What Are You Looking For?: A Conversation with Open Mike Eagle
By Paul ThompsonJanuary 6, 2023
A LITTLE OVER a decade ago, the government peered into Open Mike Eagle’s brain. The rapper from Chicago’s South Side had seen that the National Institutes of Health was studying live MRI scans of improvisatory keyboard players and, along with a producer friend, he offered to design and co-author a study of rappers as they freestyled. He served as the test case. The findings (e.g., “Lyrical improvisation appears to be characterized by altered relationships between regions coupling intention and action”) were released in the journal Scientific Reports from academic publisher Springer Nature, then aggregated by blogs and news sites. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for the vitriol,” Eagle says over coffee at a restaurant in Leimert Park. “The common idea among the people in these comment sections was that there was nothing inside the brain of a rapper. ‘What are you looking for?’”
Ironically, Eagle has made the good-faith version of that question central to his work. After moving to Los Angeles in 2004, he became part of the second wave of rappers at Project Blowed, the open-mic workshop that was founded in Leimert 10 years prior and has served ever since as the hub for the city’s underground and avant-garde MCs. In the 2010s, Eagle’s solo albums — including 2011’s Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, his 2014 national breakthrough Dark Comedy, and 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, a rumination on the demolished Chicago housing project where his relatives lived — probed his psyche and the machinery, often self-operated, designed to grind it into something consumable.
In 2019, The New Negroes, a series of standup performances and high-concept music videos hosted by Eagle and the comedian Baron Vaughn, premiered on Comedy Central. It was canceled after one season. On the day before the release of his eighth solo album, A Tape Called Component System with the Auto Reverse, Eagle and I spoke about seeing his face on billboards, dodging voicemails from his loved ones, and being lied to by Viacom.
PAUL THOMPSON: It still makes me laugh: the image of scientists standing around in lab coats, squinting at a monitor, going, “Do you think that was written?”
OPEN MIKE EAGLE: [Laughs.] That’s the funny thing though: part of what they did was make sure you went in with a memorized rhyme first.
As a control.
You have a song called “No Selling,” which is named for the practice from wrestling, and from battle rap, of acting as if your opponent isn’t fazing you, even if he is. But on your records, you’re often seeming to exaggerate the effort, the strain, the sense that you’re running out of breath or ideas. On “Multi-Game Arcade Cabinet,” you really spiral out toward the end.
With that verse, before I even wrote a bar, I had the energy I wanted in my head. And so, there was this very conscious choice of where the space went between the bars: “Secret history … it was all me and Mitski.” The way that stretches across — it’s three rhymes: phase three, paisley, and Count Bass D — but the way that that evolves, the energy there is between the words.
So that verse is completely written —
But the energy is freestyled.
Exactly. I associate the way each new rhyme and each new reference and idea is this trump card that can only exist if it tops the last one. That comes from the thousands and thousands of hours of freestyling, right?
One hundred percent. Somebody told me, in high school, that the best writtens sound like freestyles and the best freestyles sound like writtens. And I think I didn’t even really know what that meant until a couple years ago. I think what it’s trying to identify is that sense of urgency in a freestyle — how it sounds like you’re reaching for something, somewhere, and delivering it in real time. When writtens have that energy, it feels fresh and urgent.
You have to have that urgency but also the innate rhythm and style to not sound desperate.
Honestly, I don’t mind a little desperation poured onto it. There’s some in that verse for me.
But like you say on the new record, “If you can’t dance good then you probably can’t rap.” A few months ago, I was hiking and I ran into [All City Jimmy, the legendary battle rapper and longtime collaborator of Eagle’s]. We started talking about this theory of dancing and rapping. One of his things was that, sure, there’s the rhythm component, but the social organism and hierarchy of a rap group also has to come from dancing, because there’s no place where someone can hide. Literally, when you’re performing, you can’t fool people as to whether you’re a good dancer. Before someone puts out music, they can kind of intellectualize it. But at a certain point, you have to rap outside. I was thinking just about the rhythmic aspects, but he was like, “No, it’s the whole thing, from the ’80s to jerking.”
