“[...] if [Mikey's music] was preparing us [for life after him], I wish he would have done a better job with preparing me.” This was an honest sentiment that I have felt with losing a family member, and the rest of Kathy’s story was as life changing as her son's music. In a quiet neighborhood on the West side of Saint Paul, seemingly uneventful, was the home of a Minnesota legend. Eyedea, also known as Oliver Hart, Bobby Obvious, and several other aliases, was not just a legend in the Twin Cities, but in underground hip-hop as well. This, however, isn't a story about music. The story is of a man who bypassed the usual and dove into the strange and the mother that guided him in each phase of life. This is the story of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen.
Kathy Averill opened up her house to Upcoming Hip Hop for what I can only describe as the experience of a lifetime.
Although this story doesn't start in Minnesota. Kathy always knew she wanted to move back to her home state after she had kids. Michael was born in North Carolina and soon after, moved with his mother to the land of 10,000 lakes. I think it’s always interesting to find out the location artists draw their influence from, and while it might not seem obvious, Eyedea’s mother, Kathy, played a large role in his music. But even more interesting, is the role he played in influencing her.
UHH: I see it in my writing a lot, the influence of my parents and specifically my mother. Not just in the sense that they pushed me to do what I love, but the mannerism and emotion of my writing, but with Mikey, he actually pushed you to do something.
Kathy Averill: “He pushed me to go back to college. He wanted me to get paid for all the kids I was helping. And he used to help me a lot. He used to read my papers and correct them and he would do this thing I used to hate. I am dyslexic, extremely dyslexic, so I see blank spots. I learned a lot of tricks growing up because when I was young there wasn't a thing called dyslexia, but I still had it. [Mikey] would do this thing where he would say ‘read this sentence’ and I would read it and he would [say 'read it again'] and when I missed a word he would say ‘shut the door’, because I would type out the complete thought but when I read it there would be words missing."
This notion of helping others didn't just stop at his mother; it is part of what made Michael Larsen more than just a golden-mouthed lyricist. In The World Has No Eyedea, a documentary about Mikey, Slug (of Atmosphere) talks about how Mikey would stop short on his battle rapping when it was someone he respected or a friend. Some called it a weakness, but I see it as greatness, especially considering he was talented enough to beat P.E.A.C.E. in the Scribble Jams final without going for the throat. This was something he had from the beginning; compassion was built into Mikey's DNA, through his mother, and allowed him to live up to his potential. Every mother probably thinks her son is going to grow up to do great things, but Mikey was told repeatedly from a young age that he had what it took.
UHH: What can you tell me about the bookstore B Dalton?
KA: Well, it doesn't exist anymore.
UHH: Yeah, it closed down a while ago, but I am intrigued by one of the books you picked up there.
KA: Oh, and I wish I would have bought it and read more. I kick myself but [then again I don't] because I don't want to know more and that's why I slammed the damn book shut. It said Mikey would die by the age of 32 and he would be a vegetarian, those were the two that I remember. He eventually became a vegetarian, and when we were [at the book store] he was close [a few feet away looking at children’s books] so I don't think he heard me, but he could have.
Art imitates life, and Michael’s music is full of philosophies and insights. In a Rock the Bells interview, he mentioned something I can’t get out of my head. He talked about not wanting to be tied down to any specific model of the universe, while understanding that those models can be used to make sense of the world around you. “It's like reading the menu and never eating the food.” This thought resonates with me and was exemplified with Kathy wanting to “shut the book”. Even if that model is an exact representation of our life, basing your life around that model will cause you to never fully live your life. This was another case where Kathy’s influence is prominent with Mikey. Early on in his life was where I found her inspiration to be most important in creating the artist he became.
UHH: I found it interesting that you had a couple rules when Mikey was a child and the first one that stuck out to me was the NS (no smoking) rule. Can you explain that because when I heard it I instantly thought of my mom?
KA: Well first of all, when you make rules for a household, depending on how old they are, [they need to be] participating in the rules and household organization and the fact that this is a community even if it’s just a family. [By the time] Mike was 13 is when the NS rules came about […] I wanted to make sure that [in the house] at certain times [there was] no smoking. You're too damn young. There were no substances [allowed,] I don't care who gave you what. You bring it to me and we talk about it. [..There] was no swearing. We had a swear jar [that applied] to everyone. I mean Slug would come in this house and he would put a twenty dollar bill in there because he knew he couldn't keep his mouth shut.
As in philosophy, there needs to be balance in the household. Kathy went on to explain that for every rule she created, she allowed Mikey and his friends to create a “NS” rule. The house was plastered with NS signs when they were younger and everyone knew what they meant coming in. A few that stuck out to her were the groups’ “No Sucker Emcee” rule and the “No Sucking Sasha” rule. The NS rules provided ground for not only keeping the boys safe and giving them guidance, but also allowing them to feel like part of a community rather than being ruled. This would create a sense of worth for Mikey, but the next rule is what I believe allowed for his natural creativity to come to the forefront.
