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“The Man Behind the Eyedea”

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“The Man Behind the Eyedea”

Last night I dreamt I was sitting with Mikey on a public park bench somewhere. I interrupted him as he was talking to me and said,”You know…people think you’re dead.” A flood of sorrow overtook me. I broke down into tears and said, “I thought you were dead.” I patted him on the back to make sure he was really there. He grinned mischievously but there was also a look of shame–as if to admit that he felt bad for pulling this horrible prank on everybody. He stood up, stepped into a bear costume, and then pressed play on a boombox set to slow-motion which made it sound like a bear growl. When I awoke it took a good 30 seconds before I realized that my sense of relief was a hoax of my mind’s own doing. This is the fourth day in a row that I’ve had to remind myself that Mikey is gone.

People will undoubtedly remember his music but Micheal Larsen was more than the sum of his songs, battles, performances and freestyles. When you consider the depth of the well that these things were all drawn from it almost seems trivial to focus on the byproducts of his fire. It was a fire that kept him seeking, learning, thinking and evolving. A fire that I believe he did his best to understand so he could share it with others. Maybe that fire burned him out. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe that fire is what kept him alive in the first place. Regrettably, I was not in close contact with him in the last few years so all I can do is cling onto memories of the better times we shared together. Before doing so I need to make it clear that I am by no means an authority on the man. Mikey’s friends, family and music partners in his home state of Minnesota obviously have a greater understanding of him as a person and as an artist. I don’t think there’s anything I can say about him that they won’t or haven’t already. In the past five days it has helped me to put all these thoughts into words rather than letting my memory wheel spin out of control.

I first became aware of Eyedea, the emcee, in 1999. He was touted as an absolute protégé among my inner-circle of friends. He didn’t have a release of his own yet but he had appearances on various music compilations. These were recordings of his at the age of 17 or younger. Part of my own identity and pride at this time was based on how much progress I had made as an emcee at a young age but this Eyedea fella essentially squashed all of that. The voice and message in his recordings sounded so mature. I suppose “precocious” could be a good word to describe him but I think I’ll just have to fall back on an overused cliche and say that he was “ahead of his time;” artistically and intellectually.

The next big sign of his impending rise came when he won the 1999 Scribble Jam MC Battle, and that was after he had already won NYC’s Rocksteady battle. These victories put him on a lot of people’s radar and, thankfully, this was during a time when winning a battle could raise a rapper’s cache and notability. This is the same year I won the Superbowl Battle, to much less acclaim, but that’s how Mikey originally discovered who I was. I just didn’t know it yet. At some point in 2000 I performed at a club in Milwaukee on the same bill as Atmosphere which, as a live outfit, consisted of Slug on the mic & DJ Abilities on the turntables. We hit it off and became good acquaintances at that show. I was then graciously invited to be part of their upcoming mini-tour. Eyedea & Abilities performed along with Slug during the Atmosphere set so this is when I first met Eyedea.

To be quite honest, I don’t remember my very first interaction with him. I’m sure it was something along the lines of him saying, “Hey Sage, it’s a pleasure for you to meet me. No really, it is.” Or something overtly arrogant like that. Whether he laughed at his own jokes or delivered them straight faced, there was usually a frenetic energy about him that insisted upon everyone having a good time. That is until the conversation veered into deeper matters at which point his tone transformed into one of the the world weary philosopher. Those moments were good ones and they felt special but mainly his social style consisted of playful jabs, self-congratulatory hyperbole, and funny jokes or stories.

Eyedea, Slug, Mr. Dibbs, Sage Francis

I remember being at Eyedea’s house during some part of the tour. His mother’s house actually. He invited me to sleep in their guest bedroom and through the course of the night he eagerly showed me videotapes of his b-boy routines from a few years earlier. Then we graduated to the battle tapes. All artists are obsessed with their craft in one way or another, all artists are nerds, and Mikey was no exception. He studied battles and freestyle routines as if they were his own personal Zapruder Film. Some of the footage we skimmed through were of my own battles. He laughed at my highlights and lowlights, and then he laughed at my opponents’ rebuttals.  He made it a point to let me know when he thought I got served. “You see what Akrobatik did right there? He got you right there. The crowd doesn’t know but…yeah. He pointed up and you looked up.” Hahhaa…OK. Little shit.

