A new documentary examines the life and work of Michael "Eyedea" Larsen, a charismatic and emotional Twin Cities emcee who developed from a teenage break-dancer and champion battle rapper into an influential figure in the underground hip-hop scene before his untimely death at age 28 in 2010.
Twin Cities resident and director Brandon Clawson interviewed fellow rappers from the Minneapolis scene, like Slug of Atmosphere and Carnage the Executioner, plus Larsen's longtime collaborator DJ Abilities.
He didn't want to interview "any musician that did any work with him that has over 75,000 followers on social media," even though that would make the film more commercially viable, he said in a phone interview.
Clawson developed a rule: focus on people who were a major part of Larsen's life for 10 years or more.
It was co-produced by Larsen's mother, Kathy Averill, and as such the film covers the full course of his life including archival footage and access to Larsen's hard drives of photos and music and his notebooks.
It's Clawson's debut as a documentary filmmaker. He was working in video production and readying a feature film when the opportunity for the project emerged. Averill, who was letting Clawson use Larsen's studio to record voice-overs, asked him to transfer VHS tapes of Larsen to digital.
Clawson has been a "diehard Eyedea fan" since he was 17, and counts "The Many Faces of Oliver Hart," recorded under the pseudonym Oliver Hart, as his "favorite album period." (He can recite flowing, complex verses from the album from memory, and says he knows Eyedea's catalog verbatim by this point.)
So he considered the chance to have rare footage a gift, and told Averill he'd transfer the tapes for free.
What's more, he said that if he could do enough interviews, he could make a documentary.
Averill could get Clawson access to rappers like Slug, and Larsen was such a cult figure that the online fundraiser brought in more than $21,000, which was 348 percent of their goal.
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The movie was selected for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, where extra screenings were booked, and since has been shown around the world, a testament to Eyedea's reach as an underground rapper.
Beyond the interviews with his friends and peers, the film includes archival footage of Larsen's early years break-dancing and battle-rapping.
While Larsen eventually made his reputation for the philosophical and personal depth of his technically challenging lyrics, the early battle raps have cult fans. (YouTube is filled with compilations.)
In his senior year of high school, he won two prestigious battling titles: the Scribble Jam and the Blaze Battle. In the latter, he defeated one of his heroes, P.E.A.C.E. of the influential L.A. collective, the Freestyle Fellowship.
He signed with Rhymesayers, the Twin Cities' home of Atmosphere, and built a reputation for philosophically dense lyrics, which made his death in 2010 of an accidental overdose all the more surprising and saddening.
Clawson said some of those lyrics, like "Here for You," were the first time he'd heard a summary of his own spiritual life in rhymes:
"I'm here for you, not for any self-centered reasons
Because existence is interdependent and all's related
Connected in its different manifestations of one single mind
You ain't isolated from the world even though it feels like that sometimes."