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: Solillaquists of Sound

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

Normally this column is devoted to a single rapper that deserves your attention, but Orlando’s powerhouse group Solillaquists of Sound are so completely unified that it often feels as though the four-person collective is a single artist, albeit one capable of incredible feats no one human being could manage. Though emcees Swamburger and Alexandrah are each among the best underground rappers I could possibly profile (though Alexandrah is really more of a jazz and soul singer, who nonetheless spits rhymes with the best of them), it is their unique collaboration with poet Tonya Combs and one-man-band DiViNCi that really makes them stand out as one of the most original and vital forces in music today.

Solilla began in 2002 as a collaboration between Swamburger and producer DiViNCi, before incorporating fellow Orlando artist Combs and Alexandrah, who originally hailed from Chicago. The nascent group spent a great deal of time together in the studio, quickly recording their first full-length album, 4 Student Counsol (Running from Precedence), before ever performing together in front of an audience. 4 Student Counsol is a wonderfully warm and welcoming musical experience, full of laughter and the sort of endearing mistakes most artists would leave on the cutting room floor. Though the lyrics and production are tight, there is a loose feeling to the recording that gives the listener a feeling of being a part of the creative process itself.

This immersive feeling is very much a part of Solilla’s ethos, which is amply evident in their live show, an experience that simply can’t be reproduced. However, until you get the chance to see them live, their 2005 follow-up album, Solillaquists Live (The Truth Don’t Need Support), is a great appetizer, and their live DVD, Fam Glorious, comes even closer. Solilla’s live show is truly amazing, a galvanizing event filled with laughter, tears and joy. Unlike the average Hip-Hop show, where emcees and deejays generally stand posted and deliver sound, Solilla really make use of the whole stage, and Swamburger is often known to jump off it for an impromptu breakdancing session amidst the audience. However, more than anyone else in the crew, DiViNCi is a maniac live, playing two to four MPC drum machines in lieu of the traditional deejay’s two turntables. He often plays them with his feet or even his face, generating unparalleled enthusiasm from the crowd.

After catching the ear of kindred artist Sage Francis, Solilla signed to Anti-/Epitaph in 2006, touring with him behind their first major label release, As If We Existed, which shows an admirable maturation without sacrificing any of the emotion or vitality of their previous independent releases or their live show. Witness the way they blend Swamburger’s ferocious, rapid-fire rapping with the swelling beauty of Alexandrah’s vocals and DiViNCi’s production on tracks like “Ask Me If I Care,” or the highly thoughtful message mixed with satirical humor of tracks like “Black Guy Peace.” For a deeper look at DiViNCi’s stellar musicianship, this video documenting his creation of the synthesized “guitar” solo at the end of “Berlin” is also a must.

Solillaquists of Sound have been gaining in popularity ever since, garnering a great deal of attention for their stellar single, “Death of the Muse,” featuring J-Live, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and the mother of the late, great producer J Dilla, to whom the track is dedicated. With the release of their second Anti-/Epitaph release, No More Heroes, they have also branched out into the field of music videos such as “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel” while continuing to represent at live shows all over the world, and they are from slowing down. Part one of their new two-part album, 4th Wall, is now available in a limited edition.


Josh Rouse: El Turista

RIYL: Paul Simon, your Brazilian grandfather’s record collection

When Josh Rouse moved to Spain a few years ago, nobody really expected things to change with regard to his music career. After all, there are many jobs that can be done from anywhere these days, with touring recording artist being one of them. But along the way, Rouse met and married a Spanish woman, singer Paz Suay, and along with learning to speak Spanish fluently, he also began writing songs in his new home’s language. That’s all well and good, but on his latest, El Turista, Rouse took things a step further by incorporating Brazilian and even Afro-Cuban flavors to the music, including a couple of covers. The entire set also reflects Rouse’s desire to lean toward jazz, without becoming a full-on jazz artist. The result? A mediocre experiment.

There is nothing wrong with trying new things, but the problem with Rouse’s recent musical offerings are that he’s been writing too much – causing his songs to become diluted, at least compared to the stuff he was making in his hometown of Nebraska and in Nashville. It’s not just that, but Rouse is better at the alt-pop thing than he is at the Bossa Nova sound he’s aspiring to, and El Turista is, well, it’s sleep-inducing. That said, dude still has a super smooth voice. The best track on here is the English-speaking “Lemon Tree,” and if you’re in the mood to drink a pina colada and start a conga line, put on the festive “Valencia.” However, if you were/are a fan of Rouse’s earlier material, you may want to run the other way before giving El Turista a listen. (Bedroom Classics/Nettwerk 2010)

Josh Rouse MySpace Page


Ramsey Lewis: Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey

RIYL: The Jazz Crusaders, George Duke, Joe Sample

Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis shows no sign of slowing down. Now in his mid-70s, Lewis not only continues to be active in the jazz world, he keeps writing and recording new material along the way. Lewis’ latest, and his debut on Concord Jazz, Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey, is just that – Lewis playing his own material. It’s either tracks he had been previously commissioned to write for ballet or for other artists such as Turtle Island Quartet, or just his own creations to be performed with his trio. And this record, with Ramsey on piano, Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums, while simple in instrumentation, is complex in every other way. It’s also the kind of record you might play on a rainy weekend afternoon to forget about all of your troubles, or maybe about everything else you were supposed to get done. Lewis has a way of dynamically creating moods with each piece, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a jazz aficionado or just a weekend jazz warrior (we suspect most of our readers are the latter), you can’t help but appreciate Ramsey Lewis’ music like a fine wine. In fact, uncorking a bottle after putting it on isn’t a bad idea, either. (Concord Jazz 2009)

Ramsey Lewis website


Return to Forever: Return to Forever Returns: Live at Montreux 2008

Of all the reunions pianist Chick Corea has participated in over the past few years, last year’s resurrection of the classic Return to Forever lineup – Corea, guitarist Al DiMeola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White – turned out to be the most musically rewarding. The guys play as if it were still 1976, and Corea even took a vintage Rhodes to the stage to keep it authentic. If anything, the group is even better now with age and wisdom – DiMeola’s guitar runs sparkle with soul, Clarke’s and White’s rhythms are even earthier now, and in spite of these musicians having so distinctly honed their identities over time, Chick is still the masterful glue that keeps it all together. Though known mostly for their electric work, RTF’s acoustic side is on display for almost half of Live at Montreux, with Chick’s solo improvisation before “The Romantic Warrior” (with Clarke and White as a straight-ahead trio) proving that RTF, for all their fusion tendencies, were always, deep down, a jazz band. (Eagle Rock Entertainment 2009)

Return to Forever MySpace page