[RH Interview] Open Mike Eagle On How His Brain Works, Chicago Hip Hop Roots, and more

“I’m a fucking writer. I write raps as opposed to writing op-ed columns or writing books. I write raps.” – Open Mike Eagle, 1/25/19.

Disclaimer: It took a damn global pandemic for me to finish this. I don’t know what I was waiting for. I could come up with a lot of excuses about being busy, and timing this interview with the release of our Closed Sessions Compilation from which this interview spawned, but it would not be quite right. I think ultimately, it was just a supreme sense of writer’s block or maybe an “I suck at writing” writer’s block. Simpler terms, it might have just been fear. Fear that nobody would care. Or maybe a fear that I didn’t care. That I just didn’t have anything to say anymore, or any audience to write for. I talked to Kris eX about it, and he told me to simply, “find a new audience”. He also made it clear that said audience could be anyone or anything, even myself.

I’ve thought about his words for a while, and just decided to write for myself. Cause, shit, I’m not that dumb to think that many people care. Especially now… If you’re going to read this interview with Open Mike Eagle, thank you in advance. It is over a year-old, I’m not going to try to cover that up or sugarcoat it. But in a way, it still fits. Open Mike Eagle has emerged as a voice we need in these times. I’ve found myself following and favoring his tweets daily as he helps people make sense of Covid19. He’s also an artist who knows about timing, and patience, and the slow burn. His releases are evergreen in that they speak to a human condition that is and will always be present.

This interview was done in January of 2019. Just days after, Chicago had its own kind of lock down due to a polar vortex. The city shutdown for about a week. Schools closed, offices closed, nobody left their house. But that was different. And I think we’d all much rather trade our present isolations for a dozen polar vortexes. I know I would.

I don’t have another witty transition here. But if you want to see where Open Mike Eagle’s head was at in January of 2019, just before his Comedy Central show popped off, before we entered a new normal and right around the time Jussie Smollett became the butt of Dave Chappelle jokes, peep this below and enjoy.

It’s fucking freezing outside. Literally. Days before Chicago would hit the negatives 30’s, and Jesse Smollett would become the most famous person to ever seek out a Subway Sandwich, we picked up Open Mike Eagle from O’Hare airport to participate in our relaunch of Digital Freshness and kick off recording for Closed Sessions Vol. 3 (later renamed Our Latest Compilation), our first such endeavor since 2012’s Closed Sessions Vol. 2.

A couple weeks prior, I spent a drive from Florida to Chicago listening to Eagle’s complete discography. I tell him this when he enters our Jeep, to which he replies, “damn, that’s a lot of me.”

There’s something familiar about Open Mike Eagle, and I wonder if we possibly met previously as teenagers circling around some of the same people, and coming up listening to some of the same Chicago Hip Hop. While I was entering the DJ and journalism space, Open Mike Eagle was rapping alongside emcees like Pugs Atomz, Thaione Davis, and the Chicago Hip Hop foundation-laying Nacrobats crew. While I was shopping religiously at Dr. Wax and making my first ventures to WHPK.

“All we did was freestyle,” Eagle tells me, shortly after completing the making of  “Whiskey and Push-Ups” with Closed Sessions producer, BoatHouse. “The Chicago ethos of freestyling was about who had the flyest punchline,” he continues.  “So, we all used to stand in a circle and just try to amaze each other with the craziest punchlines.”

Eagle channeled those early Chicago Hip Hop days in the session, which came easily and with good vibes. He told us about his (at the time forthcoming) TV show, “The New Negores” with Baron Vaughn, argued over Adam Sandler movies, and sipped on Bulleit Whiskey.

Eagle was cool, calm, and confident throughout the recording. While at one point in his career, he wondered if he would surpass the struggle and grind of an underground emcee, the last calendar year is proof that his style is resonating and he has broken through with his brand of sarcastic, biting, and reality-based raps.

“I will say that I’ve put energy into some places that have enabled me to stand out in certain ways. But that cost something too. Because I lean comedic sometimes, because I include random ass thoughts,” he tells me.

While it’s clear that Eagle is at the height of his career in terms of recognition, it’s not necessarily the recognition he first imagined. “It kind of sets me apart a bit, but it also has a cost. It makes it where I’m not part of the conversation of like ‘Who’s the best?’ You know what I mean? ‘Who’s the best? Who’s the tightest?’”

