January 11, 2017

mike eagle

A few weeks before the release of Hella Personal Film Festival, the undisputed 33rd best album of the year, I sat down with Open Mike Eagle at a café in Culver City to discuss the relationship between hip-hop and comedy.

The interview was going to be included in a magazine. Like a real, print magazine. It was the second or third issue of a cool, Brooklyn-based publication that had accumulated some moderate regional success. I think Wavy Spice was supposed to be on the cover.

After sending in the transcript and an intro much different than this one, months passed without hearing from the editor. I finally got an email saying that the magazine portion of the company’s media aspirations had folded, and that they weren’t going to be able to go through with printing the interview. Sign of the times, etc. The company could have published the interview on their website, but they didn’t, so I’m bringing it back to its natural home.

The original idea was to do more of an introductory-type interview, assuming that the magazine’s East Coast readers might not be quite as familiar with Open Mike Eagle’s music. Followers of this blog are likely already acquainted, so this might not be the most insightful thing you read all year.

But still, maybe it’s worth reading and thinking about what Mike has to say about hip-hop and comedy and Gallagher. Mike is a mastermind of both genres, a blender of hip-hop and comedy cognizant that those two art forms have always had a symbiotic relationship. Just listen to “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” the certified 11th best song of the year, one of the realest songs about race relations ever, with a line about being “avoided like a ghost fart” and a nod to Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

On that song, Mike talks about being “ruined” in college. Because I can’t go a day in LA without repping the 217, our interview also gets into Mike’s time at Southern Illinois, the home of DJ Snowy Boo Boo. Oh, and the premise of the particular issue of the magazine was that every interview had to start with the question “when and where were you born and what was your early life like,” which is kinda dumb, but yet here we are. — Will Hagle


When and where were you born, and what was your early life like?


Open Mike Eagle: I was born in Chicago in 1980. My parents were never together. My mom lived a very adventurous life in the ’80s and there was a lot of adventure to be had back then. She wasn’t always around, so I was basically raised by her parents. That was in Chicago, and my dad always lived out here in LA. So I would spend a majority of my time growing up in Chicago and then most summers I would spend out here.


What part of Chicago?


Open Mike Eagle: South side of Chicago. I grew up primarily off of 35th and Cottage Grove. Throughout my high school years I moved around a lot, but always on the south side.


Yeah, I knew you were from Chicago. I’m from Champaign.


Open Mike Eagle: Oh, yeah, yeah. [pauses, a helicopter is making noise overhead]

 

You don’t hear the helicopter in Culver City very often. It’s funny, you talk about south side of Chicago and the helicopter starts. It’s like, providing us a soundtrack. But I went to school at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, so I used to drive through and stop through and kick it in Champaign a lot.


How do you think Illinois, Chicago, Carbondale or anywhere influences your sense of humor?


Open Mike Eagle: I’m not sure Carbondale does. I didn’t go out of my way to experience Carbondale or the surrounding Southern Illinois area outside of students.


Is that really redneck, by the way?


Open Mike Eagle: Oh yeah. The nearest town is called Murphysborough or something, you know what I mean? Paducah, Kentucky is the big spot around there. It gets dangerous, man. I used to work a lot of jobs, like I used to work in the cafeteria for a long time. Most of the people who work in the cafeteria are like, people from the town. I got to know a lot of them, man, they’re fucking crazy. I love a lot of them, but they’re fucking insane. Their experience is wildly narrow. So I didn’t hang out in town a lot. I also didn’t go back home for breaks, either. But I would always hang out with the small group of students that was always there.


What do you think about Chicago influencing your sense of humor?


Open Mike Eagle: I think where I grew up, being on the south side of Chicago, and I look at like Obama, who’s spent a lot of time in south side of Chicago, Kanye, I don’t know how much time Kendrick Lamar has spent in Chicago but I know he’s originally from there. I think there’s something that happens on the south side particularly, where you kind of have to learn how to translate in different experiences. You gotta learn how to talk to gangbangers, you gotta learn how to talk to old, scared black people. You gotta learn how to talk to people in Hyde Park around the University of Chicago, who might have a little bit of money. I think the experience kind of lends itself to being able to communicate a bunch of different styles. Code switching, is what they call it. I think the south side lends itself to the black experience in code switching.


You gotta know how to talk to everybody, basically.


