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Celebrating Eyedea, the greatest to ever freestyle

Today I remember Eyedea, aka Micheal Larsen, who died ten years ago. “Who’s the best rapper ever?” is an unanswerable question, but when it comes specifically to freestyling, Eyedea is the Greatest Of All Time.

As a hip-hop-loving teen in the early 2000s, I traded Eyedea’s mp3s on peer-to-peer sharing services like Napster and KaZaa. He was only two years older than me and yet by 18 he had already vanquished all comers to become the undisputed champion of battle rap. He got bored of battling and moved on, but his freestyles never got old to me. Here are some of my favorites, both battles and whimsical freestyles. If you never heard them, you’re in for a treat. Even a layperson can appreciate the greatest of all time putting on a master class, in anything.

Battles

CityPages has a list of five great Eyedea battles, with embedded videos. The first one listed, from HBO’s Blaze Battle tournament in 2000 (which Eyedea won), is a classic. When his opponent starts dancing to distract him, Eyedea immediately builds his final rhymes around that: “this cat wants to be my backup dancer!”

This is the best part of Eyedea’s freestyles: they’re so clearly extemporaneous. So many recordings and appearances billed as “freestyles” are obviously pre-written. No surprise, as even skilled rappers struggle to make up decent rhymes entirely on the fly. Eyedea’s flows are indisputably improvised, as shown by his ability to respond to opponents in battles (and friends in cyphers).

Friendly freestyles

The greatest freestyle session ever recorded is also a settled matter: the 2000 KFAI Orphanage freestyle. Here’s Blueprint’s description of the legendary session, but more importantly here’s the recording: 45 glorious minutes of freestyles, as indie rap icons trade the mic back and forth.

DJ Abilities spins perfect beats and all the rappers have great moments, so it’s worth listening to all the way through as a freestyle showcase. But Eyedea shines the brightest. In particular, the back and forth with Slug about being the mayor of Minneapolis and fixing the streets is an incredible demonstration of cleverness and creativity. Eyedea first comes on at 2:52, then the exchange with Slug begins at 17:12 with Eyedea’s “braggadocious” boasting.

I played this mp3 on repeat and memorized big chunks of it. Listening to it twenty years later, it’s still untouchable. (The casual homophobia and misogyny of the early 2000s does detract from the rhymes, though).

Eyedea and Slug have another impeccable freestyle session on the Wake Up Show, this one with video so you can watch them go off. The grizzled-looking Eyedea raps, “I know that the fact is my mustache is dirty / I’m twenty, but with this, chicks think that I’m thirty” – that dates this recording to 2002.

R Eye P

Having mastered freestyles, battling, and classic brag raps (“Weird Side” and “Big Shots” were favorites of mine), Eyedea moved onto other genres. He was so good, technically and creatively, and yet he was just getting started when he died in 2010. It hurts to think of what he could have done with a full life, what we’re missing. Sure, it’s sad when an established music icon dies after a long career, but Eyedea’s death, in his prime, was truly a tragedy.

Here’s to the greatest to ever freestyle, and to your written music too, Mikey. May your memory be a blessing to us all. As he wrote, mourning his dog, in “Hay Fever”:

Winter takes the warm away
spring takes the cold away
summer takes the rain away
and fall took away my friend

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