If Eagle’s name is missing on “top emcee lists”, it says more about the maker though, than about Eagle.

Rubyhornet: I want to ask you about your name. I saw when we were booking your travel that your real name is Mike Eagle. When you first started making music, did you always go by Open Mike Eagle? And does that influence or play a role in your style of music and the relate-ability of the subject matter?

Open Mike Eagle: I come from Chicago, old school Hip Hop. Like the four elements: breaking, graff, emceeing and DJing, and I used to be a tagger. My rap name used to be my tag name, which was “Drone.” PDX is my crew, and I was in Nacrobats. Everything that I was doing was tied into my tag name. When I got to college, I just kind of grew out of that. I stopped being into graff so much, and just wanted to focus on rhyming. People used to call me Open Mike in college because I used to host open mics and I was just a guy who would freestyle all the time. Everybody knew me as that dude who just freestyled anywhere, any time, for minutes or hours or however long I could. I was just Open Mike for a while and when I started making music, it was just going to be Open Mike. But then there’s a guy on the east coast, I think he was at Providence, Rhode Island who rapped with Army of the Pharaohs and his name was Open Mike. And then there was this other German MC named Open Mike. And I was like, ‘there’s probably four or five more Open Mike’s that aren’t even in my purview,’ so, I just added the Eagle to kind of differentiate and kind of stuck with it from there. I’m not sure if it speaks to my style necessarily or not in a way that I’m like conscious of, you know?

Rubyhornet: Gotcha. I was talking to Pugs Atomz the other day.

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. Pugs was there last night. That’s my old crew leader, man.

Rubyhornet: I used to go to Dr. Wax (now-closed record store in Hyde Park) all the time and that’s when I met Thaione [Davis] and he put Nacrobts, and Typical Cats, QWAZAAR all into my hands. Were you on one of the compilations?

Open Mike Eagle: I was on one of the earliest tapes. I did my first recording with Nacrobats. This was my first recording ever. It was for the Nacrobats tape when I was a senior in high school. So I was 17. It was on their tape called… It wasn’t “Network of Stars”. It was the one, I think it was one after that. Some underground classics—hahaha.

Rubyhornet: Are there things you learned or picked up, whether it’s not even necessarily recording techniques, but just attitudes or ethos from coming up in that scene with those people that you still carry on today?

Open Mike Eagle: The thing I took from that scene most was how to construct a punchline. Because all we did was freestyle, and the Chicago ethos of freestyling was about who had the flyest punchline. We all used to stand in a circle and just try to amaze each other with the craziest punchlines. All our freestyles were always set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, set-up, punch… That was how I learned to freestyle, how I learned to battle. How I learned to write. So even what we did here today, how those verses are constructed, some part of that thing, of each two or four bars is a punchline. In the whole, each piece is constructed around that. And that’s something that I’ll always take with me from freestyling and learning to rap and freestyling on the south side of Chicago in the late nineties.

Rubyhornet: It’s interesting because in the same song, in the same verse, you could have something very serious or your take on a serious thing, but then steps later you add something that lightens the mood back up or just a witty observation. And I kind of started to think like when you are watching, even today you were talking about Twitter or you reference the “Gremlins” in the song you made today – when you’re watching the news or movies, are you looking at it as material for your art?

Open Mike Eagle: I don’t necessarily catalog things overtly in pop culture.  I’m trying to think of the right word, but to me, my whole thing is that whatever way my brain works in terms of connecting things, I try to put that front and center. That is what I’m displaying. This is how my train of thought works.

Rubyhornet:  Right.

Open Mike Eagle: And if I’m on my train of thought, and let’s say I’m headed towards politics, but my politics train of thought ended up having a thought about the “Gremlins”, I’m putting that in.

Rubyhornet: Right.

Open Mike Eagle: Know what I mean? That’s the more satisfying thing to do. I’d put it in, rather than push it out, or go around it.

Rubyhornet: On your new EP, you talk about being heavily political and then at the same time you’ll say, “I’m always on time cause I like being punctual.” I think that’s like a lot of your records. They seem to be just what you’re thinking about.

Open Mike Eagle: Yes. Yeah. But trying to find some way to make it fly. But to me that’s part of being fly. Like this crazy, clever super thought out thing, and then this really mundane thing, you know what I mean? But if it’s all adhering to what I think makes a rap sound good to me, that makes it all the flyer. You know?

