Interview: Open Mike Eagle

by Jon-Barrett Ingels

The Rapper Talks His New Album 'Hella Personal Film Festival,' Drunk-Emailing Marc Maron, and Adventure Time
Hella Personal Film Festival, the collaboration between Open Mike Eagle and Paul White had been on repeat as I prepped for my interview with Mike. Grooving to "Admitting the Endorphin Addiction," I pulled up to the Mike’s chosen meeting spot, a café tucked away in Culver City. Instantly I was transported back to 2001. The café was home to my first job in Los Angeles as a barista so, so many years ago. I entered in a state of nostalgia as Cab Calloway Hidee-Hidee-Hoed over the speakers. Open Mike Eagle walked through the door moments behind me as smooth as the jazz playing filling my old stomping grounds. My mind was flooded with memories making it difficult to organize my thoughts. We settled into our coffee and I filled Mike in on why I was kind of tripping out.

Want to hear something crazy? This place was where I first worked in L.A. 15 years ago. No way. So you know the owner?

No. Different owner, different name. But this was my first L.A. job, behind that counter making coffee. That’s funny. I was just thinking about all the places I’ve lived in LA and how they’ve impacted me. And all the places I’ve never gone for some reason.

You were in Chicago before you moved to L.A.? Mm hm.

Have both places been an influence on you, creatively? Yeah, but only in terms of rap style, not necessarily content. The Southside of Chicago, in the space/time that I grew up in, gives you a particular set of values in terms of writing, and the underground that I encountered out here gives you this other set of values. I think the styles of rap that I choose to use have both of those influences.

Was Chicago where the seed was planted to follow this career? Yeah, I was part of hip-hop community in Chicago. We all rapped. We all did graffiti. We all break danced. It was just what we did. It was our social group. It was part of our identity. So it just made sense when I moved out here to eventually try it, with the business that existed at the time.

Talk a little bit about your writing process. Are you always writing? I got a notebook on me all the time. A laptop. Whatever. I’m always writing. Always, always, always.

Even if what you’re writing doesn’t make it into a song? You just keep it filed away? Yeah, I got to go back and start looking at that shit more. That’s the problem. I got notes in my phone going back years. I never look at them. I got to create a little better system.

And what do you hear in your head, words? Melody? The melody is in the music somewhere. Even if it’s not in the notes that I’m hearing. The melody is there. The point for me is to fit something that I want to say to the melody. It all comes from there. And then, there’s that little bit of it that’s just like alien. It just like, “BOOP,” pops in your head. You can’t really do anything about that. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.  I listen to some of the songs I have know and I’m like, “What… Where was I… How did I… I have no idea where that came from.” I don’t remember even sitting and writing that. When you get in that zone, you are just a receiver.

With all of the writing you’ve done, how do you know what’s going on an album? How did you curate the songs for Hella Personal Film Festival?

That album was a collaborative album with Paul White, the producer. Usually when I make an album like that with a person, just about everything ends up on the album because we don’t… there tends not to be a surplus of extra songs lying around. Like, while we have each other’s time, we’re trying to actively make the record. Just about everything… I think there’s only like two or three things I started that we didn’t finish and make an actual song.

What did that collaborative effort look like? How do you guys work together? It starts with him making beats and me choosing which ones I like. We recorded half of them together in the studio in London. And the other half I recorded at home. I’d record vocals to things and send them to him. He produces the track around the vocals and we kind of laid out the album from there.

Does the beats and music he sends to you inspire what you write the songs about? The beat is very important. I have to figure out what the beat wants me to talk about and where that cross sects with what I have to say. We find the songs in the middle of that Venn diagram.

How does working collaboratively on an album compare to working on your solo albums? It’s a lot more consistent since it is the same person who is doing all the music. It’s a little more conciliatory. Because when I’m making stuff with a bunch of people, the way I typically make it, I don’t have to answer to anybody. Use what I want to use. Edit it how I want to edit it. Kind of go from there. But then, you know, I’m typically bound to my own production acumen in that sense too. Because I could get a beat from somebody, but if they’re not invested in the project, they’re not going to do much with it after I put vocals on it. So when it’s up to me, I’m not that good at that level.

