Underground Rapper of the Week: X:144

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

As I’ve said before, Orlando (also known as Ozone), Florida, is one of the most exciting Hip-Hop scenes in America today, and X:144 is one of its forefathers. A modern-day renaissance man whose skills encompass emceeing, beat production, mixing, mastering and now even film and music video directing, X:144 has a vital, energetic sound that practically commands the listener to move. Along with his deejay, SPS, he is one of the most futuristic and forward-thinking artists working today, while still capturing the old school feel of ’70s soul and golden age ’90s Hip-Hop.

As a producer and recording engineer, X:144 has worked with some of the best of the past and present, including Kool G Rap, MF Doom, Saigon, Joell Ortiz, and his Orlando homies Solillaquists of Sound, and he is currently at work on an undisclosed project with Lauryn Hill. He is also the champion of several beat producer battles, including the first ever Scribble Jam Producer Battle in 2007. As a lyricist and emcee, he leans toward the socially and politically conscious style favored by Solilla, but with his own unique sound and delivery. His carefully enunciated but pleasantly drawled flow gives the impression of a man who is both smarter and harder than you, but with the self-confidence not to feel the need to flex either.

The debut album from X:144 & SPS, M.E., begins with a brief and profoundly silly goofing-around-in-the-studio intro track before launching into “The Call Out,” a banging, fast-paced track that showcases the versatility and intelligence of both artists. As the title suggests, it is something of a manifesto song that explores X:144’s many social concerns, as when he raps “Nigga, nigga, nigga, Mister Cracker / Stop actin’ like we got those differences, it don’t matter.” Many of his songs find him in this mode, but he is at least equally concerned with self-exploration, preferring to point fingers within rather than outward. As he says on “3 Degrees of Ventilation,” he is “very comfortable in my suit / Not wearin’ this shit because it looks cute,” and he is equally comfortable with all sorts of subject matter, as he proves on the wonderfully funky and insightful love songs “If the Shoe Fits …” and “Almost.”

The M.E. album’s closing tracks, “From Self” and “P.O.M.,” find X:144 stating his purpose to continue moving forward and evolving, as he clearly hopes all of humanity will. For his part, he has certainly continued to grow as an artist, branching out into the field of filmmaking by directing excellent, highly cinematic videos for two songs from Solilla’s No More Heroes album, “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel.” Since then he has also made a very funny and thoughtful short film, “That’s Kinda Gay,” which nicely skewers the absurdity of homophobic rhetoric, and a more serious short documentary, “Export to Egypt,” about his experience of the recent Egyptian revolution. He is currently at work on his first solo album, but until that’s finished, enjoy some more fiya from X:144 and fellow Ozone rapper Synopse.

  

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.”

  

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