Rapper of the Year: Open Mike Eagle

Blake Gillespie

Open Mike Eagle

Photo by Andy J Scott

Open Mike Eagle wants more from rap than simply being considered one of the greats. If I offered to call him the Gallagher of rap, he'd hardly take offense. He released a song dedicated to the melon-smashing comedian. When Riff Raff says, “Rap game ___ (insert obscure name)” it's an idle boast. When Open Mike Eagle says he's “The Marc Maron, a dark-skinned art baron”, it's because he's seriously considered the possibility. It lies within his aspiring means.

In 2011, when I named Danny Brown the Rapper of the Year, the monitoring of Brown’s development stemmed from a guest verse on an Elzhi mixtape. But, isn’t that how we all discover our next favorite rapper? To command a posse cut—causing hierarchy within—is power. Kendrick Lamar caused the biggest dust-up in rap with a controversial appearance on Big Sean’s “Control”, so handing Rapper of the Year honors to an artist who mostly made guest appearances in 2013 hardly feels like a dubious call.

I can justify Open Mike Eagle’s induction as Rapper of the Year.

In 365 days of touring and working on his next record, his achievements make any other rapper’s work regiment look slacker and mundane. Through a stream of collaborations, a name-your-price EP on Bandcamp, and one great song entitled “Qualifiers”, Open Mike Eagle’s no-off-days mentality kept his name relevant when it should have slunk from the hype machine’s cycle.

“This is my work,” Open Mike Eagle says on the phone during a video shoot for “DVT”.

“This is my job, my hustle. People make it seem like I’m very productive. I’ve had that said. But, if my only job is to make music… to keep having fresh ideas is the only way I’m going to advance—using my mental resources.”

When Impose posted its 50 Best Albums of 2013 last week, Open Mike Eagle tweeted the link with the statement, “I’m on 3 of these” (the three being: milo’s things that happen at day EP, Armand Hammer’s Race Music, and Hot Sugar’s Made Man EP). The verb “on” treats Open Mike Eagle’s involvement too lightly. His contribution to Hot Sugar’s EP, a zany concept song with Mike assuming the identity and philosophies of Gallagher (naturally titled “Watermelon”), is one of the collection’s finest tracks. While, “Art Rap Pizza Party” with milo is the student (milo) paying respect to the elder sensei by inviting him to his debut album.

Back in late July, LA Weekly was calling him “The Hottest Thing in Indie Rap” for good reason. In 2013, Open Mike Eagle was between albums as 4NML HSPTL (Fake Four Inc.) had just turned a year old and his next record Dark Comedy was unfinished. The Sir Rockabye EP might have been a placeholder, a transitional reminder in an off-year, but it garnered him considerable fanfare. Comprised of homeless tracks, but together they feel meant for each other.

“Those were songs I noticed were outliers to where the [next] record was going to go,” he says. “Once I realized I was going to do an EP, what I was hearing in those songs was I was being more style-adventurous. I had tried a lot of different cadence and style approaches and [Sir Rockabye EP] was the best of the experiments.”

Originally from Chicago and a graduate of Project Blowed, Mike comes from cities and inner circles that take the ability to show creativity in cadence and delivery seriously. His battle roots show up on “Middling”, which sends an opponent named mediocrity packing for home in tears from digs like “your whole style’s all butter knife / you make Jack McBrayer look like a gutter snipe” and “good grief, you probably sleep in a safety net.” Since he’s holding no punches on Sir Rockabye, it closes with “Mef’s Lament”, a venomous tirade against armchair critics that Mike said was written in reaction to an offensive article on rap. He can’t recall who or what it was now, probably best we never know what caused Mike to write “a two-bit scholar serving venom by the teaspoon / acting on the pain that you've carried since preschool.”

“It put me in this fucked-up space,” he says. “I was literally addressing the author. But, at this point I couldn’t tell you who the fuck I was mad at at all.”

By August, he appeared on Loden’s The Star-Eyed Condition, billy woods & Blockhead’s Dour Candy, Diwon’s New Game, and Kool A.D.’s 63. He flexed his improv chops on NPR’s Wits alongside Hannibal Buress and a Marc Maron reference from a guest appearance on Busdriver’s “Werner Herzog” earned Mike an invitation to Maron’s garage to record a WTF podcast episode.

“That was a huge deal in my life,” he says. “Just it being something on the resume. It’s a super fucking cool thing to do.”

