Open Mike Eagle’s song, Qualifiers, is made up of the uplifting and humbling moments from his life. Nothing is off the table. He explains the spectrum of interests that inspire him, and what it means to be an independent rapper.
Episode 10: Open Mike Eagle - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: To sit down and talk with Open Mike Eagle, is literally to fall in love. More than a Renaissance man, with music, science, activism, television, podcasting, Open Mike Eagle is a man ‘o'pairts’ as we say in Scotland, which means that- a man of many talents. He’s also a true nerd, which, to me, is the highest compliment you can pay a man. We had so much fun talking about his process, and his inspirations, and all the surprising details of his experiences. I just can’t say enough good things about this lovely human being. He’s simply ridiculous, in the best possible way. More Open Mike Eagle, please. Open Mike Eagle, I am so thrilled to have you here today.
Open Mike Eagle: That’s awesome, thank you. I’m, I'm very glad to be here.
Shirley: All right, well you say that now, let's see how you feel at the end of the hour.
Open Mike Eagle: Oh, that sounds like a challenge!
Shirley: [Laughs] It's a bit of a challenge, but listen, I, I've been researching you all week.
Open Mike Eagle: Mhm, mhm.
Shirley: And I have to say, you've blown me away.
Open Mike Eagle: Oh, thank you.
Shirley: I'm looking at your litany of accomplishments, and things that you pursue, and that you're excited by, and interested in, and it's so vast. Why are you this way?
Open Mike Eagle: Um, I, you know, I just believe myself to be a sum total of a lot of strange life experiences, and a lot of questionable- or mysterious genetics. And I, I just, uh, I usually get too close to things that I enjoy, and ruin them for myself is actually, that's a big part of what I've done for most of my life.
Shirley: There's so much going on. It- Let me explain some of the things I'm referring to right now.
Open Mike Eagle: Okay!
Shirley: One would be you’re- highly accomplished musician.
Open Mike Eagle: Thank you.
Shirley: Second, you have a show on Comedy Central. You host two podcasts
Open Mike Eagle: I hosted more, but- [Laughs]
Shirley: Have you really? Oh my God, you're intimidating me so much!
Open Mike Eagle: No, no, no.
Shirley: You are. And I’m, the thing I really, really want to ask you about is you have published a paper, um, well I should let you explain because this is your story and I, I need to know more.
Open Mike Eagle: Well, okay. You know, I co-authored a study with the National Institute of Health, um, and they were studying which parts of the brain were active or inactive when somebody is freestyle rapping. So it involved me as the first pilot subject in this experiment, uh, free-styling in an MRI machine for many, many hours. And then, um, helping them construct the study of, um, the results of a bunch of other people rapping in the MR- MRI machine. Um, it was, I mean, it's one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It got published and you know, it was everywhere from, you know, NPR, Discovery. And it was, it was a lot, it was an amazing experience.
Open Mike Eagle: But this was 2013 when this happened, and, or maybe even 2012. Now, I only remember that I think the prefrontal cortex, uh, becomes less active. And there's, there's other lobes that become more active to achieve this, this flow state.
Shirley: Wow. You're a self confessed nerd.
Open Mike Eagle: Oh my gosh. I could not hide from that in any way.
Shirley: Good! And is music in your family?
Open Mike Eagle: Uh, my dad and mom both sing, uh, both singing in church. My dad has, uh, branched out a little. He's done some performance. He used to sing in a group when he was in college, like one of those, uh, five-part doo-wop groups. He sang in one of those-
Shirley: Oh, incredible.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. I have the sense that, um, as early as I can remember, I always just gravitated to music. Um, there are specific things that my dad or my mom, you know, my grandparents put me on to. My dad, I remember, um, Gil Scott-Heron was really, really, really big. I feel like he's kinda, if you know him then I feel like my music makes a little bit more sense to people, ‘cause he's a guy who does spoken word and sang and, but wasn't really like a great singer, but it was just so much about the heart and, and the subject matter. Um, my mom introduced me to Eazy-E [Laughs] when I was six or seven years old.
Shirley: Good choice.
Open Mike Eagle: That was the first rap I ever heard was, was in her car.
Shirley: Um, and is that when you felt that you wanted to investigate rapping or like ho- how did you get to where you are?
