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: Carnage the Executioner

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

Making rap music is often as simple as one guy behind the turntables and one guy on the mic, but Minneapolis-based musician Carnage the Executioner has simplified things a step further than most. Using various loop pedals and often more than one microphone, Carnage (also known as Terrell Woods) is known to create entire musical symphonies in his live performances, one layer at a time, usually with nothing more than his mouth. In addition to his incomparable human beatboxing skills, Carnage is also a ridiculously talented emcee, spitting unpredictable, machine gun fire flows with incredible speed and versatility. The man is a true virtuoso on the microphone, and undoubtedly one of the most deadly emcees in the Twin Cities.

Amazingly, despite his unparalleled ability to rock a stage all by himself without even the normally required presence of a deejay – not to mention his aggressive, battle-ready sound – Carnage is known at least as well for his work with other emcees and musicians. Perhaps his most famous collaborative endeavors are his works both live and on record with the late, great Twin Cities Hip-Hop hero Eyedea, who was always one of Carnage’s most vocal and respected champions. Their back and forth beat-murder on tracks like “Coaches” and “Star Destroyer” (not to mention Carnage’s posthumous tribute remix of the latter) are among the finest rap music ever to come out of Minneapolis.

More recently, Carnage has toured internationally as half of the uniquely funky duo Ill Chemistry, for which fellow Twin Cities veteran Desdamona rhymes and sings, while Carnage and his loop pedals provide the beats. Having performed together for years on stages all around the Twin Cities, the duo have now been official for quite some time, amassing a respectable following in France as well as the United States. You can also hear them rapping together on Carnage’s latest album, Worth the Wait, where they explain to you why “You Should Not Emcee.”

Over the years, Carnage the Executioner has been affiliated with numerous crews, including Hecatomb and Fill in the Breaks, and once famously battled one of Minnesota’s most revered emcees, Brother Ali. He was recently chosen as one of City Pages’ Top 10 Best Minnesota Rappers, and is widely known, loved, and still more than a little feared by up-and-coming emcees in the Land of Lakes and beyond. He is premiering a new music video, “Respect the Name,” on June 15th at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, and has a brand-new album dropping in September.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Sean Anonymous

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 gifted and hard-working emcees in the Midwest, Minneapolis’s Sean Anonymous has been steadily on his grind for at least the past seven years now, since joining the Twin Cities crew Wide Eyes in 2005. Having toured extensively throughout the U.S. as a solo act and with a variety of other groups – including Wide Eyes, Death Ray Scientific and Bottom Feeders – Anonymous is now poised to take on even greater acclaim with his upcoming solo EP, Anonymo, produced by DJ Corbett and set to drop in June.

Even before the release of their first EP, Situation, in early 2008, Wide Eyes was a force to be reckoned with in the Twin Cities’ Hip-Hop scene because of their intense and energetic live show. Anonymous in particular is known for a stage presence that can best be described as “wildin’ out,” as he truly puts his whole body and mind into every live show. In his best performances, Anonymous often appears to be on the verge of exploding, but at the same time never loses focus as he delivers intricate, versatile flows with a rapid-fire delivery that remains accessible even at its most technically challenging. This summer, you can catch him performing live at the Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Bonnor Springs, and Maryland Heights stops on the Vans Warped Tour.

Perfectly complementing the rest of Wide Eyes – fellow emcee Tony Phantom and producers Dimitry Killstorm and DJ Name – with his sound, Anonymous can’t help but stand out on certain tracks, such as his mind-boggling first verse on “Borrowed Time,” from the 2009 Wide Eyes album, Hands Tied (pay close attention beginning at about 0:56 to hear how hard he goes in). Since the release of that video, Anonymous has been hard at work capitalizing on the advantages of this visual medium with stellar new videos for “Fast Forward” and the upcoming Anonymo track “Hot to Death” (coming in August), both directed by Dave Wilson.

The great thing about the music of Wide Eyes is how simultaneously old school and forward-thinking it is, with undeniably head-nodding production by Killstorm and Name layered under thoughtful but gritty flows by Anonymous and Phantom. Anonymous has also found success collaborating with other notable Twin Cities emcees Spy MC and Shelltoe in the darkly humorous group Bottom Feeders, and shows great comfort joining in live performances with some of the finest underground rappers in the nation, such as Ohio’s Blueprint, L.A.’s Abstract Rude (both of whom will be guest-starring on Anonymo), Chicago’s Phillip Morris and Juice, Minneapolis’s own MaLLy, Toki Wright and many more. Incidentally, Anonymous is one of the friendliest and most approachable emcees you’re likely to meet, and his goofy, unpredictable sense of humor is especially evident in his latest music video, “Name Droppin,” which you should watch at least twice below.

  

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