Let’s be clear: life is dull, and terrible and cruel, and anyone who tells you different is a fool. There are various reasons why life is the terrible mess that is. Famine, for one. Genocide is another. Then there are soft factors. Hegemony, running out of condensed milk, Lebron James not quite reaching out for greatness with both hands, and let’s not forget things like Breaking Bad or The Wire coming to an end. Speaking of which, that’s another bug in life, it ends.
Open Mike Eagle is aware of these things. Painfully aware, and his music is a funnel for that awareness, breaking along fault lines like waves hemming and hawing out of a dark sea. You could look at it as though it were some kind of shtick, but it isn’t. His music really is a function of his personal worldview, with all its cracks, splinters and gut-busting funniness. But let’s put the comedic factor aside for a second. Open Mike Eagle is a grade A emcee.
And like any grade A anything he’s comfortable with his flaws. The problem is you, of course. Are you comfortable with his flaws? With yours? This is music for the choice-makers, the earners, the tempest-tossed Lil Wayne’s yearning to breathe free. Or something. What this is, what his music is up to you actually. And Mike’s got no problem with that.
Happiness Isn’t Possible Because Music and The Music Industry Is Insane
DX: When I was 15 there was Hip Hop for me, then when I was 25 there was Hip Hop for me. Now I’m 31 and it’s like no one wants to talk about working in an office, and feeling alone and looking for a wife. Except for Drake, sometimes.
Open Mike Eagle: [Laughs] And that’s the thing is I feel like there’s people that do that stuff, but because of the state of the business, you’re not getting those things promoted on the same level because the business entities, correctly, surmise that they won’t make as much money.
DX: Isn’t it circular?
Open Mike Eagle: I used to think so, because, I remember in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s when Rawkus was happening, Soundbombing, Lyricist Lounge and you would start to see that these entities would have videos on Rap City next to all of the big acts. I remember every year thinking, “Ok, here we go, this is the year…” [Laughs] “This is when the pendulum starts swinging back in the other direction.” But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, I don’t think that it’s ever going to happen on the level. I don’t think business will ever invest in personal, fragile Hip Hop, the way that it does the current, materialistic stuff. I just think it’s inherent that there is like this consumerism, which has the ability to make money perpetually. It kind of helps itself in that way. Where like, I’m a fuck around and say something to make you not spend a dollar. [Laughs] So if you’re a business entity and you’re strictly worried about bottom line at the end of the day, you’re gonna pick someone else over me.
Open Mike Eagle: Well, I’ll agree with you to this point: I think cool is circular. Business is not..
DX: But they’re trading in cool now so it’s a commodity.
Open Mike Eagle: That’s true. They have to now.
DX: Does it necessarily translate though?
Open Mike Eagle: I guess any business entity at some point are gonna have to try to commodify it, right? It’s not gonna be able to be just be cool on its own, and it can’t be too radical, I don’t think. Maybe it can, I don’t know. You know what always bothers my mind is that Rage Against The Machine was really huge… That’s insane! Logically that doesn’t make any sense at all, but that happened. So I’m like, “Yea, maybe you’re right…”
DX: You’re angry, there’s anger in there… I hate to be too forward, but it’s more of my kind of anger. It’s more of a, “You’re probably the girl for me but you don’t like me.”
Open Mike Eagle: Yea, it’s more like skeptical, and questioning and dissatisfied. Absolutely.
DX: So if you know then, that’s not necessarily the kind of music that’s commoditized, it begs a question: Why do you make it?
