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Open Mike Eagle speaks of his music like a living, breathing being. He describes his songs as organic entities, each with their own power and free will. The Chicago-born, L.A.-based rapper might make them, but once the lyrics leave his lips, they achieve their own autonomy. It’s only through the eyes of his fans that he’s able to understand the impact and true shape of his creations.
After a decade of startling consistency, the pioneer of art rap has reached new heights with his breathtakingly gorgeous and heartbreaking latest effort, Anime, Trauma and Divorce. Alhough he approached this project similarly to his previous releases, midway through making AT&D, Mike took a radically different step. Instead of projecting outwards, Mike turned the gaze towards himself and didn’t shy away from uncomfortable and traumatic moments of his life. “I have made a lot of songs [previously] that are inward-aiming, but if those songs end up being too dark, often I’ll take them off the album before it comes out.” Mike explains to me over the phone as he calls from LA. “But this time I didn’t do that. “Overall my approach was a lot more like, okay, let’s just live in these dark spaces and have the album be that instead of trying to prune the dark spaces off in order to send some other kind of message.”
By choosing to relive those dark moments, Eagle is taking a step towards healing. In 2019, Mike’s collaborative (and brilliant) show with comedian Baron Vaughn The New Negroes, was cancelled after just one season. But the calamity came when Mike’s marriage ended after 14 years. As things around him began to crumble, Mike naturally began to question his own responsibility for the collapse as well as his place in the world as a human and artist. Through AT&D we follow Mike’s exploration into his own insecurities, guilt, and regrets.
Like every album from Mike, the project is well-shaped and contains a strong foundational story arc; but at the finishing moments of the project there’s no great relief, no answers or solutions. Instead, we’re left with a frustratingly vague sense of growth—and it’s one of the most intelligent, honest, and brutal portrayals of human emotion in rap.
Mike’s genius partially derives from this focus on specificity. Instead of burying himself in the hypothetical and hyperbolic, Mike paints scenes of the nuanced and often mundane moments of his life. He’s surgical with his references; a line about X-Men’s Magneto in “Death Parade;” a quip about financial anxieties in “Sweatpants Spiderman;” “The Black Mirror Episode” takes a look at an episode of Netflix’s dystopian sci-fi series which eroded his marriage. He’s a talented world-builder but the universe he’s constructing looks hauntingly similar to the one we know.
When I first listened to AT&D, I saw rap as a form of escape for the veteran MC. But I had it completely backwards. His music requires work and a direct confrontation with pain. Open Mike isn’t rapping to get away from the world, he’s rapping so that he can feel it again. I caught up with Mike exactly a month after Anime, Trauma and Divorce released to discuss therapy, journaling, and the restrictive state of independent hip-hop. — David Brake
Were you surprised at all with how well Anime, Trauma and Divorce was received even during such a turbulent time?
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, for sure. But I guess I wasn’t too much worried about the turbulence of the times, I was worried about whether people wanted that sort of access into my life as a person, like whether or not people wanted to hear me dealing with the things I’m dealing with on the album. I’ve never really opened up in that manner before, so there’s a lot of uncertainty for me around whether people were down to take that journey. My surprise was based on how for the most part people were down.
You mentioned before that you shelve songs that are too dark or too personal. How do you draw that line? Even before this album some of what you’ve released is quite intimate.
Open Mike Eagle: I think it ends up being about a context. I think it ends up being about if a song that’s dark supports the overall messaging of the project, if it still fits in that context somehow without too much explanation, then I think it works pretty okay. If it seems a distraction or a departure and it’s pointing at stuff that I wasn’t really going to talk about, to me it seemed like the best bet was to not do that, the best bet was to kind of put that song to the side.
Does rap serve as escapism for you?
Open Mike Eagle: I guess for me rap in itself isn’t an escape. For my escapist pleasure I tend to go into media, comic books, anime movies. Rap, for me, has always been an expression and even when the expression wasn’t super personal, it was still very real to me. It was always based on my real thoughts, opinions, and feelings about the world and my place in it. In that sense I haven’t used rap as escapism, I’ve tried to do the opposite. I’ve tried to get as mundane as possible, as singular, as unique, as particular as possible about what actually goes on in my head and how I actually feel and see things. To me that’s the flag that I want to wave. That’s the type of art that I want to see in the world and that I enjoy—it’s very particular. And mainstream rap as a genre does not seem to be very particular. Part of my thrust as an artist is to make space for the individual.
