DJ Abilities has spent the 20 years since the release of his seminal collaboration with Eyedea, First Born, simultaneously honoring its legacy and trying to move forward. While Abilities, born Gregory Keltgen, rose to prominence in the Minnesota rap scene with Eyedea, he’s been living outside of the state for 15 years, and hasn’t helmed a rap LP since Eyedea & Abilities released By The Throat in 2009, just a year before Eyedea passed away. The MC born Michael Larsen, died tragically in 2010, at the age of 28.
It’s impossible to view First Born, or much of Abilities’ career, through a lens outside of what Eyedea brought to the Minneapolis rap community, but in re-examining the duo’s legacy, Abilities’ work as a producer and DJ has only grown. Despite his relative quiet output over the last decade, Abilities has stayed busy behind the scenes: “A lot of people might think I stopped or got a different job because I seemingly haven't really done much, but on the contrary, I've been doing huge amounts of music.”
Regardless of Abilities’ future (he thinks he wants to work with another rapper, though he’s not sure), his legacy is already solidified thanks to the innovative brilliance of introspective backpack rap he helped create with Eyedea. The duo have a star outside First Avenue in Minneapolis, a legacy marker that defines the city’s icons. First Born is as integral to Minnesota rap as any album from that scene, including work from superstars like Atmosphere. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the city’s sound at a time when it was still being created. In Abilities’ own words, “It really sounds like a Minnesota winter.” While being transported to sub-zero temperatures doesn’t sound particularly appealing as we slog through a quarantined winter, the familiar sounds of First Born are a soothing balm.
VMP: What is the first thing you think about now that First Born is 20 years old?
DJ Abilities: Well, one, that it's been that long. It's nuts. Things are going well in my life, relatively speaking, so this feels proper, like honoring a moment and mirroring similar energy to my positivity. I think it's really cool, actually.
What's your relationship like with the record through the lens of Mike? How do you honor the record now that he’s gone?
It’s really hard, obviously. Any time someone loses someone they care about, it will forever be hard. That’s just how it is. But I’m the type of person who always focuses on the positive, or at least tries to. I think your attitude and your approach dictate a large part of how your life is going to go. So I, for one, like to look at what Mike and I had done in a positive light: We got to make three albums that seemed to have stayed with an audience. They weren't fads. It's lasting with people, and we still get new fans, and the fans that we made still seem to care about the music. As an artist, that has to be one of the goals. You want stuff that's going to stand the test of time.
Mike, specifically, has really stood the test of time. I think he aged incredibly well. A lot of times people are labeled as “ahead of their time.” I think that term might be thrown around too loosely. I don't think that it is with Mike, though. He was a genius. That’s the part that makes me sad, because I think he would be a lot more revered today if he was still able to make things.
The way society has changed since his passing is more aligned with the way he approached things and his view on things. That's a shame, but there's nothing that can be done about that, and we have the three records, and he has all of his other records. He was a prolific dude. He did all kinds of amazing stuff outside of what he and I did together. I'm grateful that we made enough material for people to dive into and explore.
You’re most well known for either this project, or when you show up on Fantastic Damage. How does that shape your approach to music making now, when —
It's funny, because I don't know about that.
You don't think so?
That's one of the interesting things about all of the records. Obviously, Fantastic Damage, working with El-P, was a huge deal for me. I actually did scratches on the Killer Mike R.A.P. Album that preceded the Run the Jewels.
You think that would have gotten you more notoriety than First Born?
First Born is highly loved in a way that is kind of strange to a degree, because it's so simple. We were so new at making music. When I hear it, I'm just like, "This is so simple," in comparison to the next records that are just way, way more complex. Within that simplicity, though, was a lot of honesty. We didn't know any better. There’s a fun factor to it, a newness, and a freshness. I think the freshness overshadows the simplicity. Because Mike had so much going on with his vocals, having it simpler from a music standpoint wasn't the worst thing in the world.
Can you talk about your relationship to Minneapolis now versus what it was like back then?
We were in St. Paul, and I think there’s a difference between the two, but we more so captured Minnesota rap, I think. We’re obviously a part of the Twin Cities, but St. Paul does have a different energy and vibe to it than Minneapolis, and that's where Mike and I were from.
I think a lot of people like First Born because it really sounds like a Minnesota winter. I think that happened just by accident, but it had a very Minnesota winter, gray day feel to it. It makes you want to sit inside (laughs). I do like how it is cohesive in that regard. It's definitely our longest record by far, too, which might be the reason people like it.
But my relationship with the cities has changed quite a bit because I don't live there anymore. I moved to Milwaukee 15 years ago. There is a disconnect because I haven't seen it evolve, I haven't seen how it's changed and this and that. But if somebody asks me where I’m from, I’ll say St. Paul, Minnesota.
What's your relationship now with the rap scene in Milwaukee?
Strangely enough, there were moments when there was some really exciting stuff that was happening. And then, I don't know the insides and outs of how that happened, but then I think groups broke up, and it’s tapered off some. But, strangely enough, the friendships and fanbase I’ve developed here has been through the house music scene.
This dude that owns the coolest dance club in Milwaukee apparently loved First Born, and was a big fan of Eyedea & Abilities. I didn't know the guy, but a friend of mine knew him and was like, "Oh, this dude would freak out if you came through." I didn't really like dance music and stuff like that, up to that point. I was just like, "Why not go? If somebody respects what I've done as a craft, and is going to treat me nice at their place, it sounds like it can still be an enjoyable experience."
Long story short, I went, and I wound up making friends. I actually grew a very deep affection for house music, to the point where I'm actually also making house music now. I love house music now because of all of that. It’s due, in large part, because the guy who owned that club liked First Born so much.
Do you want to work with another rapper again?
I miss collaborating with people again, and at some point I'll work with a rapper again on some level, but it’s not my focus. The stuff I’m intrigued by is just 100 percent instrumental. I want to experience the back and forth with another person, because there's just some magic that happens when you have that dynamic, but I’m just not ready to do it with another rapper. Honestly, I might not ever be ready. Me and Mike's stuff, it means a lot to me. It almost feels weird to make something with somebody else, even though I know that's irrational.
Can you discuss any projects you’re working on?
I don’t want to mention anything in particular, but I'm just trying to stay creative and stay busy. I have a lot of things going. I've just been wanting to solidify some ideas before I talk about it.
Can you identify how it differs from working with someone like Mike?
I had to totally reinvent myself when I was making music by myself. I already knew Mike was a genius, but when I was without him, I had even more appreciation, because I didn't really grasp how much of the work he did. When you have a brilliant vocalist on top of your tracks, that's a lot of work you don't need to fill up. A huge amount of work is already finished.
I do think I will want to do that again at some point, with a different rapper, but just not now. It sounds kind of crazy, but I feel like I have more appreciation for Mike's talent now than I did back then. I think he's aged really well.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.