You Ain’t Artsier Than Me

Open Mike Eagle on art rap, and his steady rise from the underground

Photography by Ian Flanigan

The mélange of rap and high art is most commonly attributed to Fab Five Freddy, a flamboyant personality who brought together the likes of subway graffiti and Andy Warhol. Since then, hip-hop has ballooned into divergent schools of art, from the ratchet to the abstract and beyond. The bridging of the two continues to be explored on levels perhaps more mainstream than Freddy ever imagined, most recently with Wu-Tang’s current experiment – releasing only one copy of their next album, in the hopes of restoring the golden age ideal of album as art piece.

Open Mike Eagle, a veteran of LA’s storied underground, has seen a recent surge in recognition that traces its roots all the way back to his 2010 project Unapologetic Art Rap. Since then, his music has continued to experiment with the relationships between the underground and the highbrow, and with Dark Comedy slated to drop in June, it’s likely he’ll keep exploring that tension in detail. After failing to cross paths here in New York, Mike and I hopped on a Skype interview earlier this month, and caught up on some of the projects that have kept him busy over the lead-up to his latest.

Open Mike Eagle

Having migrated west from Chicago in 2004, Open Mike Eagle has since climbed the rungs of the city’s underground culture, first as a mainstay of Project Blowed, and now as a member of Nocando’s label-group-musical amalgam Hellfyre Club. Featuring fellow alternative hip-hop artists Busdriver, Milo, and Anderson .Paak, Hellfyre recently finished up their 28-city Dorner vs. Tookie tour, bringing raw, funny and irreverent rap to the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

That humor has always played a role in Open Mike Eagle’s art; his projects are replete with comedy skits, often featuring help from his good friend, comedian Hannibal Buress. In fact, it was at Buress’ weekly gig in Brooklyn that I first watched Open Mike Eagle perform. After being familiar with his music for years, I was seeing him for the first time across the country, hearing the guttural beats and cerebral lyrics I fell in love with back home. The hallmarks of Mike’s style–lyrical dexterity and a fiercely independent vision–made him an obvious choice for the cast of Hellfyre Club. “When Nocando asked me to do Hellfyre, I was immediately down,” he tells me, “I felt like there was nobody in LA looking for independent artists as much as he was.”

Open Mike Eagle is also Michael Eagle II, a married father who left his hometown to escape the depressing cycle of leaving for college (which in his experience meant moving to Carbondale and studying psychology), coming back home, and not doin’ shit. Following his dad’s footsteps to the entertainment capital of the world, Mike followed the beat scene he loved and wound up where he is now, in a scene that complemented his oddball sensibilities. “If I had stayed home, I would have been known as a Chicago rapper, rapping over horn loops. Moving to LA allowed me to do more than that,” he told me. Through LA’s eclectic underground scene, Mike found his voice and a niche for his “artsy smartsy rap shit.”

Mike is prone to using words like “synesthesia” in his raps, or dropping Mark Ruffalo references. Both are arguably “weird,” but that’s what makes his music undeniably listenable. He moves deftly from the academic to the silly, reminiscent of Michael Eric Dyson’s ability to reach both the casual music blog-reader and the organizational-psychology PhD students. Mike himself left higher education after one year of grad school because he was too comfortable, which both makes me feel like an asshole for staying in grad school and also imbues me with an open-jawed sense of admiration. As you might expect from his music, Mike’s departure from school in no way reflects his real-life ambition. Over the coming months, Mike will launch his biggest album yet, and star in his own podcast, an exploration of the internal experiences of people in public, tentatively titled Secret Skin. For now, you can purchase tickets to the official listening party for Dark Comedy here.

Open Mike Eagle

  • tn2

    Great article