The alt-rap icon reflects on the first season of his Comedy Central show, and explains why the rap industry is a reflection of American society at large.
I was on a road trip through northern Colorado the first time that I heard Open Mike Eagle. It was 2017, and he had just released Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. The album started playing as I was driving just south of the Wyoming border. As the first track on the album, “Legendary Iron Hood,” began to drift through the speakers, revealing Open Mike’s intimate and subtle voice, I knew I had found something special. The album played on repeat for the rest of my trip.
One of the most unique and exciting names in rap, Open Mike’s lyrical content is unmatched. He’s ambitious and fearless, tackling morose concepts with unparalleled humor and wit (Brick Body Kids Still Daydream was a masterful album, full of superheroes and the supernatural, about the demolition of his childhood home, the Robert Taylor Projects in Chicago’s south side). It’s his proclivity to comedy, in part, that makes Open Mike so enthralling. It was only fitting that he co-host Comedy Central’s new stand-up showcase, The New Negroes—alongside comedian and actor, Baron Vaughn—which premiered in late April of this year.
The New Negroes is a star-studded all-black showcase of comics and rappers which airs weekly on Fridays. Each episode takes on a general concept, whether it be “criminality” or “identity,” the guest comics and musicians craft their contributions accordingly. The show is heady yet approachable. The blend of comedy and rap is a blissful and ingenious choice which evokes nostalgic reveries of early Def Comedy Jam, 90s hip hop skits, and fucking around with your homies on any given Friday night.
David Aaron Brake—You represent a really unique and exciting future of rap. What do you feel about the state of contemporary rap? Where are we in hip hop?
Open Mike—We’re in a space where, aesthetically, anything goes, which is awesome, which is one of the things that I always liked to see come to pass. You can literally, at this point, not be surprised by anything any mainstream rapper does aesthetically. I think that the state of rap as a career, though, is in a really bad spot. I think in a lot of ways it mirrors the overall society with a shrinking middle class. It’s really, more than ever, hard to make any sort of career without corporate money somewhere. It’s getting a lot harder to really do anything substantial from a DIY position. For years, there had always been a way. You could always make it, to some degree, just selling out the trunk, as they used to call [it], and increasingly that’s just getting harder and harder to do.
“Everybody has their own reality to deal with, but then when people get murdered by police for looking like you or looking threatening—it’s all stuff you have to walk around and operate with. You have to be the police in your head before you encounter the real police.”
David—I just heard your new song with MF Doom. I read that he’s one of your favorite artists. What’s it like working with him?
Open Mike—It’s unbelievable, honestly. I remember when I got the verse—it’s the kind of thing where you hear it’s coming, but then when you get it—it’s hard to wrap my head around. The way that my career has gone, in that all of my progress happens very incrementally, it’s easy for me to remember when things weren’t as good as they are [now]. I can very much access the first time I heard Doom or each new album as it comes out. It’s so hard to even quantify to people what his music and his contributions to rap, and indie rap specifically, have meant to me. This thing is out in the world, that him and I worked together on—it’s just an immeasurable accomplishment for me in a personal sense.
David—You said “indie rapper.” What does it mean to be an indie rapper in 2019?
Open Mike—I think it means to operate outside of corporate money. With me, honestly, doing this show, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to count as indie in the way that I think of indie. The indie rappers that I know, that I came up with, that I consider my peers, are people who have to travel the world with no safety net. It’s just literally the strength of their own will and their own belief in themselves that propels their careers forward from day to day, and there’s no help. I think that’s a different way to do it than people who do it because they signed to big record deals. Wherever the money comes from, it’s just a very different experience to building a project in a home studio, putting it up on Bandcamp, using Tunecore and Distrokid to get it [on] streaming services, trying to find ways to get writers to write about it, trying to scrape together money to make videos, trying to push them with social media, trying to get your fans to share them, trying to book tours off of that, and doing it all yourself, or doing it all with your friend who kind of manages you, but don’t really know how—it’s just a really different way of going about things. The real indie hustle is just so different. This is my first time ever having a corporation promote me and I don’t really even know how to feel about it.
David—Have there been times in your career where you thought about putting rap aside?
