It’s hard to sit still in a bar stacked to the brim with old arcade games, a fact that Open Mike Eagle confirms as we get comfy at Barcade in Brooklyn. He’s not itching to hop on four-player Pac-Man (at least not yet); his fingers are swirling through the air as David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” pours out of the speakers. “This is one of those 10-song albums where every song is fucking amazing,” he says as he continues his seated dance.
Born Michael Eagle in Chicago, he’s been a purveyor of what he calls “art rap” since dropping his debut Unapologetic Art Rap back in 2010. He’s made connections with some of the California underground’s finest (Busdriver, Nocando, Dumbfoundead) while perfecting his conversational brand of anxiety, lyrical swagger, and “Adventure Time” references, leading up to Dark Comedy, arguably his breakout record. Both in his music and in person, he can bounce between They Might Be Giants, Ras Kass, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Wrestlemania at the drop of a hat, and that eclectic spirit translates to his latest record Hella Personal Film Festival, a collaboration with the British producer Paul White.
On it, Eagle constructs vignettes that blur the line between fiction and reality over White’s rolodex of eclectic soul-infused beats. Happiness (“Admitting The Endorphin Addiction”), the anxieties of racism (“Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”), playful shots at smartphone culture (“Check To Check”), and good ol’ “Insecurity” are explored across the album’s 14 tracks. Whether you’re chuckling or combating your own anxieties, Mike’s grip as a storyteller keeps things compelling.
Our conversation was just as varied. Whether you’ve been a fan from the beginning or just stumbled in from the side, here’s some interesting things you might not know about the Artful Rapper.
1. He’s a huge They Might Be Giants fan
There are times when [lead singer] John Linnell especially starts stylin’ out. Like on “Letterbox.” He chops it up a lot. “Dinner Bell.” He goes on his runs, dude. Me and Busdriver just covered “Whistling In The Dark” at our show in LA. That’s some rap shit right there, how he chops up the syllables.
2. Busdriver helped him get his first record deal
When I was in high school, I would always go to the Project Blowed when I was in LA visiting my dad, because that’s where you went when you wanted to rap; that’s where I’d go and I got to know him there. MCs just click up there and when you see somebody that’s tight, you get to talkin’. We just had a lot of similar interests and similar aesthetics. I made my very first solo album that never came out and he was one of the first people I showed it to. Then when I made my first solo album that *did* come out, he was the guy who helped me get the record deal for it. I’ve been fuckin’ with Reagan for a long time.
3. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of his favorite directors
WL: If you could have your own personal 5-film festival, which movies would you choose?
OME: Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees, Chinatown, Network, and Putney Swope. That’s my five. And you’re recording this, right?
OME: I want my five to be Blacker.
4. Hella Personal Film Festival with Paul White was his first time recording music in someone else’s studio
WL: How was working with Paul [White]?
OME: It’s good. It’s hard to give a further in-depth answer because it was just good and I don’t have any experience being in the studio with anybody else. I tend to record all my shit myself, so that whole experience was very different for me and it went great. It was very cool and very laid-back.
5. The first beat he’s proud of came from a David Bowie song
WL: The first lyric that stuck out to me at the very end of “Admitting The Endorphin Addiction” was “rap music has ruined me/I always want to loop my favorite part.” What’s the first musical loop you ever heard that made you want to make rap music?
OME: What’s sticking out in my head is this David Bowie song from Hunky Dory called “Quicksand.” It was the first beat I ever made where I knew that ‘I’ma rap off of this right now.’ It was the end of “Quicksand” [hums the end of “Quicksand”]. I made a beat out of it, took it to the studio, and made a whole song out of it.
WL: And that was the first beat you ever produced yourself?
OME: I don’t know if it was the first beat, but it was the first one I listened to over and over again and decided that I wanted to write to. I probably made 30-40 beats before that.