Then we moved onto other footage in his VHS tape collection. One figure he focused on in particular was Juice from Chicago. It’s clear that Mikey had an affinity for Juice’s ability to work with the moment, making an art of improvising and using an opponent’s lines against him during a battle. While watching the Juice battles & freestyles, Mikey dissected it all and gave me a dissertation on how no one can fuck with Juice. In fact, if you check Eyedea’s earlier battles you’ll probably notice a bit of Juice’s influence in the delivery style and mannerisms (e.g. bending the knee and hopping up slightly just as the punchline is being delivered to accentuate the moment.) He also sang the praises of Freestyle Fellowship, Souls of Mischief, and many others. He drew inspiration from these artists and built upon their design in order to contribute something unique like any serious student of music should.

As much admiration as Mikey had for Juice, this is one case where the student clearly became the master. I’ve always been confident in my own skills as a battle emcee but Eyedea is one of the guys who pushed the bar so high that the entire game had to change in order to give other people a fair shot. Take that for what it’s worth. It probably wouldn’t even be a footnote in whatever bullshit books get written about hip-hop, but Eyedea absolutely mastered a format that required an incredible amount of skill and nerve, setting the bar so high that only a select few emcees were able to reach it. I know that Mikey didn’t really care for this to be his legacy and he obviously made his mark in other ways, but it really did seem like his competitive and playful spirit was engineered specifically for dominating freestyle battles. At least in the beginning.

It was this special skill of his that propelled him into the collective consciousness of hip-hop worldwide when he won 2000’s Blaze Battle (originally broadcast on HBO,) hosted by KRS-1. I was in attendance at this battle, cheerleading pretty hard, front and center. I couldn’t contain myself. Here was this young, unknown “weirdo” from St. Paul, MN, someone I considered a friend, competing in the highest publicized emcee battle in the world. And he was breezing through the competition. Too easy. Like a Jedi using a light saber to slice through tomatoes. Of course there was the sneaky suspicion that Eyedea would be jerked by the judges one way or another, which made me cheer even louder. I made a few enemies that night because of my enthusiasm actually.

“I’m here 20 deep…and we can fight!”

When Eyedea was announced the winner it felt like a victory for all the underdog “weirdos” in the indie scene. It started to feel like talent would be recognized regardless of one’s look or origin. According to what I’ve been reading lately, this battle introduced a lot of people around the world to our particular brand of music. That’s crazy to think about right now but I believe it’s true. Had Mikey underperformed in any way that could have been a serious loss for all of our contemporaries who have managed to forge a music career over the past 10 years.

Upon winning the Blaze Battle it looked like he was about to ride the gravy train into mainstream success. The opportunity was there at least. However, instead of signing to Bad Boy (which I believe was one of the “prizes” of winning the Blaze Battle,) Mikey exercised a degree of artistic integrity that almost NO ONE in his position would have had they been given the same opportunity. He stuck with his Rhymesayers family and he used his money earnings to build a recording studio in his mother’s basement. The very last time I stayed over his house he showed me the set-up. Proper. I noticed the Hendrix and Miles Davis pictures on the wall. He explained how he was learning how to be an engineer and how to play musical instruments. Self-taught of course. It was at this time he was producing and recording his Oliver Hart album. He played me some unfinished tracks. I played him some new material of my own. It was like a battle of unreleased recordings. We began talking about doing a song together. When Slug dropped by  we recorded a song called “Embarrassed” over a beat Eyedea produced for one of my mixtapes. I think this was right around the time when we had the infamous “Orphanage Freestyle” on Fifth Element Radio. Speaking of the Orphanage Freestyle, if you’ve heard those recordings then you have a good idea of how tough it is to take the mic away from Eyedea. Hahaaaaaa this mic hogging motherfucker. How are you supposed to get word in edgewise when a dude hits the zone as often as he does? Amazing.

