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.”

  

Miggs: Wide Awake


RIYL: Butch Walker, Matthew Good, Bon Jovi

Apparently Don Miggs has been making music and touring for several years, but as the bio for Miggs’ eponymous trio proclaims, they may be one of the “best bands you’ve never heard of.”  That’s a blessing and a curse, yet in today’s indie music scene, maybe more of a blessing if you can be heard.  Indie rock/pop label Rock Ridge was impressed enough with Miggs’ accessible, hard-edged alternative pop.  Miggs’ latest, Wide Awake, is 12 songs that ride as a roller coaster might – from addictive anthems like “Let the Games Begin” and the title track to Butch Walker-esque ditties like “Fire” and “Sincerity,” to balls-out rockers such as “Enemy,” with a positively stunning keyboard-driven ballad, “Crawl Inside,” to close out the set.  Miggs the vocalist sounds at various times like Jon Bon Jovi, Walker and Canadian rocker Matthew Good, and those are all guys with pipes.  Add in the production expertise of Ken Lewis (Fall Out Boy, Kanye West) and the rough edges of the band are captured on this release, yet effectively smoothed out as well. Intrigued?  You should be, because this is easily one of the best albums of 2010 that you….wait for it…..have not heard yet.  So do yourself a favor and go hear these guys.  (Rock Ridge 2010)

Miggs’ website: www.miggsmusic.com

  

Sugar Army: The Parallels amongst Ourselves


RIYL: Interpol, Red Light Company, Neil Finn

“Detach,” the third track on Sugar Army’s debut, needs to be placed on everyone’s iPod immediately, and also included on every playlist therein (yes, even the one with Nat “King” Cole and Perry Como that you don’t tell anyone about). Sinister, urgent, and undeniably propulsive, it exemplifies the best aspects of the record, slicing out of the speakers like an ICBM just before it hits its target. You should also reserve disc space for “Acute,” “You Are a Possession, Up for Sale,” and “Tongues in Cheeks” – hell, just put the whole thing on there. This is a terrific modern rock album, a serious blast from start to finish.

With a voice like a younger, more forceful Neil Finn, singer Patrick McLaughlin steers the Australian band’s tight groove without ever reining it in. Even on slower songs like “No Need for Lovers” he expresses something ominous and powerful, leaning out of the group’s intense sonics and pulling the listener in. The rhythm section – bassist Ian Berney and drummer Jamie Sher – are particularly locked in and menacing, especially Berney, whose low-end riffs gurgle and hum like some outback monster.

The Parallels amongst Ourselves simply must find an audience in the US. Check it out for yourself and spread the word. (Shock 2010)

Sugar Army’s Myspace Page
Click to buy The Parallels amongst Ourselves from Amazon

  

Peter Case: Wig!


RIYL: The Plimsouls, Robert Plant, Stevie Ray Vaughn

Peter Case recently had a heart attack that required multiple-bypass surgery, and it brought the founder of the Nerves and the Plimsouls to within an inch of his life. But luckily for Case, and for his family and for his fans, the surgery was successful, and he even received financial aid in the form of benefit concerts that brought Case together with old friends like T-Bone Burnett, Dave Alvin and Richard Thompson. After a recovery period in which he listened to a lot of old jazz, Case’s new album, Wig! was spawned from a few songwriting and jamming sessions with his band. The result is a raw, bluesy effort that features Case’s distinctive vocals, but is almost more straight blues than the rock he’s been making most of his life. The live, direct-to-analog sound is reminiscent of ‘60s or ‘70s-era recordings, and the songs, while very much following a straight line in style, are nice – not great, but nice. In fact, it’s so bluesy that fans of the Plimsouls might not take to this effort as much as, say, fans of authentic blues would. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Case has earned the right to make music his way, and he sounds, not surprisingly, exuberant and full of life on Wig! Standout tracks are the blazing “Dig What You’re Putting Down” and the piano shuffle, “Look Out!” (Yep Roc 2010)

Peter Case website

  

The Black Hollies: Softly Towards the Light


RIYL: The Beatles, Happy Mondays, The Takeover UK

Take the late ’60s Beatles and other British blues/psychedelia, shoot it through with early ’90s Madchester energy, add a sprinkle of indie pop sensibility and you get groovy if none-to-deep third album by the Black Hollies. Depth isn’t really necessary for this kind of album, though. Softly Towards the Light is so indebted to its sources that every track seems immediately recognizable, as if you’d heard these songs long ago sitting in front of your parent’s old hi-fi system as a kid. This immediately begs the question, “Why not listen to the originals, then?” and that is where that those “sprinkles” of modern production and indie introspection provide just enough of something different to make it resonate with today. Much of this can be attributed to Justin Angelo Morley’s breathy vocals, which carry a forceful earnestness that gives Doors-esque lines like “Lead me to the fire burning in your soul” an innocence rather than lustful intent. That is something that seems to be missing on Softly Towards… as British Blues had a earthy carnal quality, and Madchester was hedonistic in many ways, the Black Hollies bring a lighter touch that provides an airy, nothing short of happy feeling that is rare in pop music. Happy is usually relegated to overproduced, kid-smiley, bubblegum pop and not considered appropriate for adults. Here, this positive energy works extremely well with the counterpoint of Nicholas Ferrante’s bombastic drumming. The danceable, get-your-feet-moving pleasure of the Black Hollies can be credited to being caught up in Ferrante’s powerful rhythms that manages to ground them just enough to keep the rest of the band from floating away. The power tracks on the album that bring all of this together are the outstanding “Gloomy Monday Morning” in the number two slot, and “Number Ten Girl” with its soulful, darkly trippy groove.

All in all, Softly Toward the Light is an excellent album by the New Jersey quartet, and demonstrates not just a fidelity toward their sources and craft, but a real passion for making these classic sounds their own true expression. Ernest Jenning Record Co.

The Black Hollies MySpace page

  

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