Open Mike Eagle: Well, so growing up mostly on the South Side of Chicago, you know, I'm, I'm in the hood and rap is just part of the tapestry of life. It is just all around me. So I didn't love rap growing up because it, it was just everywhere. It was just part of life. So I actually gravitated more towards like rock, um, whatever else I could come across. Um…
Shirley: Anything but.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, pretty much anything but, and, and it was a lot of watching MTV, so it was a lot of rock. It was a lot of Headbangers Ball and Alternative Nation and all, you know, all of the stuff that they had going on then, uh, that was more interesting to me because it was outside of my purview, where rap was just around me all the time. It wasn't really until I was in high school, and, um, this particular kind of subset of hip hop, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, The Roots were coming out, Common, Mos Def. Like, that part, that really resonated with me, and, um, when I started to hear that kind of music and dig into it and like Wu-Tang, like that sort of stuff really opened me up and got me wanting to rap ‘cause I felt like, “Oh, I have a place in this now.”
Open Mike Eagle: I started rap as, as a freestyle rapper. So, um, I started in cyphers, uh, me and my friends would, um, we were trying to participate in the local b-boy scene. So what that meant for us was that, uh, freestyle rapping, so you know, rapping without- you know, no writing, just trying to come up with lyrics off the top of the head.
Shirley: And it was all in your head? You never notated any of it?
Open Mike Eagle: Never wrote anything. Um, in, in my nerdom, what I would do is I would catalog words, like, I would think of words, “Oh, plastic, what rhymes with plastic? Drastic, classic, spastic.” And I would, I would write those things down just to like catalog ‘em in my mind.
Open Mike Eagle: Right. I recorded my first verse my senior year and I actually heard that back recently and it's really terrible.
Open Mike Eagle: Agr- It’s aggressively bad.
Shirley: You’re lucky you have a copy of that.
Open Mike Eagle: I-I just recently, uh, received it and I was very happy for that. I probably freestyled for four or five years before I ever, like, wrote songs.
Shirley: And do you take more pride in freestyle than written work?
Open Mike Eagle: Uh, at the time, yes. Now it’s, it's completely flipped.
Shirley: So you know, this, this whole program is about the idea of, a- you know, stepping into your career, working, producing, and then coming to some point in your life that, you know, you take this jump and you picked the song Qualifiers.
Open Mike Eagle: Right.
Shirley: And it was from Dark Comedy
Open Mike Eagle: Yes.
Shirley: in 2014. When you wrote qualifiers, where was that in your, where were you actually in your life at this point?
Open Mike Eagle: I had put out two solo albums and a collab- collaborative album with a producer, and-
Shirley: Because this album was the one that kind of broke you, right?
Open Mike Eagle: This was the one, the first one that really, um, got me attention, I feel like. Like serious attention.
Shirley: In mainstream music press.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. Like before that things that I put out got attention from writers who paid attention to underground rap. I was something to them.
Open Mike Eagle: But this was the first time I had songs that kind of got outside of that, and Qualifiers was a, was a big one.
Shirley: And you picked it because why?
Open Mike Eagle: I feel like-
Shirley: There's a lot of great songs on that whole record.
Open Mike Eagle: Thank you. Um, I feel like that song was, that song felt like an impact. I, I've written a lot of songs that I think are good and they don't often have the impact that I think it could have, and that was one that only had it, but just exceeded it. It was like, “Oh, this is really, this is really a good thing. People respond to this, people react to this.” And it was me doing this experiment with this relatively newer rap style that was happening in the world. Um, that like you might attribute to maybe like Drake now this kinda like um, half-sung-
Shirley: Sing-Song. I call it sing-song.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, it was a sing song, melodic kind of rap flow with a beat that drum wise kind of matches the tempo of a lot of what was happening at the time. But then you've got these chords under it that are more like kind of like art pop, indie rock kind of chords under it. And on top of this, this tapestry, what I'm doing, you know, content-wise is very personal. I remember I got the idea for that song. I was, my son was I think four at a time, maybe five. He was really into breakdancing, really to breakdancing. And it was something that just hit me watching him breakdance. And it was, it was, it was something about me wanting to say a line about wiping his butt and, and, and not that I had to wipe his butt any time, right?
Shirley: Which you got in there! [Laughs]
Open Mike Eagle: And it wasn't, it wasn't even something that was happening at that time. But I wanted to mention that, you know, like, as a rapper, I wanted to mention-
Shirley: To acknowledge.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah. Okay. So I'll go “I will wipe my son's ass and get shit on my hands. He get in my car and be like, ‘Daddy, play some BusDriver. Why the fuck’s it take two lines to do a one liner, and why’s it take three beats to do a two step. Sick days. I got two left. So I take five, Dave Brubeck.” so all of that comes off of wiping my kid's ass because-
Shirley: [Laughs] We go back to the ass wiping again?
