Open Mike Eagle is an independent rapper based in Los Angeles, California, but he originally hailed from Chicago, Illinois. He started his rapping career with Project Blowed, a community organization that used to hold open mic events for the advancement of hip hop culture. He then formed the hip hop group Thirsty Fish and the battle rap group Swim Team. Open Mike has collaborated with the likes of Dumbfoundead, Nocando, Hannibal Buress, Psychosiz, Busdriver, Tokimonsta, Illogic, Sahtyre, Abstract Rude, Kool A.D. and several other artists.
Mike coined a term for his own music, which he calls “art rap,” due to his highly sophisticated lyricism and comedic infusion. His discography consists of a variety of self-released projects in addition to releases via labels such as Hellfyre Club, Fake Four Inc., Mello Music Group and Mush Records. Coupled with his extensive rap career, Open Mike has taught children, participated in a neuroscience study surrounding freestyling and currently hosts his own hip hop/urban podcast, Secret Skin.
I caught up with Open Mike Eagle before his performance at Occidental College on September 26, 2015. In his first public announcement about the project, Mike told us at True Too about his upcoming release with fellow rapper Serengeti. Additionally we broke bread, spoke about his love for wrestling, and exchanged stories as he prepared to perform.
CJ: Alright Mike, I see that you run your own hip hop/urban centralized podcast Secret Skin, what’s your favorite aspect of running your own show?
OME: Getting to talk to who I wanna talk to and kinda giving people a chance to explain their own narrative, like a lot of people (especially professionally) in hip-hop, they don’t get a chance. Like, you know, when they put out a project, they get to tell the story about the project, and a lot of times, people will just be marketed however a record label feels they should be marketed, but I like to give people a chance to kinda tell their own story. That’s the most rewarding part for me, you know.
CJ: What’s it like working with other independent artists and seeing them break into a larger scale audience? You’ve worked with Dumbfoundead, Tokimonsta, I think you worked with Atmosphere…
OME: Well I mean, Atmosphere came a lot before me, I was a big fan of Atmosphere coming up. so, even being able to know them was a privilege, you know what I mean, like being in a place where those dudes see me as some sort of peer even though I’m nowhere near as successful as them, like, that’s just the kind of thing I can just look back on like, “oh man, that’s just tight,” you know, it’s dope. But you know, like Dumbfoundead, Tokimonsta… that’s the thing about being indie, is that there’s a lot of ways out of it. There’s a lot of ways into larger audiences, depending on which route people wanna take. I can say in both of those instances it’s been really cool because neither one of those people, for all the exposure they’ve gotten, have changed at all. So I still have the same relationship – I mean, I’ve known Dum-Jon, I mean, he’s Jon to me, I’ve known him… shit man, 10, 11 years now, you know. And we still maintain the same relationship. I mean, his circumstances have changed quite a bit, as have mine, you know, in two different kinda directions. But yeah, that’s always the cool thing, is that most of the people I’ve dealt with, we kind of have a bond, you know, where no matter what happens we’ll always kinda be who we are.
CJ: Yeah, I was looking at some old pictures of you guys and wow… you and Dumbfoundead looked completely different back then, just like, so young. it’s crazy. DFD actually performed at the same spot that you’re going to perform at right now, a couple years ago. My friend brought him with the Korean Association. This one’s kinda fun: do you think you can beat him in a battle rap right now?
OME: No! No. Because he’s… you know, battle rap is all about practice, all about being sharp, and I’m not sharp right now. I’m like, super, like… I could be on for a little bit, but he’s been battling. Actually he battled this year, he battled on a high level this year. Like, I wouldn’t be able to… I’d have to try to trick people somehow, I’d have to just find one funny thing to keep saying, but in a straight up battle, nah he’d kill me right now. I’m way out of practice.
CJ: When’s the last time you’ve been consistently battle rapping?
OME: Consistently? Oh my god. I haven’t consistently battled since I was in college, and that was ten years ago. I was in a battle this week, but it was a comedy battle – that’s as much battling as I do now. I don’t really walk around thinking of battling, you know.
