What's the Big Eyedea?

In search of...: Eyedea and Abilities come into focus
Dan Monick

Eyedea is sitting on the floor of his basement, tap-tapping on his new laptop. It's a year and a few months ago, and he's banging out a script about a character who suddenly realizes that he's in the wrong movie. The story is really about its author, of course: an 18-year-old hip-hop MC who lives at home with Mom just east of downtown St. Paul. Like most teenagers, he's unsure how his own story will play out, or where he fits into it. Yet he has the confidence of the very young and assumes he can find the answers here, in his basement bedroom. Just give him time.

Eyedea lives in the sort of quiet working-class neighborhood where you find project cars in every driveway. When I knock, he snaps his laptop shut and answers the door, an athletically lean, buzz-cut kid with a disarming, gap-toothed grin. He leads me downstairs, and I scan his stack of paperbacks--Soul on Ice, Zen Culture, A Brief History of Time. Eyedea seems more prepared than most to tease enlightenment out of the ether. He's a senior at Highland Park High School, and he plans to double-major in psychology and physics at the University of Minnesota. He may even travel to India to study yoga. You never know how this hip-hop thing will pan out.

Until a month ago, the MC shared the basement with his friend DJ Abilities, whose barbells remain strewn around the rec room. Born Gregory Keltgen, and known to friends as "Max," Abilities left home at age 16. Eyedea's mom took Abilities in, and now she's making travel arrangements for the boys' trip to the South by Southwest Music Conference. The duo will perform there as two-thirds of Atmosphere, the crew led by Eyedea's self-styled mentor, Slug.

Eyedea was born Mike Averill, and he chose his alias well. Ideas seize his whole body rather than rattle around in his mind. "I just want concepts to talk about," he says, jumping out of his chair and grabbing the air around him. "And I want to write stuff that makes you think."

What other MC would aspire to write a hip-hop Finnegan's Wake? "James Joyce takes words and combines them together to make new words that you have to figure out," he explains. "Just in looking at them, you have become part of the book. It becomes your book."

He opens his arms wide for emphasis. "That's what I want to show people: They create the world."


A year and some months later, Eyedea is the best-known rapper in Minnesota. Atmosphere now bills itself as "Atmosphere, featuring Eyedea." But the 19-year-old hasn't finished that screenplay, and is no closer to figuring out what his own story will be. And he still lives with Mom.

When I arrive at the same house and ring the doorbell, one of the dogs tries to make a break for it. The pooch has the build and coloring of a stubbed-out cigarette. "What kind of dog is that?" I ask Eyedea, grabbing the hound's collar.

"It's a fucking shitbag," he says.

"What's its name?"

"Its name is Fucking Shitbag."

Eyedea isn't genuinely hostile, but his sarcasm has improved with age. Our second meeting has been arranged by a Chicago publicist ("Eyedea says he's going to punch you in the groin," she writes by e-mail. "Very weird kid!"), and now the rapper is promoting a debut CD with Abilities, First Born (Rhymesayers Entertainment). The duo nabbed a slot on the Def Jux-sponsored Who Killed the Robots? tour. I'm not surprised to learn that Eyedea came up with that title.

He looks taller and seems years older than at our last meeting. He says he has grown disillusioned with yoga, and he questions his motivation for seeking enlightenment. If you make the journey with a specific goal in mind, don't you miss out on the whole world in the periphery? His confidence has evolved into a kind of wisdom.

Rumor has it that Slug took Eyedea under his wing because Slug was afraid of him, and their onstage freestyle battles reflect this rivalry: Last year in Chicago, Slug labeled his protégé a virgin, and Eyedea countered that he had lost his cherry to Slug's baby's mama. Slug responded by rapping that Eyedea must have freaked his own mother because Slug was, in fact, Eyedea's father. Eyedea quipped that it must be tough to have a son who raps better than he does. In truth, each MC has schooled the other. Eyedea's almost fable-like poems have become a model for Slug's best songs. And Slug has taught Eyedea that hip hop is the half-conscious art of describing the world in the periphery.

Eyedea has become a freestyle improviser on a par with his late hero Sess of locals Abstract Pack. He has used the prize money from various contests--including a Blaze Battle aired nationally on HBO last year--to transform Abilities' old weight room into an 18-track studio. He has managed to postpone both college and menial labor--"Jobs are for sissies," he quips--with the steady income Atmosphere offers. But you get the sense that success holds less allure for him than for most hip-hop comers.

A couple of generations ago, wisenheimers like Eyedea and Abilities might have been vaudeville hustlers or burlesque comedians. Today they make overambitious art for the lucrative "underground." On For Persons With DJ Abilities, Abilities once again shows himself to be a trip-hopper at heart--an atmosphere junkie indifferent to polyrhythms. Still, his bohemian-space-odyssey bongo rolls do give way to a unique, birdlike peep-scratching. And Eyedea occasionally manages to turn his philosophical epiphanies into musical ones. "A Murder of Memories" is an affecting veteran's tale told over two piano notes in an echo chamber, and the simplicity of Abilities's mournful melodeon wheeze mirrors Eyedea's uncluttered delivery.

Still, overthinking is part of Eyedea's charm. "Powdered Water Too" may be hip hop's first-ever attempt to make radical epistemology funky: "We don't know the meal," he raps. "We only know the menu that our brain tells us is real." And "The Dive" may be the perfect self-help-while-you-sleep cassette for any character who thinks life might have written him into the wrong movie. "The best thing I ever did was let go," Eyedea raps, reassuringly. If he sounds lost in space now, wait until he reaches his 20s.

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