Open Mike Eagle: It is! It’s like- That’s like the, the central-
Shirley: It truly is the theme of the song!
Open Mike Eagle: That’s the central idea of this verse because I- talking about him, and in my stream of consciousness went to, he actually at that time, every time he got in my car he would ask me to play BusDriver. Um, who was uh, an- another rap rapper was a friend of mine who was friend of ours who he was, he was also listening to his music a lot at the time. Um, so what, rhymes with ‘bus driver’. ‘One liner’, and so like why, why did it take two lines to do a one liner? Cause it takes- it’s a setup in a punchline, even though it's called a one liner. And why take three beats to do a two step? Because that anyway, it's all math, right? Um-
Open Mike Eagle: So, yes. So, then I'm at two-step and I, and I'm, and, and in the Brubeck pops into my head, and how do I get to Brubeck? How do I make Dave Brubeck a punchline? Sick days, I got two left, so I take five, Dave Brubeck.
Shirley: So before you released the song, before anybody heard it, how did it start? Like are you at home? Are you writing in your notepad on the train, wh- what's happening?
Open Mike Eagle: Um, I had this beat. I had the beat.
Shirley: In your head?
Open Mike Eagle: No. Uh, it was a buddy of mine. Uh, his producer name is Taco Neck.
Shirley: Fabulous. [Laughs] I wish that was my name.
Open Mike Eagle: No you don’t.
Shirley: Yes I do. [Laughs]
Open Mike Eagle: So, yeah, he sent me this pack of beats and there was just this, just this one. I used to just listen to this beat over and over again. And I never knew what I was going to do with it, until that moment at, at my kids breakdancing practice, where I'm like, “Oh wipe his ass.” And then it just-
Shirley: [Laughs] I’m sorry, it’s just so brilliant.
Open Mike Eagle: It, it made me want to make this song about, I guess deconstructing the rapper image. ‘Cause the, the thing at the time, and it's mostly been the thing through hip hop history is, you know. “We're the best. I'm the best.” Right? So I wanted to make something that felt more realistic to how I actually think and feel, which is-
Shirley: I’m not the best. [Laughs]
Open Mike Eagle: “We the best- we the best, we the best mostly. Sometimes the greatest, kinda. You know what I mean? Like that.
Shirley: Yes, of course, I know what you mean.
Open Mike Eagle: And so respect my qualifier, say like that, that's, that's like saying respect me as an individual that uh, that, that the way I see things is this way and it's just as valid as anything else. And not only, I mean that was, that was the motivation behind this song, but it's also, that's like, that's kind of the been- that’s kinda been the mission of my whole career is, is, hey, “Rap world, accept the weirdos.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? “Make space for us.” You know?
Shirley: Yeah, and I mean, you do- you're a great believer in autonomous thought, right? I mean that seems to be a big thing for you. You don't feel that you're part of any scene, or do you feel that you fit in somewhere?
Open Mike Eagle: Well, I feel like I fit in with independent rappers, but the- not in the financial sense, no.
Shirley: And I've heard you reference Chance the Rapper, right? In this case, he’s a perfect example.
Open Mike Eagle: Mhm, absolutely. And, and yes. He, he, he holds very tightly to his- his designation is independent, but from my standpoint, being signed to Apple is just as a, you know, it's, it's, it's just as major of a corporation as being signed to Universal-
Open Mike Eagle: or Warner or whoever. I consider independent, uh, to be more about having the artistic freedom to do whatever it is that I want to do from song to song, from project to project, to not have to, like, answer to anyone. Anyone who's very popular, they put out work and whatever record label they're on, they're looking at that project to be one of their big earners for the year.
Shirley: For the quarter, not even for the year.
Open Mike Eagle: Yes, for the quarter, you are so right for the quarter and if, if people don't like it and it misses the mark, like people are losing jobs like this, it's serious. Um, and I prefer not to be in that situation. I prefer for people's jobs not to depend on me delivering something that a lot of people like, because that might not be what I want to make. If I happen to make something that people like, that’s awesome. It was just one of those songs though that like I knew it was something because when I burned it onto a CD and put it in my car, I kept playing it over and over again and I was like, “Oh, I think this might be something.”
Shirley: How do you view your role in the production? I mean, do you take an active role in that or are you more passive? What's, what's your relationship to that? And-
Open Mike Eagle: Well, you know, it's, it's different now because now deeper into my career I have more of an understanding of what production actually means, especially in hip hop because we use the term producer as interchangeable with beatmaker a lot of times, um, as my career has progressed, I am- I understand now that production is stuff that takes place outside of the beat-making process and my recording process, that, that a lot of times that’s somebody else or me, a lot of times it has been me who's going back, and, and doing beat edits and doing this vocal production here, and, and bringing in musicians to play on this part or that part, like that whole thing.
