October 9th, 2014 | Interviews

aaron giesel

Open Mike Eagle may be an unapologetic nerd, but his self-coined “Art Rap” ain’t for sissies: he’s a rapper’s rapper, who can segue from socio-political advice pieces to confessional laments to witty pop-cultural comparisons with the same kind of bottomless-buffet delight that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer only hoped to find at the Dream Café. If you haven’t seen him live, or heard his most recent amazing album, Dark Comedy, you’ve probably heard him guesting on albums by the likes of Busdriver, Ras G, Myka 9, Abstract Rude, Milo … let’s just say this kid plays well with others, and even with the likes of our interviewer D. M. Collins. At an Indian buffet in Culver City recently, they exchanged these few words about art, the world, and They Might Be Giants.

I really liked your comments on the recent Hellfyre Club release, where you called out Nocando—in a very loving way—for saying “bitch” too often (a practice he has since worked on). Sometimes as a critic, when I think I’m making a candid observation about a band in a sense of great love, they take it as a huge insult. Have you ever gotten in trouble that way for people you’ve called out in rhyme?
Open Mike Eagle: Not really. Usually when I reference someone I don’t know, I do it in a positive light. I guess in my earliest albums I was pretty critical, that old backpacker attitude that you can say whatever about mainstream dudes, and stuff like that. I’m a little more mature in the sense of understanding … I’d say this. When I have issues with a thing, a physical product, that a person makes, typically my concerns these days are more with the people consuming it, making that choice, than the people making it. It’s just really difficult to make a living with music. And if that’s somebody’s lifestyle, and they’re making music that reflects their lifestyle, I don’t have any problem with that really. It’s just that some of the same consumers really pretend as if they want something better, then it’s like, okay, what choices are you making? What are you spending your money on? What are you giving your attention to? Because that’s what you’re going to get back. So I’ve gotten less critical, for the most part.
Certainly that’s true now. Back in the day when there were only three TV stations, sure, you could get mad about having to watch ‘Petticoat Junction.’ But now …
Open Mike Eagle: Now there are so many choices! I think getting people to understand that is the key to getting things more open and flexible—especially in the rap world, where a lot of people who consume rap, up until very recently haven’t been very exploratory consumers. They were more passive consumers: turn on the faucet kind of people. Turn on a radio, turn on TV, whatever’s on, maybe you like it more or you like it less. Whereas recently, I feel like since the younger generation, there’s been more people trying to find different kinds of rap. In rock music, that’s been going on forever. There’s more people in that who have been active seekers for a long time now.
Well, there’s a certain narrative some people tell themselves about hip hop. Let me know if you think this is true: in the early 90s and late late 80s, we had the Golden Age of Hip Hop. It seemed anything was possible, and it seemed like the mainstream was creative, or at least that things could go in any way. There was no need to be a “seeker” because Yo! MTV Raps would bring you options in all directions. But then things in the mainstream after, say, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, got more calcified.
Open Mike Eagle: That’s real interesting that you say that. I was just talking to Dan Charnas, who wrote a book called The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop. He’s a guy who I think started working at Priority Records back in the day, worked for Rick Rubin, worked for radio: his entire career has been based in and around hip hop. And he explained it in a really interesting way to me: that rap started out as a public activity, how the first DJs kind of started rhyming between songs at, like, clubs. And then people who couldn’t get into those clubs started setting up the jams outside, and and doing it there, and that’s how it was born. And it was a public activity, and it was almost family oriented, in a sense. So the things that were talked about were more positive leaning, or party leaning. You know what I mean? Good time stuff.
“Wave your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t care…”
Open Mike Eagle: And then, he says, Schoolly D comes out with “P.S.K.” And that’s the first time you really hear like real, exaggerated, tough guy, gangster talk, like the way guys talk behind closed doors. Locker room type talk. It’s the first time you hear that on a record. And that changed everything, because after that, Ice T did “6 ‘N The Morning” which is basically the same record, and N.W.A. basically following Eazy E, and the Ghetto Boys were making stuff. But then The Chronic was the first time that this was the national rap album. This is the rap album that all the black people AND the white people are into. And it was all that side. I mean, even with N.W.A., they had “Express Yourself,” and “Fuck the Police.” But there was another element to it.
There was some Public Enemy in there.
Open Mike Eagle: Exactly! And with The Chronic, all that is gone.
And I’m not putting it down. I think it’s a great record.
Open Mike Eagle: I don’t think I’m putting it down, either, but at the same time, I’ve never really been a fan of it. When it came out, my whole family was into that record. It was ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere. But it just wasn’t for me necessarily. I didn’t really get into it very deeply. But after that point, it was like, consumers made that choice, and every copy of that, every offshoot of that, really started working.
Or maybe we should be “blaming” the artists who came right after that? People like P. Diddy who abandoned even gangsta rap’s grittiness and just had flashy videos?
