Underground Rapper of the Week: Spy MC

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

I can personally attest that Spy MC is one of the hardest working underground rappers in the game right now. A San Antonio, Texas, native who started rapping at the age of twelve and came up as a drum & bass MC in the Texas rave scene of the early 21st century, Spy moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2006. Along with his deejay brother and two producers also hailing from San Antonio. Together they formed the group SF Wrecks, which then morphed into the huge super-group Death Ray Scientific (DRS), with members of Wide Eyes, Matching Wits, Dialogue Elevaters and other underground Minneapolis rappers, deejays and producers.

Along with his own formidable work on the mic, Spy has always been a tireless promoter of not only himself (as most rappers are), but also of other artists he considers worthy. He has proven this time and time again in various ways, such as the open mic series “Switch,” run by DRS at Minneapolis’ legendary Dinkytowner Cafe. Largely organized by Spy, Switch gave many up-and-coming Twin Cities artists their first real sets, opening for more established headlining acts like Kanser, Carnage and even the late, great Eyedea and his group Face Candy. Spy continues to help build the Twin Cities’ underground Hip-Hop community through its otherwise largely stagnant battle rap scene. Having brought GrindTimeNow to Minnesota in June of 2009, he is now the Promotional Coordinator and co-host of The Loud Mouth League, which keeps GrindTimeNow’s tradition of a capella battle rapping alive.

With so much organization and promotion on his plate, it’s amazing that Spy manages to put out his own music, let alone music as dope as the work he has done with fellow DRS alumni Sean Anonymous and Shelltoe as Bottom Feeders, and his upcoming solo EP, Unfinished Business. Produced by MoonDoctoR and debuting online by the end of the summer, Unfinished Business is the kind of self-assured but still hungry solo debut you would expect from someone who got in the game at the age of twelve and hasn’t slowed down since. As he says on the Juice-featuring grind anthem, “Twenty Four Seven,” Spy is “planning domination / Verbally, locally, most certainly globally / Heard of me? Know me? Show-murdering dope emcee.” Bottom Feeders homie Sean Anonymous and Chicago’s Phillip Morris also pop up on “Room and Space,” which finds Sean and Spy seemingly competing for the fastest, freshest flow on the second and third verses. I’ll leave it to you to decide who wins that one, but rest assured that Spy MC does what he does, and likely always will.

  

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: Rheteric Ramirez

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

There are few emcees alive grimier and more underground than Los Angeles’ Rheteric Ramirez. One of the most respected battle rappers in GrindTimeNow, Rheteric spits creative punchlines in battles and fluent, rugged flows on gutter tracks like “Dear Diary,” a single from his upcoming, as yet untitled LP from Hellfyre Club Records, on which he breaks down his deadly battle abilities: “I hit the head on the nail, they laughin’ loud as hell / Things I say about you, wouldn’t say about yourself / This is your brain on Rheteric and I’m scramblin’ the yolk / You’ll always be on the outside of my inside joke / Dear diary, got me feelin’ I’m in the wrong genre / ‘Cause my lyrics aren’t somethin’ they’d introduce to their mama.”

Too true. Rheteric’s lyrics and subject matter are far from family-friendly, and he has no patience for soft, suburbanite hipsters and poseurs, as is evident in these lines: “You’re a productive member of society and a name-dropping social retard / With a members-only jacket and a designer flannel green scarf.” A lot of Rhet’s lyrical content involves his frustration with this gentrification of his beloved L.A., which he makes a point to warn y’all is not for everyone, but he also digs deep into his past and present feelings on tracks like “The Loneliest One” and “Tender Loving (Nothing),” and unleashes a blistering, all-encompassing rage on tracks like “Reverse Engineering.”

On the other hand, in his battles Rheteric often has a playful, humorous approach that incorporates strange, unexpected concepts like his Stephen Hawking-channeling verse in the second round of his hilarious battle against Tiger Ty, which also includes ridiculous punchlines like “You’re what happens when you do too much nitrous oxide / You’re what happens when you punch yourself when you’re cross-eyed,” and “You’re what morning breath looks like.” He is an uncompromising artist capable of jokes, vicious battle raps and pure poetry, like this gem from the second verse of “Skyscraper Cemetery”: “God named this city after angels, but did not reveal their names / To protect the identity of the demons who run this city into the grave.” In other words, Rheteric Ramirez is hard to pigeonhole, and y’all should probably give him some money while he’s young enough to enjoy it.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Madd Illz

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

Orlando’s Madd Illz is the definition of a beast – an insanely ferocious emcee who spits intricate but accessible, rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes that absolutely demand you press rewind over and over again. He could undoubtedly hold his own up against cats like Twista and Tech N9ne for the title of fastest rapper alive, and he boasts an extremely versatile flow with an impeccably crisp, clean cadence and perfect rhythmic timing. He’s also one of the kindest, most supportive rappers the global Hip-Hop community has to offer.

Illz was born to do this; in fact, his birth name, Matt Hills, practically is his stage name. He’s also the living embodiment of the idea that battle rapping, however mean-spirited, is really about building community, not just tearing another emcee down. For evidence of this, look no further than GrindTimeNow, the world’s largest Hip-Hop battle league, which he created and owns. With divisions ranging from Orlando to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, California and more, GrindTime challenges emcees to bring their best, most intricate and cleverly constructed punchlines to the table. Written verses are openly accepted and expected, but the best GrindTime rappers stay on their toes with sharp freestyles as well, flipping their opponents’ punchlines back at them. Though few of them are nationally famous, one of GrindTime’s best battlers, Dizaster, recently beat the legendary Canibus in an instantly infamous battle, and battle rap phenom Jin has also participated in the league.

Speaking of freestyle rap, Madd Illz is one of the sharpest you’ll ever see at it, and he’s often at his best when allowed free reign to riff on any topic that comes to mind, rather than being tied down to the focus of a battle. The speed of his delivery isn’t weakened by the lack of pre-written material, either, as he displays a remarkably extensive rhyming vocabulary and enviable endurance for long-form flows. I’ve seen him go off for several minutes straight multiple times in any given show without repeating concepts or rhymes, and always ending his extemporaneous verses strongly, rather than just trailing off when he runs out of ideas, as so many freestyles end.

In addition to freestyle and battle rap, however, Madd Illz is also an excellent songwriter, with diverse topics ranging from the personal (“If I Get Famous”) to the political (“Be A Patriot,” “Sick of the Lies,” “Katrina”) to his love of the art form itself (“Music”), as well as songs simply showcasing how sick he is as a rapper (“His Name’s ILLZ,” “Put on By the Spit”). His sharp, autobiographical anthem, “Underground Hip-Hop” could also serve as a statement of purpose not only for this column, but for any up-and-coming emcee, as well as veterans who may have lost their way. Fierce, uncompromising and wise, Madd Illz is at least as deserving of mainstream success as any underground rapper out there, but he would never sell out his vision to get it.

  

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