I hadn’t even thought about it that far, but, yeah, the OGs! There’s a big connection between L.A. underground rap and L.A. underground dance. The grooving style they used to do is very close to the approach to rapping out here. Freestyling, that’s the dancing here. I was a breaker, too, so I would get in the rap cyphers and the breaking cyphers, and I’d notice the difference between what the South Side of Chicago taught me to emphasize versus what the natural values of this place are. With rap, specifically in the part of [Chicago] I came up in, it was about punch lines. Here it was style and cadence. And then with dance, the South Side emphasized power moves, where here it’s literal style and groove.
So much gets written about its roots in disco, R & B, and funk, but a lot of rap — of L.A. rap in particular — stems from the electro scene. Chicago’s inextricable, in some ways, from house.
Right. It’s dance music. I think people forget it’s a rhythmic function.
You know, it’s funny, I think I’m part of the people who try to make it unmusical, and try to really deconstruct everything, and put the words in front of everything. But at the end of the day, yeah: it’s a rhythmic activity.
But you can only deconstruct it so far, because anti-rhythms become the new rhythms, broken forms are new forms.
True, and there’s only so far you can go in deconstructing rap until it just becomes either spoken word or bad. [Laughs.]
You have the tribute song for MF DOOM on here, and I was thinking about how, on 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, he’s rapping in these pretty avant-garde ways, over the ends of bars and quote-unquote offbeat. But by the time he gets into the 2000s — if you listen to 2004’s MM..FOOD — he is the pocket. I can’t think of another rapper whose style is obviously his own from period to period in his career, but if you broke down the rhythmic elements on paper or on a computer, it would scan as completely different. [Rapper billy] woods once described to me the DOOM on [his final solo album, 2009’s] Born Like This as “driving a truck through the beat.”
In some senses, yeah. But on other songs, everybody is expecting him to drive a funny car down the straightaway, and before he even gets in the car, he pours grease all over the track. I feel like the MF DOOM on Doomsday is like, drunk, trying to survive, and has ideas and concepts he very much believes in. But he’s recording like he’s not going to live much longer. There’s an embrace of the raw that’s both aesthetic and alcoholic — specifically alcoholic. And as the character progresses and the career gets going, it becomes more precise.
It’s math. And then Born Like This is like, “Fuck math. No. I’m going to destroy the math.”
As you age, are there fewer records that come out in a given year you find yourself emotionally attaching to the way you might have at 16?
Absolutely. I don’t even … I mean, honestly, I have ruined it for myself. It can’t ever be what it was. Ever.
From making it your career?
Because of my brain — because it’s 65 percent business.
This is what I wanted to talk about. I think so often about lyrics of yours like “I’m checking last year’s numbers and it’s not bad / I probably need to start another podcast” and “Fuck music, sell shirt screens.” Those lines are both presented humorously; I know they’re not jokes.
They’re not jokes.
How do you guard against that 65 percent bleeding into the creative process? More generally, how do you not go insane?
I have a few different outlets. Some of that is for revenue; some of that is for sanity. The best way for me to move creatively is different type of project to different type of project. What feels most efficient and optimal for me is to make an album, then write a script, then tape a season of a podcast, then make an album, then write a script … In order to not be forgotten, you have to engage in business cycles. You have to have a product. When Black Thought’s album came out last summer, I was talking to Brother Ali, and we were like, “It’s amazing how everyone forgets how dope he is.” But that’s the business cycle. It’s not that people literally forget; it’s that you have to check off the boxes again.
Before Brick Body, we talked about how your album was going to come out around the same time as Kendrick Lamar’s, and they were going to appear as little thumbnails next to one another on streaming platforms. And that’s illusory in one way; it obscures disparities in resources and reach. But people forget that the overhead to simply get the thumbnail there is overwhelming.
It is. There’s existing in a technical sense — getting that box on Spotify — but beyond that there’s existing in a cultural sense. Which is … this is the problem. All anybody doing this wants is to constantly exist more fully.
