Open Mike Eagle Is a Warrior
In the back room of a modest venue in Barcelona, the alt-rapper talks about the economy of his art, the poisoned chalice of independence, and his new project, 'What Happens When I Try to Relax.'
Photo: Kim Newmoney
Mike Eagle recently travelled to Louisville, Kentucky, on two days notice. He had agreed to fight an antagonistic wrestler named Shiloh Jonze, who'd spent weeks prodding at Eagle in hammed-up YouTube freestyles and cringeworthy call-out tweets. Eagle is a committed wrestling fan with a podcast to prove it, but until he stepped into the ring in the Bluegrass State that night (and won), he was no wrestler.
Two weeks later, he's sitting in a six-by-six dressing room (and storage space) behind Artte, a smart but modestly sized music venue in the shiny, tourist-friendly Eixample district of Barcelona. He's preparing to play a show for 80-or-so people, only a handful of whom know enough English to understand Eagle's intricate lyrics. But Louisville's still on his mind.
"That was one of the greatest moments of my life—I have a child and a wife, so I can't say it was the greatest day of my life," he says, leaning past the ladder between our chairs, whispering: "But it might be the greatest day of my life."
There are very few people—let alone musicians—who would so enthusiastically travel 2,000 miles and agree to join a pro wrestling bout on roughly one day's training. There aren't many rappers who'd jump at the opportunity to play here, in the northeastern corner of Spain, hundreds of miles from the well-trodden northern European tour path. But, in ways that both energize and enervate him, Eagle's always been an independent force. Since his full-length 2010 debut, Unapologetic Art Rap, he's been a proud hip-hop outsider, an erudite, free-form comedian who can cut into searing injustice and bleakness in the middle of a punchline. In the past two years, he's released two full-length records, Hella Personal Film Festival and Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. The first is a sprawling collaboration with the British producer Paul White; the latter is a stunning, wildly ambitious, meticulously researched record about the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, a public housing project where some members of Eagle's family still lived before it was condemned and demolished.
More than anything he's released in the past, however, it's his latest project, What Happens When I Try to Relax, that reveals the hows and whys—and the pros and cons—of Eagle's career path. It's a witty, incisive, and sometimes uncomfortably honest six-track project. It opens with the self-reflexive "Relatable (Peak OME)," a song on which Eagle both owns up to feeling socially awkward and implies that he needs to seem awkward to draw in fans. On "Every Single Thing," Eagle picks apart racism and division in the plainest possible terms—"How it's both sides? We ain't both dyin'"—before falling into a troublingly airy, video game-referencing chorus: "Pause me, learn me, 100 percent / Predict me, get me, 100 percent." What Happens is funny—”What you eat? Let's get you fed / Do you drink? Is you dead?" he asks on "Single Ghosts," his second song about dating the undead in as many years—but it's also inescapably anxious.
Above all, the project details the unglamorous daily struggles of a rapper who, despite all the acclaim, will always carry around prefixes like "art," "alt," and "underground"—the T-shirt runs and credit card bills and endless tours. On "Southside Eagle," the song he's identified as the record's most immediately important, he raps: "I saw Kendrick at Leimert, didn't say shit / I saw Vince at the club and didn't say shit / Cause this independent hustle is adjacent." On "Every Single Thing," he raps with weary contempt: "The economy killed the rhyme star."
Five minutes after our conversation concludes, he'll walk onstage at Artte, alone, and play to a crowd that, at least down at the front, seems to know when the drops are coming. He'll chop his set up with jokes, and the wall behind him will light up with graphics from Video Dave, his longtime collaborator and tour support. He'll bellow and dance and sweat and seemingly have so much fun that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the last show he ever plans on playing. As an independent rapper, he is, he says, a "warrior." And this show is another battle for him to win.
Noisey: Where was your head when you were making What Happens When I Try to Relax? How were you feeling?
Open Mike Eagle: I felt like I wanted to make something fast. I felt like I wanted to make something with a lot of guts in it—a lot of, like, blood and guts and intestines—and I wanted to say things that were realer and personal and more visceral than I had said [before]. One of the things I'm most pleased with about the album is the song "Southside Eagle," because I really went into depth about my own personal economy, and I felt like that's exactly where I wanted to aim. I wanted to be very, almost rudely up-front about how uncomfortable my life can be economically. And in terms of how I fit into the overall rap conversation, and how I'm very aware of that and sometimes it bothers the shit out of me.
Let's talk about that song specifically, because you've said there were a few lines you held back from it.
Yeah, there was about six bars total that I ended up changing. There were two in the first verse and four in the second that I just completely took away.
Is it difficult to be completely open in your songs sometimes?
