Hip-hop fans know something's been going on in Minnesota, and it's centered on the Twin Cities and Epitaph-affiliated Rhymesayers Entertainment. In 2003, Minneapolis Brother Ali dropped one of the year's best in Shadow's of the Sun and Slug and Ant of Minneapolis' Atmosphere put out their third proper album, Seven's Travels, on Epitaph/Rhymesayers. This year, the Twin Cities' Eyedea and Abilities have kicked things off right with their sophomore album, E&A.
Seven's Travels was the first Rhymesayers release on Epitaph; E&A is the second. It's been called "emo rap" and the merger of rap and punk rock, but don't let the vulnerability fool you: E&A is unhinged. Both Eyedea (Mike Averill) and Abilities (Gregory "Max" Keltgen) first made names for themselves on the battle circuit, winning HBO's Blaze Battle championship in 2000 as well as the Scribble Jam, Rocksteady and DMC regionals. They've since disavowed the battle circuit, fearing typecasting, deciding to focus solely on recording and performing. That focus shines through in the energetic E&A, which shows they've much progress over their 2001 debut, the battle-heavy First Born.
On E&A, Abilities' turntablism doesn't take second stage to Eyedea's lyrics; it's a combination of two soloists interacting and sharing center stage. With no front man, the record's improvisational feel is enhanced, nearly capturing the essence of a live show. Eyedea and Abilities sat down to talk about their songwriting process, their interaction on the record and their inspirations. Oh, right, and to diss John Mayer.
Prefix Magazine: How would you describe your sound to my brother, who listens to nothing but mainstream, famous rappers?
Eyedea and Abilities: It's unlike anything you've ever heard. It's two frontmen: one deejay, one emcee, each pushing the limits of our respective instruments to create quality, original music. PM: How would you describe your music to my sister, who listens to nothing but singer/songwriters like Dashboard Confessional and John Mayer?
Eyedea and Abilities: John Mayer sucks. PM: Right. How is E&A different from First Born?
Eyedea and Abilities: It's a more refined representation of what we are. There's more interaction, more movement, more soloing. It's more interesting. PM: Does it accomplish what you hoped it would?
Eyedea and Abilities: We set out to make something that was significantly better than anything we've done in the past. So yes, we feel we've accomplished that. But we will always be striving to be better. PM: In the lyrics, you discuss pride, love and politics, among others. Do you consciously keep the topics varied?
Eyedea and Abilities: Yes, completely. You can't make music that is meaningful and emotionally relevant to a wide range of people if you only write about one thing. PM: What's your basic songwriting process?
Eyedea and Abilities: We start with the music, then add the lyrics, scratching and arrangement. PM: When a jazz soloist performs, he improvises but keeps preplanned ideas in mind. Charlie Parker had hundreds of licks that he used in different ways in various songs. Does it work like that when you freestyle, or is the music completely improvised as you go along?
Eyedea and Abilities: When we freestyle we play off of each other and solo back and forth in a call-and-response-type of fashion, sometimes bar for bar. Within that context, the concept isn't improvised, but the actual solos that come out are completely freestyle. PM: Abilities, how did you start deejaying?
Eyedea and Abilities: From my first exposure to deejaying, I was always intrigued. So I got some Techs and just started, and it took my life over. PM: Eyedea, how did you develop your skills as an emcee? Is there specific work you did that helped?
Eyedea and Abilities: Freestyling has been a key point to my development from the beginning, and it still is. From lines or phrases to rhyme patterns to the tone in my voice, I learn it all by freestyling and performing live. PM: Any chance you guys are going to battle anymore?
Eyedea and Abilities: No. PM: Which city gives you guys the most respect?
Eyedea and Abilities: The Twin Cities. PM: What's more important to you: mass success or respect from your peers?
Eyedea and Abilities: Easily respect from our peers. If people that actually know how to make music think you suck, you do. John Mayer sucks. PM: How did you guys get involved with Epitaph?
Eyedea and Abilities: They have a very similar approach to Rhymesayers's as far as music and business is concerned, so it just kind of worked out. PM: Because of your connections with Atmosphere, do you feel like you have to live up to what they've accomplished?
Eyedea and Abilities: We are striving to be great musicians. We'd like to live up to what Jimi and Coltrane have accomplished.