CJ: So your song “Doug Stamper” with Hannibal Buress is pretty hilarious. Why did you decide to name it after that House of Cards character?
OME: I named it that because Doug Stamper is a guy who, in that show, is usually… he’s like a cleaner character, he comes into a mess, he tells people what they have to do… it’s like, immediate life-saving advice right now. Like the whole song was an advice song, I liked coming at it from that angle.
CJ: Speaking of Hannibal, what was it like being his RA in college?
OME: It was great, I was his RA when he started comedy. I remember the week he started, he went somewhere and did a set and came back and showed me a VHS tape of it. It was already clear, like “Oh man, you’re… very talented. You are good at this.” ‘Cause i was really into comedy, I was really… I had a lot of favorites, I listened to comedy a lot. So it was really cool to see him start, and how far he’s gone. It’s been amazing.
CJ: I can imagine. So you have a lot of humor laced within your lyricism. Have you actually ever done stand-up?
OME: I’ve done a little. I did a variety show last year and I would do a couple bits. Typically I don’t though ’cause I respect that art a lot, you know what I’m saying? So I’ll leave it to the professionals. But I dabble here and there.
CJ: You’re from Chi-town, and Chi-town’s been kinda popping off lately, with respect to the hip-hop scene; like Drill, SAVEMONEY, Mick Jenkins, Alex Wiley…How do you feel about the direction in which the city has gone, musically?
OME: I feel like it’s gone a bunch of different directions, but it’s always been that way. Chicago is a very segregated city, so from area to area there’s wildly different life experiences, and it’s always informed different types of hip-hop. Like when I was there, there was southeast side hip-hop, southwest side hip-hop, straight west side hip-hop, and it was like three different sounds. Now it’s gotten a little bit more nuanced, I think. It’s very reflective of whatever neighborhood or whatever circumstances people grew up in. To me, it’s just a continued evolution based on the same kind of paths.
CJ: Being from Chicago and living in LA for a while, what do you like or dislike about each respective scene?
OME: I was never really part of the Chicago scene. Like when I was in Chicago and I was rapping, it was very much in the pure hip-hop way of people rapping on the corner, people rapping in cyphers, like my whole thing was to be tight for the cypher. I never really wrote lyrics back then. I was breakdancing and doing graf’ and all of that. So I was living a very hip-hop life. And I wasn’t in the music scene, I wasn’t really making music. So I’m kind of very apart from the Chicago scene, musically. The LA scene has been very welcoming to me, you know. Being able to connect and grow with the Project Blowed out here, really helped out a lot, and my experience of the city has mostly been through that lens, you know, like I went to where people rapped and rapped hard, styled hard, and so I learned how to be tight their way and put it with how I knew how to be tight coming from Chicago. And I’ve also learned with them how to make a career out of this.
CJ: So you used to work as a teacher. What did you teach and did you enjoy it?
OME: The last thing I taught was third and fourth grade special ed, and it was hell. *laughs* It was cool, I’ve always worked with kids, like all of my day jobs were with kids ’cause I was good with them. People trusted me with their kids, you know. And it always worked out really good. Education worked out cool for me, ’cause even when I wasn’t directly teaching I was running after-school programs or in-school tutoring. It was very rewarding. I always found it to be a good application of the type of shit that I know how to do, like I have organizational skills and I know psychology and how to deal with kids, how to deal with kids’ parents, how to deal with teachers when I wasn’t teaching, how to deal with administration… So it’s all cool. Very rich bunch of experiences. It was crazy, but it was cool.
CJ: Speaking of education, you co-authored a Nature-published cognitive neuroscience study about freestyling. That’s gotta be one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard an MC do. Can you tell me a little bit about that study?