Rubyhornet: And even with the title, This is What Happens When I Try to Relax, I envision you just trying to relax, watching something on TV or playing a video game and something happens in there and you’re like, “Oh fuck, now I’ve got ideas!” Is that what’s happening?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. Sometimes when I’m lucky it happens like that and there’s a flash of inspiration, but usually I’m just sitting down to write and then I just deal with whatever comes. And whatever comes happens to be a product of what I’m thinking now, plus what I’ve just consumed, whether it be TV, movie, video game, whatever, it’s all kind of in there. You know?

Rubyhornet: I saw a documentary online a couple of years ago, I think it was called like “Adult Rappers” and you were in the documentary. And I would say since that documentary’s come out, from the outside looking in, your career and music have only increased, and it seems like you’re at the highest point in your career now.

Open Mike Eagle: Right.

Rubyhornet: That’s from obviously a fan perspective, outside observer. Is that the, the case?

Open Mike Eagle: Yes, absolutely. I’m far better off now than I was then for sure.

Rubyhornet: What do you attribute to like everything clicking so much?

Open Mike Eagle: I mean, I won’t say that everything clicks. I will say that I’ve put energy into some places that have enabled me to stand out in certain ways. But that cost something too, because I lean comedic sometimes, because I include random ass thoughts. It kind of sets me apart a bit, but it also has a cost. It makes it where I’m not part of the conversation of like “Who’s the best, you know what I mean? Who’s the best? Who’s the tightness?” I don’t end up in that [conversation] because I’m carving out my own thing over here. You know what I mean? Putting the energy into TV and shit, it’s great. It increases exposure and helps my career alone. But, when you’re a rapper, you think you’re the tightest, you know what I mean? And existing in a world where there’s a conversation about who’s the tightest happening all the time that you’re not in… that’s a thing you got to deal with. I think what’s working is that I’m putting my energy into the things that I feel like make me unique, but at the same time that kind of makes me more and more niche.

Rubyhornet: The album before the EP, Brick Body Kids Still Day Dream, talked a lot about the projects and buildings being torn down. I’m just curious what happened where you felt that was the right time? Like that was the time you needed to make that album, because the buildings came down a while ago. What lined up for you that was like, ‘this is what I need to make and put out. This is the time to tell that story.’?

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream by Open Mike Eagle

Open Mike Eagle: I was on a flight. I think it was on a flight from LA to Chicago and this was maybe two years ago.  Maybe three now. And on this flight, I don’t know what I was thinking about, I was probably on edibles, but I had this flash of like, usually when neighborhoods or buildings get torn down, you can track what came up in that same area. If they knocked down a bunch of houses, it was to make a stadium or to build a highway or even just to make a bunch of condos. When I grew up, that whole area around Cermak, that’s all it used to be, just all fucking alleys and shit and crazy industrial but they, you know, they changed it all into condos and usually you’re able to track that.

So, I was on this flight and I was like, ‘why do I not know what is where the Robert Taylor’s used to be? Like, why don’t I know? There’s got to be condos, it’s got to be something. Right?’ And I was on a flight and I looked it up and I was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s nothing here.’ And that just made me feel completely terrible. That hurt me because I know how business works. I know how, if you’re a land developer, you knock something down so that you can build something else to make more money on it. And the fact that they knocked them buildings down and there was nothing there. I was like, ‘what the fuck?’ And to know that contributed to the crazy crime and the murders and all of that shit that went down when those people got displaced into all these different areas… And nobody’s drawn that line and there’s no development here. It’s like, ‘oh, this was just a straight erasure.’ I was not able to let that go and I felt like I needed to build a monument to that place because the city was trying to act like that shit never happened and I was in those buildings. You know what I mean? I was in that, people were in there. 30,000 people lived in them things. 30 fucking thousand, and I found out through research, half of the people who lived in those buildings are unaccounted for. They don’t even know where them people went and they don’t care, you know? And I’m like, ‘this is crazy.’ And so I got, I don’t know, like it just lit me up then. And I just started wanting to tell stories of being there and wanting to build stories around and wanting to create like a tower. I just wanted to give a lot of energy to that place.

Rubyhornet: Yeah. It’s almost like reading a book with different characters. You have so many different characters. Some songs are about your aunt’s apartment and then, there’s lighter stories and the “No Selling” song, things like that. So, it’s just kind of like reading one of those books where it’s all connected. But each chapter is its own look. Like, I’m almost in different apartments.