Open Mike Eagle: I have to; I don’t have any other choice. This is what I’d be doing if I was making music in my bedroom, it’d still be this way. Everything that I’m attracted to, everything I consume — all the books I read, all the TV I watch, all the stand-up comedy — it’s all on that. It’s all about questioning, it’s all about challenging yourself, it’s all about sitting with yourself, it’s all about trying to think about the moves you make and not throw caution to the wind. I mean, I guess sometimes, ‘cause sometimes it’s about trying to tell yourself not to over think as well. Thought is value. Empathy is value, and caring about people is value, [and] in a way that’s difficult to commodify. If, as a business entity the only thing you’re worried about is the bottom line in life… Like my label, Mello Music Group, they care about rap music. They actually care. That’s enough where they’re not just trying to sign whoever’s gonna make money, they’re trying to ask who would like to make money, but that they also believe would actually make a good product, ‘cause they care about the product. Now that might be thing that keeps them from ever being Universal Music or Warner but that’s why I’m there and not trying to shop myself to one of these bigger labels. Plus I’m not 17 years old, so, I’m immediately precluded from a lot of those conversations anyway.
DX: [Laughs] There’s that. Do you think caring is coming back in style? Did it ever leave?
Open Mike Eagle: That’s a really good question… I hope so but I really don’t know. I like the kind of TV that’s being made right now. I feel like TV is being made by people that care about stories and cinematography and all the things that you figure people will go to school for that art form would care about. Somehow that’s taken over television, and I think that’s amazing. But that’s just kinda one instance. Other than that I don’t know if it’s coming back in style or not. I’m not sure.
Being Ahead Of Your Time Is Overrated
DX: Your lyrics are really about mundane situations. I saw the video where you did “Qualifiers” in the Laundromat and I thought it was genius ‘cause I was like, “These people are in a Laundromat, it’s the most boring place on the face of the Earth, why not have a concert there?” And you did, and no one cared. [Laugh]
Open Mike Eagle: It was funny, that’s the funny part. LA is so… It’s funny, you go to Hollywood, everybody’s star struck, you go to the hood and nobody gives a fuck. They don’t care; they’re just trying to live. They don’t give a fuck what you’re doing as long as you’re not bothering them. I thought that was a cool thing to show, that like, you can go to a Laundromat one day, randomly, and weird ass shit could happen, and people are just gonna keep washing their drawers. [Laughs] They’re unconcerned. I think that was tight. One of my favorite songs was about washing dishes; ‘cause that’s like a real serious time of self-reflection for me. That’s the only way I can get through that shit.
DX: Does the current state of Hip Hop baffle you?
Open Mike Eagle: No, no, it all makes sense to me. You know what? Occasionally, you know, some crazy song will come out and I’ll be like, “I don’t know why people like that.” But, for the most part, I get it. What I’ve had to learn is that so many people get invested or interested in Hip Hop for so many different reasons. I remember being baffled by Lil B at first, completely baffled by how popular this dude was, who didn’t really seem to give a shit about rapping. It took me a while to see, “Oh he kinda does, he cares a lot, just for humans.” And that’s most of his shit, actually caring. It’s not necessarily caring about craft; it’s just caring in a real general way. I used to trip out about how people used to jump on his shit and I think…
Especially with middle aged white men? There’s this real cultural voyeuristic thing that happens with who they’re into. And I had to remember like, “Oh, right, so them dudes was also into Doom for these whole other reasons that I wasn’t really aware of,” where I was just like, “He raps so tight.” They were more about him being in this world, this comic book thing and this villainy; they were all caught up in that. So when you split off and you got Odd Future and it’s like, “Oh ok, some of ‘em rap, some of ‘em can’t,” but like people really jump on it because they kind of have this world that they created. For a lot of people, especially with rap music, they put a lot of value on that. Like, “Oh am I seeing inside some other, you know what I mean, some other place.” I actually saw this in reviews of a lot my work, that a lot of people didn’t like it because it seems so very close to them. It’s not another world, it seemed like the same world they were in. They didn’t really want that.
DX: [Laughs] Right, but do you think your work is ahead of its time? For example, I wanted to make this comparison: You mention HBO, HBO used to have all these weird indie shows that no one got… All of a sudden it became cool to be HBO because everything changed. And now they’re making all this groundbreaking work, but they’ve always been making groundbreaking work. And most of that stuff got cancelled because no one got it. Do you think you’re kind of the same?