When I was looking back at those lines, they felt unfair to real people I know that weren't asking to be brought into my music. I thought that the more interesting parts were about the economy and the place in the world, so I decided to shift focus and just remain on that rather than get into some shit that was super personal to me, beyond business.
So it wasn't just a case of you feeling over-exposed as Mike Eagle.
Well, when I wrote the lines, I was willing to stand on it, and in a way I still am. J. Cole has a song on his most recent album. It's called "Kevin's Heart." The whole thing is about getting caught cheating or something, and I thought that would have been such an interesting song to write if he didn't call it that. It seems unnecessary. Why would you invoke his situation in your work? Unless [Cole and Hart] had that conversation—I dunno, maybe they know each other. But that sort of feeling was what I was left with when I listened to the demo. Like, this is unfair to the other people who are being referenced here.
You said that this mini-album was sort of an excuse to get that song out there.
That song—yes. I believe that was probably the tip of the arrow.
Why was this the moment to be this up-front about the economy of your art?
I'm starting to understand it as an important thing to distinguish. Knowing what I know now, the important thing to distinguish is how different it is to go about doing this for a living when you don't have investors, you don't have any business interests really injecting resources into your situation. It's such a different way to go about this—and when I say that I mean people signed to majors, people who get big deals with big corporations in whatever way that manifests itself.
It's interesting to me because I have a relationship with Viacom now, because I have a show coming out on Comedy Central [The New Negroes, set to premiere in 2019]. So, some of their resources have made themselves available to me, but not to support my music, not to ensure that my music is successful in some way. They're paying me because I have a maybe unique talent on the landscape, where I can add comedy raps in a very specific way to a television project. But they could care less if I chart or if I have radio play or any of those things that really power somebody's career when they're in the business. I don't have any of that, and the people who I associate myself with, we don't have any of that.
All we have is each other and our various fanhoods. And we're constantly trying to introduce ourselves to each other and bring each other along. So what Busdriver did to me is what I did to Milo; Doomtree has brought me into their fold. Rhymesayers. Who's even still around? I look at somebody like JPEGMAFIA…
He's killing it.
He is! But I want people to understand how much of a fucking warrior he is. Because he has to get on a plane and come all the way out here, and it's different doing that when it's probably going to be him alone, maybe him and one other person. I don't know his situation like that, but I understand the way that he's doing his business, and I applaud that. I want to push that and support that, because that's who needs support. That's who lives and dies by people responding to his music.
His music is so visceral and powerful that it's working, and that's the tiny snowball that you want to start rolling down the hill and become a giant boulder. And maybe one day he gets a big contract and it's different. But for right now, I want people to understand how much of a warrior he is. I want people to understand that Milo is putting his name down because Milo's fucking tired. He's a young man. He's fucking tired. To do this shit the way that we do it—and it's our choice, so it's not like a punishment—is harder than it's ever been.
"Relatable" is about the sort of social anxiety many of us feel when we’re out at parties. But is it also about you being different in the way that you're talking about right now—that sense of being split-off from the hip-hop world?
Absolutely. That song's so complicated because all of that shit is going on at the same time. Even using that style and saying the words that I'm saying—it's all kind of speaking to my place, or how I see my place in music. In my head, it used to be a battle, explaining that the people who I knew were more adventurous artistically or technically. But in mainstream rap right now, everybody's very talented. Everybody. And this is unprecedented in hip-hop. I mean from Drake to Migos to Kendrick—everybody. There's some of the mumble stuff…
The major-label, ripped-from-SoundCloud stuff...
Yeah, it hasn't necessarily impressed me yet. But I understand that even those things are about communicating an energy in a way that I understand. And it's difficult to do. It's not easy to be a mainstream rapper, and I completely give it up to that. But, I think when it comes to the technical [aspects], everybody I know can do that. And that's part of what I'm trying to do in that song too, with the triplets. Everybody I know can do that—it's really easy. I mean, it's really easy if you've been rapping in the street for 20 years like I have and you understand cadences and shit, you know?
In that sense, "Relatable" is like a song-long in-joke.
That's the thing... that song is so difficult for me to contextualize. I understand how important it is for me to be able to contextualize my work. That song in particular is so difficult because it's so honest and so insincere at the exact same time. Like, it is brutally honest, but also it makes me laugh like hell [when I] listen to it sometimes. Because it is a joke. But it's a serious joke.
There's a sample of a Doug Stanhope set on "Leave Me Alone" from Hella Personal Film Festival, which came out about six months before the election, just when things really started to unspool. Stanhope's talking there about the persistent drip of anxiety and fear we're all hooked up to now. What Happens... in many ways feels like a return to that moment, that anxiety. I wonder if you found it harder to do the sort of comedy that you did on your earlier records because everything is already so absurd.
