The Los Angeles Rap scene has seen an incredible affluence over the last few years, following a musical drought spanning from 1999 (when Dr. Dre’s 2001 dropped) to 2009 (when Kendrick Lamar released his self-titled EP). Save a low-riding, NWA-era vestige, Jayceon Taylor, and an independent “H.U.S.T.L.E.R.” Nick Carter, for nearly 10 years, the Left Coast failed to produce any genre-defying Hip Hop that could move past the blogosphere.
Then came Tyler, Earl and Odd Future. Kendrick, Schoolboy Q and Top Dawg Entertainment followed them. In 2013, Los Angeles Rap has never felt so raw, original and free.
In the meantime, Rap collective Hellfyre Club has been steadily bubbling beneath the surface, waiting for the genre to become weird enough to emerge. Founded and run by rapper Nocando—host of the famed weekly LA experimental Hip Hop event “Low End Theory”—the crew’s roster boasts a self-proclaimed myriad of “real brown people inciting a paradigm shift” (rapper Intuition, who’s white, is also included just so we know they’re not racist).
DX had a chance to catch up with two of Hellfyre’s standout artists, Milo and Open Mike Eagle, at “Daylight,” a summertime Hip Hop block party held over a few Sundays in LA, also hosted by Nocando. Anticipating the October release of Hellfyre’s first compilation album Dorner vs. Tookie, Mike and Milo detail their place in the independent Rap scene and suspect racial encounters while touring the Midwest.
Open Mike Eagle & Milo Recall Meeting Each Other
HipHopDX: Why don’t we start by you two just introducing yourselves?
Open Mike Eagle: I’m Open Mike Eagle—that's my rapping name. We’re here in Los Angeles, where I live. We’re affiliated with Hellfyre Club, Project Blowed and things of that nature. LA rappity, rap, rap stuff.
Milo: My name is Rory Ferreira. I rap as Milo, and we’re in Los Angeles, rapping at a Rap show…well, not rapping at a Rap show. Performing at a Rap show. I’m from Saco, Maine, which is a super small, sleepy beach town where no one raps.
DX: Milo, does Phantom Tollbooth have anything to do with your Rap name? If so, can you explain that?
Milo: That’s absolutely right. Phantom Tollbooth is a book about a little boy who’s kind of whiny. I thought my music was kind of whiny, so I named myself Milo. I go to St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and I study philosophy. In particular, stuff that deals with 20th Century philosophy of language. It’s super nerdy stuff.
DX: Who were some of your early influences?
Milo: My early Rap influences [were]…Mike, a lot of the time… Busdriver, in particular—those two guys, who I’m now affiliated with through Hellfyre Club—were a tremendous influence on me as a pre-teen and a teenager. I kind of feel like my music in a sense is a response to what they’ve already done. I used to MySpace message Mike when I was 12—it was weird [laughs]—just because I admired him, and I admired his raps a lot. When I got older and started releasing music, I immediately began to tweet him. I tried to get him on very first mixtape. I was like, “Hey, I got this song about me being a great rapper, and you should be on it,” and it became something else later on.
Open Mike Eagle: I got on it, then I took it and I made it mine. That’s what I do.
Milo: It happens. I got bodied on my own Rap song.
Open Mike Eagle: That’s not true.
DX: Milo, how long have you been with Hellfyre Club?
Milo: Since around November of last year. I’m thinking about taking a semester off. But right now, I am on summer break. It's been the best summer break ever! This is my second time in LA for Rap things, and they’ve been proliferating at an alarming speed. In August, I have a full months’ tour that I’m headlining, which is amazing. Yeah, it’s been the best summer break ever.
Open Mike Eagle Details The Location-Centric Nature Of LA Hip Hop
DX: So Mike, is it crazy that you impacted an entire career of someone from so far away from LA?
Open Mike Eagle: I wouldn’t think so at all, because I think what we do is a lot more about who we are than where we are. So it makes sense that the people who are dialed into what we’re doing are all over they place. They could be in Europe…the geography doesn’t really matter that much.
Milo: Growing up in Maine as a weird black kid, that’s exactly what it was. These weird black guys that are rapping exist on the Internet, and that’s exactly what I want.