Open Mike Eagle: It was like an audio mural, you know.

Rubyhornet: Switching gears a little bit, you mentioned today that you don’t usually write in the studio. How do you usually like to work. What is the process when you are making records?

Open Mike Eagle: I do a lot of writing on airplanes. I do a lot of writing, just wherever I can. Sometimes I’ll just go to a coffee shop, go to a place and just sit and write. I write at home a lot. I write kind of separately from recording usually. I write, and I sit with it, and then when I’m ready, I go in.  I did most of my albums recording at home. That last one, the Brick Body Kids album was the first one where I brought it all home, demoed it at home and took it into a studio to redo it. But all of my writing happens during writing time. Then recording time, it’s like a separate time.

Rubyhornet: Gotcha. You said at one point [while recording], I don’t know if it was in the middle or when you were done, you said, ‘this is a lot of fun.’ What did you like about working with Boathouse and this process?

Open Mike Eagle: I think it was the whole spirit that I had jumped on when I walked in here. I didn’t have like a- I listened to the beat this morning trying to get an idea of what to do. But it wasn’t until literally when we got out of the car and I was walking through the snow and we opened the door and I was just reminded of the rapping I came up doing in Chicago. That punch line shit and just like going for it, you know? That’s the part that was fun that I lost. I’ve lost a little bit of a connection to that and that style of songwriting seems more conducive actually to writing in the studio. Cause you’re just like, ‘this is just what I’m feeling right now.’ You know what I mean? And then just going for it that way versus usually I’m sculpting something and taking a lot of time with it and getting a real conceptual and shit. But this is more like of a direct experience I felt like.

Rubyhornet: You don’t need to second guess yourself. Just ‘let’s do it.’

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. Cause I know what I like, I know what a good rhyme is to me. I know what a good rap is to me. I know how to write that and I know how to do that. And also, there’s, now that I think of it, there’s a little space that I have to go for in the moment, knowing that this is it, you know what I mean? Cause when I record at home, I know all this is a demo and then I’m going to listen to the demo and I’m going to redo this part and I’m going to rewrite this part. And not having any of that [in the studio], I’m like, ‘no. I’m going to just fucking go for it right now.’

Rubyhornet: Damn. That’s awesome. I didn’t really think about it, but I bet if I went back and asked a lot of the artists we do this with, I bet that’s a thing. They’re just like, “I’m here to do this right now.”

Open Mike Eagle: But I bet a lot of them probably are used to doing that. And I’m not, you know what I mean? Like a lot of artists, a lot of artists are used to going to the studio and writing. Because they’re just in town that day, and they got a session with this producer and they’re just going to, you know, do something right then. A lot of people sit while the beat gets made and that’s just never been part of my process. My process is very thought heavy usually, so I don’t often get this kind of opportunity, you know?

Rubyhornet: Definitely. I wanted to ask you a question about going back to Chicago. You said you moved to LA like 15 years ago. At the time you moved, I think the narrative for Chicago Hip Hop was that you have to leave to make any kind of buzz. Is that what motivated you to get to get out?

Open Mike Eagle: Well, I didn’t leave expressly for that. I left for life reasons, but in the back of my head I was like, ‘Oh man, when I’m out there I’ll try this rap shit too.’ But that certainly was how it was at the time. You had to leave, you had to go to LA, you had to go to New York because there wasn’t any business infrastructure here to make music happen. At the time.

Rubyhornet: I think when the Internet really started to kick off in ’08, a lot of blogs were popping up here. You started to see a scene kind of start to come together. And then you had this Chicago explosion around 2012 with Chance and Chief Keef ushering in a lot of things. I’m just curious, were you paying attention to that from LA? What did you think? Did you just watch it from afar?

Open Mike Eagle: I mean, it was wild. I mean, watching Chief Keef happen didn’t even, it didn’t… That seemed more of an internet thing than a Chicago thing. What that showed me was the power of the purity of expression. The early videos where it’s just him and his dudes in an apartment. You know what I mean? And just what that felt like. And then you could watch video of other people watching that all over the country and just freaking out. That didn’t seem like Chicago. They just seemed like, ‘oh, this internet shit is crazy.’ Chance in particular was like, ‘oh shit, he’s building this shit up. And he’s staying there and he’s making it where there’s a platform for a Saba and a platform for a Noname. This is very different now.’ Even Chief Keef I think left? He went to LA. Whereas Chance felt like, ‘this is a new sound. And also this is a new era in Chicago Rap business.’ You can stay.