In a personal, self-actualized way? Or in terms of commercial reach?
I mean cultural import. And that’s the thing — even if you’re behind the mask like DOOM, you want your work to exist on that level. Even if it’s just to make money. There’s nobody doing this who doesn’t want that. But without major label resources, you’ve got to do so much work to exist in the literal sense, and not have the existence you actually want to have, which is way beyond most of our reach. All of us who do this, we have a vision for what we want it to be. We all have this shit in our hearts that we want out, not talked about in hushed circles. Like I said, even if you don’t want your face visible — even if you don’t want to be a personality — you want your work to be fucking everywhere. You want to walk into coffee shops and hear your music. You want to get your shit licensed in every commercial, every movie. I don’t think there’s anybody doing this who wants limited reach.
Have you been offered things that might have given you that reach, but with tradeoffs you couldn’t stomach?
You haven’t turned down any of these things you hear about —
No. I’ve never been in those positions, that I’m aware of. Honestly, I feel like … ah, now I’m thinking about The New Negroes. There were people at Viacom who wanted what we worked on, and by proxy me, to be very successful, with a giant corporate push. That’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being in any sort of position to be that visible. But the other side of that is there were other people at Viacom who did not want us to be very successful.
Did someone say that to you explicitly?
We had some very difficult meetings before that show even came out. We came face to face with people who did not get what we were doing, didn’t like what we were doing — and these were people who were ultimately going to be tasked with working on the show. I think, if anything, they worked against it. They didn’t want it to succeed.
I know this is a naïve thing to say, but if you’re Viacom and the show is already in production, doesn’t everyone win if it’s successful?
Viacom is a very big company. There are a lot of people who aren’t connected to a show in any sort of creative way who still have to work on it. They have to sell it, get advertising on it. They have a giant building in L.A., a giant building in New York, and there was a lot of misalignment between those two buildings. I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about this shit, but I’ll say this: the central problem, the original sin of our show, was the title.
I was in the giant building in L.A., in a room with you, Baron, and a handful of TV critics when they screened the first two episodes.
This is so funny — I forgot you were there.
There was one older, Black critic, and he wouldn’t move off the title. I remember you and Baron each giving him answers you’d given in interviews, giving new ones, being pretty thorough and personable. And he didn’t seem mad or offended. He was just like, “I don’t get it.” And I watched you and Baron both just [stares blankly].
And I’ll tell you this: later that day, right after y’all left, we had another meeting, and it was way worse. That day, in that room, was when we met the people inside of Viacom who [didn’t like the show].
But the title kind of was the show’s project. You don’t call it Baron and Mike’s Comedy Hour.
You don’t. But if you call it The New Negroes, then that’s all we ever get to talk about. It dominated the conversation in so many different phases. And like you said, the gentleman sitting at the press screening — that’s one red flag. We got red flag after red flag after red flag after red flag. Ultimately, when I look back on it, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, we kept making a choice.” And I think we put ourselves in a rough position by holding on to what we thought was the right thing to do.
If you could go back, would you change that?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Making that show ended up hurting a lot. It ended up being a painful process.
Because of the cancellation?
Because of the amount of ourselves that we poured into it and the fighting we had to do for so many different things. Even the conversations around renewal versus cancellation were painful. We weren’t even allowed, to me, the dignity of straight conversations. Basically, we were told, “Your show costs too much to be a standup show.” And we were expensive: we had an expensive set built, the videos were expensive, and it ended up costing way more than most standup shows. So, we were told: “Get it under budget, get it to this number and we’ll figure it out.” We did that — and it wasn’t easy. It basically involved us reconstituting the show. Season two would have looked very different. The music video component would have been done completely differently, probably as in-studio performances. And that was a giant sacrifice, because the show we pitched them was standup and a music video. I was going to be the one who had to do my thing in a lower-rent kind of way. I agreed to do that, and we still got canceled. So, my feeling was, we were never going to get renewed. It was just a line they were telling us.
