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Open Mike Eagle calls his music, “art rap”—a new style of humor-infused, socially aware hip-hop.

Transcript

Over the past decade, Open Mike Eagle has traced one of the more unorthodox career paths in hip-hop.

Open Mike Eagle: My thing has always been to live and die by the authenticity of my own experience wherever that takes me, and sometimes it takes me to really weird places in terms of what’s expected from rap music.

His travels have taken his to Uganda to teach a rap workshop, an MRI machine for a National Institutes of Health study on free styling, and even to Comedy Central. And Eagle has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek name for what he does: art rap.

OME: This is very self-indulgent is what it is. It’s the freedom to be self-indulgent, really. A lot of all this self-indulgence that I engage in I feel licensed to do that because my career is very low-maintenance, very low-stakes, so I can do whatever I want and I don’t have to answer to anybody.

(“Qualifiers,” 2014)

Hold up it’s my turn again

I’m playing thirteen games of Words With Friends

Lift your hands

Lift your head if your clothes are clean and your kids are fed

Mine’s potty trained, so when he pisses the bed

Then he can tell I’m heated like infrared, yeah

We’re the best, mostly

Sometimes the freshest rhymers

We the tightest kinda

Respect my qualifiers

Today the fiercely independent Eagle is widely acclaimed for his clever wordplay and bold sense of humor. The Chicago native got his start as a teenager in freestyle rap circles called cyphers where aspiring MCs compete in bouts of verbal one-upmanship, but the transition from free styling into writing and recording full songs took Open Mike Eagle some time.

OME: When I learned to rap, the default position is, I’m going to rap about how good I rap, and rap about how other people aren’t as good at rapping as me. I found myself maybe 10 years ago looking at a verse I just wrote and was like, I don’t understand why it is I’m doing this. And I went about trying to find a new default. Now the problem with that is that my original attempts at that were all very self-deprecating, ’cause it was reactionary.

AJC: Which is the same thing, it the same sides of the same coin.

OME: Exactly.

AJC: If you’re writing you’re self-deprecating.

OME: Right.

AJC: They’re both making judgments about how you are in the world that may or may not be true. There’s certainly a mask, right?

OME: And I think they’re both pretty shallow in a way. And I’m still trying to find a different default. What happens when you just start writing? And that’s gotten me to a lot of free association that I tend to organize thoughts kind of just based on what amuses me, and then that’s kind of how comedy kind of became part of my work, too, was in trying to get away from the braggadocio, I found a comfort in just trying to link thoughts together based on what would make me laugh. A lot of the things that I make jokes about, and that’s in my music, on my social media, whatever, there are things that are absurd, and they make me angry. What the joke is to me is to point at the absurdity of something and play it up. So, oh, that’s ridiculous. And then, haha, we can all laugh at it. But also, hopefully, we all have a lasting image of the ridiculousness of whatever the thing is.

AJC: What was the intention for that? And more broadly, can you change anything? Can you change anyone’s mind who has the power to do anything about a situation like that by making a record about it?

OME: Second answer first–– I think that I might not be able to directly change that but what I’ve learned not only through my own career but the careers of artists that I respect a lot, I’ve learned that you might be speaking to a listener for the first time when that listener’s like, 13 or 14. But then when that listener is like, 24, they’re working for a corporation, they’re working in media, they’re working for the government even. And they might have held on to some of those notions and then that person’s in a position to do something.

(“Dark Comedy Late Show,” 2015)

And I can see the Super Bowls of the future

The Ferguson blacks versus Missouri State Troopers

The privacy rights versus the personal computers

Concussion researchers versus university boosters

I graduated college

I purchased all the extra books

I’m supposed to be living in a house

With a breakfast nook

But while Eagle is revered for his irreverent approach, some topics require a more delicate touch. 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a concept album about the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project in his hometown of Chicago.

OME: Part of the aim of the record was to try to retroactively humanize the people who lived in these buildings, especially because if you go there now there’s nothing, the land wasn’t developed. It was just like it was an eyesore that the city and people just decided to get rid of.

(“Brick Body Complex”, 2017)

A giant and my body is a building,

a building, a building, a building

My under name is 3925

Make sure that my story’s told

16 is so stories high

Constructed 55 years ago

Winter weather yeah here we go

Shy Town and my building cold

Stood here for 10 million snows

Wind chilled is all in my bones

Open Mike Eagle’s next project, a variety show for Comedy Central, also takes cues from the past. The program borrows its title, The New Negroes, from a 1925 anthology of some of the most important writings of the Harlem Renaissance.

AJC: And what’s the different between The New Negroes and the Harlem Renaissance and what you’re portraying?

OME: Time and space; that’s it. That anthology was created as a way to redefine the image and we’re doing the same thing. We’re going to do it with musicians, we’re doing it with comedians. Everybody has a different point of view. We can have six comics on a show and they all can be saying completely different things. We just feel it’s really important to update that for people, people who think black comedy is one way, people who think black music is one way, people who think black people are one way.

(“95 Radios,” 2017)

Tryna find a radio

And we wrapped both hands in tinfoil

And with his latest endeavor Open Mike Eagle continues his quest for the authentic and the unexpected, claiming truth to power with humor and passing the mic to his peers so they might do the same.

And the homies say they heard a rap song

Sounded like some folks they know

But we couldn’t find a radio