OME: I was part of a pilot program studying how the brain behaves when it’s improvising. They decided that it was significant for them to study how freestyling worked in those same circumstances. So they had me and a buddy of mine – my buddy actually sparked the idea with these scientists because he saw that they were studying jazz musicians improvising. He floated the idea to them and they were interested, so we went out to the National Institute of Health and we were part of the pilot program where we had to rap in an MRI machine; we were like the first people to do it. And then after that, when they saw that it could be done, they saw the earlier results of what we did, they did a full-blown study of it. We co-authored the study. We were the ones who rated the quality of the freestyles for the actual participants. So we kinda had to create a system we could use to rate the freestyles.
CJ: How’d you go about rating freestyles?
OME: We rated based on rhythm, based on wordplay – which we kinda defined a few different ways. In terms of like humor, in terms of consistency of the topic, in terms of numbers of syllables rhymed. Like we had to come up with this kinda complicated matrix to shape everything we knew about what felt like a good freestyle to make it into something that was actually quantifiable.
CJ: Is there any interest in some sort of follow-up study or something else regarding neuroscience?
OME: As far as I know, they have definitely followed up. I think I’ve probably hit the end of my road, personally. *laughs* It’s very interesting, I’m so glad I got to be a part of that.
CJ: Have you ever thought of pursuing other areas of writing?
OME: I’ve done a lot of writing. I used to write for a wrestling website back in the day just doing long editorials. I used to just write long blog posts. I’ve experimented with writing TV stuff, I’m trying to get into more of that too. I like all kinds of writing. I definitely want to try everything when it comes to writing. When I was in school, I studied creative writing, and I almost got a minor in college – I was one class away from minoring in creative writing. So I was always interested in all types of writing.
CJ: What’s the future look like for you? Do you have any upcoming projects, or a tour, etc.?
OME: Yeah, I just completed a project with my buddy Serengeti. This is actually the first time I’m announcing it in public, is right now. But yeah we completed a project and we should be putting that out soon. That’ll be the next thing that happens.
CJ: Alright last question, last one’s a bit random: MTV Celebrity Deathmatch, what’s the matchup you’d like to see and who would win?
OME: Stone Cold Steve Austin versus Goldberg is what I’d like to see. And then Stone Cold wins, of course, because he’s a better fuckin’ wrestler.
CJ: That’s awesome. You like wrestling a lot?
OME: I love wrestling. Love it. It’s like my favorite shit. In the world.
CJ: Who do you like right now?
OME: In the WWE? I like Seth Rawlins. I like Dean Ambrose. I like Cesaro. I like Kevin Owens. That’s like the four guys I’m most interested in. But I like a lot of independent guys too, you know.
CJ: Well, thanks man. I appreciate it.
OME: Thank you.
After our interview, Mike immediately set off to headline his concert. In almost a humorous fashion, he performed with his backpack on. The dude worked his ass off; he was DJing his own set in addition to rapping and doing sound effects all at the same time. Someone needed to get this man some water or something. He played songs such as “Password,” “Ziggy Starfish,” and “Qualifiers,” during which the first song he pointed up to sky and said let them [the NSA] know at least everyone in the crowd was having fun while being indubitably surveillanced.
Another funny moment of his set came in his mid-song segment titled “Open Mike Eagle’s Funny Moment of Advice.” Mike questioned the audience about any problem that he could provide advice. One male shouted out “What should I do my Senior Comps on?” to which Mike immediately exclaimed “I don’t know, ask a counselor,” in an anti-climactic ironic fashion.
Reflecting on my time with Open Mike, I learned that he is an intelligent and well-spoken individual, not to mention humble. Clearly a guy such as him remains busy in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, but he downplayed his numerous achievements and displayed modest appreciation to all of his fans. The self-proclaimed lover of wrestling entertainment, Mike clearly works hard with both his musical career and outside endeavors. His attitude towards life envelops the independent artist’s grind thoroughly. Open Mike Eagle is an inspirational figure through his energetic advancement of hip hop as a culture, which remains essential at a time where many solely appreciate the music at such a shallow level.
I would like to thank Open Mike Eagle for his time, in addition to KOXY, Joe Phuong and Erin Wegner for helping this article materialize.