Open Mike Eagle makes himself a mixtape
Open Mike Eagle has always been attuned to underground hip-hop's bigger picture, in ways that show how often he's had to keep on his toes. It's not just borne out in his off-the-cuff facility with language, though his sharp-thinking, moving-target adaptability means he's every bit as perceptive a dot-connector in his side gigs as a podcast host and interviewer — check for the hip-hop history Q&A sessions on What Had Happened Was and his artist-conversation series Secret Skin — as he is drawing off impulse-driven battle-rap improvisation. His creative spark, largely inspired by the lyrically minded, community-building approach of Los Angeles collective Project Blowed, shone so bright he even found himself part of a scientific study to attempt to find out just how the brain actually works during freestyle rap sessions. And even if calling his 2010 breakthrough album Unapologetic Art Rap left him open to outside confusion about what that genre signifier actually meant, it also made that descriptor feel open-ended, accommodating Eagle's boundless perspective — which, while heavy on a referential depth that would rival the '90s Simpsons writers room, also snuck through more than a trace of confessional directness. For much of his 2010s output, he'd get personal in a way that didn't overshare, but still felt pulled from a place where this is me, and "me" is complicated was a good way to establish a horizon-scanning point of view.
So when he released his 2020 album Anime, Trauma and Divorce, the LA-via-Chicago rapper's more direct turn toward frank and upfront discussions of his own personal struggles and stresses felt like a cathartic culmination. Eagle is always working out the internal contradictions and external impositions that come with being an independent hip-hop artist, benefiting from a perceptively sardonic touch that can hide both barbed social commentary and worried self-reckonings inside an affable if often skeptical sense of humor. That's been increasingly reinforced in his best work, especially 2016's social anxiety-steeped Hella Personal Film Festival and the project-housing community hauntology of 2017's Robert Taylor Homes-raised Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Both displayed Eagle's finely attuned sense of how he saw himself, the community that raised him and the creative fields he became a part of — and, more often than not, attempted to confront the flaws and struggles in those experiences with the clarity of someone who needs to feel less alone in having them.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce laid that all out on the line. The end of his marriage and a series of creative setbacks — particularly the dissolution of his Hellfyre Club group and the cancellation of his scalpel-sharp comedy series with Baron Vaughn, The New Negroes — left him feeling adrift in an existential crisis, and reaching for shonen-style power fantasies just to get his bearings back. And then the album had to go and hit right as an even bigger, more communal crisis was reaching a peak during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eagle recorded "Everything Ends Last Year" and its annus horribilis-wracked refrain "It's October and I'm tired" in 2019, and when the album dropped, one October later, so was everyone else. In "Peak Lockdown Raps," a deep cut near the end of his new album, Component System with the Auto Reverse, he admits with a claustrophobic, crummy-fidelity immediacy that he's "talkin' like the year didn't happen / I feel like I should hear it in the rappin' / Since we all had unkempt beards and weird interactions."
Now, in another October, Eagle's efforts to collect himself after enduring (likely) the strangest album-release cycle of his career has given us an album that's just as personal, but reflectively so. Component System with the Auto Reverse is an outward feint toward homesick '90s introspection that a shallower effort would have made seem like a retreat toward those mythical More Innocent Times people tend to turn to in times of crisis. Sometimes it seems like there's an entire nostalgia-industrial complex dedicated to making the '90s feel like a lost idyll, the last truly enjoyable time before everything went to hell, but Component System is a record that makes a case for the past as a continuously changing and evolving presence, not a trapped-in-amber escape route.
Sure, you get multiple nods to the Jordan era (Chicago Bulls centers Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley both get namedrops) and classic video games ("Multi-Game Arcade Cabinet" flips through its myriad yet cohesive guest verses like games in a Neo Geo) and defunct stereo-emporium dreamspaces (both the title of "Circuit City" and the gear-hawking intro to the misleadingly titled "CD Only Bonus Track"). And several beats provided by Diamond D, a producer-rapper and fixture of NYC's Diggin' in the Crates crew, who's the kind of high-tier if you know, you know name that certain old heads will find as amazing a get as psych-prog architect Madlib, who produced "Circuit City." Yet none of this communing with the past feels like anything less than a reevaluation.
