Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago // Open Mike Eagle Interview

Photo by: Ellis Christopher

By: Phoebe A. Xavier

Last weekend I arrived in the Windy City a week before Phish, the band I admittedly built my entire July plans around. I blew into town early, like so much stoner tumbleweed, because another underground sensation had my attention as well. A month ago Aesop Rock announced a quick summer tour with Open Mike Eagle slotted to open, an lo and behold they had a Chicago date scheduled just before the Vermonsters would roll in to town. So I was like “Fund raiser concert? We gotta go!”

Having been lucky enough to meet Open Mike recently at his Oregon show with Why? I got in touch with him on Twitter to ask if he might be open to being interviewed before the show. I linked up with my homegirl Kristine, who had come to see the Aes/Driver tour with me a few years ago in Chi- town. We showed up super early and got the best free parking imaginable. But with plenty of time to kill we popped over to Dusek’s for ‘a french fry and a beer’. The food was fried and the service impeccable.

We soon moved next door when they opened the venue to the public. The ‘green room’ where I was to meet with Mike was kind of a muggy hot boiler room under the main standing room of the concert hall. With only twenty five minutes till he was due on stage at eight o’clock, Kristine and I descended into the basement to talk to Open Mike.

PlanetPhoebe: OK, hopping right in. What exactly is up with the water themes that you Dumbfoundead & Psychosiz obsessed over on Thirsty Fish, was it just a witty pun run amok?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah that was part of our thing, was taking any little thing way too far. So calling ourselves ‘Thirsty Fish’, we decided that everything on the album was gonna be water based from all the song titles to most of the concepts, we decided to take the metaphors based in aquatic themes then we took that way too far. But we were just so in it at the time, we couldn’t see anything else. Now we look back like “oh wait, we could have made one song that had water in it.. but we didn’t.” We named our whole next album ‘Watergate’ but then none of those songs were about water. We took a hard turn in the other direction.

PlanetPhoebe: How’d you link up with DFD? To me he’s a much ‘happier’ rapper than the ‘Dark Comedy’ king Open Mike Eagle.

Open Mike Eagle: We all come from the L.A. underground scene, particularly from a collective called the Project Blowed, where we all met. It’s just kind of street corner rappers, emcees just out freestlying, cyphering, and we started doing songs together based on that. I think what brought us together was all of our love for wordplay. The way wordplay works is that, you know there is only a finite amount of words in the English language. And when you’re rapping you’re kind of just choosing words. But you end up choosing them based on what your values are. Any word you wanna pick, to rhyme with there are like seven or eight words you can pick. But the one’s you’ll pick and actually say are based on what your values are. So me and Dumbfoundead in particular, we both have the same level of craft, we just have different values as artists. So when I pick my rhyming words, they’re usually based on trying t o laugh at shit that’s depressing me, and his is like usually trying to genuinely find joy in the world.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah I can see that. Do you guys still get up in the battle scene as Swim Team though?

Open Mike Eagle: No. Swim team doesn’t really truly exist anymore. It exists theoretically. It exists in like I will always say that was one of the most important crews I was ever in. And I guess we’re still a crew, we just don’t do anything. We just see each other and hug.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. Have you seen the doco about Eyedea in which, in his latter days, he scorns battle rap as everything that is wrong with hip hop?

Open Mike Eagle: No I haven’t seen it.

PlanetPhoebe: Alright, well that’s a statement that he kind of makes. Coming from the All Time greatest freestyle battle emcee that’s a pretty huge statement. Do you have any thoughts or comments on that concept- that ego and the currency of being more creatively mean than the next emcee don’t actually better us as people or as a culture?

Open Mike Eagle: What year did he say that?

PlanetPhoebe: A year or two before he died, like 2008.

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. So if I were to conjecture, I would say that what I think he was referring to is the accapella battling …

PlanetPhoebe: Like the shit that Nocando does?

Open Mike Eagle: ..and Dumbfoundead and you know I did it once..

PlanetPhoebe: Really?!?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. A bunch of my homies got really big into it.