You speak so much about the personal, and it is such an expression from you, that sometimes I wonder if music is for you and if releasing it to the fans is just a necessity.
Open Mike Eagle: My best songs I think are made for me. But I think for me, that’s the sort of media and art that I love to engage with. When I watch a Coen Brothers movie, I feel like they made it for them. If I listen to a Funkadelic album, I feel like they made it for them, it didn’t necessarily go with what was going on in the world at the time, they were doing their own thing and making themselves happy. So that’s the sort of media I was drawn to, and that sort of relationship between the creator and what’s made—that’s the most exciting thing for me when it comes to making music.
When we spoke last year you thought rap was in a great place. There was freedom and opportunity. Do you still feel that way?
Open Mike Eagle: I don’t know what I was smoking that day. I think from a top down approach, rap feels more restrictive than ever right now, even though within the restrictions there are people breaking the boundaries in ways that are interesting. If you listen to Young Thug, Young Thug doesn’t make any sense on paper. But in his way, within the boundaries of that, he’s completely breaking it open. If you look at the way Drake can take any style and make it mainstream, that’s crazy and we’ve never seen an artist that’s been able to do that. Attempts at that in the past would have drawn all sorts of ire, but he’s able to pull it off. I get in my head about what that means for the culture that I’m a part of, the world that we live in, why that culture’s not being challenged. More than ever I feel like there’s very little room for ascension, very little room for elevation if you don’t have the right amount of resources for rap music right now. Like most of our society’s economics, the middle class in rap is damn near gone.
I was hoping to speak a bit about therapy. When did you first start going to therapy?
Open Mike Eagle: I remember I was in therapy on 9/11. That was when I first, first started. That might have been my second or third session was on 9/11.
What was your early relationship to therapy?
Open Mike Eagle: I didn’t have a great relationship with therapy at the time in terms of knowing what I needed to do to get what I needed to get out of it, so there was a lot of me misdirecting the therapist and hiding shit—it was really stupid, I was wasting my money, really, when I think about it now. I didn’t know the vulnerability I needed to have in that setting to get what I needed out of it. I stopped for a long time, then I started going back probably around five or six years ago.
I have a very similar relationship with therapy. I have been seeing the same therapist for years now, and I do get a lot of out of it, but it requires such a high level of effort on my part, that I think I was not ready to admit at first. What made you realize you needed to put in more work to get out what you needed?
Open Mike Eagle: Well just cause I noticed nothing was changing, so a part of it was me needing to be vulnerable. Another part of it was learning about the different styles of therapy and knowing that I needed a therapist who knew how to deal with very particular things. It would be two things happening. One, I would be trying to bring a vulnerable self, and then two, I’d be working with somebody that knew how to guide me to that vulnerability based on the things I was dealing with.
Have you had any bad therapists? I certainly have.
Open Mike Eagle: Yes. I had a therapist that to this day, I’m sure I know more about her life than she knows about mine. She talked about herself every session to the point where she’d forget she told me things and start telling me the same stories over and over again—it was absolutely ridiculous.
You’ve mentioned journaling. I struggle immensely with journaling. What do you journal about?
Open Mike Eagle: The events of my life are such that I need to communicate with myself at a very specific age, and my journaling is about establishing that connection.
Because of all the troves of personal anecdotes you tuck into your music, one can look at your discography almost like a chronology of your life. What’s it like to have moments of your life, good or bad, frozen in time for others to digest?
Open Mike Eagle: I don’t know because it’s hard for me to see them that way. I feel like so much of the meat of the music up until this one was me talking around things. I can’t be confident that people are getting that. And if they are, that’s great, but I imagine what they might be getting is like an impressionist painting, it’s not quite a photo. There are some implications there, there’s an image there, but I imagine some of it’s probably colored-in by the mind of the listener.
Much of the album consists of you questioning yourself in various capacities. But I also pick up on a sense of forgiveness, and I find that to be very powerful. People often underestimate the importance of forgiving yourself. How do you begin to forgive yourself?
