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Fly Like an (Open Mike) Eagle: Soaring with Rap's Comedic Genius

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By Max Bell

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Photos by Jo Perri

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward — and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner." – Kurt Vonnegut, “Palm Sunday”

Open Mike Eagle is hilarious. Both on record and in person, he’s usually moments away from making you laugh. When the 33-year-old independent rapper temporarily leaves the Venice café where we meet to “check his parking meter,” he returns to the table with coffee and pie. “I lied,” he says, full cup and plate in hand. “I wanted things.” It’s as an admission that, when delivered by Mike, prompts an uncontrollable chuckle and shaking of the head. His comedic timing and delivery are as innate as his inherent kindness, the latter evidenced by the e-mail prior to his arrival explaining just five minutes of tardiness. Yet beneath the funniness, the cake frosting, and the kindness, there is mounting frustration. Mike may laugh about once believing Chuck Klosterman would write about his first album, but that’s also a lie. Part of him still wants it to happen.

“If you take a lot of the overt humor out of the way of stuff that I’m saying, you might see somebody that’s really scared of something, or really disappointed about something, or really disappointed in myself,” Mike says of his music. “Part of what makes it easier to express those things when I’m not feeling my strongest is to couch them in something humorous.”

It’s this undercurrent of disappointment that also runs throughout our conversation, noticeably surfacing when Mike jokingly asks why he isn’t famous yet. The question is said with a smirk, but it’s indicative of his desire to both defy existing conceptions of rap's form and content and to do so on a larger scale, to be given a platform that would allow him to combat and gradually erase negative genre connotations. Mike wants to do something bigger, even if the tastes of rap's audiences don't appear to be aligned with his own. Perhaps that explains his recent opening gigs for comedians such as Paul F. Tompkins. Mike’s going wherever he’s wanted and appreciated.

Granted, Mike’s music, which he’s long-since labeled “art-rap,” may be challenging for casual raps fans listening for the first time. His beats often fuse the electronic music coming out of LA’s burgeoning beat scene with hip-hop and indie rock, and their rhythm is sometimes complex and/or deceptive. His delivery ranges from melodic and soft-spoken raps to lullaby-like croon. The juxtaposition generally makes passive listening futile. And perhaps that’s purposeful: Mike’s lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent, as emotive as they are funny. In one song, he can render the mundanity of everyday existence, the trials of fatherhood, and the inherent problems he sees in rap with hilarity and solemnity. For him, sidesplitting punch lines both precipitate and mask pathos.

On Mike’s fourth solo album, the aptly titled Dark Comedy, he battles with all of the above and more. Absurdity, wit, and admittedly failed sarcasm are his sword and shield. Out June 10 via rap label Mello Music Group, Dark Comedy is the best album of Mike’s career and one of the most important rap albums of 2014. Its impact outside of the resurgent LA independent rap scene hinges upon how many are willing to work a little for their laughs and how many will reflect on what that laughter means.

For Mike, long before LA and art-rap, there was Chicago. Born Michael Eagle on the Southeast side of the city, he and his two younger siblings lived in and around the same neighborhoods as Barack Obama and Common. His parents split early—Mike never saw them in the same room until his high school graduation. Though his mother was around, she spent much of his adolescence getting her life back on track, a brief incarceration hindering her ability to find gainful employment. Thus, Mike’s grandparents raised all three children until his grandmother passed away.

During childhood summers, Mike went to LA to see his father, who worked as the head of a fleet of cross-country salesmen at the time. If the two weren’t in LA, they were on the road. “There are precious few parts of this country I don’t remember traveling with him when I was younger,” Mike explains. “I notice the drives wear a lot of people out on tour, but I’m just down.”

This tolerance for punishment was also partially forged in elementary school. In fifth grade, Mike transferred from his local public school to a magnet school across town, where he quickly learned to cope with the differences between him and his new classmates. “Kids at this new school were very advanced socially, so when they were fucked up they were fucked up in very interesting and very devastating ways,” Mike says. “It was a good foundation. I learned a lot about people.”

Mike’s rap foundation came from his family. His mother played artists like Eazy-E in the car before he’d reached his pre-teens, and, by the time he attended high school, his father’s stepdaughter had introduced him to groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan.

While rap was a mainstay, high school also brought about an infatuation with MTV, which exposed Mike to alternative and grunge rock. Soon after, he discovered college radio, where more experimental rock bands like They Might Be Giants—his long-admitted favorite band—received airplay. If it’s true that the music of our teens leaves an indelible impression on us, it’s no wonder why Mike’s music sounds the way that it does today.

Despite poor grades and study habits in high school, Mike’s aptitude for standardized tests led to his enrollment as a psychology major at Southern Illinois University. While there, he gradually became more serious about rap, freestyling regularly—both with friends and as an opener for bands—and occasionally recording his own music. He also befriended comedian Hannibal Buress, who riffed about art rappers analyzing Van Gogh paintings on Mike’s first album, 2010’s Unapologetic Art Rap, long before Jay Z bought his first Basquiat.

The now-famous and still rap-obsessed Buress also appears on Dark Comedy’s “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps).” It’s a song indicative of Mike’s natural comedic talent, showing his ability to hold his own against one of comedy’s elite. Over a banging and ominous electronic drone, Mike revels in the absurd, warning people against walking through Koreatown in a Madea gown and buying weed from a guy named Mortimer. And Buress, who actually raps, takes jabs at Lebron James’s receding hairline before telling listeners they should watch porn for free but pay for his stand-up material. It’s a song that balances out the bleak sides of Dark Comedy, making the album a markedly rounded body of work.

