Success without hugeness

Eyedea and Abilities keep hope alive however the hell they feel like it

Eyedea (left) will shake hands after he freestyles you to death. It’s just the kind of guy he is.

Eyedea (left) will shake hands after he freestyles you to death. It’s just the kind of guy he is.

When he was 19, hip-hop artist Eyedea (born Mike Averill) recalls making more money than any adult in his family, which was funny because there weren’t many outward appearances to speak of. That is, no MTV videos or radio play, and barely any press.

“People don’t realize how successful you can be without being huge. Sell 10,000 records a year, and you’re making a living,” says the Twin Cities rapper, who just turned 26. “You can literally do that by having a box of CDs in your hand and going out every night and talking to people.”

It probably helps if you have Eyedea’s gift for gab. Speaking from his St. Paul, Minn. home, he’s relaxed and forthcoming. He recalls meeting his partner in crime, DJ Abilities (a.k.a. Gregory “Max” Keltgen), when the local scene was still in its infancy. They hit it off immediately, and soon they were like family. Literally.

“It turned out he needed a place to stay,” Eyedea says. “So I moved him into my mom’s house when I was 13. [We] became like brothers.”

Both youngsters grew as artists within their own realm. While Abilities was winning regional DJ battles, Eyedea honed his skills on the battle-rap circuit, taking the prestigious Scribble Jam championship in ’99, and a handful of others on his way to winning HBO’s televised Blaze Battle.

“I was always very interested in improvising. I still am. It’s probably my favorite thing in the world to do, improvising music,” he continues. “The improvising, the competitiveness at that point … was a good way to get your name in people’s mouths.”

Eventually Eyedea grew tired of mocking others’ appearances (a frequent ingredient of winning freestyle battles), and began working to tell stories rather than revel in the machismo-driven rants that typify battle rhymes. Atmosphere’s MC Slug was a strong influence.

“I met him when I was really young, like 15, and he kind of got me out of that, like ‘There’s more to talk about, you know.’ He kind of encouraged and led the way for me to develop [the storytelling], and then as far as his work ethic—it’s nice to have people much older than me, and seeing how they work to be successful.”

Eyedea followed Slug’s D.I.Y. lead, and when it came time for Eyedea & Abilities’ second release, 2004’s E&A, Epitaph (a label started by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz) stepped in to license it, upping their profile another step. The album was suffused with tight, intelligent rhymes, from the ode to enduring passion and faith, “Exhausted Love,” to the canny cultural critique “Man vs. Ape.” It earned them new legions of fans.

Yet Eyedea felt the call to explore and abandoned hip-hop for almost three years in favor of guitar. “When stuff started getting weird and maybe plateau-ing a little bit for the genre, I just kind of moved on,” he says.

While it was difficult to walk away from a consistent payday, Eyedea felt compelled to honor his art first. So he explored guitar, improv and composition, first with his experimental free-jazz combo, Face Candy, and later, his rock band, Carbon Carousel.

“It’s interesting going from playing [music for] all these 15 year olds who will buy anything you make to doing a rock show at a bar where people won’t even look at you,” he says. Yet he’s not discouraged, and marks the experience down as part of his maturation as an artist.

“Even on the indie level there’s so much business talk about establishing a career and keeping the momentum going and all this, and it’s kind of bullshit. I mean, I understand why it’s important, but it’s like, ‘Who cares?’ Do you feel like touring? If you don’t, then don’t. Go do something else. It’s not the end of the world. If you believe in your art, you’ll always be fine.”

Even though he and Abilities have only just begun working on new material, Eyedea’s sporting a “What, me worry?” grin about the forthcoming tour and their time away. “My biggest effort goes into actually making the art better,” he says. “Maybe I have to go work a job to do that, but at least I’m doing something like that and advancing myself and hopefully other people.”