"With the tapes that I cut up to put samples on the album, a lot of those tapes, there's one of the DJs at WHPK, and he's going on and on about Diamond D," Eagle told me from his LA home during our conversation, with all the amazement of someone who'd been dreaming of such a collaboration for decades. "His music has been a part of my life that long. It was crazy to be able to reach out and access him and him being down to work." But Diamond's beats on Component System treat the boom-bap tropes of '90s hip-hop more as a pivotal early step to future inspiration than a well to run dry. And that's in keeping with the rest of Eagle's favored beatmakers here — Detroit mutant-rap auteur Quelle Chris, indie pop/beathead crossovers Child Actor, and longtime joined-at-the-hip collaborators Kuest 1 and Illingsworth — who've assembled a slate of tracks that sound not just era-agnostic but genre-averse.
Eagle literally wears one of those titular stereo systems as a sort of headgear on the cover of Component System. As the kind of audio equipment prized a generation ago for making recording and dubbing personal mixtapes easily, it can represent both his headspace and a protective armor, rooted in a renewed and continued engagement with the old homemade cassettes of hip-hop programs he recorded off Chicago radio. But the album's less a disillusioned wallowing in a glorious sepia-toned past than a sometimes difficult conversation with the past's actual deterioration, with the more allusive and free-associative sides of Eagle's lyricism puzzling out where all these reminiscent pieces really fit. As he puts it on "79th and Stony Island": "I still got the same worldview / A brain full of old-school rules / And memories like flesh wounds."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nate Patrin: Anime, Trauma and Divorce really kind of broke through your more allusive tendencies and got right up front about some of the most stressful recent developments in your personal life. This one seems a little more tied into a reminiscent mode, but in ways that sort of feel like you're kind of figuring out how did I get here, your formative influences getting entangled with your current perspective.
Open Mike Eagle: Not exactly that, but that's an interesting way to put it. I have definitely been leaning into formative experiences musically, but I'm more looking to it ... almost like a comfort. And that comfort informs my creativity now. It's leaning back for a specific kind of resource that informs what I'm doing now in a way.
So if your previous album was catharsis, this is more a regrouping?
It's certainly an expression of something different, and definitely engaging with the underlying emotions of things in a different way. This way that I'm doing it, on this project, to me, feels more protected. Even while I'm expressing feelings, I've been trying to have the feeling challenge my delivery and the areas I'm writing from, but not necessarily addressing all the underlying feelings overtly. There's a vulnerability that comes to that, [and] for me, it was hard with the last record to deal with the exhaustion of that.
One bit that stood out was in "TDK Scribbled Intro" where you say "yesterday is safer, because you already know what happens. And every album is a little collection of pieces of yesterdays." And that's actually a pretty funny juxtaposition to me, because that's how a lot of sample-based production works — kind of reaching toward an almost nostalgic sense of things you might have heard earlier in your life, but then retrofitting and rebuilding them into something that speaks more contemporaneously.
Yeah, absolutely. The spirit of that is kind of the spirit of hip-hop — repurposing existing material. That's a hip-hop idea. And I think in a lot of ways, that's what we all seek to do. But I'm currently repurposing actual tape audio on this album from these cassettes that I still have, and that's part of the spirit of it.
There's kind of an interesting cross-pollination of contributions on this record. You have Diamond D from DITC doing a few beats, and you have Madlib on "Circuit City." On "Burner Account" with Armand Hammer, Quelle Chris' production almost sounds like he's channeling circa '97 Company Flow. Then there's "For DOOM," which is your tribute to one of the all-time greats of that milieu, and in hip-hop in general. It's kind of a reckoning with a time in hip-hop that seems to be deeply beloved by a big core of people, but also taken for granted in some ways.
Yeah. I think that's very true. I mean, the "golden era" — which is a shifting range of years, depending on who you're asking — there's this constantly evolving discourse around the cultural importance of any of that. But I know, for me, I think about what was important to me, and often check back to see if things are still important to me, and not everything is. But the things that are — a lot of that music, a lot of those times in my life, a lot of my values then — they still mean a lot to me. Those years, that era, in some ways, even that way of thinking. Sometimes that was limited, because we could have used a lot more critical thinking. We thought we were doing that, but [we] were being very binary, very reactive. But that time meant a lot to me, and I'm celebrating that it means a lot to me, I'm not celebrating that it means or should mean a lot to the world. Things from then are literally powering me to deal with right now. That's where the energy is for me.
