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Winter Warriors

Indie Hip-Hop Takes a Drink From the Land of 10,000 Lakes

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 11/27/2002

Getting paid is such an ingrained part of hip-hop's status quo that the exceptions seem not merely anomalous but outright weird. Take Mike Averill, the Minneapolis MC who raps under the name Eyedea. On Nov. 2, 2000, Eyedea won the HBO-televised Blaze Battle, a high-profile rhyme contest in New York that was judged by none other than KRS-One. Soon thereafter, the rumors began flying that the rapper, still in high school, had two offers on the table--one from the artist then known as Puff Daddy--that averaged half a million dollars each. Every rap label wanted an Eminem of its own. For the young, pale, and nasal Eyedea, the sky was conceivably the limit.

Instead, he abjured the silly money, went on tour as second MC with underground heroes Atmosphere, and cut his first album for his hometown crew's label, Rhymesayers Entertainment. Last year's First Born (co-credited to Abilities, a Minneapolis DJ/beatmaker) demonstrated what a bad idea a Puffed-up Eyedea would have been. The disc's one unvarnished triumph was "Big Shots," a sly ditty about high-school popularity ("Don't front, you know you love me/ Girls never wash their hands after they get a chance to touch me"). Too often, though, Eyedea was writing over his head. Songs like "A Murder of Memories," told from the viewpoint of a Vietnam veteran, shortchanged his natural gift for bumptious flow and smart-aleck insults, and the album suffered from the overthinking that hobbles way too much indie rap.

If First Born featured too much of Eyedea disguising himself as other people, his far better new disc does the opposite--Averill's even got a new nickname. The Many Faces of Oliver Hart, or How Eye One the Write Too Think is a laborious title for a gratifyingly lighter disc. As the title indicates, the rapper still overreaches. Many Faces' 73-minute length would have benefited from judicious editing, and bromides like "Make money and die, that's the American way" (from "How Much Do You Pay?") sound no deeper than they ever do. So Eyedea will never be Nelly. But any indie rapper whose first rhyme begins, "I'm here to break my own ball and chain," or who kills a turgid track like "On a Clear Day" to huff, "Here, let me cut this shit, man/ It's a nice day, fuck sitting here and writing. I'm going for a walk," is doing better, pleasure principle-wise, than the majority of his backpacking peers. And please, more songs like the embrace-your-inner-freak "Weird Side": "20 years in the same city and I still don't know my way around . . . I swear someday I'm gonna be somebody's hero/ But until that day/ I'm just another fucking weirdo."

It's telling that the disc's other major highlight comes near the end, on "Forget Me," when a verse is taken by Eyedea's mentor, Atmosphere's Slug. Instead of sounding beholden to flow as something you subsume yourself in vocally--the curse of the Rakim-worshiping indie set--Slug sounds in command of it, like he can take it anywhere he wants at any possible time. What you hear on Atmosphere's 2001 album Lucy Ford and this summer's God Loves Ugly is, unmistakably, a star--not necessarily a famous person, just someone who can light up a room at will--even if, on Ugly, Slug often sounded trapped between a comfortable niche as one of indie rap's top dawgs and a desire to compete with the mainstream.

There's no reason to believe that Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci, Slug's new collaboration with Murs, of the Oakland, Calif., crew Living Legends, is any indication that he's chosen the former--not if recent rumors of Rhymesayers' negotiating major-label distribution are to be believed. But the half-hour disc (seven "real" songs and three interludes) is a nice resting place, and far looser than Ugly. Part of this is due to the production, from Oakland beatmaker the Grouch and Memphis, Tenn.'s Mr. Dibbs, who's also been pulling shifts as Atmosphere's tour DJ. There's an uncluttered charm to the rolling tinkles of "Hot Bars," the slow-and-low 808 statements of "Suzanne Vega," the cocoonlike keyboard hook of "Rick James." Most of it, though, comes from Slug, who sets the tone at the top of "The Two": "I'm not a player/ I throw up a lot." The song is a comic narrative about Murs and Slug rescuing the world from mainstream supervillains only to find themselves so broke that they resort to record-store jobs. "We saved the world," Murs raps. "Brought joy to the masses/ But we couldn't save ourselves/ From the government and taxes." No one has ever written a better meta-commentary on indie rap. And "Suzanne Vega" swipes the melody of "Tom's Diner" as well as altering the chorus of "Luka": "My name is Sluggo/ I live on the second floor/ I live upstairs from you/ I'm the one you try to ignore." It's also one of Slug's seemingly endless store of road songs: The song takes place in Los Angeles, but keep in mind that you do a lot of driving in the Midwest.

The same restlessness-in-the-middle-of-nowhere spirit showed up in another recent Minneapolis album: Fog, the self-titled debut of the one-man band christened Andrew Broder. He also shares with Slug a penchant for rewiring well-known songs. Broder's Modern Hits EP essentially creates six mash-up bootlegs whole-cloth, melding a cappella rap with his own lazy, basement-bound instrumentation. His reworking of Kool G Rap's "On the Run" is a disaster--aimless bass and acoustic guitar noodling, à la Neil Young's Dead Man score. And Edan's "Drop Some Smooth Lyrics" (driving front-porch acoustic guitars with trash-can drums and theremins commenting in the margins) and MF Doom's "Ain't Nothing" (a loping groove with an early-'70s folk-soul feel, topped by a frazzling, frayed trumpet solo) never rise above interesting.

The other half is another matter. Broder's overhaul of "The Whole World" underpins OutKast with a tack piano, hornet-buzz organ drone, and shuffling beat, turning Dre and Big Boi into guest stars in the Elephant 6 troupe--Atlanta meets Athens, the Dirty South getting crunk in the aeroplane over the sea. It's almost alarmingly perfect; the deliberately raggedy-assed vocals on the song's chorus even sound like they're in tune now. His version of Jay-Z's "Takeover" works up a head of steam to match Jay-Z's most incendiary lyric: a stomping drum kit, deep, deep upright bass, and two pianos that start spidery and discordant--like an amateur playing Thelonious Monk--and build to tandem clusters. By contrast, the slow-rising dynamics of "One Mic" keep to a simmering intensity that never quite crests, allowing Nas' hurtling wordplay plenty of room. P. Diddy, unfortunately, could not be reached for comment.

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