Slug, Eyedea & Sage Francis (circa 2000)

“Embarrassed” – Sage Francis feat. Eyedea & Slug

The first full nation-wide jaunt we did together was opening up for Atmosphere on their “Fill In the Blanks” Tour, 2001. I was the first performer of the night, Eyedea and Abilities went on second, and it finished off with Atmosphere (this time it was Slug & Mr. Dibbs) as the headliner. I can remember talking philosophy and music with Mikey during those long drives in-between cities. Both of us were sober and in a committed relationship at the time so rather than partaking in the typical extracurricular tour activities we just talked shop. Max (DJ Abilities) and Mikey would often spend their time discussing how their set went the previous night. I remember this being a constant topic of conversation in the van. Besides that, there was a lot of freestyling and story telling as we built an impressive collection of inside jokes.

An interesting factoid I always like to bring up is how Mikey only took two showers during the entire tour, a tour full of passionate and sweaty performances in cities all around the country. Apparently he had a theory that not taking showers would keep him from getting sick on tour. Something about building up bacteria that would shield him from other peoples germs. One of the showers was only because he had his hair cut and he needed to get all the rogue hair clippings off of his neck. I think the second shower he took was because he was about to see his girlfriend. Two showers…haha. TWO.  He didn’t stink up the van or anything, although J-Bird may remember differently. I remember Bird repeatedly saying, “God damn Mikey…take a shower!” It’s always been something I think about when I need a good laugh.

DJ Abilities, Aesop Rock, Eyedea, Sage Francis, Brother Ali

There was a particularly strange interaction I had with him backstage before one of our shows during this tour. He asked me to meet him backstage to have a talk. It seemed serious. When I arrived backstage he shut the door, looked me square in the eyes and in the most deadpan manner said, “You’ve been doing really great on this tour. You’re getting the crowd really excited. You’re making them hop up and down and scream and whatever else…you need to cut that shit out.” I laughed, thinking to myself, “OK, what does this dude really want to talk about?” He remained deadpan and said, “No, I’m serious, you need to cut that shit out.” There have been very few moments in my life where I couldn’t rationalize the situation or at least think of something clever to say in order to break the tension of an uncomfortable moment. This was one of those times. I stammered and said, “OK, man…well. I’m not going to change my set. This is how it’s going to be.” And then I left the room in a state of confusion. It was never spoken about between us after that. I still don’t know if this was his strange way of giving me a compliment or if he was actually reprimanding me. It’s possible he was trying to make sure the energy of each show had a natural arch and I was fucking with the flow of the evening, but if he was in my position I know that he would have hit on all cylinders the same way I was doing. Ultimately I chalked it up as nonsense and try to remove it from my mind. This interaction between us is merely a sliver in time compared to all we did together but it perplexes me to this day. For this…he wins. He wins at a game that I thought I was the best at.

The “Fill In The Blanks” Tour ended on an incredibly high note. I rank this experience up there with some of the best times in my life. Everything was new and fresh. Infinite potential and opportunity was tugging at our pants, and all of us were friends who had the most talented and amazing people around us. From this point on we all split and went our separate ways but we still continued a linear path into the minds and playlists of many. Not all of us stayed in touch as frequently as we used to. That’s life I suppose. I noticed I was falling out of touch with Mikey around 2003 or 2004. It bothered me but I didn’t want to make an issue of it. We were all busy. We were all tending to our careers. It seemed like the next time we connected was as performers (rather than battlers) at Scribble Jam, 2004. Mikey was drinking now. Very drunk in fact. I only mention that because his demeanor and mental state were noticeably different from the person I had made a close connection with a few years prior. He told me he broke up with his girlfriend. Or maybe he told that to me during a phone conversation at an earlier point, I can’t remember now, I just figured that the drinking and smoking was his way of dealing with the pain. I also accepted that maybe this had nothing to do with pain at all. He simply was in a different place, we were new people, and I sure as hell wasn’t in any position to judge. I freestyled with him on stage at the end of the event, along with a bunch of other people, and we all had fun.