Open Mike Eagle: You gotta know how to talk to everybody. And maybe that gives you a perspective. It kind of makes humor a little easier, because you can kinda get a sense of what everyone’s values are. Also I’ve had to be funny to get out of situations. Not even funny, but I’ve had to learn how to laugh at things I don’t think are funny in order to survive certain situations. I’ve had to understand other people’s senses of humor, because my natural state is to be very square. But I’ve been in a lot of situations where that’s not a good thing to be.


Do you think humor helps you survive growing up in an environment like that?


Open Mike Eagle: For sure. I was never the class clown or anything like that, but I did have to understand what other people thought was funny. Sometimes in the hood people do what they call capping on each other, and you have to learn the foundational thing that you’re not supposed to take any of that personally, but also learn that you can’t go too far.


What type of music and comedy were you listening to growing up?


Open Mike Eagle: I was all over the place. I grew up in rap music. It was all around me. But at the same time, my grandparents raised me. So it was a lot of old music, a lot of stuff from the ’60s and ’70s was very much in my environment. Also I was a latchkey kid and had cable television, so I was watching a ton of MTV, sitting at home alone in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was informing myself about music through a lot of that, like MTV, VH1, that kind of stuff.


What was on MTV at that time?


Open Mike Eagle: The most impactful things for me at the time was that alternative music became a thing, like grunge became a thing to the point where it was moving so many units, people were buying so much of it that MTV started devoting blocks of their programming to it. They started out with this show 120 Minutes which was just on Sundays, then they had this show called Alternative Nation I think, which was like an hour everyday. So I was getting a lot that way, and you know, hip-hop was big at the time. So Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City on BET. It was a lot to consume, and a lot of my go-to programming was whatever was on MTV, whatever was on VH1, stopped by BET. I watched a lot of Nickelodean and shit, which was comedic in a way.

I think part of my sense of humor is from Nickelodeon. They had shows like Salute Your Shorts and You Can’t Do That On Television that were really kind of oddly irreverent. A lot of, like, Canadian humor, but I didn’t really realize it at the time. A certain sort of underlying dry sarcasm to a lot of their stuff. And I was watching Nick at Nite, so I was watching hella shows from like the ’60s. I was watching Car 54 and Donna Reed.


I don’t even know what that is.


Open Mike Eagle: Oh my god, like seriously black and white TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s. So I was learning about the world through television at the time. So that informed my musical taste, my humor taste. Just pop culture in general, a lot of it was shaped by TV.


So most of the comedy you got was through the TV? Or were there any standup albums you liked?


Open Mike Eagle: 
Not albums, but standup specials. MTV had this show called The Half Hour Comedy Hour I used to watch. And they had shows on A&E like Evening at the Improv, which was a comedy showcase. Comedy Central was just starting, and there was this other channel at the time called Comedy Channel. So I used to watch a ton of standup that way, too. I remember guys like Richard Lewis being really impactful to me. Who else? This guy named Dennis Wolfberg, I remember watching a lot of him. Steven Wright was huge for me. And then of course like watching Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor and George Carlin was big for me. Gallagher. Gallagher was huge in my life. I have a whole song about Gallagher, man.


What song is that?


Open Mike Eagle: It’s called “Watermelon.”


I don’t really know anything about Gallagher, other than the stereotypical smashing watermelons.


Open Mike Eagle: See that was his thing, but under that, the thrust of it was like this weird social commentary stuff. And that’s what I remember most. Like, even the watermelon thing, that was a dig at consumer culture. He was doing it like an infomercial, like selling the hammer. Showing how it processed food. And that’s why he started swinging and smashing the watermelons and stuff.


I need to check it out, then. I feel like that gets lost on people.


Open Mike Eagle: Oh, it does. It absolutely does. But all that stuff—him and George Carlin and all of them—they really turned my brain on in certain ways. Jonathan Winters, the weird stuff that he used to do in his comedy specials. That was a big thing, too. Like having HBO and having Showtime and seeing those comedy specials, that was big stuff.


Do you remember the first time you realized you listened to a rap song and realized that it was funny?


Open Mike Eagle: I used to think N.W.A. was hilarious. Eazy-E used to say the funniest shit in the world to me. Some of it was just the fucking cursing, I used to just giggle at the curse words. Then they had all these songs about girls, they were just like dudes in a locker room talking, just saying wild shit. I always thought that was funny. I remember there were a lot of parodies at the time. There was this song in the late ’80s called “Rumors” [look at all these rumors, there’s rumors everywhere]. And this other dude made this song called “Roaches” off that song, and they did the video with the roaches and everything. I used to cry laughing at that shit when I was younger. Weird Al was big for me, too.