PlanetPhoebe: It all seems so pre-written though.

Open Mike Eagle: Oh it is. And that’s what I mean. I think maybe that’s what he’s referring to.

PlanetPhoebe: That that’s corny?

Open Mike Eagle: I mean, yeah I guess maybe he would say ‘that’s corny’ because he was so good off the head. To him that’s what the craft was. I wonder, if he was still alive, if he would soften to that at this point. Cause honestly it kind of split off and became a whole ‘nother craft of its own.

PlanetPhoebe: If you ever get the chance to see the movie, it sounds like he’s talking more about ego and not the way the kids are rhyming.

Open Mike Eagle: OK. Well I could certainly understand that too. Rap is an egotistical art-form though, and I don’t… I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what a default rap should be If it’s not about one’s self. I’ve never really found it. I know that you can write songs bout anything. But a default rap song is not about anything, it’s simply gonna be about one’s self and one’s thoughts. And I guess maybe you could push that into being, motivating to subvert the ego.. but I don’t know how you talk about subverting the ego without it being kind of egotistical?

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah. Even a selfless move is to satisfy your need for selflessness.

Open Mike Eagle: Especially if you’re having to say the words. Then it’s like still a little bit of ego. I understand that position, I just don’t know how to get around it.

PlanetPhoebe: You think rap and ego will always be together.

Open Mike Eagle: Yes. I think it’s absolutely married and I don’t know how you would divorce rap from ego.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. It’s the year 2028. The Ferguson Blacks have traded up to acquire the 17th overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. Please tell me the name, position & alma mater of the player they select.1

Open Mike Eagle: They select, Jefferson Singletary, who is a middle linebacker out of Grambling State University.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. Thank you. Alright. Over the years I have gotten to share my own rap flows with a great variety of top tier emcees, from Ghostface Killa to Eminem; I’ve gotten DAP from Driver & Russel Simmons for my verses. But nobody wants to sign the forty year old white tranny bitch even if my lyrics make Bubba Sparxxx look like, well, Bubba Sparxxx…

Open Mike Eagle: Wow.

PlanetPhoebe: What are your thoughts on inter-sectionality in hip hop?

Open Mike Eagle: I certainly think it’s opening up to it more. There’s a lot more artists now where I think the ‘shock’ of there being gender fluid or sexuality fluid rappers… I think it’s kind of worn off. And now like it’s starting to be accepted. Even if you look at the presentations of the rappers at the top of the game, I think there’s a lot less expectation for the classic macho gendered cis guy aesthetic. So I think it’s opening up. You know, Mykki Blanco for instance is fucking incredible.

PlanetPhoebe: Is that someone that identifies as gender-queer or something?

Open Mike Eagle: I, yeah.. I believe.. I know Mykki Blanco is gay. I believe that the Mykki Blanco character itself is a female.

PlanetPhoebe: Oh OK.

Open Mike Eagle: I’d have to double check that, but that’s the presentation. And the music is incredible. And it’s not like an issue you know what I mean? So I think it is certainly getting better, just not nearly at the speed it should be.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah and if I wasn’t forty I’d probably have a much better shot.

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah and who the fuck needs to be signed anyway? You just put your fucking music out, you don’t need shit. I mean you need money for people to help you sell it, but you can get all that shit à la carte. It’s not like it used to be.

PlanetPhoebe: (I chuckle at the jokes) Alright…Word on the cyberspace is that you recently got picked up to host a late night show with Baron Vaughn called The New Negroes. It sounds both ironically anti- racist and potentially a lot of fun. Who negotiated that deal?

Open Mike Eagle: Who negotiated it? Uh..Me?

PlanetPhoebe: You knew Comedy Central people?

Open Mike Eagle: Umm… I was in the room with Comedy Central before I had any real representation. I’d been on Comedy Central a couple times before I had representation.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah? I’ve never seen you on TV.

Open Mike Eagle: Well yeah I’ve been on ‘At Midnight’ not sure if you’ve ever seen that?