For Mike, getting the attention of Maron with one bar is the indie rap equivalent of Kendrick getting rap’s panties in a bunch over King of New York claims.

I can’t pretend I learned of Open Mike Eagle through a guest verse. It was via message board in 2010. He posted there, discussing the merits and misfires of rap music, like any other anonymous online community member. Eventually that website made a compilation comprised of rapper’s on the board, it included Open Mike Eagle’s “I Rock”. Though it later appeared on Open Mike’s Unapologetic Art Rap (Mush), “I Rock” was partially sung, partially spoken, and unlike anything I was hearing in rap. The song dealt with the insult of a 9 to 5 interfering with his desired rap career, while the second verse focused entirely on his night school in rap attending open mics, Low End Theory, and anywhere else he could get on stage. The song led to three years of examining every album, EP, and guest appearance by Open Mike Eagle.

In May of this year, he debuted “Qualifiers” in a laundromat alongside producer Alwayz Prolific. His station is no longer the double-life MC. On “Qualifiers” he is a representative for the marginalized who still struggle to punch their time cards with a punchline. With no day job since ‘09, Rap has taken Open Mike to strange places like the nation of Uganda or in his son’s nursery, changing diapers.

“I literally started writing wherever the fuck I was [on ‘Qualifiers’],” he says. “Like I was literally at the park district with this non-profit I work with. I had wiped my kids ass earlier that week and got shit on myself, then we get in the car and he asked me to play Busdriver. That shit is my life. Day to day I was taking notes.”

I’ve written it many times this year, but it’s worth saying again, “Qualifiers” is the Hellfyre Club theme song. In his autobiographical approach Mike Eagle speaks for labelmates like Busdriver and founder Nocando. On the phone he described the elder members of the label as practically imaginary. “We’re all old men in rap years. We’re half dead,” he went on. Old men and dad rappers—yes, but each continues to qualify as rapper on their government census.

Open Mike has been a Hellfyre Club member since 2011’s Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, but it was not until the signing of Mike’s unofficial understudy milo and the release of his double EP on January 1, 2013 that the Club started publicly sporting members jackets.

I was one of the earliest people when [Nocando] started the label,” Mike says. “I was always telling him to keep it a label. I felt like we were all from rap crews, we all had affiliations. I felt like we needed a business entity.”

He attributes the signing of milo to altering the fabric, saying “this kind of aesthetic started forming, then the associations happened organically in which everybody started making music together.”

It led to the Dorner vs. Tookie label mixtape, which was the third label compilation, but easily the most anticipated. The mixtape is where you can find the official release of “Qualifiers”, stand-out Sir Rockabye EP-cut “Degrassi Picture Day” makes a reappearance, and he appears on three posse tracks. On D vs. T, the pieces have fallen into place as many of the songs feature the interchangeable collaborations between Nocando, Open Mike, Busdriver, and milo.

“It’s not necessarily a crew right now,” says Mike. “It’s a collective for sure, but that happened by proxy. milo being such a force of creative energy galvanized things too. I think when he came along it forged us all together. He was kind of a missing piece.”

Early 2014, we’ll get the “DVT” video Mike was working on when we talked for this piece. He’s also finished his next album, entitled Dark Comedy. Described as “dark observations mixed with shit that makes me laugh,” Mike says the record aims for the center of the venn diagram where the two overlap. After guesting on Maron and NPR’s Wits, he’s continuing to pursue interests beyond rap. In January he’s debuting a variety show at The Mint in LA. Hosted by Open Mike, he’ll sit behind a desk and be joined by a co-host.

“Rather than do a regular rap show, I’m bringing stand-ups and there’ll be audience participation,” he says. “Even if I fall on my face it will flex some different kind of muscles. Maybe I can get in line for some more cool shit later on once I establish those different levels.”

Since he’s no longer the aspiring rhymer / 9-to-5er from “I Rock”, he’s out to expand his resume. We talked of the long con for a rap career. I cited Slug of Atmosphere once saying he wanted to be the Tom Waits of rap, touring off his old material well into his 70s. But what “___ of rap” does Mike want to be known for? He pauses for a moment, humming while he thinks, then says, “who’s just under Louis C.K.?” and starts laughing.

“I want that kind of stature, type of respect, type of innovation with his business, [and] complete trust in his creativity. That type of shit is amazing to me. Or if I could be the Patton Oswalt of hip hop that’d be my shit.”

Below is a collection of ICYMI cuts he's appeared on the past year:

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