Do you see any distinction between something like N.W.A. where it might not be funny on purpose, but it still is funny, or—


Open Mike Eagle: I think it was supposed to be funny. I think their angry stuff was appropriately angry, but then I remember this one song—and it’s so wildly inappropriate and terrible. I think it’s “Nobody Move Nobody Get Hurt.” They’re literally talking about robbing a bank. Eazy-E stops in the middle of robbing a bank to take this girl’s clothes off. And then she has a penis, and he’s very upset about this. And I think he killed her or something. But he’s telling this awful thing like it’s a joke, and at the time I thought it was really fucking funny.


That’s kind of what I’m getting at. Do you think rap is almost a form of comedy? It seems like almost every song has some sort of funny element to it.


Open Mike Eagle: I think that punchlines are called punchlines in rap for a reason. I think it’s because they’re set up to have an effect that’s similar to a punchline in a joke in that it encapsulates the sharpest part of an idea. And I think that because that structure exists, it is not difficult to make rap funny. Because it’s setup, punchline. So your setup and punchline can be about how you think you’re the best rapper, or your setup and punchline can be about something you think is funny. The capability is there.


But also there are puns, wordplay, imagery…stuff like that that can be funny. Where do you think art rap fits into that?


Open Mike Eagle: It’s not a necessity in it at all. Art rap is really just about personal expression. So if somebody’s sad as fuck, then that can be art rap, too. It’s really about just making shit that’s very personally significant, not disposable. That’s what art rap is about. I choose to make my rap funny because I tend to think that way. Partly for survival, partly to entertain myself. I think about how things can be funny and I tend to lean into that in my work. And I’ve developed a musculature for that in my thought, and it’s always rewarding to do so. So I kind of go back to that well a lot.


When did you move to LA?


Open Mike Eagle: I moved out to LA in 2004.


Do you think you started drifting into the comedy scene once you moved out here?


Open Mike Eagle: It wasn’t a drift. It was a completely conscious decision. Well, the first time was like, ‘let me see if that will work.’ There was an opportunity to do something at UCB on Franklin. They have the show ASSScat there, it’s very popular. They always have a monologist at ASSScat. It came to my attention that sometimes the monologist was just a musician and they would just perform, and they would make the sketches off of the song meanings or something that stuck out in the song. So I pursued the opportunity to do that, and found that that audience was so open and receptive to what I was doing.

I’d been doing shows around LA and California forever, but I never felt a reception like that to where every line that I thought was entertaining was also entertaining to these people. And I’ve learned that it’s not comedy audiences everywhere, but specifically at the UCB. They were very open and they listened very well.


Do you think the difference between mainstream rap and backpack rap is similar to the difference between mainstream comedy and alt-comedy at UCB?


Open Mike Eagle: I do think it’s like that. In most art forms it’s like that. You have the products that have to be sold to the masses, and in comedy that’s like a joke everyone can get. In alt-comedy, it’s nuanced, it’s progressive, it might be based on having some prior knowledge that you might not have. It’s just a different set of values. But cinema, music, comedy, professional wrestling, all of it. There’s the mainstream, and then you’ve got where people are pushing the boundaries.


How involved did you get with UCB besides just doing ASSScat?


Open Mike Eagle: The first time I did ASSScat, I was fortunate in that the crowd was down. But I was also fortunate in that a lot of the improv dudes were down, too. They saw some value in what I was doing, so they started having me on their other shows. I learned that, too, that comedians love having musicians as part of their show. It’s probably been said a bunch of times, but I think comedians think musicians are cooler than they are. I’ve definitely seen where it felt like comedians were more excited than they should be to be part of my show because it’s a musical show. I think that they think the other side is greener.


Did you ever want to do comedy? Or did you always want to do music?


Open Mike Eagle: I never wanted to necessarily have a straight up comedy act. I’ve been in a lot of situations in the last years where it would’ve been helpful if I did. I mean, maybe I still should. But I haven’t devoted any real mental resources to try to build something like that, something that’s more pure funny. I love comedy, and I respect it a whole lot. I’ve done standup bits, like I was doing a variety show for a while and I would do some bits. I loved it, it went kinda well, but that shit is really hard. It’s really difficult to do standup. So when I see someone that’s good, I understand what that takes. It takes so long to really get good.


Isn’t it kind of similar to rapping, though?


Open Mike Eagle: Absolutely. Everybody starts terrible.