Rubyhornet: Yeah. Have you thought about moving back ever?

Open Mike Eagle: Occasionally. But then I came out here and it was negative two degrees and that’s all the more reason to stay my ass in Los Angeles.

Rubyhornet: Yeah, that’s very true. I wanted to ask you about the show last night. In your music, throughout all your albums, there’s different takes on your fan base and performing. I’m just curious, what do you think when you are looking at the audience while you’re on stage. What do you think of last night?

Open Mike Eagle: I read energy first. A lot of what you’re referencing is me talking about the racial makeup of the crowd. And honestly, when I’m up there, I’m not thinking about that shit. And the one reason I’m not thinking about it is because I am engaging in my songs and really feeling that first and trying to deliver that. Secondly, my crowd looks the same everywhere. I don’t have to scan it. I know what it looks like, you know what I mean? And, and in that there are very few surprises and it kind of just is what it is. I don’t hate that or dislike that in any way, but it is striking to me sometimes given how I came into rap and what rap shows look like demographically when I used to go to them when I was young. So I think about that lot and in terms of the business of music and in terms of there being alternatives presented for Black youth, cause I think that’s important. I think that can change lives. I’m always going to be concerned about whether or not, independent alternative choices are being presented to Black youth. But increasingly that’s more done, you know, maybe in TV or maybe on Youtube or, you know, it’s not a rap thing so much. People get that different ways now.

Rubyhornet: You said you have a TV show coming up. Is that something where you see a lot of time going into. Are you going to continue making albums? Or just like pausing and focusing on the TV.

Open Mike Eagle: To me it’s all at once, and it all works together. There is a song that I did last night that is part of the TV show music. I’m making songs and that gives me a place to put songs that are wholly comedic or more just completely in that vein. Conceptual versus what I just want to express. Like my whole EP, the last one I put out, the TV show was completely done by then. So all of those songs were written and done and waiting to be launched and I was like, okay, time to make some music, you know, and I feel like it’s going to be that way for me. I’m going to have projects and things going on, but I’m always going to have shit that I want to say.

Rubyhornet: Yeah.

Open Mike Eagle: My music is always going to be the home for that.

Rubyhornet: Yeah. Last question. Was there a time where you didn’t foresee people catching onto what you’re doing and think about changing? Right now, it seems like everyone’s so receptive and like you said, you put time in developing these, almost planting and watering these seeds. It’s like they’re sprouting.

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. I think there was a time when I just thought that the whole of my audience was going to be like super underground rap, lyrical, miracle, spiritual audience. I thought that was just going to be it. And, I had some real depressing times around that because I always, even from my first couple of albums, I was always coming from these other angles. I think that audience wasn’t really interested in that. They were interested in hard beats and raps and I wasn’t as interested in that. And so when I did start to take my music into other arenas and saw the kind of response that I was getting there, that’s what kind of gave me the way forward. You know?

I’m going to have the lyrical people who are into some whimsical shit cause that’s not all the lyrical people, some of the lyrical people, only one want Boom Bap, straight ahead, you know, and that’s cool. But for those people in the audience who are interested in other shit, they’ll find me. And in the meantime, I’m gonna go find these other people who are interested in writing because that’s really what I do. I’m a fucking writer. I write raps as opposed to writing op-ed columns or writing books. I write raps. And so I’ve been able to find people who are interested in me as a writer that happens to make rap music.

Rubyhornet: Yeah. That’s also just spot on.  I wouldn’t even pigeonhole you in a lyrical miracle, spiritual place. When I listen to the music, I’m going to listen to it for some observations on life. Some of them are going to make me be like, ‘Damn, I had that thought also.’ Along with being like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about it that way.’ And I think you do a really good job of then throwing in some word play and rhyming within it.

Open Mike Eagle: That’s my foundation. My foundation is the wordplay. My foundation is the craft. And I’m trying to put all of my personal seasonings on it, you know? And then you end up with something that feels almost like a standup comedian, because that’s all they’re doing is making observations. And I’m doing the same shit. It’s just my craft is different.