DX: It took me eight days to find a Rap community in LA. Do people have a different understanding about what LA Hip Hop is like than what it actually is? And where do people find these communities?
Milo: For me, coming from a very outsider notion—going to college in Wisconsin and growing up in Maine—LA is oftentimes said with the same reverence as Mecca. It’s like, “Oh, LA Rap scene!” or, “This isn’t LA!” A lot of that is taken from the Internet; that’s what I did anyway. It’s a lot of forums such as Hypebeast, Stones Throw and sharing the music on there and trying to create this community online.
Open Mike Eagle: The one unique thing about LA is that LA has always had places for rappers to convene. This event we’re at right now, Daylight, is the newest incarnation of that place in LA where rappers come together. For a very long time it was Project Blowed. So when I came out here, that was the first place I went, and almost everybody who I call a friend in this scene is somebody who I met at that place, during that time. And it’s always been like that, because LA is very location-centric in terms of its scenes. So Daylight’s going to hopefully fill in some of that space that’s been left since Project Blowed isn’t happening. There’s also an event called Bananas that goes on in the same venue where Blowed used to happen in, and that’s every third Tuesday of the month. If I was a young rapper right now, that’s where I would be.
DX: Is the dynamic of your shows any different in other cities than it is in LA?
Open Mike Eagle: I think every show is a case-by-case basis. Say we do a show in Youngstown, Ohio, and there’s not that many people, but everyone there knows every word to every song that we’ve ever done. Then you go to some Midwest spots, and it’s just people coming out not only ‘cause it’s a Rap show, but also ‘cause of drink specials. So you have to figure out a way to make it work for them too
Milo: The thing for me about the LA Rap show is that it oftentimes involves so many other rappers that I’m impressed by, so I always feel like the intensity for me is infinitely higher. Like, when I’m in Iowa City or something, I can rap well, and I feel comfortable about myself. It’s like, “Alright, we’re doin’ this thing.” But here tonight, there are other rappers in the room, and that always demands a certain attention and a certain extra element. So yeah, that’d be the difference for me. I think I take LA Rap shows more seriously, maybe. That sounds rude, but it’s the truth.
Milo & Open Mike Eagle On Encountering A One-Percenter Motorcycle Club
DX: You guys just got back from tour; Are there any crazy stories you’d be willing to share?
Open Mike Eagle: We gotta think of a good story that wouldn’t incriminate anybody.
Milo: The gas station thing?
Open Mike Eagle: That’s a terrible story, but you can tell it.
Milo: I mean, this is not a happy one, man. It's terrible. These scary men made us feel bad about our skin. We were driving through Iowa, and we stopped off at a gas station. It was one of those ones that has a hot food line between the registers. I’m a sucker for all that diarrhea-inducing hot food, and we’re in line, hangin' out, waiting to get the hot food. These fellas start coming in, kind of in numbers, and they had a presence. They’ve all got these stereotypical biker vests on, bandanas in places that seem like they mean things, and there’s a color code that I wish I had a chart to decipher.
Open Mike Eagle: A lot of angry merit badges.
Milo: Right, a lot of angry merit badges with the faces to match. They come in, and immediately, Mike’s DJ, Always Prolific, was like, “Yep, they don’t like us; they definitely don’t like us.” And I mean, they really didn’t! They get kind of near you, and you’re like, “Hey guy, how ya’ doing?” We got outside, noticed their presence and how they stood and carried themselves, then we started to try to pay attention to the vests. We noticed they had El Forastero on a lot of stuff. I’m gonna say this now, and they’re gonna find me and murder my ass.
Open Mike Eagle: They were either transporting methamphetamine or on their way to murder somebody.
Milo: We Googled them in the car and that’s what their Wiki page said; basically, ‘cause that's what they do all day.
Open Mike Eagle: They murder people and carry methamphetamine…
Milo: In little bags on motorcycles.
Open Mike Eagle: You guys should scramble the name though, honestly [laughs].
Milo: [Laughs] Nah, we didn’t see anything.
Open Mike Eagle: No we didn’t. We didn’t see anything at all. No faces, I heard no names.
Milo: I couldn’t tell you what they look like, ‘cause I was lookin' at their feet. That’s real life.
