Rapper Eyedea remembered for his lyrical virtuosity

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Members of Minnesota's hip hop community are mourning the loss of one of its brightest stars. Mike Larsen, aka "Eyedea" of the Minneapolis indie rap duo "Eyedea & Abilities," passed away over the weekend at his St. Paul home. He was 28. Eyedea is being remembered as one of the most inspiring, artistically adventurous rappers to come out of the Twin Cities.

Eyedea amazed his fans with his rhymes. They not only dazzled with their sheer velocity, but because of all the meaning packed into them.

Eyedea was also one of the more cerebral, intellectual rappers in the local hip hop scene. Many of his songs were more like open questions about identity and existence.

Eyedea and his musical partner and DJ Abilities were mainstays on the Minneapolis hip hop label Rhymesayers. They never enjoyed the mass appeal of label-mates Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and P.O.S.

Still, says St. Paul Pioneer Press Music Critic Ross Raihala Eyedea's records and shows were so anticipated by hard core hip hop enthusiasts, they were looked upon as events.

"That's kind of a special place to be, where people are expecting what you're going to do next," he said. "Especially when there's so much music out there and it's hard to stand out. He was definitely an artist that people kept their eye on."

Ross Raihala
St Paul Pioneer popular music writer Ross Raihala
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

Eyedea caught Colin Wanke's eye back when they were St Paul high school students, and back when Eyedea still went by the name of Mike Larsen.

Wanke went to Central and Eyedea went to Highland Park. At the urging of a friend, Wanke, a budding emcee himself, decided he needed to check out the competition.

"I remember I went to Highland Park one Friday evening after I got off work and we saw this kid Mikey, as everybody was calling him, rap for about, what seemed like three or four hours," he said. "Just rapping for ever about everything. Everything in the room, everything that was going on. Telling stories through his rap, and basically at that point I was like "Wow, this kid is amazing! Who is this kid?' "

Eyedea soon became known as a battle emcee, who competed against other rappers in a war of spontaneous words and rhymes.

Ali Elabbady
Rap writer and label owner Ali Elabbady
Courtesy of Ali Elabbady

He even appeared on HBO's Battle Blaze in 2000 and won. You can watch excerpts of the contest on YouTube, which is what Ali Elabbady did almost immediately after he learned Eyedea had died. Elabbady, a local rap writer, says at first, Eyedea comes off as so unassuming.

"And as soon as he gets the microphone it's like a light switch from on to off," he said. "As soon as you flip it on, he's going around the stage, he's looking the emcee in the eye, he's going at him with every line he has in his arsenal. And keeping the crowd entertained and doing it so fluidly, like as if it's second nature."

Elabbady says Eyedea's battle supremacy in competitions across the country brought even more attention to the Twin Cities fertile indie hip hop community.

But it was Eyedea's work in his duo Eyedea & Abilities that cemented his reputation as an innovator. Colin Wanke, whose stage name as a rapper is Analyrical, says Eyedea & Abilities energy onstage was unmatched, as was Eyedea's seamless and continuous lyrical flow.

Analyrical
Colin Wanke aka Analyrical says he was inspired by Eyedea's seamless and lyrical flow of rap.
Image courtesy Analyrical

"I know it made me want to practice, want to get better, want to make this my craft, and realizing that it is a craft, that it is something that needs time and skill and growth and development to really become a good musician," he said.

Wanke says in his music Eyedea was almost like a teacher, determined to show people it was okay for them to explore their brain and test ideas. To Wanke, that made Eyedea's records less a collection of rap tunes and more a journey toward enlightenment.

According to Eyedea's mother, Kathy Averill, Eyedea died in his sleep. The cause of death has yet to be determined. Averill and Rhymesayers have asked for privacy at this time.

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