Only four years ago, Open Mike Eagle eulogized his music career. He was in his late 20s, the father of a year-old son, recently laid off from his job as a special education teacher in South Central. The country was mired in financial crisis and the market for subversive art rappers looked only slightly sunnier than for cartographers.
Skip to the present and little has changed. He still whimsically lampoons racists, clichéd rappers, exploitive capitalists and anyone singing “Kashmir” at karaoke. He's still haunted by the “gay ghost of James Baldwin.” Financial security still eludes him.
However, he's flush with cultural capital.
In 2014, Michael Eagle II released the unanimously acclaimed Dark Comedy (ranked by L.A. Weekly writers as the year's best album), earned representation from a premier booking agency and launched a successful podcast on American Public Media. The Culver City resident has become your favorite comedian's favorite rapper — revered by Paul F. Tompkins, Marc Maron and Hannibal Buress, his college friend and collaborator.
But for every victory, in some circles, Open Mike Eagle is still fundamentally misunderstood.
“So today … HuffPo Live asked me to join their discussion panel about French Montana's new mixtape,” Eagle says bemusedly, between bites of brown chicken stew at a Jamaican restaurant in Leimert Park.
French Montana is a Bronx party rapper whose most famous song is numbly titled “Ain't Worried About Nuthin.” Eagle, by contrast, has become rap's most acidic satirist by being worried about everything — from Facebook data logging his favorite sandwiches to falling asleep while driving stoned through Idaho.
“I couldn't believe it,” Eagle says of the HuffPo invitation. “What would I have offered that would have helped them in any way? Forget the music — a cursory glance at my last five tweets would let you know that you may not have the right guy here.”
In a nation riven by social upheaval, Eagle operates with the same wry outrage as Jon Stewart and the Daily Show diaspora. His gallows humor is leavened by references to pro wrestling, Internet ephemera and nerdy jazz jokes. But the one-liners are too sharp to seem self-righteous. His overwhelming sense of dread feels prescient, not paranoid.
“I have a fundamental problem with escapist entertainment. I don't appreciate it,” Eagle says. He speaks the way he raps — with innately melodic cadences and a levelheaded calmness to balance the discontent. “There's nobody who still believes in those ideals of what America was supposed to be. It's all done. We've watched people get really rich, upward mobility stall, inflation grow, wages haven't increased. You get cognitive dissonance where you try to believe America's a great place but each day brings less opportunity.”
You only need to point to the Southside of Chicago — where Eagle's mother raised him — to see the most abject failures of live-and-let-die capitalism. According to a recent New York Times survey, roughly 60 percent of Eagle's old neighborhood lives below the poverty line.
As an adolescent, Eagle became equally obsessed with indie rock and hip-hop. If you didn't know this biographical detail, you could hear it in his blends of They Might Be Giants hooks, serrated electronic beats and traditional hip-hop craft. But during the mid-'90s on the Southside, his eclecticism made him an eccentric.
“I used to hide the fact that I listened to rock music or else it would get real crazy,” Eagle says. “In Chicago, all the well-adjusted young people were only into rap music. Apart from me, the kids that I knew who were into grunge were what would've been cutters today.”
His introduction to the rap world came via Chicago's battle scene. During summers, he'd visit his father in L.A., sharpening his freestyle skills at the Leimert Park open-mic boot camp, Project Blowed.
“People always popped in who could rap well, but they inevitably just mimicked whatever was popular at the time,” says Nocando, who runs Hellfyre Club, the label that has released several of Eagle's records.
“From the start, [Eagle] impressed everyone by rapping well with an original style,” Nocando says. “He was always good, but he's become a master at songwriting.”
While in college at Southern Illinois University, Eagle became tight with art-rap prototype Serengeti and Buress — who appears on Dark Comedy's “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps).”
“Eagle has always been dope — he was known as one of the best rappers on campus,” Buress says. “He's just grown because that's what people do. … He has a kid now, and he's gotten better with melodies and hooks, and just makes songs that are very specific and honest to his experiences.”
Spending a few hours in Leimert Park brings back bittersweet nostalgia for Eagle. He points out the now-shuttered Museum in Black, an African-American heritage museum whose proprietor used to invite him in to watch Jeopardy!. When he didn't know anyone in L.A., this is where he'd come every day — to eat turkey burgers, write raps and play chess.
It's difficult to ignore the many commercial vacancies in this historic locus of black culture. Eagle mentions the coming subway stop in Leimert Park, which municipal planners promise will revitalize the community. But as soon as that news was announced, landlords raised rents and drove out the longtime tenants who made it vibrant.
“The problem with this country is that you don't know where the legislature ends and big business begins,” Eagle says. “It's impossible to win that game. Either you'd need a president to redistribute wealth or rich people would need to grow hearts. And they don't give a fuck.”
He says this while walking past KAOS Network, the one-time home of Project Blowed and one of the village's surviving landmarks. Its proprietor, Ben Caldwell, an educator and Leimert éminence grise, spots Eagle and invites him in.
They discuss new additions to the cultural center, the coming 20th anniversary of Project Blowed and the young, socially conscious artists who continue to perform here every Monday. Eagle makes plans to bring in his son, now 6, the following week.
The conversation underscores what ultimately makes Eagle an important artist (even though he's far too sly and self-deprecating to ever publicly call himself that). Eagle's dissent isn't merely directed at the endless sugar crashes of late capitalism. He's tapping into a deeper tradition of alienation: the stylistic rebellions of Central Avenue and Leimert Park, the no man's land isolation of Invisible Man, the rigged corruption of Richard Wright novels and the volcanic epigrams of his hero, Baldwin.
“These themes are all over every album. It's just become more protracted and acute,” Eagle says.
His worldview mirrors the bleak morbidity of many of the best comedians and writers — the “laugh now, cry later” approach that has been a part of the human condition since ancient Greece. And in the present moment, it's hard to find anyone as eloquent at calling out the conspirators.
Another album — maybe two — is due next year on his new label, Mello Music. Eagle works almost every day, writing and recording in the two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his son and wife, a college sociology professor.
The studio is a converted walk-in closet. He's still not wealthy but he can finally make a living from music.
“Songs are just my way of dealing with the same terrible feelings all the time,” Eagle says, smiling slightly. “I really just want to get so good at what I do that no one ever asks me to be on a panel about a French Montana mixtape again.”
Like us on Facebook at LAWeeklyMusic
Follow Jeff Weiss