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.

One wonders about the insights Open Mike Eagle has gained through these in-depth interviews. What more has he learned about hip-hop as an art form, as a genre, and as a business?

“Huge questions!,” he laughs. “So, the clearest insight that I’ve gotten from talking to Prince Paul and El-P is that typically artists of that caliber don’t look back often; it’s not how they are wired. So, sitting down with me was a bit stressful for both of them because I’m forcing them to do a thing that they don’t do. that’s been quite the revelation. It’s that ‘oh, these guys operate very differently’ realization. All I do is think about shit I did,” he laughs. “To see how important it is for them to be present and forward-thinking was really interesting.”

“Business-wise, I’ve learned so much from the Dante Ross season. Being able to visualize the inner workings of a Tommy Boy Records, of an Electra Records, of an ADA later in his career was like, ‘oh my god, all of this music is a result of people sitting and having meetings!'” he laughs.

It was a challenge scheduling and recording the show during the global pandemic.

“Every season has been different logistically because all three of the subjects are busy people. We did almost all of the podcasts in person, which is, of course, the ideal way. But for the El-P season, we weren’t able to meet. It was during the height of the pandemic, so we had to do it remotely and that raised a whole host of challenges. It feels different when you’re talking with someone in the room versus when y’all are on the phone or over Zoom – especially when you get into really sensitive moments.”

“Each one of those subjects had a very different process for after we tape an episode – whether or not there were changes that needed to be made before they got to the final edit. It required varying degrees of editing depending on who I was talking to. Each season you’re really unpacking a person’s life. When you sit down and talk to them you have to give them the room to have whatever involvement they want. There’s only so much you can expect them to be comfortable with in terms of just putting their stories in my hands. It’s not their complete life story, but it’s their story in terms of their public projects.”

“In all three instances, I found myself shocked when the artists agreed to these series of interviews,” he laughs. “I wanted to make sure they understood what it was they were agreeing to. And each case, once they said they were down, there was complete openness. I’ve never been told by any of these guests that there was something that they didn’t want to talk about. I’ve been told after they’ve talked about something that they wanted it taken out,” he laughs. “But I’ve never been given any directives of ‘let’s avoid this, let’s avoid that.’ They’ve all been very open. That’s partly because they understand that this podcast is a celebration of hip-hop. I’m not asking them anything that’s going to be embarrassing. I’m not trying to get sound bites of them shit-talking.”

Open Mike Eagle is a voracious listener of podcasts. His favorite podcasts include Off-PanelDad Bod Rap Pod, Cracking Krakoa, WTF with Marc Maron, The Watch, and the Jim Cornette Experience. The success of What Happened Was prompted Open Mike Eagle to start the hip-hop-centric podcast network, Stoney Island Audio.

“It’s really important to have these platforms on the internet, specifically for hip-hop artists, to be able to tell your own stories and push your own narratives. Especially for artists that don’t have access to the resources and support that bigger artists have. A lot of music campaigns now are based on media manipulation. In a sense, having your own narrative is a kind of media manipulation too. It’s just, for me, from a more healthy place, from a more genuine place. Having platforms where hip-hop artists are able to show more sides of their personalities and give more context to their work is infinitely helpful for music to be viable,” he says.

The Stony Island Audio network uses advertising to cover costs and avoid the potentially audience-limiting subscription model. Eventually, Open Mike Eagle hopes to have relevant ads for every podcast. “I want to incentivize people to do podcasts by presenting them as money-making opportunities in addition to the opportunity to design their own narrative and control their own career,” he says. “If it comes along later where there’s a way to generate income that isn’t ad-based, I’ll certainly look into it. Ads break the immersion of these interviews, but that’s the cost of doing business. I don’t want podcasting to be the sort of thing where it’s only a labor of love and I get exhausted doing it. I need to make money from it, too.”

For now, whether it’s for love or some other motive, the podcaster master also ran the Adventure Time (Conversation Parade) podcast. “Yeah, and I got more coming too!,” he laughs. “I was fortunate in that I started podcasting early and that Adventure Time podcast had support from Cartoon Network.”

“What I am trying to understand now is how podcasts reach their audience. There’re a couple of shows on our network that are smaller shows, but I believe in them so much. I look at other podcasts or shows that have huge audiences and I can tell that the listeners of those shows would be into these shows on my network. But the question is, ‘how do you put listeners in front of them?’ As the owner of a podcast network, I find myself facing that problem every day. Marketing is part that I’m trying to figure out and that I am learning more about every day.

As for plans for the fourth season of What Had Happened Was, Open Mike Eagle is mum but for a tease. He has a hip-hop artist lined up that he’s excited about, but of course, the artist is another very busy person, and nailing down dates for their interviews is complicated. He has a show in Chicago with R.A.P. Ferreira on June 9th and a show in New York on the Elsewhere rooftop on July 13th. He just finished writing for a television show that he can’t talk about – yet. Finally, he finished an album, and he’ll be announcing its release and touring dates soon.

And wait – there’s more. “I had an old podcast I had called Secret Skin, which is an interview show and I am relaunching a season of that within the next couple of weeks,” he says. I’ll be interviewing artists for one episode. If you dig the conversation style of What Had Happened Was and don’t mind that it’s not 12 episodes with just that person, I recommend Secret Skin, which is dropping soon.” Stay tuned and keep up with the man, if you can. You’ll be richly rewarded.

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