Shirley: You definitely have more of a old school approach to songwriting, it feels to me.
Open Mike Eagle: I think so. And I think, I think that comes down to a lot of my musical influences, which are very, um, you know, indie rock based in a lot of senses. Like They Might Be Giants might be my favorite band.
Shirley: Okay, you need to explain that to me ‘cause that was like, I read that and I was like, “that's just one of the strangest thing that I’ve ever… heard.”
Open Mike Eagle: I- I, you know, and in terms of-
Shirley: No disrespect to them either, by the way, but it was just a really odd reference.
Open Mike Eagle: I think that a lot of my musical sensibility comes from them. I think that-
Shirley: Why? What, what, what was this, were they speaking to you at a young age?
Open Mike Eagle: Yes, absolutely. At first, like my first heard my, the first song I heard from them, I was nine years old. I heard their song, Birdhouse In Your Soul, and that was a song that like I caught on MTV, um, 120 Minutes.
Shirley: 120 Minutes, yeah. Matt Pinfield.
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, and I managed to, uh, capture that episode on a VCR- VHS tape, which I used to do a lot and played that song over and over again. Like I- I- I loved that song. Um, cause there's something about like, that song is ultimately about a nightlight and the lyrics were very strange. It's really catchy and melodic and you know, brilliant for what I look for. A lot of the lyrics are very dark [Laughs]
Open Mike Eagle: And, and, and not clear. A lot of it's not clear. And, and I feel like I carry that forward in a lot of my aesthetic. That like I want, I want to say a dark thing. I want it to sound pretty.
Shirley: I mean let's go back to the lyrics of, of qualifiers cause I, I've read them and read them and read them, and over and over again and I can't quite get my head around certain parts.
Open Mike Eagle: Sure. Yeah.
Shirley: Did you really go to Africa?
Open Mike Eagle: Yes, that had happened the- either that year or the year before.
Shirley: And what happened when you went to Africa?
Open Mike Eagle: Okay. The part that's in the song, cause the whole Africa trip is a whole story on its own. Um, where, um, me and a producer friend I had, who actually just passed away.
Shirley: Oh I’m so sorry.
Open Mike Eagle: Um, we went out there to um, work with these youth in Kampala, Uganda who were part of this, uh, hip hop program. So, um, we write this grant, um, well, not- I didn't write it, but uh, some buddies of mine wrote this grant to send us out there to um, you know, teach hip hop to these kids who are already in this hip hop program out there. And we get off the plane in Kampala. Uh, this guy meets us. We hand him the, uh, the check for room and board, which is in the grant that they're supposed to get because their program operates out of a house and this is to feed and house us. Um, he drops us off at the house. They open the door for us. Um, we make ourselves comfortable and we don't see him anymore.
Shirley: [Laughs] Oh my God. I shouldn't be laughing. It's not even remotely funny, but it is kind of funny.
Open Mike Eagle: But, but- no, but it is, it's a comedy. It’s certainly a comedy. Um, apparently in between us writing this grant and actually getting there, the program, the program has shut down completely.
Shirley: Oh, come on…
Open Mike Eagle: And they hadn't told us. So there was no program, like we literally had to go out and get our own kids to bring in and it was a lot.
Shirley: Well, at least they put you in a house, looking on the bright side…
Open Mike Eagle: They did! Well they, they- it was, it was a very, it was not a good house. [Laughs] The house flooded, the house flooded. The house is at the bottom of a hill. Um, and so when it would start to rain, and let's say it rained for three or four hours, like you get like a foot of water. And I can remember this one night where it just would not stop raining. And I'm sitting here thinking like, “Wait a minute, is it just not going to stop raining? Like, is that possible?” Then you remember, like nature doesn't give a shit. But one day while we were there, one of the local rappers took us around. So one of the places that we went to was one of the local hip hop stations. And um, they played of my songs. He did not like that song and he did not pretend to like that song.
Shirley: Oh my God.
Open Mike Eagle: He was like, “What was that?” Like we're on the air. “What was that? It is not hip hop.”, like-
Shirley: Did he pick the track to play?
Open Mike Eagle: I don't think so, I think it must have been me. But- you know, this is- what I learned out there is that they have a very specific idea of what hip hop means-
Open Mike Eagle: Based on-
Shirley: American TV!
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, very flat exported images and honestly it's based on some of the worst we have to offer. So this is the- the Ugandan DJ telling me that my- my American rap music.
