I initially discovered Open Mike Eagle on a search for new music from the ever reclusive MC Paul Barman. Their collaboration was enough for me to check out 2011’s Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes, an album I wound up loving because it stretched the possibilities of what rap was supposed to be. In a genre that seeks to confine creativity, Mike Eagle (and his partners in the Hellfyre Crew by extension) refuse any such thing.
Open Mike Eagle has so many interesting things to say on and off the mic, so it’s almost a guarantee no two interviews will be the same. He’s been a guest on Marc Maron’s hugely popular WTF podcast, he’s a semi-regular on Jeff Weiss and (his Hellfyre bretheren) Nocando’s Shots Fired show and you can find a growing array of coverage on him as he continues to build his reputation.
Mostly keeping my questions confined to music (his hailing from Chicago/feelings on the city’s drill scene and history with LA’s Project Blowed have been covered a lot by this point), I spoke with Mike about his newly released LP Dark Comedy, his creative approach and a number of other random things.
Most of your albums are based off of themes, tell me about Dark Comedy.
I don’t know if there’s a theme as much as a tone of laughing at being self-aware and knowing how ridiculous and dark things are around. The way that I seek to deal with things is to write things that I think are funny, so at least half of the album is attempting humor. Some things are honest observations which tend to get a little dark, so those two sides come together to make the record.
A lot of Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes dealt with the importance of vulnerable black manhood. Tell me about where you were coming from with that album.
A lot of that album was a response to seeing people talk about my first album. I was becoming media literate in terms of how writers and consumers view Hip Hop, their expectations of it and their expectations of black men. A lot of what went into that album were notions I was railing against in terms of what kind of box people tend to want to keep a black man and a rapper in, in terms of what they expect content and image wise.
“Nightmares” was when I became a fan. Was that a catchy attempt to draw new listeners in?
Honestly I just make songs, I have a hard time knowing if one song is standing out over the rest. I just make stuff that I like, luckily when I give it to label people and friends, they’re like “that’s the one right there” (laughs) and we end up pushing those out as singles. I cant say that I was making any attempt to do anything different than usual, I just liked that beat and that was what the beat made me want to do.
Your style can be described as abstract but at the same time very melodic at points. How do you find the balance between the two?
I think it’s a sum of my influences. The Hip Hop I’ve really liked has always been very melodic, and a lot of the emcees I’ve liked have been unafraid to deviate from reality to find things to rap or write about. It’s just naturally where my aesthetic is, it’s not like I’m necessarily trying to do that on purpose, but melody is important to me so I try to make sure that’s in there. Being able to be free with my content is also very important to me, so those values come out in my writing and recording.
“4NML HSPTL” was mostly produced by a guy named Awkward, his name very much fitting the style of that project. What were you going for there and how was it received?
I was trying to make an album that had the narrative of an indie film. I had this whole story in my head about this guy that ends up at a mental hospital that’s specifically for rappers, but I didn’t explain it to much of anybody. I think it caused people to not want to make interpretations on what certain things mean. I wouldn’t say it’s my most well received album, but there’s definitely a lot of people that like it. I think it was a little denser than what people were expecting and I didn’t necessarily help that in not talking about it.
“Your Back Pack Past” was way ahead of its time, explain the concept of that song to me.
I was seeing a lot of writers, consumers and rappers very influenced by underground music in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, and as deep as they were into it is how much they try to stay away from it now. They try to act like that time never existed and anything from that time is invalid, bad or weaker somehow. That song was a message to them like “We see you” (laughs), we have the old articles and pictures. It’s the kind of thing I write hoping people will hear that and not do that anymore. It’s not like it’s a message that could change the world, but when I make statements like that I’m hoping maybe we could stop people from feeling that’s the way to go.
On Qualifiers you said “Fuck you if you’re a white man that assumes I speak for black folks/ fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I cant speak for black folk”. Why was it important for you to make that point?
The reality is both sides of that coin are negative, some people naturally choose one side and then some people think they’re being more sophisticated if they choose the other side. Both sides are wrong, if you look at the dominant culture in the American experience they have this luxury that I haven’t heard described as privilege. If a crazy white person goes out in the middle of the street and shoots up a bunch of people, it’s looked at as just that guy…
If it’s one of us, it’s because it’s our race.
We almost feel like we have to defend it. We feel connected in a way, and I don’t know how much of that is what we naturally bring to the table and how much we’ve been oppressed by perception. We feel like the worst of us represent all of us all the time, we always end up feeling that way. I made that statement with the hopes that one day we can get to a point where that’s not the case, where we can see ourselves just as individual and have the other cultures see us as individual as well.
