Eyedea & Abilities
by James M. Manheim
The sheer cleverness of the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Eyedea & Abilities begins with their name, a punning reflection on the genre's fundamental duality of rapper and disc jockey, of conceptual and kinetic energies. But that's just a teaser for their slender but remarkable output of high-concept hip-hop, music that explores the limits of the verbal virtuosity inherent in the hip-hop genre.
Their 2001 album First Born gave an idea of what Eminem might have sounded like had he holed up in our town and studied philosophy at the U-M for a few years. With multiple references to Plato and a great debate between a man and his fish over exactly who is caught in a glass box, it was involved, ambitious, and at times very funny. The duo took three years, an eternity in the fast-changing hip-hop scene, to release their second album, E&A. This work at one point contains the phrase "full-scale ontological warfare," but in general it is less intellectual than their first release, if no less ambitious.
One of the most common topics of hip-hop pieces is hip-hop music itself; that should have been an early tip-off that a sophisticated art form was emerging amid all the party music. The music on E&A involves various topics, but several times it returns to the common theme of a verbal attack on one's rivals. These are full of unusual twists and variations; Eyedea, like Eminem, rose to prominence by winning MC battles. One piece, "Man vs. Ape," inverts the boasting rapper into a right-wing figure ("I hold picket signs outside abortion clinic doors / I take what I want / And my God can kill yours"), counterpointed in a bass voice by a winding warning voice accompanied with a repeated bass guitar figure.
More generally, Eyedea & Abilities base their sound, for all their innovation, in the oldest hip-hop music. The sonic spaces defined by Abilities are full of classic sounds like scratching and the
sampling of stretches of thematically related dialogue from films or television programs. Yet these two set the genre on its head with the original ways in which they treat its basic ideas.
It has often been pointed out that hip-hop is approaching its quarter-century age marker. While it has so far been able to resist nostalgia tours, it is showing other signs of institutionalization. A few educational organs now transmit its techniques, and a consciously progressive underground has taken shape, carrying on a conversation with the genre's mainstream. Eyedea & Abilities belong to this underground, and they are poised to make the most influential kind of underground music: the kind that takes classic models for points of departure.
If you're curious about these developments but grew up in a time when profanity and obscenity were rare on radio and records, know that Eyedea & Abilities have less of these than most of their counterparts, although well more than none at all. Eyedea & Abilities appear at the Blind Pig on Wednesday, November 17.
[Originally published in November, 2004.]