6. His computer is filled with remakes of his favorite songs
OME: I have these beat CDs I made for myself back in the day. I know one of them was a B-52s loop, another was another David Bowie loop, I used to loop a lot of XTC, a lot of TMBG, King Missle, whatever I was listening to. That’s the shit that would live in my heart. REM had a song called “Star Me Kitten” from the Automatic For The People album, and I used to fuck with that song so much. I have this unheard remake project where I was taking all of these songs and figuring out what the chords were and remaking them. I never put any of that shit out. That was one of the songs I made, though. It lived in me.
7. His favorite wrestling podcast is Writer’s Room
It’s hosted by Alex Greenfield who used to be a WWE writer and the insight he gives into the WWE writing there is incredible.
8. He thinks The Undertaker should retire
WL: What’d you think of Vince McMahon hopping off the top of the cage at Wrestlemania?
OME: I didn’t like it. [Hell In A Cell] being a Wrestlemania-only event for Undertaker was great when he had a streak. Since there’s no streak, he should fucking retire. You know what I’ve been thinking about the last couple of days? How it must’ve felt to be The Undertaker in that locker room while you’re watching Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, and The Rock come out and do silly shit to get props and go the fuck home – and you’ve gotta wrestle a real match like you’re one of these ham and eggers in the locker room right now. How must that have felt to Mark Calaway to watch all these people he came up with and some that he predated come and set their own names on fire, wrestle a six-minute match, and leave? He’s working an entire fucking match.
9. His Secret Skin podcast is one of the best on the internet. No, really.
I wanted to talk to people about the private things they dealt with out of the public eye, especially minority entertainers that didn’t often get a chance to create their own narratives. I wanna have a platform for that. I think we’re missing a way for us to tell our own stories.
10. The Native Tongues helped him feel comfortable in rap
WL: What did A Tribe Called Quest – and Phife in particular – mean to you?
OME: Tribe was letting me know I had a place in rap. With all this other shit that was goin’ on in rap– street shit, hard shit–there were people who were more sensitive, more expressive. I’ve always been surrounded by “hard” people, but I’ve never been a hard person, and so rap was so hard that to see this group make such good music and to not be on that, but not in a way that they were anti-that, but they were just in another place. It established the frequency with which I exist to this day. The entire Native Tongues; De La, Tribe, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Busta, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Prince Paul, they were my nourishment in rap. That created the entire underground that I subscribe to and that was my path.
WL: I used to get into fights with one of my roommates over whether or not Tip or Phife was the best MC in Tribe. I used to cape for Tip, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve gravitated more toward Phife just because he was us. Tip was on cloud 16 and Phife was at this table with us right now.
OME: That’s real.
WL: I’ll never look at Seaman’s Furniture the same way again.
OME: I was just thinking about that today as I was driving around and I had that New York experience, since I’m not here a lot. I pay attention to shit and it all ties back to rap lyrics and I saw a furniture store and the Seaman’s line came up. I don’t know if I’d say he was the best in Tribe, though; I think Tip was the more compelling lyricist to me, but that music lives in me. That music was Tip beats, Shaheed scratching, and Tip and Phife rhyming.
11. He’s struggling with being a parent in 2016
OME: I think I spent most of my life thinking it’d be easier than it’s actually gonna be. I never expected that I’d have to have a conversation with my kid about what Black Lives Matter means. It’s been interesting to think about, especially with the conversations I’ve had to have with him about the current presidential election. Because of Donald Trump, I had to explain to my son what the Ku Klux Fucking Clan is. That shit could’ve never come up, but because it comes up in these contexts, I have to explain them.
We try to deconstruct stereotypes with him in general. Most of the conversation is actually sexism. There’s so much of that nestled in American entertainment and school and all of that, that we have to explain to him that you can’t divide boys and girls psychologically like that. It’s all social construction. Resistance of it is all patriarchy and males being very protective of the position of advantage that we’re in and we’re very slow to let that shit go. All of this North Carolina/Alabama shit, it’s all males convincing people that we should hold onto this fucking position. It’s stupid. They’re dinosaurs and dinosaurs die.