Open Mike Eagle: We basically go around the country getting racially profiled. That’s kind of what happens, and that’s part of tour. Outside of the shows, it's like, be careful brown guys.
Milo: That’s real life.
How Open Mike Eagle & Milo Experiment With Genres & Styles
DX: The moral of this story is stay the hell out of Iowa. Milo, tell me a little bit about “Cavalcade.” I like it, but you must really love the band America. What’s up with that?
Milo: [Laughs] Before I was rapping, I was doing a lot of other music stuff. I used to be involved really heavily in the folk scene, because my grandfather—who’s this old black dude from Arkansas—his favorite band was America. So that’s what I was around. We listened to stuff like John Denver, Neil Young and America. So when I made Cavalcade for my grandfather, I was like, “This makes sense. Let’s play around with these sounds that I’m already super comfortable with, and try to adopt them in a non-corny way.” We didn’t want to make any Twang-Rap kind of stuff, and I think that’s the success of “Cavalcade”—it sounds like a Rap record, but it does have these folk inflections.
DX: I thought it was really dope. Have you ever seen The Last Unicorn?
DX: Okay, I’m putting you on right now. It was an animated movie that came out in the ‘80s, and America does the whole soundtrack.
Milo: What…The Last Unicorn?
Milo: I’m on it.
DX: It’s beautiful. It’ll make you cry. That was my first exposure to America.
Milo: America’s great. They’re so good. Yeah I’m on it. Thank you so much, I appreciate that.
DX: For sure. Mike, I really liked “Sir Rockabye.” Can you explain what the title means?
Open Mike Eagle: Thank you for listening to that. The title comes from a Frank Black song; Frank Black used to write most of the songs for the Pixies. I asked him on Twitter if I could use it, and he told me yes. So, I did.
DX: That's kind of random. I feel like it’s a lot more accessible than some of your other releases. You’ve said you're kind of experimenting with your flow and trying to adapt some cadences associated with more mainstream Rap…saying some atypical things over them. Are you going to keep doing that?
Open Mike Eagle: As long as it’s fun, I’ll be doing that for sure. It has been fun to take really any Rap style I hear, and try to take it and see what I would do with it. [I experiment with] what words I would place inside that form to make it something that’s mine. I think it makes a kind of interesting side commentary on what people expect from a rapper, what people expect from a cadence, or what people expect from certain styles of Rap. So it’s always gonna be me doing things from my perspective, but I do think it’s fun to play around with different forms within a form. I think for a long time—coming from Chicago, which is a very segregated city… I was from the South Side, and there were South Side Rap styles and West Side Rap styles, and we didn’t do the ones over there. We associated it with all this other stuff that had nothing to do with the Rap songs themselves. So for me, it’s kind of a deconstruction process, too—even in my own approach to how I make songs.
Open Mike & Milo Debate The Success Of “Magna Carta Holy Grail”
DX: I wanna get you guys to talk about the Jay Z/Samsung thing and the Yeezus album—two extremes. I think it’s within the margins of these two extremes that the success of independent artists lives. Can you fit in and be independent?
Open Mike Eagle: Well, “independent” isn’t spoken of as much economically as it is aesthetically. So you can be “mainstream independent” and have built your whole following on YouTube, outside of the record label system, and still be considered “independent.” Just like, aesthetically, you can be super weird and signed to a major or a subsidiary of a major, and still be called “independent.” I do feel like it’s important on the level that we’re trying to do, to kind of establish our aesthetic, whether or not there’s labels involved. I think in that sense, uniqueness as an aesthetic and just being true to what we do is very important in terms of our success. I’ll speak for me personally; if I ever even tried to do something mainstream enough to where it wasn’t me and it clearly wasn’t me, it would certainly fail, because my entire history has been invested in doing me to the utmost…to the point where I’ve made some mistakes doing me. But that’s where my investment is; that’s what my commitment is.
DX: I thought it was interesting what Jay Z did with Samsung. Is there a way that could work on an independent level?