We share an affinity for MC Paul Barman. Why do you think the black audience struggles to grasp left of center Hip Hop?
I don’t think they struggle, most of the time they’re just not exposed to it honestly. A lot of black consumers of culture do so in kind of a passive fashion, people see what’s on the radio and they aren’t necessarily seekers. I think it’s just a case of them being exposed to less, that’s changing with the youth of this generation because there are more seekers. I think the people who held back Paul getting his just due were white people honestly. I think a lot of white rap fans were uncomfortable with him and they stood in the way of the impact he could have had.
I’ve never played his music for a black person with them enjoying it, they were like “What the hell is this?”
My family likes it. To me, most people who like Doom could like Paul. They don’t rap the same but it’s the emphasis on the writing and wordplay over anything else. Black people would be able to build a bridge that way, but you’d have to be in that door a little bit already.
You have a line where you say “My crew can chew up every dude in your top four”. If you can speak on behalf of Hellfyre Club, how would you describe the crew’s aim or mission statement?
We’re the antidote, we fight the thirst monsters everywhere and we’re knights of the thirst quenching. We’ve figured a lot of stuff out, and as we roll out music it’s do what you will with it.
In Wu-Tang Clan every member had a different purpose or style. How would you describe your place fitting in Hellfyre Club?
I’ve compared it to elements sometimes. When we were on tour, I was like Nocando is fire, Milo is earth, I was water and Busdriver was wind. It’s hard to draw the distinctions for us as real people, we have our own lives and places we differ individually. I might be too deep into it to try categorizing.
I recently heard an interview where you said Midnight Marauders was your favorite Hip Hop album, a sentiment shared by myself and others. What made that album so beloved to you?
I was always into beats first, and even beyond that melodies and chord progressions. The production on that album always carried me away, there was something about what Tip was sampling and how he was doing it with 12 bar loops. The music had all of this movement and life to it, and the cover had everybody on it. I didn’t know it at the time but that was a high point for quasi-positive black things going on in rap that everybody could be involved in.
It was high quality music, I was around 14 and really getting deep into Hip Hop, that album accessed me. I used to fall asleep listening to it and wake up listening to songs on repeat, that relationship came along with that album at that time. It kills me when I think about it because you couldn’t make that record today legally due to sampling, so it’s really of a bygone past.
You’ve also said your favorite Flipmode cat was Lord Have Mercy, why was that?
I just liked his voice and he was a crazy writer, he was a beast on the mic. I still have a bunch of obscure Lord Have Mercy songs. I always liked rappers who I imagined wanted to sound like monsters and his rhymes were super tight.
You shouted out Lil B on “Very Much Money”, I happen to be a fan. What do you make of him?
Sometimes I’m a fan, sometimes I’m not. I think he’s really innovative and he does something special and unique, it’s just not always for me. When it is for me, it’s great. Some songs I’m like “That’s awesome” and some songs I’m like “I cant do this”. For a long time I was nervous to listen because I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not and I really don’t like being trolled, especially not by rappers.
I don’t like being trolled by music, because the access I give somebody when I listen to them is nothing to be toyed with, I don’t want nobody playing with my head on that level. I stayed away for a long time but I think he’s a unique dude he’s really pushing this thing forward in his own way. He’s very art rap.
Would it be fair to say you’re discontent with the state of black music?
I don’t know, I think a lot of black people make really good music. I don’t know if it’s the state of the music so much as it’s the perception of the music and the delivery system to the music that I have a bigger problem with. If you turn on MTV Jams, there’s still a bunch of videos that look like they were made in 1998 with girls and cars. That’s not everything that’s going on, it’s just everything that’s being shown. I’m discontent with the lack of outlets for alternative visions and voices, they’re not put in a position where people can see them.
As a cultural participant and observer, what would you say is the biggest problem Hip Hop faces in 2014?
The biggest issue is perception. That limits what people expect from the music, what people define it as and what people are willing to invest in it. Ultimately, I want to see rap music respected on the same level as movies. There’s an independent movement with different kinds of voices, right now everything in rap is summer blockbusters in terms of what’s put out there.
There’s this entire arthouse indie movement making really good stuff, and somehow the craft has to be elevated in terms of perception where people understand that this is just as valid. No other genre gets pigeonholed and literally defined by one aspect which is the most popular style. There’s so much room given to other genres of music, let alone other art forms. What’s holding Hip Hop back is the fact that people think it cant be anything other than one thing in terms of mass media culture.