“I Want People to Humanize Trauma”: An Interview with Open Mike Eagle

Will Schube talks with Open Mike Eagle about Jeffrey Lewis, Chicago versus LA, and his new LP, 'Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.'
By    October 30, 2017

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Michael Eagle is stressed. Before his show at the Barracuda in Austin, Texas on September 17th, cat ears and a suitcase need to be procured. The former, for his reality television show documenting the tour (Dead Ass), and the latter, for travel ease. The suitcase should take precedent—Open Mike Eagle is bringing his new record, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, across the country—but Eagle and his best friend from college, Video Dave, are really caught up about the cat ears. So instead of at the venue or in a hotel room, we talk about this record, being black in America, and our Cheeto President in Eagle’s rented minivan, traversing the complexities of Interstate 35 looking for Ross: Dress For Less.

Open Mike Eagle has been an independent rap staple since he dropped Unapologetic Art Rap in 2010. That debut presented a rapper fully formed and fully committed to an aesthetic ideal, unrelenting in the pursuit of music equal parts funny, scathing, and deeply original. Art rap has come a long way since Eagle helped coin the term—it means something much different then than it does now. It’s up for debate whether he or fellow Angeleno Busdriver was the first to use it, however. Ask either and they’ll probably just laugh in your face.

Eagle’s been building off this style for seven years, culminating in the just released Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, an ode to the now destroyed Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Eagle was born in Chicago but now lives in Los Angeles, and this new record is a view from his childhood, putting names and faces to lives destroyed alongside the rubble. Eagle’s aunt grew up in this community, and many of his childhood memories are attached to her and these homes. This record is a tribute, a grieving process, and a wake-up call for those oblivious.

The album is about being black and willfully forgotten in America, purposefully erased for no other reason than skin color. While there are plenty of funny lines on Brick Body Kids, the record is noticeably more serious in tone than Eagle’s earlier, hysterical efforts. The subject matter clearly dictated the emcee’s writing style this time around. For Open Mike Eagle, it’s getting harder to extract the absurd from the everyday without normalizing this hellscape.

But he’s still hellbent on finding the perfect set of cat ears, something he has no problem laughing at. We hatch a plan at Ross: Dress For Less in which I buy a $100 pair of cat headphones (the exact pair Eagle deliberated over for a while in Houston that morning) and return them the next day as Eagle, Video Dave, DJ AlwayzProlific, and opening act Sammus head to the Midwest.

Everything goes according to plan. The show is stellar—the crowd ecstatic, already rapping along to new cuts off of Brick Body Kids. Afterwards, a long merch line forms, where Eagle interacts with every fan making a purchase. He sells so many records and t-shirts, he decides to buy the cat headphones from me instead of going with our initial return plan. The headphones will become a mainstay on Dead Ass and may just become Mike’s go-to pair for a uniquely feline home listening experience. When we aren’t discussing the nuances of perfectly constructed cat ears, we touch on production techniques, getting too high at the airport, and a pervading apathy that’s uniquely American. —Will Schube


So we’re off to pick up cat ears. What for?


Open Mike Eagle: Yeah man, we’re picking up cat ears! We need cat ears for the show we’re shooting, for Dark Comedy TV. Dead Ass is the reality show that’s covering the tour and we need some cat ears.


How’s the reality show going so far?


Open Mike Eagle: Nobody’s watching the videos right now, and we think they’re really hilarious.


What’s the idea behind them?


Open Mike Eagle: It’s our version of a reality show, which is basically a surreal-ality show. Everything’s amped up, there’s humor all over the place, mostly shedding light on the differences in perception versus reality in indie rap touring. Just touching on all the stuff we go through here.


Since 2014 or so, the ‘art rap’ term you helped coin and pioneer has become a household phrase—


Open Mike Eagle: Is it a household phrase? People walk around their house in slippers with corn cob pipes and say, ‘You know what, ma? I wanna put on some of that art rap.’


Has the term changed at all from when you first started using it? Does it achieve the same purpose?


Open Mike Eagle: It definitely means something different from when I started using it because at that time, there wasn’t a lot of room for self-expression or vulnerability in mainstream rap. There was no room for subtle humor or any of the personal, nuanced ways of expressing a point of view in rap music. But that’s changed a lot in the last ten years. You can be real sensitive and popular, you can be real socially conscious and popular, you can be super artsy, you can wear dresses.

So, I don’t think art rap means the same thing as it meant when I started using it. Looking at that Bandcamp piece, I think it means something different. I’m not quite sure what it means. It might be, it might speak to more of an economic situation than an artistic one these days.


Is that DIY, economically sustainable model something you learned from older rappers like Busdriver and Myka 9?


Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, I came up in DIY rap following the lineage of Project Blowed artists—Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, and Busdriver. I used to intern, quote-unquote, in the Project Blowed Records office which meant I just showed up there everyday. I was working a day job at that time and I’d show up during my lunch breaks. Then I would show up after work and I’d just be there learning how it was that artists of that caliber were making money from the music business. It just taught me a bunch about it.

There are good and bad things about coming up DIY, though. You can blow your load before you get any sort of mainstream attention. You can have twenty albums out and a poor sales history on iTunes—all this stuff that can shoot you in the foot. DIY touring is a nightmare, but it’s what you sometimes have to do. You also have to have a plan to not do that one day. Because there are a lot of ways to do that wrong for a very long time.


A lot of your music is extremely funny, extremely witty. While Brick Body Kids Still Daydream has plenty of sharp lines, did the heft of the concept dictate your more serious writing style? Was this an intentional decision before you began writing?


Open Mike Eagle: I’ve just been stressed the fuck out, man. A lot of it has to do with our current political situation. That shit stresses me out; these new, fresh iterations of racism and shit that we have to deal with. All this stuff in pop culture that we thought we had gotten past, that seems to not be going away. It was enough to have to say, ‘black lives matter.’ That’s already an absurd thing to have to say! But now we have to say, ‘Hey guys! Neo Nazis are bad! It’s bad! Don’t do that!’ That’s crazy. All that shit stresses me out.

When I’m stressed out and I’m making music, I stop having the room to laugh, unless I’m finding some way to point out the absurdity of matters. Now, I don’t know how to make this shit funny. There are jokes there, I just don’t know how to pull them out yet. There are jokes all over the place.


You made Hella Personal Film Festival with one producer [Paul White]. Why did you decide to make Brick Body Kids Still Daydream with a group of different producers?


Open Mike Eagle: Making records with a bunch of different people is easier for me because I’m a control freak and I’m a really terrible collaborator. It’s easier for me to be a dictator than it is to be a collaborator. I like to rule my albums with an iron fist and I like to cut a song when I feel like cutting a song, not having to have a conversation with somebody about it beforehand. It’s just easier for me to do. I end up saying more of the sentence I want to say when I’m doing it by myself. I end up making concessions when I do an album with one person for the sake of the cohesion of the sound. It’s not as fun for me.


Your records are all fairly conceptual. Do you find it easier to write and organize your ideas when there’s a throughline or a common thread between the tracks?


Open Mike Eagle: When I’m making a record, I’ll start making songs and at some point through the process of making songs, a theme starts to emerge. Once I recognize what the theme is, then I start going harder at it. The last half of the songwriting process is more on the nose, dealing with the thing. The first few songs I wrote for this album were about—like, “No Selling” was a song I wrote very early on. “Wedding Ghosts” was a song I wrote very early on. I was noticing this crazy apathy in those songs. I wanted to figure out where that was coming from. I think it was all getting at this hardening. I started the line from there.


On “(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home,” you have that line, “I die in all of my dreams.” Is it hard to find the motivation to rap in 2017, with all of this toxic shit surrounding us 24/7?


Open Mike Eagle: I don’t know what I was getting at with that line. I think I was just expressing how stressed the fuck out I am.


Well, that line when paired with the album title, what does a dream represent if black people are dying in them?


Open Mike Eagle: Death is a truth for everybody. We come face to face with it a lot. The stress of life as a black American is the stress of constantly dealing with trauma and never really having any systems available that can walk you through how to process it. Death dreams are just manifestations of not being able to process stress correctly.


This is a distinctly Chicago record. Was it easier to approach this album from an outside perspective, living in LA now?


Open Mike Eagle: I think the age I am now, I was able to understand the story of that housing complex better. I go back and forth in my head a lot about my relationship to Chicago—being called an LA rapper versus a Chicago rapper. I wasn’t making this record to formally make any connection to Chicago, but it’s a lot easier to talk about Chicago when I talk about it as a setting for me growing up. Nobody can take that away from me, even if I never live there again. That’s the part of Chicago that’s mine—the ‘80s and the ‘90s. That’s something I can lay claim to.


Since so many of your childhood memories are grounded in the Robert Taylor Homes, do you think part of this concept was an attempt to revitalize that now destroyed past?


Open Mike Eagle: A lot of the album isn’t about what it personally meant to me as it is imagining what it was for the people that lived there, got kicked out of there, and had to experience that; experiencing life in the new places they are now, and the experiences of the 10,000 people they can’t even account for after the redistribution happened. Imagining those stories, wanting to mine that space, that’s what it’s about. Stuff about me filters out through those narratives, but it doesn’t start from a place of talking about me, except for the last song, of course [“My Auntie’s Building”]. That’s just me being stressed out about people being treated that way.