I think there's something to be said for that. What I'm compelled to say right now is that a joke in song form used to avail itself to me fairly easily. Like, the same way a stand-up comic comes up with a joke: They think of a funny premise, and they think of a bunch of punchlines, and they think of a bunch of tags. That used to be really easy for me to do, but as things have changed, the straight-ahead laser-beam, like the check-to-check—I can't necessarily write the check-to-check now. It's not doing heavy-enough lifting for this moment in time.
So, does this feel like an anxious record to you?
Some of it. "Relatable" is an anxious song, but "Every Little Thing" is not really an anxious song.
It's an angry song.
It's angry. It's saying a bunch of shit that I shouldn't have to say.
The verses there don't seem to have as many layers.
It's straight-ahead. And it's shit that's really obvious to me. Like I said, I made this project fast. I think that's the last song I wrote for it. I was like, "What do I want to say here? The things I'm too fucking exasperated to even have to say.”
The beat in that song is quite airy, and the chorus is quite light—definitely more so than the lyrics. In that context I feel like the hook takes on quite a dark role.
It does. Because I say "eat me" and "complete me." But it is in the sense of modern video games— how [with] a very deep and very robust game there are people who aim to 100% it and solve every puzzle, get every collectible, beat every boss. I'm challenging people to do that to me.
In what sense?
To take everything from my first EP that I'm claiming—Another Roadside Attraction—all the way to this most recent project, and try to draw a human out of that. Just try. Because I don't feel like people try.
You allude to that on this record as well, when you're talking about Brick Body, saying you created "An audio mural you can walk through / About my Auntie that I don't even talk to." Did you feel like people didn't appreciate what you'd created?
I didn't know [I was doing that]. I couldn't expect anybody to know that. I wrote that album from a place of feeling like I lost something in those buildings being destroyed and nothing being brought up in their place. But I didn't live there. My aunt lived there and my cousins lived there. I visited. I was there a lot. But I didn't live there, and I was doing an interview with someone and they asked me, "Do you still keep in touch?" And I realized, no, I don't. And that made me look at the whole thing in a whole different context. Holy shit, I did this whole thing, I'm talking to all these strangers about it—I don't even talk to her about it. That shone a light on something inside of me: “Okay, that's something I need to reckon with. My relationship with my family.”
After Brick Body, a concept record, is it a very different process to try to pull out six different songs like this?
No, that's the thing. I wrote three or four of those songs before I knew what that concept was going to be on Brick Body. It was when I kind of realized how I'd been feeling that I was like, “I can wrap these around this concept, and start writing specific things to try and pull it all together.” But "No Selling" was a song I wrote before I had the plane ride where that concept availed itself to me.
Songs like "Every Single Thing" have a clear social message—you say you're "Trying to reach black kids in a room full of whites." Brick Body definitely had a message to it as well. Do you think about who you're trying to influence in these songs?
I honestly don't make records thinking about influence. If there's such a thing as influence for me, I have hopes that it would be certain things, but I cannot create in that space. Honestly. I cannot create from the space of thinking about other people at all, really. Because I never know how anybody's going to react to anything that I do. I have shit that I love that people don't like. I have songs that I hate that people love, where I'm like, "That was just a fucking fart in the wind to me." So I can't create from that place. It only muddies the waters.
Was there a time when you did?
I think there was a time when I thought I was a very obvious genius. Very early on in my career, I thought that the angle I was taking was going to instantly put me in a particular place where I'd be regarded in a certain way. What I hadn't really understood at the time was that I didn't really know how to make music. I knew how to think thoughts, I knew how to write, but I didn't know how to make music.
So in my journey of making music and in my journey of understanding how my music and the world interact, I have learned that... I do think highly of myself, but that's kind of what I'm saying with this whole distinction thing. To be me, you have to think highly of yourself. To be JPEGMAFIA, you have to think highly of yourself. To be Milo, to be Busdriver, to be Serengeti, Sammus, Psalm One, Jean Grae—to be any one of these people, you have to really fuck with yourself. Because you have to get on the plane to come here.
We're not too brainy or too heady on purpose. We fuck with what we do, and there's people in the world who fuck with what we do, and our whole economy is based on a back-and-forth between that.
Open Mike Eagle's What Happens When I Try to Relax is out now via the artist's own Auto Reverse Records. You can pick it up on Bandcamp.
Alex Robert Ross saw four dudes at the Open Mike Eagle show getting really hyped, then screaming the word "Barcelona" back at the stage during "Microfiche." It was great. Follow him on Twitter.