Later that year we both performed at a festival called Rock the Bells, which was filmed for a documentary of the same name. In that documentary you get a glimpse of the change that was taking place in Eyedea & Abilities’ performance. The audience, who were mainly there to see Wu Tang perform together for the first time in 10 years, had their heads tilted like a dog hearing a new sound that it can’t quite make sense of. We had officially left the point where the pander-bear rapper placates the crowd with a barrage of familiarity and crossed the line into uncharted waters. In the film you can see the promoters anxiously looking on from the side of the stage like, “What the FUCK are they DOING???” This very same night I was pelted by a hundred water bottles on stage only to meet Mikey and Max backstage with wide grins. I think they were thinking the same thing I was. What the hell are we doing here? Admittedly my own problem with the crowd had more to do with antagonistic banter rather pushing the boundaries of my music. E&A were moving their music and performance style into some new psychedelic, post-rap realm whether people liked it or not.

Much to the chagrin of the hip-hop following Mikey had earned himself with his earlier achievements, he went on to involved himself with different bands of various music styles. These past few years I didn’t speak to him much at all, but I noticed that his appearance had gone into a full transformation from clean cut hip-hop style into some unkempt grunge aesthetic. Everyone noticed this. It was a matter of much discussion and backlash among the underground peanut gallery. This new look of his seemed to me like he was manifesting or exorcising some inner-ugly. Again, I couldn’t judge. Still can’t. I’ve got my own ugly to deal with and I’m of the opinion that an artist needs to be given the freedom to perform, act and look however the fuck they want. If the artist is in a bad place then the artist will figure his way out of it through use of his tools.

drawing by Joe Tower

My last personal interaction with him was during our Rock the Bells tour last year. He approached me in his homemade t-shirt and with long, greasy hair dangling over his face. It appeared as if he’d gone deeper down the “no shower” path I was first acquainted with in 2001. I prepared myself to encounter a stranger; to greet someone unfamiliar in a slightly recognizable form. Instead, and much to my relief, old Mikey emanated through. The old jabbing, ribbing, enthusiastic, self-assured, “It’s a pleasure to meet me” Mikey was standing in front of my face calling me by my full Christian name. I suspect he knew how annoyed I was by that name, especially since he did it so often, but I didn’t dare tell him out of fear that it would encourage him to say it even more. We sat down on a couch in the outdoor “green room” where he broke out his acoustic guitar. I looked at him like, “Are you serious right now?” He stared back with that jagged, crazy, gap-toothed smile. He strummed the guitar and sang something under his breath that seemed to waver in and out of key. I chuckled as the crowd of onlookers gathered at the gate. I snapped a photo for the sake of posterity. When we were done with our performances he gave me a t-shirt and his new CD before we went our separate ways. For the last time.

The news of Mikey’s passing shocked me numb. I was in Australia by myself at the time, wrapping up what I’ve long been announcing is my last tour. Maybe I’ll find something new and fresh again. Maybe not. If nothing else, Mikey has left me with the encouragement to explore my own uncharted waters and do so unapologetically. I’m in New Zealand at the moment trying to finalize this (perhaps longwinded) eulogy which I’ve written with the heaviest of hearts. It’s difficult to accept that the youngest, most ambitious member of anything I could ever consider my “crew” is the first of us to go. There is absolutely no justice in this situation. He was an artist in constant transition, a friend to many, a teacher to thousands, and a son to the proudest, most involved mother I’ve ever known.

If you blinked and missed a moment of Mikey’s brilliance he’d be sure to let you know exactly what you missed. Since he’s not here to do that anymore, I (along with all his friends and family) will gladly do that for him. R.I.P. champ.


RIP Micheal Larsen (1981-2010)

Oct 23

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