Open Mike Eagle: I mean, I haven’t begun to do it yet. One of the first things that I had to hear from my therapist who I have now, and she’s very good, was that the choices that I’ve made in the wake of the things that I’ve gone through make perfect sense. I needed to understand that I’m not a bad person for having made some mistakes given that I have seen some shit that not a ton of people have seen. That will have an effect somebody’s life, especially if they have gone most of their life not talking about it. But I think that is a note that I needed to hear that makes my mind do something like what forgiveness starts to feel like, but I haven’t totally embraced that yet.
One of the shining moments on the album is “Headass (Idiot Shinji).” You really had me singing along, calling myself a Headass, and it was one of the most therapeutic moments on the album for me. Does self-mockery play a role in your healing?
Open Mike Eagle: To a degree it does. For me it’s just a fun thing to do. I think that’s one of the things I do as a reaction to the expectations of the Black male in society, too. We are expected to roast others. But I would like to roast myself [laughs]. That, to me, is an exciting idea. I’m not one hundred percent sure how therapeutic it is, but it certainly makes me smile.
What’s it like to be the subject of interviews when you have so much experience being on the other side of the mic? You’re a fantastic interviewer, so I imagine that plays a role in how you answer questions when the roles are reversed.
Open Mike Eagle: You know what’s funny is I often find myself wanting to fuck interviews up. I think it’s something along the lines of what you’re mentioning. I have this impulse where I want to learn about who I’m talking to in a way that would completely derail the interview. So, I’ll often have to tell myself not to do that because I really want to [laughs]. I think it’s a selfish thing. Let’s say I turn the tables on you, then I learn who you are, and I learn how you’re engaging with my music which gives me a fresh perspective I didn’t have before. That to me, as a greedy, validation-needing artist, is like a big piece of food. But I love interviewing people. I love getting into the psychology of creators especially. It’s such a weird life to live, especially if you’re doing it professionally.
Like you mentioned earlier, there’s so much power in specific vignettes. In “Everything Ends Last Year” you rap “It’s October and I’m tired.” What was that in reference to?
Open Mike Eagle: That was a reference to 2019, man. It was my two TV shows I was very excited about both being cancelled, it was a bunch of other professional projects that were right there and fell through my fingers. And then it was my marriage ending. I was writing my feelings in October and I was exhausted.
Speaking more musically, the production has a lot of digital sounds. I’ve noticed it through much of your music. But it’s not 100 Gecs type of internet sounds, it’s analogue and brings me back to VHS tapes and Nintendo 64s. Is that intentional or am I reaching?
Open Mike Eagle: I think that’s a product of my professional rap career being steeped in the city of LA and the years of following 2010 in everything that was happening in the Beat Scene. I’m from the Project Blowed, but the Beat Scene low key comes from Project Blowed. It was because a lot of those guys who were coming up to the Blowed and making the beats that people were rapping on, and doing incredible work—they wouldn’t get the respect that they were owed as being an integral part of that process. So, on Thursday nights, the same night Project Blowed was, they started meeting at this bar called Little Temple and started playing beats for each other. So that’s Flying Lotus, that’s Dibiase, the dudes who went on to be the mainstays of the LA Beat Scene at Low End Theory. We kind of drove them away, so they went across town and started doing their own thing, which was a beautiful thing. The funny thing is this: we chased them away, so they started Low End Theory, and then we didn’t have beatmakers around anymore, so we all started battling each other a cappella. The sound of the LA Beat Scene is electronic, it’s based on software, it’s based on sidechain compression, Ableton, SP-404s. Because that technology is always been in the beats and has been around me from my super-talented homies that we all started together with, I’ve always been attracted to that sound.
There are a lot of endings in Anime, Trauma and Divorce. You’ve spoken about those extensively, so I don’t want to drag it all back up, but as the saying goes, with every ending is a new beginning. Do you feel that this is a beginning for you?
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, but I don’t know what it’s the beginning of, and that’s the scary part, man. I really still don’t know where to go from here yet. That’s kind of what I do, man. I plan in steps and once the step is taken, I start a new plan. I’m at the moment now where I’m just completing a step and I have no idea what to do next.
Have you answered your own question: What the fuck is self-care?
Open Mike Eagle: Someways. I just built a PC. I’ve been buying old comic books that I used to like. Just yesterday I started playing some of my old mixtapes I used to make for myself on cassette. I still got most of them from high school on. Putting those on. It’s about remembering when things felt better, I think, and giving myself stuff to do with my hands.