October 16th is an important day in Minnesota history. Before 2010 it wasn’t even notable, but on October 16th, 2010, one of contemporary Minnesota culture’s icons — Rhymesayers lyricist Eyedea — passed away in his home while sleeping. Most are probably familiar with the Rhymesayers label; artists such as Atmosphere (Slug and Ant), Brother Ali and Prof are signed to it. But before it was the Rhymesayers it was today, the label started small in Minneapolis. Formed in 1995 by Slug, Ant, Musab and Siddiq, the label grew from college radio listeners at the University of Minnesota. Back in 1995, the natal “Headshots” EPs showcased these artists — along with a few other local Minneapolis artists — rapping over grainy, eight-track beats, and they sounds like archetypal underground hip-hop if you listen to them today.
But this is where the fifteen-year-old (there is evidence he started even earlier) Eyedea got his break; he began rapping on the “Headshots” albums with his friend DJ Abilities, and Eyedea’s multi-syllable, tongue-twisting vernacular of Krishnamurti, Plato, Joyce and Kierkegaard was definitive, strong, confident, and above all impressive. And his freestyle abilities surpassed everyone at Rhymesayers and — as Eyedea would soon find out — the rest of the United States.
By 19 he had won three major freestyle battles, including the Blaze Battle in New York filmed on HBO. Throughout his battling career he only lost twice, and those were against fellow Rhymesayers — the only people he would let beat him. For those curious, I suggest looking up his battles on Youtube — they’re humbling.
As Eyedea and Slug toured together, their influence grew. It was Eyedea, forming the group Eyedea & Abilities, which was the second group in Rhymesayers (behind Atmosphere) to sell out First Avenue in Minneapolis. Eyedea and Abilities became, along with Atmosphere, the whetstone and foundation for the label. And it was primarily these two groups — Slug with his sardonic, masochistic storytelling and Eyedea’s existential, philosophical rhymes — that gave attention to Rhymesayers, Minneapolis, and Minnesota’s hip-hop culture.
But the precocious fame and confidence of Eyedea would eventually fade: he was bright, consuming and brief. After having his own existential crisis about his music, slowly finding a new sound, and releasing what is arguably one of Rhymesayers’ greatest albums “By the Throat,” Eyedea died in his sleep from what is assumed to be an opiate toxicity.
Eyedea’s prominence lies in how he released a huge amount of energy in a very brief moment. And what we can analyze in that moment means much more than what it would have meant had his music career slowly disintegrated. But his influence today is disintegrating fast, and it’s troubling to realize it.
One should not underestimate the influence of Eyedea. It was he who, on national television ripping apart MCs from all over the US, proudly wore a Rhymesayers t-shirt throughout the contest. When he died, he was dubbed the “underground Eminem” of hip-hop by MTV. And throughout all his touring, his battles, his albums, the distinct flavor of Minneapolis stuck with him. He was, and always will be, known as Minnesota’s artist of unfathomable and incomparable talent. I think listening to even one song can bring us closer to understanding how Minnesota’s culture can foster brilliance and genius: that Eyedea was, and always will be, a manifestation of what our state’s culture can foster.
The reason you know who Prof is is largely because of Eyedea. The same can be said of Grieves, Dem Atlas, and P.O.S.; these artists made a name for themselves by finding the outlet Eyedea opened. Though he doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, he placed Minneapolis, Minn. on the hip-hop map, and it wasn’t a stain: it was a landmark.
We truly are missing something without hearing another Eyedea album, another existential crisis, another reason to question everything that we know and believe is true. It’s scary to think of that, and scary to think he is now only an esoteric footnote in Minnesota history. Like Slug says in his song about Eyedea named “Flicker,” “Who told you you could die before me?”
ON EYEDEA BY JOSEPH LABERNIK