Eyedea & Abilities (2004)

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Eyedea and Abilities walking into Irving Plaza

At last year’s Prince Paul show at SOB’s in New York City, the opening
act was an MC with considerable talent and stage presence, who, after his set,
walked through the crowd, seeming to be genuinely interested in getting to know
his fan base. His set impressed me so much that the next day I bought his
albums. Eyedea & Abilities’ First
(Rhymesayers, 2001) and the Eyedea-produced The Many Faces of Oliver Hart or How Eye One the Write Too Think (Rhymesayers,
2002), quickly made it into my heavy rotation. Although the two albums’ mix of
philosophical musings, youthful exuberance and braggadocio is not an original
notion in underground hip-hop, rarely is it done so well.

Like most who
know of him, I first heard of Eyedea from the 2000 Blaze Battle on HBO. I
subsequently forgot about him.
And while First Born was
well-produced, DJ Abilities did little to leave a lasting impression on me as
well. Then one day I took notice of his and Abilities' name credited on El-P’s Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux, 2002). The pairs’ new album, E & A, out this spring on
Rhymesayers, is sure to be appreciated by anyone who digs thought-provoking
hip-hop with skill. Quite simply, this is DJ’ing and MC’ing at their best.

The editor and
I were lucky enough to hang out with Eyedea and Abilities and see their opening
performance for label-mate Atmosphere in February. After hearing their new
album and meeting with the two of them over dinner, I gained the impression
that these are not just a couple of hip-hoppers, but artists earnestly trying
to elevate their art form. For this I thank them.

Alex Rosado:
Tell me how you guys hooked up together.

E: You’ve got to tell this one. I told it

A: [Laughs]
Basically, we were really young, he was 13, I was 15. We was going to house
parties, getting drunk, hanging out and shit. He rapped, and I wanted to be a
DJ. Long story short, I didn’t have any place to stay, so I went and stayed
with him. We were already friends, so from then we developed a very
brother-like relationship. We naturally became a group because he rhymes and I
DJ, but we never were like, ‘let’s be a group.’ This is it, Eyedea &
Abilities right here. It’s really based on this friendship, and I think through
being friends at such a young age we kind of nourished each other’s personalities.

Eyedea, you’re 22 and Abilities, you’re 24. How long have you guys been

A: Since I was 17. I started with Slug, we
did the first shit, from the first month I was with Rhymesayers I was on tour.

E: Shortly
after that, we were Atmosphere’s back-up band for a long time. We’d open up the
set, do a couple of our songs, freestyle together; he’d [Abilities] do a DJ
set. We were just kind of this traveling fucking freak show of all this new,
interesting, different shit. It helped Atmosphere out, and it helped us hone
our live shit.

It seems the topics that you touch on most are metaphysical, existential,
ontological or braggadocio. Do you think that boasting is an indispensable part
of hip-hop?

E: [Laughs] I feel that it’s a part of hip-hop,
man. It’s in the roots and it’s just there. Not to say that you always have to
have a battle song. I’d like to be able to be poetic, and braggadocio at the
same time, make songs that are not completely like, ‘yeah, I’ll kick your ass
in a battle,’ but can bring it all together and be more emotionally relevant on
different levels at the same time. There definitely was a point, especially First Born, where it was extreme. I’m an
extreme person. If I’m happy, which I am now, I’m really happy [Eyedea smiles];
when I’m pissed off, I’m like punching holes in shit. When I’m sad, [he traces
a tear down his cheek], a little bit of tear.

A: Get a little

don’t want to stick on the whole boasting thing, but you guys have a lot of
titles to your credit. DJ titles and battle competitions. Do you think you have
earned the right to cut people down?

E: Yeah, yeah I do.

A: It’s like this: There are so many battle
rappers out there, and they battle all this shit. They can’t serve nobody! They
get on stage and start shaking like a fucking vacuum cleaner, it’s just like if
you’re gonna talk about it, be about
it, man.

E: On the Living Legends tour, I still got
in battles! People would be talking shit and I’d be like, ‘aight, come on up
and I’ll show you why you’re down there and I’m up here.’

A: He did that to like three random people
just talking shit. It was fun.

E: It’s just
fun for us. I still do a freestyle thing every Friday night at the record store
we own in Minneapolis, called Fifth Element. It’s similar to open mic, only I
get to pick who gets to rap so there’s no bullshit. A lot of people come and
watch. It’s freestyle exercises where I just try and challenge myself and
everyone else around me by playing these games that we invent every week.