UHH: The NS rules seem to play well into Mikey's relationship with others, but the “One Year rule” I believe brought out his creativity.
KA: Yes, absolutely. You have to do everything for a year. I don't care what it is, but you have to do it for a year. I will bust my ass so you can do it every [single] time, but you have to do it for a year.
UHH: And I love this rule because not only does it give him the creative environment to seek out whatever he is interested in, but it creates a habit of seeing things through. I wanted to ask if you saw that influence in his music and his ability to transition from Hip-hop to grunge and punk?
KA: I always loved his band music. I like the hip-hop too, and the jazz stuff and there were some new things he was working on [that I liked]. I always thought deep down...I mean [rappers] are musicians too, but they aren't the type of musicians I grew up with, so I think some part [of me] wanted him to be one of those musicians because that's what I grew up with.
Mikey didn't just happen to stumble into music one day. As we progressed, Kathy explained that while she wasn't musically inclined herself, [“Mikey would be the first to tell you I'm tone deaf”], she was always infatuated with music because she grew up in a house that rarely, if ever, watched television. Instead, she was constantly listening to music. Whether in the car or around the house, Kathy had a throng of records of all varieties except country [Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash aside]. And even though she may not have sung in tune, one memory she had was singing Toni Basil's “Hey Mickey,” changing the words to “Hey Mikey,” and even gave me a short preview. While she might not have blessed the mic like her son, she did have a rather amusing story about her rapping career.
KA: There is one story, and his friends will remember this one, where Mikey used to bet his friends that I could sing every word to Rapper’s Delight. They would bet him left and right and no one believed him. I was like 'do you guys know how old I am?'
These bets would take place on the road, where Kathy had originally been the one to travel with him as a minor. As he grew older she would go to fewer shows as there were more dates and further distances. However, whenever he needed her she would drive out to a show to collect money or restock the merchandise and food supplies. There was one particularly interesting thing that she would do when she felt the stress of the tour was getting to him.
UHH: So you mentioned sometimes he would ask you to come out just to drive around with him, can you elaborate on that?
KA: We used to do it all the time [because] driving was the one place [where] there were no distractions. When you have teenagers and especially a kid who, in my mind, is super creative and super smart and wants justice and fairness, [it can cause] the world [to be] super cruel and hard. [So I, as a parent,] decided that once a week, every week, we would get in the car for about two to three hours and just drove and talked and got everything out.
This connection between a mother and son is something personal to me as it wasn't until later in life that I grew this connection with my own mother. Now I sometimes find myself taking the back roads home just to squeeze out an extra ten minutes on the phone with her. Kathy explained that they would go look at houses or find new parks and that it was a very refreshing feeling when it was done because life's distractions were held at bay for another week. For Mikey, this was especially important because of his ever thirsting brain. She also told a story about the song “Styrofoam,” which is based on how he tried every experiment to recycle styrofoam and revealed that he even tried to get a grant to research it. The drives began with Kathy taking Michael out to talk about life and everything, but as he grew older he would take her out for drives to explain his songs and the meanings behind them. More specifically, he talked to her about some of his songs in which he would kill her off or she was dead in. He wanted her to know that they were just stories. This brings me to a place in music that often draws me in. Music as art is subjective and every person will latch on differently, but is the producer of the art’s direction important?
UHH: You brought up that he would talk to you about killing you off in a song and wanted to be sure you understood his direction in creating it, but did Mikey think that his intent in the meaning of a song was important, or did he want the fans to create their own interpretation?
KA: He believed that people will interpret his songs from their own experience and from where they are mentally and emotionally. Sometimes it will be the meaning he wanted, sometimes it will mean something else, and sometimes it will mean something more important to them, but I don't think [he thought] it purposely needs to mean “this”. [For Mikey] it was more about a general feeling that can mean nine-hundred things and 'I might tell what they mean, I might not.' […] I know what every song is about and who it’s about, even the ones I don't want to know.
UHH: He has a particular song that weighs heavily for me. "The Breaks" was a song I had heard a couple years after my cousin passed away in a drunk-driving accident and hearing it was the first time I had ever cried because of music. It’s a purely emotional response that, to me, is incredible.
KA: People often ask me, not that you will, about my favorite song or what I [am listening to currently] and they are surprised when I tell them I don't listen to music anymore. I hear it, it’s on the radio or when I go to shows. Music is always around me, but I don't listen to music anymore. And you said it, it brings an emotional response and that emotional response went away with Mike [...] I used to go to it for emotional stimulation just like you and many others. [I don't now] because I have other things. And people think it’s sad or it’s hard, but it’s not. It’s just change. If you quit smoking or quit drinking coffee or start exercising, it’s just a change. Generally people go to music because it is a universal connector of humans and it isn't for me anymore. I have two closets full of books.