All you need is a microphone.


Open Mike Eagle: Exactly. And it’s rhythm and words. And it’s one person, thinking enough of themselves that they want everybody to be quiet while they talk. But comedy’s harder because you don’t have the help of the music. The music helps a ton. It helps a fuck-ton to have a backing track. Because other than that it’s just you and your words. And they better goddamn be put together well, or else you’re going to lose people’s attention. And once you’re lost, they’re fucking lost.


Yeah, I guess with music, you can’t hear how they’re responding.


Open Mike Eagle: That’s the other thing, too. Because we have the music, we don’t get the benefit of having that instant response like the comics have. That laughter, as a metric, is dope. You can instantly know if you have a good idea or not. You can perform the same song ten times before you realize, “Oh, this isn’t good.” Jokes, if that shit doesn’t work, you gotta throw it away immediately.


And laughter’s unconscious, too.


Open Mike Eagle: Exactly. People can’t help it.


Do you think you’re moving more towards comedy? Like how did the @Midnight thing come about?


Open Mike Eagle: That was great. I’ve been trying to do that for a while, I was happy that finally happened. That kind of thing, that’s easy to me. I consider myself a writer, so that shit is easy. Being able to preload thoughts. I get a prompt? Fuck yeah. And then once I found out they actually did have some musicians on, I’m like fuck yeah, I’m doing that shit. Any time there’s a structure like that and I don’t have to just get out there and talk, I’m all for it.


Did Project Blowed help with your comedic timing at all?


Open Mike Eagle: Not everybody at the Blowed was funny, though. The Blowed was a tough place to rap. I think a lot of people who are from the Blowed that people see now are like a lighter side of the Blowed, but the nucleus of the Blowed was very hardcore rap styles. Not hardcore content, sometimes it was, but just very combative. And being combative with different styles of rap. Like being able to stand your ground in a battle and stand your ground in a cypher was very important. So the nucleus of it was that.

But I look at it like, I had been rapping in Chicago, rapping in Southern Illinois where I went to school. Coming here and being at the Blowed was like finishing rap school for me. Just figuring out more about styles of rap that’ve happened, and what’s been used, and how to use what where. Craft. Just learning more about the craft.


And what’d you find out?


Open Mike Eagle: The most important thing I learned is that being from Chicago had made me into a style segregator. In the south side of Chicago, especially the kind of b-boy backpack place I came from, you rapped to set up a punchline. Imagery was good, wordplay was good. But if you rapped doubletime, that was gangsta shit. Like westside gangsta shit. That was Crucial Conflict, that was Twista, that was Do or Die. And we don’t do that over here. We rap like this. We rap like guys from New York, basically. And I didn’t realize how much of that was in my head until I got out here and saw some of the wildest, creative artistic dudes around was rapping double, triple time, like crazy. And it’s just the style.

So being able to go inside myself and free the thought of style from association with certain elements of content was super helpful for me. Now when I hear a beat that you obviously rhyme double time on it, I just fucking rhyme double time on it and say what the fuck I want to say rather than thinking, “if you rhyme double time you have to say some hard shit.”


So you were actually consciously thinking about that?


Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, my development had that component to it. So I had to undo that before I could really take advantage of all the styles that are there.


Is DJ Snowy Boo Boo actually a real guy?


Open Mike Eagle: Yeah! That was actually a real name he would say on the radio. At this point I don’t know if it was a real person. I’ve looked this up because people have asked me this.


I looked it up, too.


Open Mike Eagle: And you didn’t see anything, right?


Yeah.


Open Mike Eagle: Now, there was a campus bus. And the campus bus used to play a local radio station. But this radio station was programmed I believe—I don’t believe there was an actual person being an on-air personality. But they used to play these songs, and there was this drop that said “DJ Snowy Boo Boo,” but that could’ve just been somebody at the station fucking around.


Or they could’ve been going by DJ Snowy Boo Boo.


Open Mike Eagle: What I’m saying is, when I really think about it, I’m not sure if it was a person. It might just have been a program director, and they created this drop as a way to personalize the content a little bit. It could’ve been someone saying, “Hey, record yourself saying you’re DJ Snowy Boo Boo” and they would just drop it into the mixes.


Were you and Hannibal Burress doing any comedy stuff back then?


Open Mike Eagle: There were these house functions where there were open mics. He would host sometimes. It’d be a lot of rappers, it would be a DJ, but it would be at someone’s house. That was like our creative community down there. We all kind of got down together.