Immediate reaction regarding the untimely and tragic demise of Eyedea, nee Michael Larson, a.k.a. Oliver Hart, has been to eulogize him as one of the greatest freestyle battlers of his era — likely the last one where large swaths of hip-hop fans genuinely prized the importance of being “nice off the dome.” A Scribble jam, Blaze, and Rock Steady champ and one of the early Underground stars, Eyedea was a familiar site around fin de siecle cyphers, a floppy haired teenaged Minnesotan co-signed by Slug, who quickly quelled any doubters with his polysyllabic tangles of perfect/imperfect rhymes and absolute virtuosity.
Dovetailing with the rise of Napster, his freestyles flooded file sharing networks, with every one ostensibly building up to the eventual triumph of Underground rap OVER THE EVIL MAINSTREAM. So the kids were told, and Eyedea was one of the reasons why we believed it. If Eminem was the transformative Larry Bird-like figure that proved that (a few) white people could rap well, Eyedea was its Dan Majerle — an unsung high-strung talent of Midwestern provenance who would never make the Dream Team, but could very well make the World Championship squad and maybe help Cedric Ceballos win a dunk contest. But skin color was incidental, Eyedea was good enough to make those thorny questions moot, and he delivered a brief string of classic singles and exceptional full-lengths that were lamentably overshadowed by his battle ability.
After 2004’s E&A — like many of his indie rap peers — he went off the grid for the remainder of the decade, occasionally recording bombastic hard rock for a group called Carbon Carousel. It was a bizarre move for someone only 24 and seemingly just coming into his own as an artist. But Eyedea was always far from the norm, his lyrics were unusually introspective and haunting, grappling with themes of mental disorder, split personalities, and miscellaneous abstractions. But he was careful to leaven it with the battle-rap boasts that struck the backpacker breadbasket. He eventually resurfaced with a final Rhymesayers release and a Rock the Bells swing, which suggested that his career arc was back on the ascent.
Details of his cause of death have yet to surface, but his mother has created a Facebook page seeking funds for his funeral. In memory of one of the most talented and creative artists to do it, I’m posting a few of Eyedea’s finest tracks. He stood alone and will be missed by many.–Weiss