The Abilities To Persevere

After the death of his friend and rap cohort, DJ Abilities experiments with live melodious beats.

The Family Tour
With Atmosphere, Blueprint, Grieves with Budo,
Sab The Artist and DJ Abilities
Friday, May 13, 8 p.m.
Starlite Room (10030-102nd St.)

On wax they may have became one — melting philosophy with melody, lighting it up like a twisted candle to illuminate rap’s furthest corners, only to be tragically snuffed out. But their brightest sparks of inspiration followed an initial seething friction.

“I knew he didn’t’ like me that much at first,” producer and turntable virtuoso Abilities, who was born Gregory Keltgen and will perform solo at the Starlite on May 13, says of Eyedea,  the lyricist that would go on to become his rap cohort — an inspiration for the rest of his life and beyond.

“He and a lot of people didn’t’ like me at the time because I was just this goofy kid, but I had the hottest girlfriend,” says Keltgen.

That initial tension seemed to throb along with a deafening baseline, as a young Keltgen elbowed his way through the house party he was hosting, much to the dismay of his would be partner — Micheal ‘Eyedea’ Larsen.

“The DJ was playin’ Organized Confusion, but I wanted to make the party more live. So I put on Wu-Tang,” Abilities says of the Staten Island Kung Fu MC’s — he had just nabbed a copy of their landmark debut before it began dominating the airwaves in 1993. “And (Eyedea) frowned like ‘Ahh you took off Organized Confusion.’ We were not super cool.”

But he kept bumping into Larsen between their middle school classes and at other parties across their hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. By the mid-’90s they’d both become each other’s begrudging admirers as they slayed their way through local hip hop battles. Before long the pair each became prominent members of the national alternative scene, with Abilities winning the coveted DMC Regional DJ championship in both 1999 and 2001, and Eyedea dominating the HBO Blaze Battle freestyle special in 2000 until he had heavy weight clout.

In 2001 they released First Born, their debut album as a duo, before following it up with the electro tinged E&A in 2004. Abilities then laced the beats with mangled guitar licks on 2009’s By The Throat, an album which not only complimented the grungy punk side projects Eyedea had delved into during their hiatus, but also served as the rapper’s strangely self penned epitaph. They were oblivious as song titles like “Junk,” and “Forgive Me for My Synapses,” and “Hay Fever,” cast bitter foreshadows along with lyrics like “... scared to life, a painless death ... all my ideas become perfect little blind spots ...”

Long before the melancholy in Eyedea’s last lyrics manifested into something more, he and Abilities amassed a devoted following. The MC’s aggressive, battle hardened b-boy background was juxtaposed on their albums with Platonic philosophy and richly detailed narratives. And Abilities tried to one-up his partner’s ambition on fan favourites like “Reintroducing,” where the Minnesota DJ scratched Eyedea’s rhymes upon utterance, leaving each artist sounding like they had trapped the other in a trance.

As Eyedea focused on hard rock side projects, Abilities began a far more eclectic experiment. The DJ began using Serato software to transfer music he finds online to vinyl, in essence crafting his own LP’s to scratch over. He coupled that fresh form of sampling with a Controller One tool that allows him to change the pitch of those rhythms. Suddenly he wasn’t a mere DJ, but more like the MCs he’d produced for, freestyling his art for the audience.

 “I’ll do scales that’ll repeat so that people will catch on about halfway through (the song) and realize that I’m actually creating a melody,” he says of his latest turntable performances. “And usually I’ll do it with voices, I won’t even use the notes, it’ll be like a phrase or a word and it just sounds really gnarly like the Matrix or something.”

That level of improv is Abilities’ key element on his latest tour, where he DJs mostly without the accompaniment of an MC as a wordless tribute to his rhythmic partner. But it’s more than cathartic— building beats as his listeners dance to them is simply inspiring.

It’s been his biggest challenge since he and Eyedea worked to balance traditional boom bap and the avant garde on all their albums. That combination garnered them opening slots for the legendary rappers that sparked their sparring camaraderie at that house party so many years before — in 2004 they preceded The Wu-Tang Clan at the 2004 Rock The Bells festival, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s last performance before he overdosed months later.

Eyedea eventually succumbed to his own struggle with addiction on October 16 2010, when he went to bed having accidentally ingested a lethal amount of opiates, only to have his mother try to rouse him in vain.

Abilities says it will be a long time before he can collaborate with another MC — he hopes to continue his live DJing before crafting an all instrumental album.

 “I don’t know who else to work with, because I don’t think I’ll ever have a relationship like (I had) with Mike,” he says of his tie with Eyedea. “I will be sad about it probably for the rest of my life, it comes and goes ... Unfortunately he died too soon but I’m an optimistic person, I will never stop trying to be happy.”

The DJ says he and his rap comrade always worked toward that level of intricate joy.

“His ability to be a really good battle MC translated into regular life because he was quick and he would be able to tell jokes really fast,” Abilities says of his friend. “We just had a really similar sense of humour... we’d be making jokes in a group of people, and we’d be the only ones that’d get em ... (he) just was a very on point individual ... just a great human being.”




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