When I ask people if they’ve heard of the Chicago-native, Los Angeles-based rapper Open Mike Eagle, they ponder and then say something like, “I don’t think so, but I like that name.” Admittedly, I came across him only because his song “Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps)” was suggested for me in a Discover Weekly playlist, and I was hooked by the quick Morse code-sounding trumpet beat and the verse, “Woke up thinking I’m Batman / Every town is like Gotham / I log into my Twitter page / And start bending over like Gollum.” We caught up with him before his show at The Tiger Room to talk about the hip-hop industry, feeling like an outsider and that time he competed in the Louisville-based Ohio Valley Wrestling.
LEO: You use the term ‘art rap’ to describe your music. What does that mean to you?
Open Mike Eagle: It’s self-indulgent. It’s whimsical. It’s not bound to traditions or trends in terms of how people approach making rap music. I don’t use that term much these days, because I don’t feel it’s as necessary as it used to be. The categorization now is more along the lines of independent. People who make and release music outside corporations. More self-sustained.
Does that make it a harder sell for the rap industry?
It’s a different sell. It’s a harder sell for something like mainstream rap radio, and that’s why a lot of it doesn’t end up there. That pathway represents a lot of people who are willing to spend a lot of money agreeing on what works. What we do operates outside of that. Even if we as creators see the value of some of those things, we aren’t beholden to it the same way. Our stakes are higher and lower at the same time. Higher, because oftentimes it’s our money going in to make it work, but lower because it’s only our money and not a bunch of people’s jobs on the line.
Your recent EP What Happens When I Try to Relax seems like a darker Open Mike, from the beats to the lyrics. Are you dissatisfied with the rap industry?
I don’t think it’s dark [laughs]. A couple songs on it are real in terms of me saying something autobiographical that might be uncomfortable to hear. There’s a streak of darkness in everything that I do. It’s part of my comfort zone and, oftentimes, [I] have to fight against that. But, there’s a brightness there. There’s different light happening [on it] than in some of my other works.
On the track ‘Southside Eagle’ — which is in homage to your Southside Chicago days — you talk about seeing Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples in public spaces and not saying anything to them. Do you feel like an outsider?
When you’re in the position I’m in, the uncomfortable feeling is to feel like you’re not part of the conversation around rap. We all take rap music very seriously. We practice and sharpen our craft all the time. It becomes difficult with the ego you have as a performer and a creator to constantly hear the rap conversation unfolding around you and know that you’re not going to be a part of it.
One of the things the rap community does well is feature lesser known artists on their tracks for exposure. Recently, you were featured on the track ‘Phantoms’ by Czarface and MF Doom. How did that come about?
It was esoteric that he reached out to me about getting on that album. I was elated, being a big Doom fan. That was a huge deal for me.
You just finished taping ‘The New Negroes’ for Comedy Central, where you cohost with Baron Vaughn a variety show featuring black performers in stand-up comedy and live music. What was the elevator pitch for this new show?
We’ve been doing the live show in L.A. for a few years. Along the way, we started working with the people at Funny or Die and Comedy Central to develop it into a TV show. It will start airing next month. I’m also co-hosting another TV show called “Live from WZRD” on the streaming app VRV.
Your move to LA has proven to be successful.
I moved here 15 years ago, so it’s taken a while [laughs]. But, now there’s fruit on the leaves.
Last fall, you were in Louisville as a wrestler in an Ohio Valley Wrestling match with opponent Shiloh Jonze and won the match with an unbelievable Hurricanrana move.
Well, I was a rapper and participated with a wrestler [laughs]. It was unbelievable. I still don’t believe I did that.
Will you wrestle again?
No, I’m retired. I’m 1-0. I’m undefeated.