Open Mike Eagle: Well this is the thing, right, I think that when people did start to catch on it’s ‘cause they started to divert their attention towards making stuff that was groundbreaking in a very accessible way. Around the same time they had Sopranos they had this show called John from Cincinnati. You remember that show? Man, that show was my shit. Every Sunday, I was waiting for John from Cincinnati but it got cancelled, ‘cause nobody got it. It was the same high production value, some of the same people that worked on Deadwood and all these other shows but it was so… weird. It still didn’t quite work and I think everybody is just trying to figure it out.
DX: Arrested Development as well… But do you think that your stuff is ahead of its time?
Open Mike Eagle: I don’t know ‘cause I don’t know what the future holds. Man, I really don’t. I like to think that me, and my brothers in Hellfyre Club especially, like the music that we’re putting out, I like to think that we’re getting to a point now where it’s kind of getting out there and affecting culture a little bit by its presence, even though a lot of it isn’t highly promoted. ‘Cause that’s what really changes things is promotion. Part of the reason why the business of the state of things and the cultural images perpetuated in Hip Hop have been so stagnant for so long, because the people with the money keep investing in the same shit. That’s kind of how it is, and even when you do get… I remember when B.o.B started, man, B.o.B seemed like he was really about to be this whole new kind of character but then over time, you know, it seems like… And I don’t know his business, but just looking at it, it seems like, oh, you know, they don’t want him to be risk taking in any way.
They kinda want him to make some shit that they know was gon’ sell, so it pushes him into being more of a regular character. I feel like Nicki Minaj, man, I feel like she’s an incredible artist but I feel like when it came to this last album, it was like, “No, you’re really gonna have to sell your ass this time, you have to really sell it.” Like, “For a few months, we’re just gonna market your ass, and that’s just where we’re at with this.” I’m like, “Fuck, that’s crazy to me,” cause she’s so fucking talented; she’s an amazing rapper, fucking amazing rapper. But it’s like, everyone needs an angle, It’s like the people with the money; they’re not trying to invest money on wildly different angles. They want the same angle ‘cause they want to keep making the same money. And I get it ‘cause they employing people and every… You know, if Eminem is projected to sell eight, and it sells seven, a shit ton of people losing their jobs. That’s real life for them, and I get that. So Eminem can’t necessarily make the record he wants to make every time because he gotta do numbers.
Commerce Versus Art, Lil Wayne, And The Banality Of Police Brutality
DX: So is commerce crushing the art?
Open Mike Eagle: That’s what commerce does.
DX: And how do you escape that?
Open Mike Eagle: I mean, I deal with business entities where they don’t live and die by that, that’s what I was saying earlier. There has to be some heart. There [has] got to be some heart.
DX: Right, I guess just to wrap up, for a moment there in the 2000’s I thought Lil Wayne was gonna go art. All the way… [Laughs] And, he kind of didn’t. Like he kind of pulled it back around Tha Carter IV.
Open Mike Eagle: He went to jail… That changes people, I hear. [Both laugh]
DX: His whole situation is interesting; the idea that he’ll go indie is really interesting. How do you feel about that? Were you a Lil Wayne fan?
Open Mike Eagle: I mean, Tha Carter III I think is an amazing thing to have a rapper that big make an album that risky. I mean, it had its safe singles and shit too but also had some really oddly developed rap concepts that I thought really changed the business. I think Wayne changed the business more than anybody. Like, he made it where you had to know how to rap at the top. The craft had to be important to you in some sense. I mean, even Jay [Z] was tight, but Jay [Z] used to turn down his tight. [Laughs] It wasn’t valued the same way. And we come from, you know, in the 90’s you had your Hammer’s and your Vanilla Ice’s and all that. You could be on the top and literally just be playing in the studio, fucking playing games, anything. When Wayne came out and he taught himself how to rap real fucking great and he made mixtapes that just fucked it up for everybody else. He took every bar so seriously. I really think it changed how a lot of rappers write, you know, and I think that’s really great. I don’t know, what is he gonna do now? He’s leaving Cash Money right? Is that what he’s doing? I don’t know, what’s he doing?