Kristine: Yeah…

Open Mike Eagle: ‘At Midnight’ is a show where they have stand up comedians play like this game show where they try to see who can get the best jokes off, kind of thing. So I’ve been on that.

PlanetPhoebe: Word.

Open Mike Eagle: And I performed on.. Hannibal Buress had a variety show/comedy show/sketch show called ‘Why?’ I performed music on that.

PlanetPhoebe: And you’ve known him since college?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. And I been on ViceLand a couple times…

PlanetPhoebe: (whispering) … what’s ViceLand?

Open Mike Eagle: ViceLand is Vice’s cable channel. It’s really great, a lot of great shows.

PlanetPhoebe: Oh OK. I’m into sci-fi, that’s my shit.

Open Mike Eagle: Oh OK that’s what’s up.

PlanetPhoebe: But do you do stand up? The first thing you mentioned was a show for stand ups.

Open Mike Eagle: No.

PlanetPhoebe: Also, who the fuck is Baron Vaughn?

Open Mike Eagle: Baron Vaughn is a great stand up. Clearly that’s not your field.

PlanetPhoebe: Actually, I do some stand up, but I’m an amateur.

Open Mike Eagle: Well he’s a pro.

PlanetPhoebe: Are you the ‘music guy’, while he’s the ‘comedy guy’?

Open Mike Eagle: That’s kind of how it is but we both get a chance to interact and be funny.

PlanetPhoebe: Are you letting him rap?

Open Mike Eagle: We’re discussing it. That’s an ongoing negotiation.

PlanetPhoebe: Alright, word. Before relocating to Los Angeles, you grew up here in Chicago. To me, there are a bunch of really talented innovative rappers that have emerged from there over the years. Which Chi-town emcees have had, or continue to have, the biggest influence over your style?

Open Mike Eagle: Rhymefest, Twista, Common and now Noname.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. You ever fucks wit Sharkula?2

Open Mike Eagle: (Mike giggles) Yeah I know Sharkula, I go back with Sharkula from when he was Thigahmajiggee.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah!?

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah I used to do graffiti here too. I think I used to be in a crew with him.

PlanetPhoebe: Rock ‘n roll. We were just listening to an old Sharkula vinyl the other night. I did a show with him like ten years ago.

Open Mike Eagle: Awesome.

PlanetPhoebe: Very creative and weird dude. And OK, speaking of that… I’ve read that you love They Might Be Giants who are very creative, intelligent and weird….

Open Mike Eagle: (Mike nearly shouts his feelings for TMBG) LOVEEE!!!!

PlanetPhoebe: …but what do you know about 90’s New York City based neo-Jazz band Soul Coughing?

Open Mike Eagle: I don’t (Mike sighs) ugh.. I’m not a big fan of Soul Coughing.

PlanetPhoebe: You don’t like them? Alright.

Open Mike Eagle: OK. They had a couple songs I liked…

PlanetPhoebe: I ask cause Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing has done a number of songs with TMBG…

Open Mike Eagle: But Doughty.. There’s this thing people do sometimes… Like cause Doughty did his thing in the 90s. And I like a couple of them first Soul Coughing songs, I have that first big album..

PlanetPhoebe: “Ruby Vroom”? I reckon that’s the name of their first one..

Open Mike Eagle: I forgot what it’s called… Umm.. And I followed him on Twitter for a while and he posted something really weird, like about there ‘not being any good hip hop these days’.

PlanetPhoebe: Oh really? Oh shit.

Open Mike Eagle: And I was like, you got some nerve. Like you were ever part of the conversation?? Now you’re going to… make a generalization like that when you’re clearly not paying attention?! And that really bugged me. I feel like that’s a little bit disrespectful to the lineage of rap to say that.

PlanetPhoebe: He did do some jazz based scat shit, but he was never anything close to Hip-Hop.