AR: So
what’s it like running the store?

A: Oh, we don’t do that.

E: We all worked in it in the beginning. I
worked the least in it; I was still in high school.

A: It sucked; it taught me how to drink

E: He used to drink 40’s and have them on
the counter, day drunk as a motherfucker. By 4 p.m. in the afternoon he was
already on a 40 or two, leave in the middle of the day and go to the liquor
store a block away.

A: Yeah, that
was pretty funny, man; I had some parents flipped out a little bit.

Derek Evers:
So are you guys ‘emo’ rap?

E: I don’t know
what that is.

How do you feel about people sub-categorizing hip-hop?

E: You’ve got to understand, as a musician,
it’s not our job to make the boundaries.

A: Yeah, it’s our job to get past that shit.

E: We make it,
you name it, and I’m glad that it will never be different from that.

Would you guys say that Minneapolis is doing a little bit of a takeover of
independent hip-hop right now?

E: I wouldn’t say that. I’d say there’s a
few key groups.

A: I’d say
Rhymesayers is more than Minneapolis. You got Rhymesayers holding down the
Midwest, you got Def Jux on the East, and Living Legends on the West.

Was the hip-hop scene in Minneapolis/St. Paul ever as developed as it seems to
be now?

E: It was a lot more close-knit, and in some
way, a lot more meaningful.

A: It was. It was a little better in a way.

E: Now there’s a rap group playing every
night. They all suck. There’s an open mic every night. One out of fifty people
are good. Back then there was standards. You would get booed and get the shit
kicked out of you if you were not good by the time you grabbed the mic or got
on some turntables, and that’s so cool. I had to rap in my car, and in my
closet, and in junior high hallways for years before I could grab an open mic.
Because at the open mic I knew if I wasn’t nice…

A: You were done.

E: This dude
[both of them laugh as Eyedea points at Abilities] started getting good like a
year ago. I’ve been holding him down, if you know what I am saying. It was
different for DJ’ing actually; as far as performance, it wasn’t available,
there wasn’t a venue every night of the week. Now there is, and it’s because us
and Rhymesayers kicked down so many doors. That’s a beautiful thing, but I just
wish that there was a higher standard for the talent. The reason you kick down
doors is so that younger people that are better than you can succeed, like you
want to have a better life for your kids. But when everyone we kicked down the
doors for sucks musically, it’s disturbing, you know?

DE: How’d you do that first song [on E&A] where your voice is cut up?

E: I can’t give you
the secrets.

A: We’d have to
kill you; I can’t give that secret away. I’ve had that idea for hella long; I’m
surprised nobody has done it yet.

What’s your secret guilty pleasure that you’ll listen to?

E: About a year ago, all I was listening to
was pop, like Avril Lavigne and all that shit, ’cause the arrangements are so
good. They’re just like, so in the pocket. I go through phases when I’m
producing a record or when I’m trying to flip my head inside out, so I was
doing the pop, a lot of that new rock shit, I don’t even know what the bands
are called. Then, right before we went on the Legends tour, I got into the
Beatles, who to me are like the God’s of pop music. They have the same approach
to arrangements and the same kind of explosive, over-produced, multi-channeled
rock production as today, but it’s actually good, so I just listen to that. He
[Abilities] is a big Neptunes fan, is that a guilty pleasure? Who’s the best producer
in hip-hop?

A: El-P in the underground and Timberland
above ground, ’cause ultimately they take the most original approach, they have
a voice. I tried to do that on our new record, but we’re still harnessing a
production style. I don’t think I’m there like them dudes are. Them dudes are
nasty. I like the White Stripes, but I don’t think that’s a guilty pleasure.
[Derek winces.] I would like to work with Jack White, but I think he kind of
hates on hip-hop. I want to get him open to it. I could do a guitar solo with
him, like a guitar/synth-guitar solo.

E: You know what’s a guilty pleasure for me?
One of my favorite musicians of all time, Beck, that’s a guilty pleasure.

A: I like a couple of Ashanti songs, that’s
a guilty fucking pleasure for sure. What song was that that I liked?

E: I don’t know, I hate her.

A: It wouldn’t be one of the ones she did
with Ja-Rule, I know that.