Independent rap musician extraordinaire Open Mike Eagle wears many hats. Not only is he a rapper, but he’s also a prolific podcaster and writer. He’s worked on screen and behind the scenes in television, most notably in Comedy Central’s The New Negroes (2019-). You’ve probably enjoyed his work without being aware that he was responsible for turning your frown into a smile.
PopMatters spoke with the self-proclaimed “Joestar” in May 2022. We discussed how hip-hop saved his life, touring in the time of COVID, and how his excellent podcast What Had Happened Was is both a celebration and letter of appreciation to some of the most important moments in the history of hip-hop. The following transcript was edited for clarity.
Open Mike Eagle is verbose and passionate, both good qualities for a rapper. Indeed, felt the intensity in his words radiate from my computer as he pronounced “hip-hop is a miracle”. “Hip-hop is the result of so many very specific, cultural, and historical lines converging in a desperate corner of America,” he says, “From that place in the Bronx to its taking over the city, to taking over the country, to taking over the world. I’m not sure that there is a more incredible line to follow in terms of a cultural movement than hip-hop. It means so much to so many people.”
Some of Open Mike Eagle’s earliest memories involve hip-hop and how all the older kids were involved in the culture. “Specifically growing up in urban America, it’s so tied into the expression and existence of a people in space-time,” he says. “That’s just my perspective on it as a consumer of hip-hop. When I got older around high school age I chose to engage in and express myself in that way and I found my identity within that.” With vigor and certainty, he declares hip-hop became a haven. “It absolutely changed my life and saved my life and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I grew up in the middle of some nasty gang activity and hip-hop was a uniform that made it where people knew that I wasn’t involved in that shit. That shit hip-hop legit saved my life!”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s (ODB) Return to the 36 Chambers (1995), A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal Midnight Marauders (1993), 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! by The Roots, and Common‘s Resurrection(1994) are foundational albums for Open Mike Eagle. In his words, these albums solidified that he “…was going to fuck with hip-hop forever.” “They pulled me into hip-hop around high school,” he says. “They meant so much to me… I see such a lack of reverence for how important that music was. It’s always been important to trumpet that stuff from whatever platform I found myself on. That’s why I focus on the history of hip-hop in the podcasts.”
The podcasts that he is referring to are the three seasons of the aforementioned What Had Happened Was, a contribution to the field of hip-hop oral history. The show recently wrapped up its third season. What Had Happened Was stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other notable oral histories on the subject that up to now have been in book form. More on What Had Happened Was later.
For now, we focus our attention on ODB’s album, though excellent and eccentric, it’s one of the most politically incorrect works of art in hip-hop. When asked about the controversial nature of the album and Open Mike Eagle’s reply is deliberate and sensitive to the subject.
“It’s not an album that you can present out of context, and I totally get that,” he says, “But as a kid, 12 or 13, I listened to almost strictly rock music. Born into hip-hop, it had such a saturation in my life that when I was looking for music that felt like something that I can own it was rock. I was looking at different styles of music because hip-hop was all around me. My mom was listening to hip-hop. I wanted to listen to something else.
When he saw the video to ODB’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ he realized there was something happening in 1994-95 when artists like A Tribe Called Quest and the Boot Camp Clik were making hip-hop music and videos unlike what he was used to. Open Mike Eagle recalls how in 1995 the group Heltah Skeltah, composed of the late great rapper Sean “Ruck” Price and Jahmal “Rock” Bush, of the Boot Camp Clik, were artists that were making music videos that had an impact on him.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of music videos… There was ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ from Dirty, there was ‘Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka’ from Heltah Skletah, ‘Award Tour’ from Midnight Marauders, ‘Proceed’ from the Roots. There was this aspect of fun in these videos that were deeply engaging – like the good vibes that they were capturing,” he says. “What I didn’t like about earlier hip-hop was the dark and gloomy and depressing hood violence because that shit was all around me. I wasn’t a cultural voyeur in hip-hop. I was living in it. I didn’t need to project death fantasies because that was my reality. So when I found artists that seemed to have any sense of finding joy within that madness that pulled me in. “Oh, shit everybody is not just trying to be mean and hard. There’s a jocular nature and people are having fun.”
Growing up, Open Mike wasn’t a voyeur to the violence of the ghettos in the US. His 2017 album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is a beautiful musical mosaic of experiences encountered in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes housing projects. Hip-hop music can be a macabre art form that doesn’t shy away from the reality that many artists live. It’s stark, in contrast to many forms of pop art that exist purely as avenues of escapism. After the somber talk, we discuss his recently completed European tour.
“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “Touring is chaos and there’s no getting around that. But it had been a while since I was able to perform live human. It meant a lot, especially when I traveled across the world to do it. It reminds you how far your work can spread. Seeing people in Holland being excited to see me is just [laughs] a really incredible feeling.
He acknowledges some of the difficulties of touring during the pandemic. “You know, over there they’re done with it, man! They’re done with the virus and that was scary for me. They don’t care anymore, which was challenging,” he says. I liked it for the people, I liked it for them to feel the joy of being able to come out of the house and have a good time again. But as a touring artist, it made it challenging to feel I was in safe environments.”
The work of an artist is taxing because it demands much creativity and Open Mike Eagle is a prolific artist, who appears to be working constantly. When asked if he found inspiration on his tour, he reveals that he finished a project shortly before leaving for Europe. “Interesting thing about me,” he says, “I’m pretty much done with a project right now, and after I’m with a project, I don’t make anything for a while. So, on this tour I found myself using my creativity to make videos about the shows, put them on social media, and try to find creative ways to promote the tour and capture the moments was more intense than making music because I put in the heavy hours of music-making before I left for the tour.”
As an artist, Open Mike Eagle has found a way of dealing with the creative process. He takes his time to do other things, find inspiration, and… “…Start to crank the machine back up again. I tend to split my creativity into music-making, podcast making, and TV writing. So, when one aspect of that cycle is complete it makes sense to move the creativity somewhere else,” he says.
“A good way to look at my art is that I’m clearly the reflection of the experiences that I’ve had. I seek to put those experiences, memories, and perspectives on display. Part of my ethos as an artist is that all of my memories are important to me even if they are not necessarily inherently valuable in it of themselves,” he says.