Shirley: Dude, you don’t have it. [Laughs]
Open Mike Eagle: It’s not it- [Laughs] That’s not it, sir. So that whole second verse is about that, that day. I think that whole second verse was about that day.
Open Mike Eagle: I was trying to process how I felt about it, and process it through this lens of the mission statement of the song, which is my hip hop is like this, this is mine, this is- I- I am. I do not feel like I am the best. I feel like I am the best sometimes. Like I'm trying to make a three dimensional Michael Eagle space in rap through the song. And that Africa experience specifically at the radio station was one of the things that left me feeling like I needed to do that, you know, like I needed to make the space for myself.
Shirley: I mean, you've done a lot of volunteering, you, you give some of your tracks away to, to really amazing, in my opinion, amazing causes. You stand up for immigrants, you, um, is, is being a rapper being being immersed in hip hop or are- are these ways, in by which you've considered yourself an activist? Or is it an entirely separate experience being, you know, do you think of yourself as a musician, or do you feel any responsibility? I'm asking a million questions in one question.
Open Mike Eagle: Well, I think, I think I hear it though. I think I hear it. And I, I think just being, uh, being raised to be the type of African American man that I am has come with a lot of social awareness and comes with the type of awareness that is not strictly relegated to my experience, but to just understand like institutional oppression and all the different forms it could take. So wherever I can, I do try to use my platform or choices that I can make to help, you know, shine lights on oppression. Like I always feel like I could be doing way more, you know, cause I'm not like I'm not-
Shirley: Which is hilarious to me because you do so much.
Open Mike Eagle: Well I'm not, I'm not out here picketing, you know, um, you know what I mean? I'm not demonstrating, I'm not, I'm not using my everyday-
Shirley: Not yet.
Open Mike Eagle: I use my everyday time very selfishly.
Open Mike Eagle: You know, um, play a lot of video games. [Laughs]
Shirley: I mean it's interesting now, ‘cause it makes total sense to me that you would pick Qualifiers but- explaining as you have. But I was also curious about the part in the song where you talk about jazz, the lyrics at the end.
Open Mike Eagle: Oh. Oh!
Open Mike Eagle: Interesting. Interesting. This entire part.
Shirley: Right, read it to me first.
Open Mike Eagle: “I didn't write the words you hear me singing? I didn't sing the line before this one. And you're not the one I was addressing. That person took a train to Africa and simultaneous events don't happen. We are isolated temporally and the part is never called the whole thing, though it bothers us to know it so.” That whole thing-
Shirley: It sounds like a hymn.
Open Mike Eagle: That whole thing is lifted…
Open Mike Eagle: From a They Might Be Giants song. Just to bring us full circle.
Open Mike Eagle: That whole thing is lifted from this super obscure. They Might Be Giants song.
Shirley: Wow. And I assume they know this?
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, I told them.
Shirley: I’m not getting you in trouble?
Open Mike Eagle: Yeah, I told them.
Shirley: And they must've been really chuffed, right.
Open Mike Eagle: Uh, is that good? I don't know what that word means.
Shirley: Chuffed, sorry, excuse me, that’s a Scottishism for, um, ‘happy’.
Open Mike Eagle: I- I, yes. ‘Cause I was nervous about it at first cause I did it. Uh, I’d performed it. Uh, what this really awesome band as part of this, um, live theater show that used to take place in Minneapolis and um, somebody saw it and tagged them like, “Hey, did you know he's saying part of your-?”, but you know, it was a fan
Open Mike Eagle: And they retweeted it and were you know, and were happy about it.
Shirley: Yeah, of course. I'm sure it's a huge, like, compliment, but when the song came out and it was received the way it was and then the whole album was embraced, did that change the way you write? Did it change the way you think about your creativity at all?
Open Mike Eagle: A big thing for me with that album was that I’d done this thing where I had like these songs that were lighthearted, some that are damn near silly and had other songs that were really, really deep and meaningful for me and kind of dark and heavy. And in my mind I was very, very worried that this wouldn't make sense to anybody, that it had to be one or the other. And I think in my past projects I had like gone back and always, like, taking things off that I didn't feel like fit, ‘cause I felt like there was no way anybody's going to accept if my project is not either all silly, or all heavy, like it's got to have some cohesion on that level. And just to learn that that just is not true. And it's the kind of thing that makes you rethink any sort of internalized rule you have about how you put things together and really deeply think about it and, and really challenge yourself because you don't know if half of that shit is true.
Shirley: Open Mike Eagle, you are a dream.
Open Mike Eagle: Ah! Thank you so much.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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