You turned 40 during late 2020, right in a deeply exhausting phase of the pandemic. Is there a moment where you internalized that you're hitting this particular milestone at one of the weirdest times possible? Where you start considering, or at least continue considering, what it's like to age in a youth-driven culture? And not just speaking of hip-hop, but in social media, pop culture, even a lot of political activism. Do you ever feel that anxiety of keeping up and, invoking one of your earlier tracks, being "relatable?" Or did the "old enough to stop caring what the young folks think" switch get flipped for you?
I've been not caring about large swaths of things for a very long time, so I can always aim that ray where I need to aim it at. But in some ways, I think I do feel a lot of anxiety around chronological age, especially in hip-hop. I mean, social media is one thing, but literally, everybody's doing it. So everybody's dealing with that at every age. Hip-hop is new on the earth, but it's been present so long that now we have generations of MCs growing older, and by each individual person doing it, they have to define what that looks like for them, because it is primarily youth driven. That's part of the vitality of it, that the youth are always coming along and changing it. So I fought with that, but also for what I like. And I have the creative independence to really just do what I want to do, and I celebrate that freedom. It took a lot of work at this craft for me to be heard by people. And the ability to do that still means a lot to me. I have to continue with that true feeling — and also the true number of my age in this field. All of those forces are in conversation all the time. Not to mention the fact that, you know, the economy of being an independent musician is not like getting a whole lot better.
You've said elsewhere, and I feel it too, that it feels like there is no more "middle class" in music.
No, there's not. That middle class, I think, was largely created by people being able to sell CDs. I really think that's what it was, that was an affordable way to have enough units to sell to live on. [With] streaming, the revenue will never be like that, unless you generate enough streams, which, you know, you may need streaming promotion or something along those lines to make that even viable.
But you're doing what you can, and I do like that you have this sort of core of people all around you that you work with regularly. Guys like Serengeti, and Video Dave, and also Still Rift, who I'm less familiar with.
Still Rift, he's a mystery wrapped in an enigma, that guy [laughs]. But legit, me and him started rapping together, literally started when we were both in high school. He's done things with [Chicago indie hip-hop label] Galapagos4. He's been around; we're all making a bunch of stuff together.
The new album doesn't feel quite as direct in its emotion as Anime, Trauma and Divorce, but it still feels like there's this weight to it. You go into a few different directions. It's like a "what next" kind of record, where things sound almost up in the air and unknown — a very pandemic-era sort of experience, where people are just unsure of how things are even going to go on a broader scale. Did you experience a perspective shift where the situation expanded from "I'm in a bad phase" to "everyone's in a bad phase?"
That sounds more cynical than I actually am. I feel like the weight in this record doesn't feel like it's about me having decided that things are bad, but just me as an individual having a lot to figure out and trying to do that during the pandemic. I'm making music now that's not quite as heavy. But that could change. You never know. I guess it's just the weight of the world that I was living in. I was specifically living in an apartment right off of Crenshaw, fresh as a divorcé living by myself on this crazy corner. I have moved away from this since, but I spent about a year and a half there. There's a song on the album called "Crenshaw and Homeland." That's the corner that I lived near, where I wrote a lot of the album. And it was just a crazy corner. There's a 7-Eleven across the street that's just lawless, [I] lived next to a mechanic, there was always car accidents on that intersection. There was just noise and chaos all the time. So that place kind of had me in a state too. And I think a lot of what I hear in the music is like, yeah, I was on high alert. I was not in a relaxed place.
But there's also this feeling that it's a conversation with yourself across a few tracks, like you're reconciling your Chicago self with your Los Angeles self.
Yep, 100%. That's the center of my identity storm, geographically, anyway. Because I don't feel fully like I'm from Chicago when I go back there. It's completely different every time. And I've lived in LA a long time, but I don't feel about the place like somebody who's from here feels about it. But places are definitely part of my identity and my experience. And, you know, that is a conversation that happens a lot.
Does that have any particular effect on how your style's evolved over the course of your career, where you have some connections to the LA beat scene and Low End Theory, but you'll also have the formative influences that you're still carrying. Is there a pull between those two that's given your work different stylistic touches and effects?
Absolutely, yeah. The Chicago rap scene is very different than the LA rap scene. Both of those things, technique-wise, are always in conversation, because I enjoy all of it. And I try to be good at all of it. And the beat scene is a whole nother conversation because it ends up being about how the production sounds and not necessarily how I'm writing verses. Project Blowed is my home crew here in LA. And their emphasis — the way they rap and their values — are different than the part of Chicago where I come from. But like I said, I've learned to really appreciate both of those approaches, and am trying to be a master practitioner of both.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.