Open Mike Eagle: I would say what Jay Z did with Samsung definitely works, because the basic idea of it is to divorce yourself from the long-standing record label tradition. So even though the method was to sell it to a corporation that was large, the basic idea of it is to say, “Wait a minute. Am I gonna sell all the records that I usually sell, and take the smidgen of profit that a record label usually gives me? Or am I gonna recreate it, and find some way to sell the same amount of records or maybe even more, and reap even more of the profit? And as independent artists, we’re having to find different revenue streams like that all the time. Even honestly, I look at Bandcamp the same way Jay Z looks at Samsung. It’s just taking control of the situation a little bit more, instead of waiting for the tired-ass label structure that oftentimes doesn’t even wanna take chances on people who aren’t doing what’s sure to sell x amount of units.
Milo: I don’t know, man. That situation makes me feel so weird. It’s on some Huxley “Brave New World” shit, because he didn't give anyone the opportunity to buy the record. You just received it for free, ‘cause someone bought it on your behalf. And that sucks, in my opinion.
Open Mike Eagle: People could still buy it, though.
Milo: But talking about this five million dollar deal, one million copies sold from the jump—that is weird to me. As a person who makes art of some kind, I feel like it devalues it in some way. I don’t know. That's a lofty idea, but…
Open Mike Eagle: I completely disagree.
DX: So you wouldn’t aspire to be on that level where people would buy your music because you did it, regardless of how it sounds?
Milo: That people are going to buy my music regardless of how it sounds? That’d be neat, but that’s not an aspiration of mine, no.
Open Mike Eagle: I would say that the record label kind of devalues the music, by only giving you 10 percent of every dollar or so, rather than this other company giving you this large lump sum for what they think you’re worth.
Milo: I see that point, but I just don’t think of my music as an item for sale, when I’m making it. And even when it’s done, I don’t think of it that way.
Open Mike Eagle: But you do sell it.
Milo: I do sell it.
Open Mike Eagle: For money.
Milo: Right. But I don’t think about that going into it.
Open Mike Eagle: I’m sure Jay Z didn’t think about that when he was making it, either.
Milo: I don’t know.
Open Mike Eagle: To me, those songs sound like he put the average amount of Jay Z thought into it, for whatever that is.
Milo: [Laughs] We need to come up with a name for that unit. This took 12 of whatever that is, these units.
Open Mike Eagle: The Jay Z laugh.
Milo: Right, the Jay Z laugh unit. We should do that.
Milo Calls “Yeezus” Validation For “Art Rap”
DX: Mike, you’re from Chicago. What’d you think about Yeezus?
Open Mike Eagle: That’s interesting, because Kanye is associated with Chicago less and less because his stature has gotten so universal at this point. I think that even part of that feeds into my answer, because him as a personality and a pop culture figure kind of overshadows how he can reference himself as a human. As rappers, we all have to reference day-to-day thoughts and our circumstances and put them into our music. I feel like his life is lived so publicly, and everything is does is such a grand gesture of pop culture movement, that it’s really difficult for him to make a record lyrically that’s down-to-earth, in any kind of way. Whereas I really love his production choices on Yeezus, I’m not in love with the lyrics. That’s pretty much what I feel.
Milo: The interesting thing for me about Kanye West and that record in particular is that he follows in line with this tradition that Picasso starts, or that Gerhard Richter starts, which is that the artist doesn’t have any obligation to a singular aesthetic whatsoever, and actually, should constantly undermine it. I feel like that's what he's done. Honestly, when I heard that record, I was like, “This is awesome for me because this is a very famous, rich person trying to do Art Rap, and that’s what I’m into! So let’s get this Art Rap money!” It seemed to validate what I was doing. So from that point of view, I was like, “Cool…if this is the wave, I’ve got a whole bunch of EPs for you to listen to!” And I generally still feel that way.
Milo Says Open Mike Eagle’s “Unapologetic” Was A “Call To Arms”
DX: Do you think Hip Hop is better or worse because more people have access to creating it and finding it on the Internet?
Milo: I think it’s better, man. I think it’s good any time people are creating things.
Nocando: Like bombs?
Milo: Yeah, sure. Why not? I think it’s important to create things. That doesn’t mean that your creation is qualified because it’s good. I think just the action of making something is important.
Open Mike Eagle: To me it’s a weird mathematical question, and the jury’s kind of out on it in terms of what its effect will be over time. The Internet was the lead cause in people deciding they didn’t have to pay for music anymore, so there’s that aspect of the Internet. But it also provides people the tools to create it in more numbers than ever before too. So I think the jury is still out on what the effect will be over time.