As an artist, what turns you on more, writing, performing, or recording your music? I really like performing a lot. It’s funny as I say that though, I just got done doing a string of college shows and they all weird me out. They pay great but they weird me out. They are just such a bubble apart from things.

Why do you think that is? Well, because they’re closed environments and typically if they’re bringing you in, it’s because two or three people in positions of influence really like you, but there may not be that much of an awareness of my music itself. So it’s like some guys, they just invited me there and paid me so they can kind of show me the little kingdom they made. You know, they open, and they do great, and the crowd is there, and I do my thing, but, you know, they’re… they are not music fans. They are a small tucked away community of people who have been kind of developed by the people who are the music purveyors in that situation. It’s not like when you go do a show in Denver and the music fans show up. It’s different.

How did you find your fans, or better, how did they find you? I think the strongest way has been through word of mouth. Sometimes through appearances. Other than word of mouth, the only times I know like, “Oh, this is the way people found out about me” is like when I did Marc Maron’s podcast, or when I did Hannibal Buress’ TV show, this radio show called WITS. Those kinds of things come with an influx of people who let you know that that’s why they came.

How did you get connected with Marc Maron to do the podcast? I wrote him a real long drunk email one day. He had this wrestler on named Colt Cabana, and I’m a big wrestling fan. When the episode started and Marc talked about why it was that he wanted to talk to Colt Cabana, it was basically because Colt Cabana represented the indie side of wrestling that he was completely unaware of. I’m like, “Oh, then he’ll talk to me because I’m the indie rap guy.” It didn’t look like a drunken email, but it was definitely a drunken email. And he responded to it and we started talking from there.

What does that mean to you, Indie Rap? It’s an economic thing. It means I’m not connected to the bigger forces in the music industry. I’m like not connected to that at all. Every company from my management to the record labels that I work with to my booking agency, none of these people are connected to major label acts or major label money. They are just companies that are successful but they are independent of that. There is a bit of an implied aesthetic choice in there too, like, I might not be doing the rap that society expects when they think of rap.

Isn’t that kind of changing though? Well, it depends. It really does depend. At the tip top of mainstream rap right now there’s certainly some different stuff happening than there ever has been before but I’m not sure how much that’s influencing people’s understanding or people’s idea of what it means to be a rapper or what it means to make rap music. Most people, if you ask them to describe a rapper, they’re not going to say the weird stuff that’s happening on the top, they’re going to say the commercial stuff that’s been going on for the last like twenty years. I still think that’s the perpetuating image that I deal with and have to deconstruct. I Think saying “Indie” is a way to kind of deconstruct that or at least get in front of it.

Is it a content thing as well? When I say all that about the image, I think it goes with content. All of that kind of reflects back and forth.

You use the term “Art Rap” as well. How does that correlate with Indie Rap? It’s kind of the same thing. It’s another way to say the same thing.

You were on WTF with Marc Maron. You also had him on your podcast, Secret Skin. And you have another podcast called, Conversation Parade: An Adventure Time Podcast which you co-host with John Moe. We are both fathers and I feel like the concept of what an adult is now is totally different from when we were kids. Dad’s weren’t collecting toys or comic books or watching cartoons. I think there is more entertainment now that can appeal multigenerationally. I don’t think that really existed before. I think especially when it comes to cartoons. Cartoons before were very, like, “This is for kids.” Before Adult Swim happened as a thing, occasionally you would get an adult cartoon.

Like Ren and Stimpy? Ren and Stimpy was more a teenage cartoon. I mean like Duckman. Remember Duckman? That was an adult cartoon. Liquid Television was this thing that used to come on MTV.

Aeon Flux. Exactly! Those things would happen but you’d only get blips of that, and it was still very apart from kids entertainment. Now, I think, as a society we have developed. We talked to a lot of the creators of Adventure Time and I think they came up in an era where they saw that what they made didn’t have to be limited to one audience. They kind of isolated the elements that would make something appealing to kids and leave open the possibilities of it appealing to older people. Kind of started this whole new thing.

Have you ever thought about developing or crating an animated show? My ideas haven’t been in that direction. They’ve been more kind of live action stuff.

