Open Mike Eagle (2022) | press photo
Open Mike Eagle (2022) | Photo: R. Gardiner

Open Mike Eagle on Capturing Hip-Hop’s Oral History via Podcast

Open Mike Eagle’s podcast What Had Happened Was is an enchanting and illuminating appreciation of hip-hop. This passionate, energetic, and prolific man talks with PopMatters.

Podcasting has long been an extension of Open Mike Eagle’s art. The conversations that media facilitates and engenders are in full display on What Had Happened Was. The show is not just entertainment, it’s a celebration of hip-hop. “I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with artists that I really respect and admire for What Had Happened Was,” he says, “It gave me the opportunity to be able to point at, uplift, and celebrate music that’s important. Even beyond just the music, there’s the inspiration that I get from hearing the artist’s stories, and the insights gained into what went into the choices they made, and what they were up against when making their music. You don’t always get that context when you’re just listening to their music. Dante Ross’ had something to prove to his record label. He was blazing a trail from his vantage point, it was an experiment. That kind of context is valuable for understanding the magic and the madness that goes into making hip-hop.”

For those initiated into hip-hop’s history, which is often split between the mainstream and the underground, the stories told in What Had Happened Was might shock and exhilarate. They left me, a hip-hop nerd, speechless. The wealth of hip-hop knowledge and experience a recent guest of the show, Dante Ross, is invaluable. Dante is both an artist and an A&R (artists and repertoire). As an A&R, he’s the guy that said ‘no’ to many artists’ ideas, yet at the same time, he is a facilitator. He has a lot of insight. I didn’t think that Open Mike Eagle was going to be able to top the show’s first season given that legendary producer Prince Paul was the subject, but he did.

Surprisingly What Had Happened Was was supposed to be a different kind of show.

Open Mike Eagle (2022) | Photo: R. Gardiner

“I was going to start a podcast where I explored the underground period of famous rappers: Drake’s underground period, Eminem’s underground period, and so on,” he says. “I was talking to a big podcast network about this idea, and they liked it. They felt that I should have a co-host. I met Prince Paul a year before through Sacha Jenkins over at Ego Trip. I’ve been a fan of Prince Paul. He’s a musical god to me, but he’s also so engaging and he’s got so much personality and charisma.

“He was down to try it out. We were down the road with this podcast company and the idea sort of fell apart as ideas tend to with big companies,” he says. “Somewhere along the way, I pivoted creatively thinking, ‘you know what? I can just talk to Prince Paul. I can just talk to him forever.’ We piloted an episode with that same company, and they loved it, but they didn’t feel like they could sell ads on it because… they weren’t aware of how much people might be interested in hearing him talk about his career. So they turned the podcast over to me.” 

“Me and Paul sat down and plotted out what the season will be, what we would talk about, and we did it. We didn’t know how well it would be received but it went beyond; especially, given that the first episode was released in June of 2020 – when the world was shut down because of Covid and half on fire because of police injustice. We didn’t know if it was a good time to air it. We didn’t know that we had a product that would resonate, and we were fortunate that it took hold and became something that could be a vehicle for an expression of our times.”

When What Had Happened Was premiered in June 2020, I eagerly awaited every episode. I was an essential worker in the height of the pandemic, and What Had Happened Was became a great distraction every week. “You know when you do creative shit as a living, man; there’s a lot of times when you live and die by your ideas,” he says. “People give you enough rope to hang yourself all the time, but to see the response we were getting! 

“My experience is somewhat limited because I’ve always done independent hip-hop, which is very word of mouth, and my creative output is very much about me. But then I got to work on something about Prince Paul and others. There are some people who are into Gravediggaz that have no idea that this is the same person behind Handsome Boy Modeling School, or didn’t know that Prince Paul was instrumental in introducing the first few De La Soul albums, or didn’t know that he had produced the Chris Rock stuff.”

“It’s gratifying to promote this kind of thing because it’s not about me. There’s always a little bit of weirdness about self-promotion. On the internet this is what you mostly have to do, but me being in a position to make a product that is celebrating music that I love and to see that love also shared by other people is a great feeling. So, there’s an interest in this show; and the show has become important,” he says.

“Prince Paul was an exceptional first guest for the podcast. His history and contributions are incredible. But he’s also the most unappreciated, underrecognized figure in hip-hop. His work with  De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Stetsasonic, and Chris Rock, along with his solo work, especially his rap opera, A Prince Among Thieves (1999) are pillars of innovation in hip-hop. Prince Paul’s approach to sampling and utilization of the album as a unified recorded narrative has not been surpassed.”

What Had Happened Was takes listeners into the nitty-gritty of hip-hop regarding specific details of storied moments such as the making of many of these important projects and the collaborations and struggles that led to their creation. Why is it that Prince Paul doesn’t get deserved recognition in the wider cultural landscape?

“The most obvious answer is that outside of the first De La Soul album – the Chris Rock stuff too but it’s different when it comes to comedy – it’s because he has not been at the top of commercial success in music. That’s because of the choices he makes. Those choices are really affecting to the people who hear It, but because he’s not making the most commercially viable music it isn’t going to be as widely exposed. I mean who else can you compare him to, right? You will have to look at people like Dr. Dre or Puff Daddy – they had a lot of commercial success in their journeys,” he says.

“That’s why nobody calls those people ‘undervalued’ or ‘underappreciated’ because when you go platinum that many times people consider that the appropriate level of value. Unless I’m mistaken De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising is the only platinum album that Prince Paul has worked on. For all of his contributions, as awesome as they are, he doesn’t have the hardware to show for it. This is part of the reason why I do What Had Happened Was. Because if you look at whenever hip-hop is celebrated, “like remember when they use to do VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors? You remember that?”

I remember. We laugh. 

“It’s never said out loud, but you’re only considered worthy of celebration if you do well business-wise. The industry is always really, pardon my language, blowing itself most of the time,” he laughs.

“I’ve always thought about this subtle difference between the Grammys and the Oscars. With the Oscars, there is at least an attempt to celebrate the artistry of the medium, even if that means that they have to make categories that designate. ‘We are celebrating the art of this…it didn’t do that well. We are celebrating the art of this…but it’s short. We are celebrating the art of this…but it’s in a foreign language, so it’s not a blockbuster.’ The Grammys is about the blockbusters that’s the only thing that counts, you know? That’s the reflection of an industry that only celebrates success commercially and that’s one of the reasons to do a podcast like this,” he says. “We demonstrate the love that’s out there for these products that have got nothing to do with commercial viability.”

Have the goals of What Had Happened Was changed since the podcast started and now that the third season is complete?

“After the third season, the challenge is that there are only a handful of people in the world that qualify to be a twelve-episode long subject of an interview podcast where each episode is about a different project. I won’t say the aim of the podcast has changed, but the first three seasons raised the bar to a level that is going to be difficult to maintain,” he says.

“Now that it’s successful in some metrics it’s gotten me looking at the field of subjects with a much more stringent eye. I’ve had the really good fortune of proximity to be able to talk to a Prince Paul, an El-P, a Dante Ross. I should be doing a season with Dr. Dre but I’m probably not gonna,” he laughs. “Proximity-wise, he’s out of my reach. That’s the kind of stuff that I’ve been thinking of lately. It’s not anything to do with the aims or the goals of the podcast changing, but it’s ‘how do I reload this in a way that honors the amazing conversations that I’ve had to this point?'”