Open Mike Eagle: I guess, yeah. Soul Coughing felt very Hip Hop to me in a lot of ways. Well I don’t know. But even then. The statement that he made just bugged me. And I don’t know I hope that he understands that if you’re gonna say that, you gotta be listening.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah. You should at least have been listening to certain albums, try something that’s come out in the last five years…

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah.. you can’t do that. Cause then you’re just as bad as the rural American people who just say that shit cause they don’t pay attention, “ohh rap is crap..” Then you’re that guy.

PlanetPhoebe: OK for the last question I was gonna do a series of your subjective opinions on best and worst for a number of categories. I’m gonna do it like a lightening round on a game show.

Open Mike Eagle: OK.

PlanetPhoebe: We’re not looking for explanations of your answers, just concise answers as quick as you can spit em out. OK…Hit your buzzer when you’re ready to play.

(Open Mike slaps the table to start the game)

PlanetPhoebe: Best city to get a hot dog in?

Open Mike Eagle: Nowhere I don’t like hot dogs.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst city to get a hot dog in?

Open Mike Eagle: Everywhere I hate hot dogs.

PlanetPhoebe: Best east coast rapper?

Open Mike Eagle: Billy Woods.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst East coast rapper?

Open Mike Eagle: (long pause before he groans in a cartoon voice) I don’t knowwwwwww…

PlanetPhoebe: He doesn’t want to answer.

Open Mike Eagle: I don’t have a person in my head. Umm shit… Oh is Playboi Carti.. is he east coast?

PlanetPhoebe: I don’t know who that is.

Open Mike Eagle: He won’t give a fuck.

PlanetPhoebe: Best rapper from outside of America?

Open Mike Eagle: Oh. This guy Quro.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst rapper from outside America?

Open Mike Eagle: I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to whose bad.3

PlanetPhoebe: OK, no worries. Best clothing brand?

Open Mike Eagle: H&M.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst clothing brand?

Open Mike Eagle: H&M!

PlanetPhoebe: Best late night talk show host?

Open Mike Eagle: Chris Gethard.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst late night talk show host?

Open Mike Eagle: Jimmy Fallon.

PlanetPhoebe: Dang. Best public transportation?

Open Mike Eagle: I might have to cut that out?

PlanetPhoebe: Dude, too late!

Open Mike Eagle: Damn! Only cause of the Trump shit.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. Best public transportation?

Open Mike Eagle: Chicago train system.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst public transportation?

Open Mike Eagle: Los Angeles train system.

PlanetPhoebe: I agree. Best venue to do a rap show in?

Open Mike Eagle: Doug Fir in Portland.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst venue to do a rap show in?

Open Mike Eagle: (Long pause) Ummmmm… DC9 in DC. That’s not true I’m just being mean cause they didn’t book me.

PlanetPhoebe: That’s OK, I’m a very mean person. Best rap song ever?

Open Mike Eagle: “That’s That” by MF DOOM.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst rap song ever?

Open Mike Eagle: The Fruity Pebbles commercial where they were rapping.

PlanetPhoebe: Alright, word. Best cartoon ever?

Open Mike Eagle: “Transformers” in the 80s.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst cartoon ever?

Open Mike Eagle: “Uncle Grandpa”.

PlanetPhoebe: I never saw that. Alright. Best city on Earth?

Open Mike Eagle: No I’m sorry the worst cartoon ever is “David The Gnome”. That’s the worst cartoon ever. What was the last question?

PlanetPhoebe: Best city on Earth?

Open Mike Eagle: Vienna, Austria.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst city on Earth?

Open Mike Eagle: Redding California, goddamn I hate that place!

PlanetPhoebe: Yes, they’re racist there according to your lyrics. Best Nicholas Cage movie?

Open Mike Eagle: Best Nicholas Cage movie is… “Con Air”.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst Nicholas Cage movie?

Open Mike Eagle: “National Treasure”? … I don’t know, I’ve never seen it.

PlanetPhoebe: Best character on Friends?

Open Mike Eagle: Ross.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst character on Friends?

Open Mike Eagle: Whatever that one Jennifer Aniston plays.

PlanetPhoebe: Rachel.

Open Mike Eagle: Yeah.

PlanetPhoebe: Best name for a pro sports team?