DX: What’s the realest thing you ever wrote?
Open Mike Eagle: This song called “Dishes.” It's about how I wash dishes and think about stuff, and it’s the realest thing I ever wrote.
DX: What’s the realest thing you’ve ever heard from Milo?
Open Mike Eagle: Everything in the song “Post-Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.” Every line in that song is the realest thing in the world.
Milo: Thank you.
DX: Milo, what’s the realest thing you ever wrote?
Milo: The realest thing I ever wrote was “Just Us” from [the album] My Friend Rob Who Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. By far, hands down.
DX: What’s the realest thing you've ever heard from Mike?
Milo: Shoot, man. There’s so many. Maybe “Pissy Transmissions.” That’s a really, really good one that I return to so often. And “Unapologetic”—that is the jam to me. As a kid, when that came out, I was in high school when I heard that, and it was a call to arms. It was like, “Alright, time to teach myself how to rap and make black guy art. Let’s do this. Let’s go…I’m ready.” That song is definitely a reason why I’m even here right now.
Open Mike Eagle & Milo Talk Hellfyre Club & The Music Business
DX: Someone once said they made music to kill loneliness. What does that mean?
Milo: For me, that means being a lonely, brown kid, and wishing that I had something that I felt like was made specifically for me. And then I noticed when I started making music that a lot of people gravitated to what I made because it had that quality. It’s kind of what you’re talking about—this idea of community building, for the people that had traditionally been left out of already filled communities, and I think that’s important. I think with the Internet, we’re able to move in such a way that I can get to these people with the music that I’m making…killing loneliness. That’s not even a particularly original motivation. I feel like what Kurt Vonnegut was writing about was motivated by that, [also] Frida Kahlo…that seems to be a common theme that people touch on. I guess I feel a certain obligation to try to do that as well.
DX: A famous football player passed up a scholarship to Michigan State because he wanted to pursue a rap career. Is this advice you’d give to aspiring emcees?
Milo: I saw that. But here’s the thing: I would say they should get an education, and I feel like I got one. Whether or not I get a token paper at the end is another thing entirely. But, I feel educated. I feel like an educated, young, brown guy. And I think that’s important. I got three years in the game. I didn’t quit before I ever even got in there…you know what I mean? So it’s a little bit of a different situation. I think college is important, so I wouldn’t blindly tell someone that they should not go to college.
Open Mike Eagle: I finished my degree before I really started my career. I rapped as a hobbyist ever since I was in high school, but I didn’t seriously start doing shows until after I finished school. But the advice I would give to anybody in that situation would be that if you’re serious about making it in the music business, it’s really important that you know what the music business is. I don’t know what part of Pennsylvania this kid was from, but if he’s from some small town, I hope he’s not staying there and trying to pursue it.
Milo: He was racking up views, man. It was kind of a really ill media move, and I thought it benefitted him.
Open Mike Eagle: So it was kind of a PR thing, too?
Milo: It kind of became one, no doubt. When I got onto it and saw his video, it already had like 300,000 plays. It was like, “Wow, okay. That was kind of an intelligent move, in some respect.” But that wouldn’t sit well with me to be like, “College is stupid; go rap.”
DX: Give me two sentences on Hellfyre Club.
Open Mike Eagle: Real, brown people; that’s the first one.
Milo: That’s a sentence?
Open Mike Eagle: Well, it’s a sentence fragment. But I would write that as a sentence. If this was a written interview, I’d write, “Real brown people.” Period. Send.
Milo: [Laughs] Okay, break line. I almost wanna piggyback on that and be like, “Real, brown people…inciting a paradigm shift. Real brown people trying to do something that’s on the margins—like you were talking about—and being proud of it, and really doing it unabashedly.
Open Mike Eagle: We put out a white rapper too. I gotta say that for the record. We put out Intuition, so we’re not racists.
Milo: We’re not.
Open Mike Eagle: I might be a little racist. I have to think about that.
Milo: I’m half-Portugese and half-black. So I enjoy some benefits.
Open Mike Eagle: There you go. Move around in some different spaces.