A fool’s errand.
Yeah. I think they bought the show because of the title, then started regretting it very early on.
This is still at a time when there were billboards with your face on them. How did that feel?
Amazing. Honestly, amazing. Like, “pinch me” shit. But I don’t think [the billboards were] that effective. Conceptually, I got it: there was a certain psychedelia that it meant to symbolize. A little bit of Afrofuturism. But ultimately, it was kind of a mess — I don’t mean to criticize the designers, it’s a good execution of what it’s meant to be. But at the end of the day, we needed a black billboard with “NEW NEGROES” in white letters. Something with punch.
But they were hedging.
Our entire experience with them was them hedging.
You come out of that period with an album called Anime, Trauma and Divorce. This is from The New York Times: “Even as he has been praised for his honesty, Eagle admitted he has felt guilty of holding back the whole truth before now. ‘I feel like I’ve been curating my own existence,’ he said. ‘Every album, there have been three or four songs I’ve ended up pulling because they were too personal. The dark stuff is always hidden out of view.’” Did you stop censoring yourself?
There were no songs pulled [from A, T and D]. There was one song I ended up rewriting, only because I was literally doing therapeutic writing. This one song came out and I was like, “Oh, this isn’t even a song. This is just straight bellyaching for two minutes. This isn’t entertaining.”
This makes me think of the line on “Southside Eagle”: “It hit me like a ton of bricks at the interview / I made a audio mural you can walk through / About my auntie that I don’t even talk to.” It sounds like you felt guilty about commodifying a family member’s story.
I was doing an interview in … Chicago? I know I wasn’t at home. And they asked me about my aunt. It’s such an obvious question, right? “My Auntie’s Building” is a whole damn song [on the album]. And it hit me: I don’t know how she’s doing. Which is chilling. Because it’s also kind of representative of how I’ve lived my life.
“I’m Orson Welles avoiding voicemail.”
“I think I’m Orson Welles avoiding voicemail.” That’s clear. I’m way less rich.
Yeah, that’s a guy with resources: he was in his 20s and they said, “Take it.” I think they regretted it right away.
But they didn’t take it away from him.
So, for years you put out these very personal records and then, on subsequent songs and in interviews, say you regret holding back. Now that you’ve put out an album without that self-censorship, does there become pressure to repeat that — or even top it, in terms of how personally revealing your work becomes?
No. There was a cost to me putting out Anime, Trauma and Divorce. And it was my decision — I’m not blaming anyone else. I wasn’t polling to see what people wanted. I needed to make that album for my survival. And I put it out because it’s what I made. But there was a cost to that. And I’m the only one who pays it. I made it so my ex-wife didn’t have to pay it. My son … I think he has to pay it a little bit.
In the sense that he raps on it? Or in the sense that it’s about his parents?
In the sense that he’s on it. He’s going to be 14; he doesn’t like how young he sounds on it, and he’s got friends who are into rap who might find it and mess with him. He has to pay the cost a little bit because he was too young to really make that decision on his own, even though he told me he wanted to a hundred times. It meant a lot to me — it still means a lot to me that he’s on there.
What do you mean that you made it so your ex-wife doesn’t have to pay it?
It’s personal in terms of how I felt about things, but it wasn’t a tell-all. It’s not gory details. And I’m not even saying there was anything I needed to protect her from — it was just literally part of my directive in making it, making sure it wasn’t going to mess with her life.
A lot of A-list rap is gossip now.
I’m not even positioned in a way where that would have garnered me much.
There’s one other line from the album I can’t get out of my head — and it’s not from you, it’s from Serengeti. It’s so deadpan; it’s so Geti. “L.A.: what a great place to come and stay.”
[Laughs.] Well, there’s a story behind that, but I can’t give it to you right now.
Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
LARB Quarterly cover art: Tishan Hsu, Fingerpainting 2, 1994. Silkscreen ink, acrylic on canvas, 69 x 69 inches. Photo: Stephen Faught. © 2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
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