DX: He’s trying to leave Cash Money.
Open Mike Eagle: That makes me fear for his life more than anything. Like, I don’t even know what that means, I feel like somebody’s gonna put a hit out on him.
DX: I’m really interested in music that people make from a place that they’re afraid of and I feel like you make that kind of music. You mentioned you didn’t necessarily like vulnerable…
Open Mike Eagle: No, no. I do like vulnerable, I don’t like overly emotional… Bcause I guess to me that’s like the work of it. That’s the statement I’m trying to make: my vulnerability is important because my life, everybody’s singular life, is important. ‘Cause I feel like we get a lot of messages, especially in Hip Hop, that really make it seem like if there’s something inside of you that wants to not go with what everybody else is doing, that there’s no value placed on that. And so to me the real work is coming from a place of not having the strength of everybody else’s cosign. Not being able to take the well-worn path, it’s the easy path. Like right now to me the materialism shit is so played, so fucking played.
Like damn, 20 years it feels like. 20 years of like the same video in a rented mansion, and then just standing by some cars. That shit is so fucking played. And it’s the effect that I feel like that’s had, you know, especially in the ghetto, the youth. I think there’s something real toxic there and I don’t have the power to undo that on a mass level, but as an example, I feel like that’s my only purpose. Especially because other genres of music and people that look different kinds of ways, their individual stories are important. How they make their records gets put into the press release like, ‘And they did this, and they were on a mountain, and they…’ That shit is important, and it’s important to me too. Like, my life is fucking important. [Laughs] The uniqueness of my life [is important]. I grew up in the hood and I grew up with a lot of people in the hood who live a lot of different kinds of ways. There’s not one fucking black experience. There’s not just one, like that is so central to everything that I do. I’m African in America, got here by slavery just like all these other motherfuckers. There’s a thousand ways that could play out in a lifetime,
DX: A second for this police brutality stuff. How do we get the cops to cool it?
Open Mike Eagle: You know the real problem that we have right now is that the police don’t have to answer to anybody. The easy thing to do if you are a policeman, and you’re encouraged to do this if you’re a policeman, is to not be a person but to just be a group of people in a uniform. Like, that’s what you’re encouraged to do. It’s just like the Army, you’re not encouraged to ask questions. You’re encouraged to just follow orders and not connect to other peoples’ humanity as individuals. You’re not encouraged to do that shit at all. You’re encouraged to think of yourself as one unit. Those New York cops, man, and they’re like all pissed off at the mayor, Because they’ve been encouraged to choose that allegiance over being human. They’re not encouraged to question themselves and whether or not inside of their minds they might think that a black man’s more threatening than a white man. They’re not encouraged to question that. They’re encouraged to be brave policeman, do whatever they think is right and to trust that the organization is going to have their back in the end over anything else.
So what I think has to happen is that they need, you know what I mean, they have to answer to somebody. There has to be some authority, I don’t know exactly how that happens but it has to get to the point where they consider themselves humans and they confront the thoughts that they have about how threatening they might feel a black man is. And I get some people are like; it’s on us to, you know, clean up our act or whatever. And in some sense it is, but look, it’s like this, on one side you just got people in different neighborhoods and all different kinds of behavior but they just look a certain way. And you have police, who are supposed to be enforcing the laws that we all vote on, and they have fucking deadly weapons. So to me it’s not a fucking debate on like, “Oh, well y’all got…” No. You motherfuckers with the guns need to figure that shit out! It’s not on us. We’re not doing things that would naturally cause death, death is happening to us. It’s not on us to figure that shit out. Because that’s inhuman, that’s not human. The first thing you’re supposed to do, as a human, is think about, ‘Man, that’s somebody’s son, and he didn’t deserve to die.’ Anything in front of that, that’s a psychological issue. [Laughs] We need doctors, man. That’s the other thing that was fucking with me watching Selma. Man, watching people celebrate and wave flags and cheer while people was getting beat. Like, that’s fucked up. That’s fucked up. Like that’s a sickness. I don’t know how you organize against a sickness.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.