don’t go to the mall” and “I like Jimi Hendrix more than any rap shit / My favorite movie’s Dr. Strangelove – that’s a classic” from the song “Weird Side” off his 2001 concept album The Many Faces of Oliver Hart (or: How Eye One the Write Too Think). Here was a rapper I could really identify with, a self-proclaimed weirdo who didn’t fit into any of the expected boxes and, because of his strange and unique approach, was suddenly the most exciting thing happening in local music at the time.

Eyedea and his partner DJ Abilities created something new with their first two albums, 2001’s First Born and 2004’s E&A, making Hip-Hop songs that showed a respect and love for the tradition from which they came, while exploring new territory and concepts on fascinating tracks like “Birth of a Fish” and the crowd favorite “Big Shots.” Eyedea’s distinctive flow and extraordinary storytelling ability proved he was more than just a battle rapper, and he was one of the few rappers able to make songs that could bring you to tears (like the devastating “Bottle Dreams”) or reaffirm your faith in life (like the beautiful, heartfelt “Here for You”).

Don’t get it twisted – Eyedea was probably the best battle rapper in the world in his time, and his freestyle ability was practically unparalleled. It’s just that he was never content to stand still and do the same thing, which is why he continued to experiment and grow with new projects like his rock group Carbon Carousel and his freestyle/jazz group Face Candy. His final album with Abilities, By the Throat, showed the influence of this experimentation, and the result is a heavy, abrasive, and simultaneously beautiful album that more than lives up to its name. Eyedea’s ferocious unwillingness to be just another part of the status quo can be felt throughout the album, especially on tracks like the sonic assault “Junk,” where he warns the listener “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m ready to jump.” At the same time, though, he never seemed to stop loving life, despite all its frustrations and disappointments; as he says in his guest spot on Kristoff Krane‘s song, “Best Friends,” one of his last recorded releases: “Whether five, twenty-five or eighty / As long I’m alive, I’m in love and forever changing.”

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Prof

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Undoubtedly one of the most consistently entertaining underground rappers out right now, Southside Minneapolis’ Prof is a powerhouse of energy and skill wrapped up in an intentionally goofy exterior. Recently named one of City Pages’ Top 20 Best Minnesota Rappers, Prof has been on his grind in the Twin Cities for over a decade, and is now beginning to see some serious national exposure through his collaborations with the Alabama emcee Yelawolf and the Atlanta production duo Beat Chefs, who produced the stellar “Cold Outside” from Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II, as well as fellow hometown heroes like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Though his lyrics, stage presence and videos are mostly hilarious, Prof’s skill as an emcee is no joke, and his ability to engage an audience is extraordinary.

Prof released his first full-length with his rapping partner Rahzwell, the self-titled Prof & Rahzwell, in 2006, before breaking out with his Beat Chefs-produced solo debut, Project Gampo, in 2007. Like so many great emcees before him, Prof has invented a new slang term, “Gampo,” and it fits his hard-partying aesthetic perfectly. The hit single from that album, “Rocketman,” showcases his rapid-fire lyricism and playful swagger, as when he raps, “I keep ill, I eat skills / I climb mountains, I need thrills / Keep a couple dollar bills under my collar / So when I pop, know that I don’t mean pills.” Another standout track from that album is the hangover anthem “I Dry Heave,” which features great storytelling like these bars in which he describes barely getting to work and throwing up once more on the way in: “Rode on my niece’s handlebars all the way to work / My drunk ass might have been her training wheels, sure / And pull the trigger in the bushes before I walk in / My sweet niece left me gum in my pocket.”

Prof has stayed busy ever since, releasing two mixtapes under the title Kaiser von Powderhorn in 2008 and 2010, with a third on the way this summer. He also released the free album Recession Music, with fellow Minnesota rapper St. Paul Slim, in 2009; part of the ad campaign for that album, which includes the excellent “Horses in the Ghetto,” included old-fashioned “Wanted” posters of Prof and Slim illegally hung around the Twin Cities. This is a prime example of what sets Prof apart from a lot of other rappers: he has a unique way of making himself known, including some of the funniest promotional videos you’ll likely ever see. He also has a strong singing voice, which lends itself well to monster hooks such as the hilarious “Need Your Love” and “Animal,” as well as the straight-up blues jam “Whiskey.” Prof’s latest full-length, King Gampo, is available for free download now from Stophouse Music Group, so click that link and get Gampo!

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Desdamona

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.

Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Guante

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Photo credit: Jon Behm

Sitting down to write a few hundred words about one of Minneapolis’s best and most important rappers, I was unexpectedly led down an hour-long rabbit hole of procrastination, or “research.” That is because Guante (aka Kyle Tran Myhre), in addition to being a stellar emcee and spoken-word poet, is also a prolific and essential writer on the state of Hip-Hop and many other aspects of pop culture, and I was overdue for a perusal of his latest blog posts. Just to give you a good starting point on those, and some good talking points with which to pick apart this very article you’re reading now, check out his satirical, insightful and very funny looks at “How to Write About Hip-Hop,” “How to Read About Hip-Hop” and the exceptionally hilarious “Hip-Hop: A Panel Discussion.”

Done? Good. Let’s get on to the man and his music. Guante originally hailed from Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a formidable figure in their poetry and Hip-Hop scene, spitting fierce, politically charged poems and raps with uncommon artistry and humor. It was upon moving to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2007, however, that he really started to make his presence known. After signing to Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records, he dropped his debut album, El Guante’s Haunted Studio Apartment, a massive, 27-track manifesto that showcased his talents both over beats and a capella, including the wildly original love poem, “Love in the Time of Zombies” (in my opinion, he actually topped this one for creative brilliance with “The Last Words of a Roach, Underfoot”). That same year, he helped lead the St. Paul National Poetry Slam Team to 13th place, out of approximately 75 teams; teams from St. Paul, both also including Guante, then proceeded to take the #1 slot the next two years in a row.

Lest you think Guante some kind of coffeehouse, hipster, “conscious” rapper, though, witness the ferocity of his free mixtape, Conscious Is Not Enough 2011. On this record, which served as my introduction to his music, Guante takes aim at “music writers [who] love political emcees, conspiracy theories, pandering and rhetoric that’s empty,” while retaining the dry, satirical humor of tracks like “Your Boyfriend’s a Republican,” which first appeared in a different form on Studio Apartment, but appears here over the wonderfully buoyant instrumental from Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” Even on self-professed “super-serious” work like 2010’s collaboration with producer Big Cats!, An Unwelcome Guest, Guante’s deadpan humor can be found, especially in his frequent employment of superhero imagery and references to the cult sci-fi series Firefly. Some of this might not be caught on a single listen, but that’s fine because Guest, a dense and complex concept album about no less ambitious a topic than the end of the world, demands repeat listens. A free companion mixtape to that album, Don’t Be Nice, is also highly recommended. Until next time, I’ll leave you with this, a live performance of “Dragons,” which is quite possibly my favorite love song ever written.

  

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