That line on “Brick Body Complex,” “Don’t call me a rapper/ My motherfucking name is Michael Eagle,” seems to say a lot. Is this new album your most definitive statement on who you are as a person?


Open Mike Eagle: Probably, yeah. That’s a reflection of time-space, man. This is my sixth record. Somebody on Twitter asked me if there was an arc to this album, and there’s an arc to all of my albums. That’s something I’ve always been conscious of, having an arc. But I think I know how to do it now. I can imagine the listener going through the record. It’s more a reflection of me having a bit more of an acumen with the craft now than I have before.


Is there any political art that helped inspire this record?


Open Mike Eagle: I was just recently told that OutKast’s “B.O.B” video references an Atlanta housing project that got demolished. I didn’t even know about that. There were some homes that were visually referenced as the setting of that video. I thought that was really cool, that there was prior precedent.


How about any songwriters or political leaning musicians that you looked towards?


Open Mike Eagle: You know who I want to write like? I want to write like Jeffrey Lewis. That motherfucker, every one of his songs has such a distinct point of voice. He’s a guy I find myself wanting to fashion songs like. I don’t know if any of these—except maybe “My Auntie’s Building.” I think that’s maybe a song Jeffrey Lewis could have penned if that happened to him.


What do you think about people calling this record political? I think all of your music is pretty political…


Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, I’m political. My records are gonna be political.


Why do you think people have been calling this your most political record?


Open Mike Eagle: Probably because I say ‘garbage king’ a lot and people know that’s about that dickhead Trump. I’ve beaten up the Koch brothers in a song before, but I’ve never directly addressed a politician in that manner before. So maybe that seems more overt than past stuff.


Do you like going on tour?


Open Mike Eagle: I love this tour. I loooooove this tour. [As we pass a Doubletree Inn] I love that Doubletree, too. I’m sad I’m not staying there this time. They give you a cookie. Doubletree always gives you a really hot cookie when you check in. Doubletrees are incredible. I couldn’t afford that this time.


Why do you love this tour?


Open Mike Eagle: Because I’m traveling with my friends, Video Dave and AlwayzProlific. This means I get to take less money home, but it also means I won’t die from an edible weed overdose in the airport alone like I almost did last tour.


Let’s re-visit that memory!


Open Mike Eagle: I ate this cube thing. I didn’t read the directions, I just ate it because I eat a lot of edibles and I was like, ‘Fuck it, it’s a little, tiny thing. I’ll just eat the whole thing.’ I ate it right before I was getting on the airplane. I sank into the chair while they were boarding. I was like, ‘This is bad…’ I was in first class on this flight. In first class you don’t want to go to sleep because you want to experience it. I wanted to force myself to fall asleep because I thought I was dying from being too high.

I got off the plane and found my bags. You had to walk to the shuttle, and I was trying to find it, leaning against the rails because my body wanted to pass out…But I couldn’t pass out because I was alone and I would have died. I had to power the fuck through it. So now I’m traveling with my friends so I don’t die alone. We’ll distribute the high. None of us will be too high.


That’s very noble of you. Back to the record, is there anything you want people to take away from it—about Chicago, about the Robert Taylor homes—after listening?


Open Mike Eagle: I want people to think more about the trauma of other humans. I want people to recognize and live in that more, to understand and think about that when they vote on shit, or somebody gets killed by the police. I want them to be like, ‘Damn. That must really hurt somebody around that situation.’ I want people to humanize trauma. If anybody is able to do that, then all of this self-serving art rap is worth something after all.


Is there something about this day and age that pushed you to have those goals for your music?


Open Mike Eagle: It’s about now, man. There’s a weird amount of apathy in the world. When a black person gets murdered by the police and some people’s first reaction is, ‘But what did the thug do?,’ that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That is a sociopathic thought, and that’s being normalized. I want to beat the shit out of that. I want to beat that to death with any tools at my disposal.


Do you think this apathy has always been an American crisis and it was just submerged because there was a black president in office?


Open Mike Eagle: I think there’s a lot of emotional manipulation going on at very high levels right now. I read a lot of shit about Republican strategists and the shit they’re on right now in terms of data mining and trying to learn which words motivate people emotionally. They’re doing this really sophisticated gaslighting of their base. They’re constantly re-affirming these emotions. They create shit like Breitbart which is just a feedback loop. If you’re looking for a certain thing, this is your confirmation bias sitting in a trough. Go eat your confirmation bias, over and over again, every day. I think it’s getting worse. I think people are being manipulated into feeling certain ways and it’s getting ugly.


Do you maintain any hope and optimism?


Open Mike Eagle: No, I’m a fucking hardcore cynic. I’m a humanist. I do believe in the potential of humans to be super awesome. I really do think we can be, but I also believe in the potential of humans to be pieces of shit. Because I see it all the time.