With a half-dozen solo records, handfuls of EPs, successful podcasts and collaborations, and more than a decade of unique live performances, Open Mike Eagle has accomplished just about everything an artist can do in the music industry. More important, the alternative rapper has done all of it on his own terms — never sacrificing his creative vision to sell more records or appeal to the masses. But the 36-year-old still has one box left that he wants to check off in his career, and it’s about as commercial as it gets.
“I stupidly still want to play Coachella real bad,” Eagle says. "I still see that flyer and read those 100 names. You know you’re not going to be on there, but you’re looking for those guys where it’s like, ‘Oh, if that guy’s on there, I could definitely be on there.’ I’ve never even been.”
Considering the hype surrounding this month’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, it seems as good a time as there's ever been for Eagle to make a Coachella push. With every record since 2010’s Unapologetic Art Rap, the L.A.-based indie rap mastermind’s fan base has grown, and these days he could easily bring a solid afternoon crowd to one of Coachella’s tents. Although he’s not exactly clamoring to give up his creativity in order to sell out a mainstage anytime soon, Eagle can’t help but wonder if he could headline both weekends like Drake or Kendrick, if put in the right situation.
“Everybody who makes rap music wants to be part of the rap conversation, and as an artist, you can always tell when you’re not in it,” Eagle says. “I’ve gone through various stages of not-ness, from ‘not at all’ to ‘in it, kind of’ with all of these caveats and qualifiers. The reality of it is that a lot of the difference and separation is based on resources. Me having the freedom to do what I want because there isn’t a ton of people depending on me financially is cool for me creatively, but I also have to watch this conversation take place and think about what I would do with the resources of these other guys.”
But what that freedom does allow is for Eagle to make each record a unique work of art. Rather than having to work within corporate budgets and worry about what will land on the radio, Eagle can pursue whatever sounds and subject matter interest him, however specific or seemingly noncommercial. For instance, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream sees Eagle take a somewhat post-apocalyptic look at the destruction of an iconic public housing project on the South Side of his native Chicago — complete with comic book–like imagery and “fake news” broadcasts.
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“It’s always complicated," Eagle says of the ideas behind his music, "but it’s more complicated than normal this time because it’s inspired by the rise and fall of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. [And] it’s also kind of inspired by the current political climate and police violence against black people. There’s a lot going on in it, and aside from all that, it’s also just my 2017 rap album. It’s still just songs about life.”
Eagle’s focus on the legacy of the Robert Taylor Homes requires more context than even he could provide in a 12-track LP. While the history of the housing project has been outlined in plenty of articles and documentaries over the years, the rapper is much more interested in the tales and stories that have emerged like ghosts from the project's rubble.
“There’s a documentary on YouTube called Crisis on Federal Street, and I think people should watch that and play the video game Dark Souls if they want particularly interesting insight into my rap record of 2017,” Eagle says. “Part of how I have envisioned the content of this album is that, in my head, when they knocked down that project building, it was similar to if somebody had knocked down the pyramids in Egypt, just in terms of a place having had a very specific and distinct culture in it. When I thought about that destruction, I thought about the lore and myths that would come out of it — the stories that people would tell about what happened there.
"Playing through Dark Souls is like that, too," he continues, referencing the acclaimed role-playing video game in which players explore a mysterious, apocalyptic world. "You don’t even know if any of it’s true, but you’re just playing through based on what these characters reveal to you. That’s what happens when you have a vibrant community taken away as quickly as this happened.”