What are those ideas? I have a couple of different things in the works right now in terms of stuff I’m trying to get in front of people so I wouldn’t necessarily put it all out there now. Definitely more live action comedy kind of stuff. Scripted comedy.

You’ve been friends with Hannibal Buress for some time now. You’ve collaborated and incorporated him into your music. Ever thought about going the other way and trying out stand up? I have done some stand up. I used to do a variety show in LA. On that I would do a couple of stand-up bits. Just things that I wrote and would kind of try out because I was hosting the show. Typically I don’t do that. I respect the art form a ton. People are serious about that. I don’t like to toy around with it. I have a lot of verbal bits in my rap set. But there not like tightly constructed comedy bits. But, you know, I do a lot of talking. I hear you don’t even get good 'til like ten years in. I’ll stick with rap. I’ve already put in the time. If I can be the rapper on a comedy show, I will do that.

You sample a little Lenny Bruce on the new album. That was Paul, though. Paul did all that.

Alan Watts was sampled as well. Yeah, that’s all Paul. I knew about all of that stuff but he selected those bits for this record. Some records I do it, but that’s all on him this time.

Alan Watts is the man! I was first listening to him back when I was working here. How did you first discover him? I’m a heavy reader of this guy named Robert Anton Wilson who passed away in ’08 I think. He was kind of a leading alternative psychologist, cultural anthropologist, pop culture writer. He pointed to Alan Watts a lot, in terms of psychology and mind expansion and all of that.

Is that where your personal philosophy lies? Or are you still discovering it? Yeah, my philosophy is definitely a work in progress.

Does that discovery play out in the writing of songs? Yeah. My bent, as a writer, is to come from the psychology side. Observing people. Observing myself. Kind of reporting on things. Wherever I am, psychologically and philosophically tends to be present in what I’m talking about.

From your first solo album, Unapologetic Art Rap, to this collaboration with Paul White, how have you evolved as an artist? I think when I started, my thing was about me having very clear ideas of how I wanted to be represented and how I wanted to be set apart but not really having a lot of experience or know how in terms of actually creating a product. I think that I maintain a lot of that perspective that I had in the beginning, but it’s a little less about ideas now and more about executing in the music itself. I didn’t really know how to record a rap when I first started. I knew how to write a rap, I knew how to rap in the street but I didn’t really know how to record. So, five albums in, now I know what I’m doing on that front and I’m able to make the points I make in more subtle ways than when I first started. It’s because I have a little more experience on how to actually inform the delivery or the craft itself with more covert emotions. I don’t always have to come out and say the thing. I can say something else but say it in a way where you know I’m pointing to something else.

Where do you see that evolution heading next? Lately, in just the last couple of days, I’ve had this thought that there are certain things I don’t do on records but that a lot of other people do. And not negative things. Just in terms of what people expect from rappers. And I think that just because I don’t do those things, people think I can’t. That’s the thought I’ve been having lately. I do want to be a little less self-indulgent than I’ve been. It’s hard to find that line because my whole aesthetic has been about pleasing myself. I think I have enough information from that now so I’m exploring what it means to make music for other people.

Is there a fear of your fans thinking you jumped the shark or are selling out? Here’s the thing. I’m very limited by… I’m never going to make something I don’t like. So I’m limited by that automatically. For me, that’s a good limit to have. I’m not worried about losing people. I’ve done records in the past that have a little more of a right now feel. And that’s the thing, too, it’s always a pendulum. I go back and forth. A lot of times it depends on who I’m working with.

Do you have any desire to be the creator of right now? Be the trend setter? Creating the new sound? I think that most of what I do is that.  I think rap music has gotten to kind of a cool place right now. You look at Kendrick and Drake and Kanye. There’s a lot of cool stuff happening. This isn’t the worst time to rap. I don’t feel the need to try and push boundaries for boundary’s sake.

What would be your ideal dream collaboration? DOOM! Doom and Prince Paul. Those are the two. Those are like, “Hey guys, I’m your kid. Come do songs with your kid. You guys made me.” Q Tip, of course. Those are the dreams.

 

Photography: Kiu Kayee at kiukayee.com