This revelation had me originally saddened and sympathetic, but change is vital in life, as Kathy explained. The further the interview went on, the more I realized that Mikey’s genius was perhaps because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and while change doesn't always make sense, Kathy’s attitude towards it was a breath of fresh air.
“Everyone wants to get out of the rain...” These lyrics are often some of the most notable when talking about Eyedea. However, he not only wanted to be in the rain, he wanted to be the rain himself. And like most things he put his mind to, he succeeded. Some call it coincidence and some say it’s simply not true, but every major Rhymesayers event has been accompanied by precipitation. Without even realizing it at the time, I was lucky enough to experience this at last year’s Soundset. On a beautiful bright sunny day, rain clouds passed over-head every couple of hours to sprinkle down and cool us off.
UHH: One of my favorite philosophies of Mikey's was his love of the rain and how he had said he will come back as rain someday. Where did this idea come from?
KA: He decided when he was really young [about 8] that he was going to be reincarnated as rain. [The dream to be reincarnated] has a lot to do with my brother being on kidney dialysis. […] a lot of people when they are on dialysis [have the risk of] dying because they change your heart rate and such. And so you can die when you’re on it, but you'll die if you're not on dialysis. So, we had a lot of discussions when he was young. […] First of all, one of the rules I had was that you could never talk to Mikey like he was a baby. It was always adult conversations even when he was five days old. So he [started asking] and having those conversations with all of us. How does it work? What happens? Where does your body go? What do people decide? And he decided that he was going to come back as rain.
UHH: And I wanted to get into the idea of the rain itself because for me, I envisioned it as reincarnation itself. Rain starts in the clouds and falls to the earth for some time only to be evaporated back into the clouds.
KA: When he got older I think that was more of it, but when he was young [maybe subconsciously] he never voiced that idea of this is where I came from, I'm here and then I go back, but it is that circle and the ripple effect. […] Mikey chose the rain because it is always around. We are made up of water. Water heals. It helps things grow. The planet is mostly water. Mikey wanted to become that.
Kathy went on to further explain how he reached this conclusion because of a nature and nurture aspect of his life. She, like me, sees both as vital instruments in creating the persona of an individual. Although, if you ask Mikey's grandmother, she'd tell you he was born with all that greatness. I see it every day in my life and writing. The influence of my parents, my peers, my surroundings, but none of that negates the fact that somewhere deep inside, I was born with the ability to put words together and draw out emotions. Mikey was born with a certain sense of empathy and wonderment. Kathy told me the story of the first time Mikey killed a bird while hunting and instantly regretted it and wanted to fix the bird. From there he would go on to never touch a gun again until he had to, due to a stalker of Kathy's. Once that was resolved, Mikey went back to not owning a gun or wanting anything to do with them.
Change is something everyone must face in their life, and often times changes aren't easy, sometimes they aren't for the better. The last segment of this article is the hardest and I wasn't even sure I would put it in. As his family, friends and fans know, October 16, 2010 was Michael Larsen's last day before becoming the rain. While his death was painful for everyone around him, I had noticed a pattern in his music that I thought worth noting.
UHH: I don't want this story to be so much on Michael’s death, but I felt as though he was preparing fans and family alike for his death through his music.
KA: And that's very possible, I guess I never really looked at it [like that]. Mikey talked a lot about death [in his music]. It's hard to know if that's because of the experiences he had with his uncle being sick and a really good mentor dying when he was young or him knowing that [Maxx “DJ Abilities” Keltgen explains in the documentary] his body was going to wear out cause he had rheumatoid arthritis and he was in pain and his hips were starting to go already. Or, was it that he knew something we didn't. […] I don't know if Mikey was trying to prepare me, or us, or maybe himself, I don't really know. I'd like to get to talk to a psychic sometimes but it’s one of those things where you just 'close the book'.
“Only the lonely resent angels for flying” is the lyric I have chosen to end this piece on. It is what sparked my initial interest into looking deeper into the life of Mikey and moving past the death of him. I never had the chance to see him perform live, although thanks to Kathy, I now have well over seven hours of footage to look through and experience. But this line is one of many that influenced me and added to the person I am today. Losing friends, family members, and loved ones is often difficult and can lead to anger. That resentment is what drives others away. The true brilliance in this line is that it reminds us that it was their time. The angel is in all of us; don't hold onto pain for someone taking flight.
The experience of a lifetime to sit down and hear all the inner workings of Oliver Hart, aka Oliver Smart, aka Eyedea, but always Micheal Larsen, will be forever engrained in my heart. I want to personally thank Kathy Averill for opening her house and her heart to me to discuss her son and his lifetime of brilliance. I’d also like to thank her for showing me the original basement studio of Mikey with the door signed by some of the greatest emcees to ever bless the microphone. This story is a tribute to the life and teachings of Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen in hopes that his aura will go on and his rain cloud will continue to provide life to the masses that take a minute to pause, listen, and absorb his music.