[Make sure to read Jeff Weiss' piece on Open Mike Eagle, from the LA Weekly print edition.]
In the first ten minutes of his acidic and excellent debut, “Unapologetic Art Rap,” Open Mike Eagle samples Pavement and sings a portion of TV on the Radio's “Staring at the Sun.” If you ask him about it, the Mush Records-signed artist will readily wax philosophical about his love of Paul Thomas Anderson and the versatility of Steve Buscemi. When he temporarily blanks on the name of one of his preferred Buscemi flicks, he'll text you the answer two days later (“Living in Oblivion”) and explain that the memory lapse had been haunting him for 48 hours. This makes the Chicago-born, LA-based rapper, nerdy. But he is not a nerd. You can't be a nerd when you're this good at rapping.
A graduate of Project Blowed and close confederate of Nocando and Busdriver, Mike Eagle is intelligent in a genre that values street smarts over scholasticism. The graduate of Southern Illinois University is apt to name-check Bloom's Taxonomy, call Viacom unprintable names and mock Soulja Boy. What saves the former Special Education teacher from sanctimoniousness is his sharp wit and willingness to be self-deprecating–as seen on his album's hilarious skit (discussed at length in this week's print edition).
In order to share our mutual Buscemi appreciation and help the world understand the meaning of art rap, Open Mike Eagle spoke to West Coast Sound.
One of the things that's great about your record is that you take as many shots at backpackers 'lionizing the four elements,' as it does at mainstream rap releases. Why do you think the Underground movement didn't go as planned?
I think backpackers destroyed the hip hop economy by accident. I was a backpacker once and we were the first dudes up on file sharing–on Napster and Audio Galaxy. We didn't know what we were doing, we were just marveling at how easy it was to get anything we wanted. All we needed was more hard drive space. It worked out for certain rappers who got heard without a marketing budget or mainstream support, but when we stopped paying for records around 2005, the Underground collapsed.
Is there a solution?
As a genre, we're very held back by that dinosaur mentality. The underground always took risks but the few surviving indie labels are limited by what they can do economically. Historically, they were always risk takers throwing out stuff at the wall–what was good stuck and would keep them going.
Right now, we're at a point where people in urban centers don't buy much music. You have to remind people that music costs money to make. It's like water from a faucet, you turn it on and it's there and no one really thinks how it got there.
The people who aren't in the metropolitan centers buy records, so you have to appeal to them if you want to do well and make a living. At least that's what it seems like from my point of view.
Do you see hope for a change?
I'm definitely hoping there will be–that we'll get to a point where people won't be making much money for rapping and the people who are doing it for the money will stop doing it. The result would then presumably shift towards an integrity in the music.
Chicago's a huge city, but other than Common, Kanye, and Twista, very few rappers have made it big out of there. What was your experience in Chicago's rap scene like?
There's a million rappers in Chicago, as there are in any big city. During the 90s, a lot of us made a big mistake in that we didn't support each other. Instead, we put up divisions between what's real hip-hop and what's gangsta hip-hop. A lot of it came down to a class thing. I grew up on the southeast side, the kind of place that spawned Obama, a middle class black community. Kanye is like the OG of the scene, but growing up, I only knew him as a producer not a rapper.
What made you decide to come to LA?
My father has always lived out here, so I'd come out here to visit him every summer, and me being into the underground and listening to Aceyalone records in Chicago, I wanted to go to Project Blowed. So I did. When I graduated Southern Illinois, I knew I didn't want to go to Chicago and that I wanted to do music, so I came out here.
Do you consider this your first real record?
I do. I dropped an EP before that wasn't very good. I look at it like Eminem on the Infinite record. When I look at that record, Eminem was a really good rapper in terms of putting words together, but he didn't have an angle. Once he found that with Slim Shady, it gave him an avenue to paint pictures with. I felt like art rap gave me a cool angle, though I don't think I've completely fleshed it out yet.
How did the skit on your record come about?
That was all Hannibal Buress, he's a writer for SNL and a good friend of mine from college. I told him about the record, what I wanted to say, and told him to make fun of art rap any way he thought he was funny. He's a really talented guy and there are a lot of good outtakes too.
How would you define art rap?
It's the idea that rap is not disposable. The industry today creates products built for being thrown away. There's no sustenance in it. I wanted to create a space for myself that was genuinely me. Whether you like it or not, you can't dismiss it. I'm not trying to be hot today. I'm just trying to give perspective on life and my medium.
It's nice to hear an angry rapper who isn't so wholly consumed by his anger that he loses his sense of humor.
Well, I'm genuinely angry about it. As much as I would really like to make happy music, I can't. I embody the disenchantment with the state of hip-hop. I'm really disappointed with it as a music appreciator, beyond merely being an artist. Having studied the history of American pop music and black music, it's appalling where we are now. That's why I wanted to give my music another term, something to differentiate itself from the pack. You can't call everything 'hip-hop.'
Was there an epiphany when you settled on the term?
I was driving to Vegas for this dude's wedding and I was by myself–I wanted to be alone and just clear my head. I was listening to rock music and it struck me that a lot of the rock I liked was called 'art rock.' I started wondering why they had a genre where they can do whatever the fuck they want to do, and rappers are scorned if they don't have enough machismo.
You're a big Frank Zappa fan. What other rock are you into?
My favorite band is probably They Might Be Giants. I love Zappa, King Missile. TV on the Radio. The Decemberists. Pavement. Arcade Fire, etc.
Do you think that's what contributes to your desire to make rap music outside of the traditional hip-hop space?,
Definitely. I know there are a lot of people out there like me who are into different kinds of stuff and want rap musc that's weird and interesting. I want there to be an art rap place where we can cultivate that kind of aesthetic. The problem is that the people who gravitate to my music aren't the type of people who go to a lot of rap shows. Most rap shows are wack. Cats on-stage yelling into the mic, kids are dressed up, sticky floors, it's not a good time for someone who is a full grown adult. I'm trying to make art rap music for adults.