Open Mike—No, because when I started I was surrounded by people who had been doing it. I was surrounded by very successful independent rappers. It was pretty easy for them to show me the way if I wanted to listen. I really feel like I was apprenticed. Because the hustle that they showed me maintained for a better part of the decade, I always felt kind of comfortable. I put out my projects and I got what I got. I never thought about giving up because it was always as fruitful as the amount of work that I put in. The only time I would ever get disappointed is when I would feel that I had reached a ceiling. Even that wasn’t a bad place, it just didn’t seem like I could push past a certain point—that reality was very difficult to deal with sometimes.
David—In the song with Doom you talk about internal policing. Could you talk a bit more about what that is?
Open Mike—It’s just being aware of people’s cultural expectations or generalizations that people might make about you outside of yourself. Everybody has their own reality to deal with, but then when people get murdered by police for looking like you or looking threatening—it’s all stuff you have to walk around and operate with. You have to be the police in your head before you encounter the real police. You just have to understand how it is that you can be perceived.
David—What’s the relationship between comedy and rap?
Open Mike—In a general sense, I don’t really know. I know what the relationship is to me as an individual performer. Personally, where a lot of my song-writing comes from, is observation. I feel like a lot of, specifically, stand-up comedy—I guess even sketch [comedy] too—comes from observation. That’s always been the link for me. That’s why I always felt like I could position myself in some proximity to comedy, because I felt like what I do comes from the same place as where I understand a lot of entertainers [to] come from.
“I think that the state of rap as a career, though, is in a really bad spot. I think in a lot of ways it mirrors the overall society with a shrinking middle class. It’s really, more than ever, hard to make any sort of career without corporate money somewhere.”
David—How did you and Baron first meet and where did this idea for the show come from?
Open Mike—We first met at a comedy rap battle here in LA. It had to have been, like, seven years ago. [The rap battle] was actually for stand-up comics who were interested in fucking around in a freestyle battle. Somebody brought me in and I lost fantastically. I lost in a spectacular fashion [laughs]. I was taking it too seriously and everybody else was fucking around and the crowd was enjoying the fucking around way more than the seriousness. Baron was in that, and [he] actually won the battle that night. We exchanged information and started to talk and started to be on each other’s podcasts. I’d do variety shows and invite him to perform on those. We just connected and clicked. He started doing The New Negroes live in 2015 in Portland. He did that, I think, for two years, and then going into the third year he asked if I wanted to co-host it with him and inject music into the stand-up showcase that he had been curating. From there we started doing it monthly in LA—everything grew from there.
David—In the opening for the first episode you talk about the historical significance of the New Negro movement. Could you tell me about that?
Open Mike—The New Negro was an idea. It also was an anthology of essays, poets, writers, [written by Alain LeRoy Locke in 1925] that kind of precipitated the Harlem Renaissance. It was basically about black Americans at that time—specifically a lot of northern thinkers, philosophers, and the black community—really taking advantage of this opportunity to redefine for the majority culture what it meant to be a black American, in the face of all the stereotypes that they were very used to encountering. It was a collective movement of redefinition and wanting to subvert stereotypes that were dominating life at the time.
David—How is your show an extension of that and why is it relevant, particularly now, to have a platform like that?
Open Mike—Because those stereotypes persist. Not the same ones, but if we talk about what we were talking about earlier—black people being murdered by police; that’s based on stereotyping. That’s based on some inferences someone is making about what they think a person is based on what they look like. It’s based on not being able to relate to a person that looks different. It’s based on not seeing a person for who they are, but seeing them as what you think they are. Given that often results in a black person losing their life—a lot of people in the majority culture can’t even access how crazy that is. That level of stereotyping, that level of quick-judgment based on color of skin is what we’re looking to subvert. One of the ways that we’re doing that is by presenting very different people and the connection between them is that we’re all black people—but we’re all very different. All the comics are very different. All the musicians are very different. In that is another form of redefinition—redefining what it means to be a black comic in America, what it means to be a black rapper in America, in 2019. It’s all about showing these nuances inside the group, and with that we hope to subvert some of the deadlier stereotypes that we still continue to encounter.