Open Mike Eagle: Bears.

PlanetPhoebe: Worst name for a pro sports team?

Open Mike Eagle: Indians.

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah.. Best full album ever? Any genre.

Open Mike Eagle: “Midnight Marauders” from A Tribe Called Quest.

PlanetPhoebe: Damn you’re probably right. Worst full album ever?

Open Mike Eagle: (The longest pause ever) I don’t know uh…

PlanetPhoebe: Yeah you’re not concentrated on the negative, we get that. We’re gonna give you a pass on that. ‘Null’. Best “Star Wars” character ever?

Open Mike Eagle: Best “Star Wars” character ever was Han Solo.

PlanetPhoebe: OK. Worst “Star Wars” character ever?

Open Mike Eagle: No the best Star Wars character ever was Lando Calrissian. And the worst was Jar Jar Binks.. no the worst was not Jar Jar… yeah OK the worst was Jar Jar Binks.

PlanetPhoebe: OK Mike thanks that was awesome.

Open Mike Eagle: You’re welcome.

Kristine and I quickly made our way upstairs again after the interview. Mike had like 6 minutes to get to the stage on-time. At precisely 8:02 he took the stage to scattered applause. I felt like I was the only one rapping along to most of his songs. But people who came for Aesop were waking up to how sick Open Mike is on the mic.

I stayed with Kristine under the overhanging of the mezzanine through his set until I heard the beat for “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)” came on. This and “Ziggy Starfish (Anxiety Raps)” were the two that really caught my attention the first time I saw Open Mike perform. The beat goes so hard on ‘Stamper’, and it’s such an obscure reference to a minor movie character. The recorded version also features a rare verse from comedian and longtime friend of Open Mike, Hannibal Buress. Much to everyone’s surprise Buress actually came on stage and started ripping his verse and the whole room went wild.

After like eight bars though, Buress fucked up his lyrics and he asked Mike to restart the beat. They went into impromptu banter that had us all in stitches. They tried doing it a second time and fucked it up again. This time Hannibal insisted it was Open Mike’s fault, claiming he had only done one of his verses and had called Buress on stage too early. They argued over whose fault it is and the way they play off each other is ridiculously hilarious. When they go to start it a third time, Mike admits ‘Oh yeah I really never did do my second verse, I fucked up.’ The song was eventually somehow finished, after I had screamed the Buress lyric “His hairline fucked up from the HGH!” about 16 times.

The Aesop Rock & Rob Sonic set that followed was tight and nearly flub-less. It featured mostly the songs from the most recent ‘Zooka Tooth album: “The Impossible Kid”. Highlights included a new Aes song set to a minimalist beat, with a familiar narrative that bobs between self- loathing and clinically boasting. Rob also got one of his new ones in, the recent release “All The Drugs (Do Nothing)”. During the former DJX set, Open Mike and Hannibal Buress emerged from the boiler room below and did some pics and meet & greet with fans. I got the chance to congratulate him on his set and the genius of the Buress bit, but he swore it was all serendipitous.

So honestly I’m not sure if it was a bit or an elaborate mistake, with stroke-of-comedic-genius fumble recovery? I guess that’s the secret of Open Mike Eagle & Hannibal Buress’ craft, and maybe we’ll never really know.

PlanetPhoebe signing off. See you next time on the same Bat Channel, same Giraffe Planet.


1. Mike has a brilliant lyric on the song “Dark Comedy Late Show” in which he claims he can see the Super Bowl teams of the future: The Ferguson Blacks vs the Missouri State Troopers; also the Privacy Rights vs. The Personal Computers.

2. Sharkula – 1⁄2 Shark, all Dracula – is a crazy Chicago hustler who has been selling his zany rhymes around the city since they were only available on home recorded tapes in the 90s. He’s a living legend. Check out his stuff when you get a chance. www.sharkula.info

3. The correct answer was “The Streets”, any of his albums would work for “Worst Album” category too. And yes I understand the irony in assigning correct answers to subjective opinion questions – I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon before.

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