Open Mike Eagle: But I think The Chronic mirrors into that, too. It’s where you start to reject any positive values and start to embrace American ideals. Like, the real ones: capitalism, materialism, and I think that’s where you get the offshoots, where you get the Biggies. And Biggie had two sides to himself, too. But, like, the bigger hit side was more the materialism. And I think it all springs forth from that well.
So this was all during your formative years. Is this why you became a rapper, because you didn’t see anything reflecting your values?
Open Mike Eagle: But I did, because there was still Native Tongue stuff around. I was heavily influenced by Native Tongues, Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul specifically. Busta Rhymes was huge for me, Black Sheep was huge for me. The Wu Tang Clan was huge for me. HUGE! And they weren’t the most positive guys in the world, either, but there was this sense of some weird code they always adhered to. And I thought that was cool.
We don’t really have a Busta Rhymes in our era, except of course Busdriver who runs rings around everybody.
Open Mike Eagle: Virtuosity is tough in rap. When you’re a virtuoso, for the most part, you’re chewing whatever the style is at the time. And, you know, national rap consumerism is very much about style, and patterns, and kind of, like, taking what’s happening and putting your spin on it. Eminem was kind of virtuoso when he started.
They said on his last album that he’d committed the fastest rap on record. And I was like, immediately, “No, Busdriver is always faster than that!”
Open Mike Eagle: Or Oliver Twisto?!? Yeah, I would have to doubt that as well.
Well, speaking of virtuosity, one thing you did on your last album that I thought was pretty groundbreaking was you got out of sync on purpose. That’s a pretty hard thing to do without, you know, making it sound like it was not on purpose. How did you achieve that, do you think?
Open Mike Eagle: I have a really individualistic approach. It’s hard to remember the specific instance of that, but…
But there’s so much cool stuff to talk about with your last album! Like, Busdriver just came out with a video directed by comedian Brent Weinbach. But you spearheaded the trend of getting comedians on board—who is the comedian who helped with your album?
Open Mike Eagle: Hannibal Buress. I went to school with Hannibal, I’ve known him 10, 12 years now. I was his RA for a year in college. Really, right when he started, we were his first go-around doing open mikes on campus.
Both professions are kind of similar pursuits, right? Whether you’re rapping, or doing comedy, you have to think on your feet, you have to have a lot of material memorized, you’re going to have audience participation (whether it’s invited, or not!), and you’ve got to learn to deflect that, or go with it. And you, personally, I’m not saying your rhymes are funny, but there’s a certain sense of humor to them. And sometimes they ARE funny!
Open Mike Eagle: I definitely attempt to amuse myself! So I definitely wouldn’t fault you for detecting attempted humor. The thing that links them both, to me, is that they are both very individualistic industries. When you are a comic, you are one man brand. Like, you don’t work for a company, ever. You don’t work for a team: it’s just you. And being a rapper is the same thing. Now, you can work with a collective…
And a comedian can be part of an improv troupe.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, right! But I identify with comics for that individual approach to content, and brand, and approach, and look. All of that! And traveling alone, and all the things that go along with being that individual, psychologically.
Where all have you toured?
Open Mike Eagle: Everywhere in the states, basically. I haven’t been to Montana, and I haven’t been to the Dakotas. And that might be it!
What’s the most unusual response you’ve got?
Open Mike Eagle: Okay, so the usual responses are: 1. We like this a lot. 2. We’re okay with this. 3. We don’t like it so much. 4. … or nobody’s there. I’m trying to think of something that’s out of the realm of that.
Well, did you ever go to some town you thought would be just average, and got an amazing response?
Open Mike Eagle: Usually every time I kinda underestimate a place, it ends up being really cool. Sometimes I overestimate a place. I was in Athens, Georgia, a couple weeks ago, a place I’ve always heard great things about. But it happened to be the first home game for the University of Georgia’s football team, so there wasn’t nothing happening on the music front. It was all people who were in college, or used to be, or wanted to be really badly. And I am to understand that all the cool people don’t come out of the house on that day. So you can imagine what kind of show that was!
And you’re originally from Chicago. I’m from Oklahoma—in some of the flyover states, like where I’m from, we kind of imagine Chicago to be on the East Coast, even though clearly, geographically, it’s not.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, I hear that a lot. Out here! I tell people I’m from Chicago, and they say “oh, out east!” It’s like, Chicago is definitely not east. We’re definitely Midwest. We’re culturally influenced by both coasts. And there’s our own flavors added to it. Especially with black culture, cuz all of the black people from Chicago come from the south, at least one or two generations back. So there’s some southern influence too. It’s a weird place! It’s very segregated, geographically, psychologically… Chicago winters are just horrible! Punishing!
Is that why you moved to L.A.?
Open Mike Eagle: The weather was definitely part of it! But I also had some family out here. And I wanted to make it in the music business, which at the time, you definitely could not do from Chicago.
How have you worked on your craft since then? How does a rapper get better?
Open Mike Eagle: It’s just a ten thousand hours thing. It’s funny, you talk about where I’m at, then compare it to someone who’s a master. Like, Busta Rhymes, that’s mastery of craft. Or Myka 9. That’s mastery of craft. It’s like, you can hear how many hours someone has been rapping when they start rapping. There are so many things that only come with practice in terms of timing, in learning your breath, in learning your throat. That’s why Chance The Rapper? That guy is so amazing to me. Because he raps like somebody who’s been rapping for 20 years, and he’s barely 20 years old!