Mike’s first step towards creating an album of this caliber was moving to LA in 2004. Still harboring hopes of going to graduate school for psychology, he discovered rap collective Project Blowed, which held a weekly workshop for established and aspiring rappers in LA. Born out of the now legendary open-mic nights at the Good Life Café in Leimert Park, Project Blowed rappers prized original, innovative delivery and thought provoking lyrical content.

“The styles that people were using were so intricate that my shit looked cookie-cutter,” Mike explains. “It looked Lego compared to what they were doing… My mind was just blown.” Graduate school aspirations receded like the Pacific tide. Project Blowed members like Aceyalone and Abstract Rude became his new professors, integral to his development as a rapper.

As he continued to hone his skills, to find his own style and voice, Mike worked several low-paying jobs, eventually landing a gig as a special education teacher. He also met and married his wife, a sociology professor at LA Valley Community College. In 2008, they had their only son, who Mike raps about with equal affection and hysterical frustration on Dark Comedy single “Qualifiers.”

Around this time, Mike also began working with like-minded artists he met through Project Blowed. With Dumbfoundead and Psychosiz, he formed the now-disbanded rap trio Thirsty Fish. While Mike was still at work on Unapologetic Art Rap, venerated LA rapper Busdriver took him on his first tour.

“I had been helping him secure a deal for his first record and was already a supporter. But his willingness to endure the punishment is what ultimately linked him with us,” Busdriver says of his decision to bring the then inexperienced Mike on the road. “There was a quality to him that lead me to believe that he was in it for the long haul. Plus... his songs were unforgettable.”

In addition to aligning himself with Busdriver, Mike befriended and recorded with rapper Nocando. A Scribble Jam champion and co-founder/resident MC of LA’s famed underground electronic music weekly Low End Theory, Nocando also founded the aforementioned Alpha Pup imprint/collective Hellfyre Club, which released Mike’s second solo record, 2011’s Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes.

Together, Nocando, Busdriver, and Mike are three of Hellfyre Club’s four most visible members. An art-rap army of sorts, they influence one another’s work, create together, and often tour together. Their foothold in the local rap scene seemingly becomes stronger with each individual and collective release.

The fourth most prominent member of Hellfyre Club is Milo, the 22-year-old philosophy major turned rapper Mike recently brought into the Hellfyre Club fold. However, to say Mike discovered him isn’t quite accurate. It was a seventh grade Milo who stumbled upon Mike’s earliest offerings on MySpace. And his initial attraction to Mike’s music is still largely illustrative of its appeal today.

“He was the first rapper I heard who was putting on the front line that he was a black man and making decidedly odd songs as a black man,” Milo explains. “To take his contributions to the next level was that listening to Michael's music was and is genuinely an enjoyable experience. I don't have to be steeped in all types of learning to recognize that this guy can sing very well, has a nice vocabulary, is funny… universal characteristics that resonate well and are not typically associated with rap.”

All of these elements converge with what Busdriver calls Mike’s “sense of doom” on the strange and beautiful Dark Comedy title track “Dark Comedy Morning Show.” Over LA producer/multi-instrumentalist Toy Light’s suite of warm guitar, skittering percussion, and smattering of glitch/hiss/static, Mike discusses everything from class warfare to shootings in Chicago to Facebook logging his favorite sandwiches. Some portions find Mike singing, some are funny, and all feature his powerful and poignant diction. Unfortunately, the appeal Milo mentions hasn't always been as universal as it seems.

“I’ve had label people—high powered label people—tell me, 'I don’t get it.' It’s funny to me because these are some of the same labels that put out 'indie rock' that I’m sure nobody gets,” Mike says before laughing hysterically. Then his voice becomes grave, and the disappointment comes out. “I get so uniquely and deeply offended sometimes because someone will ask me what a song means, as if that is the key thing in them enjoying it. Do you think anybody has ever asked the lady from St. Vincent what 'Chloe in the Afternoon' means?”

Still, despite shrugs and brow furrowing from record labels, rap has been Mike’s sole occupation since he was laid off in 2010. Four years later, he’s only just now realizing that ‘dark comedy’ could have been the title for his third album, 2012’s 4NML HSPTL, or the two before it. Actually, it might be the best descriptor for his work.

Whenever and wherever he raps, Mike deftly bridges the gap between comedy and calamity, trading parody and the saccharine for the seriously funny and the unflinchingly vulnerable. He also remains committed to pushing himself, his genre, and his audience. To say he’s ahead of our time is wrong. He makes lasting music very much of our time. It needs to be appreciated now.

Toward the end of our interview, Mike and I arrive at a possible answer to his fame question: People haven’t actively exposed themselves to a wide variety of rap music. In many ways, Mike’s music is only challenging because many rap listeners haven’t challenged themselves to listen to artists like Kool Keith and records from labels like Def Jux. Still, Mike knows that even such a shift in tastes may not yield a TV show and/or an interview with NPR. (The former he wants immediately, and the latter he feels should have been a given by now.) He’s also very aware that a TV show or an NPR sit-down could have relatively little impact on his stature or that of his compatriots.

Regardless of what he's offered, Mike’s doing his best with the people and places at his disposal, creating a dynamic live show that feels more like a variety show than a concert. DJ sets lead to stand-up routines, which in turn lead to him performing. Past guests have included Detroit’s infamous DJ House Shoes and comics such as DC Pierson, and upcoming shows in New York and San Francisco will feature rapper Rob Sonic and comedian Louis Katz, respectively.

Ultimately, having this type of creative environment puts Mike in the best position of his career so far. He’s excited for the release of Dark Comedy, excited that he raps for a living, excited for these shows. When the lights go down he’ll still be laughing, still thinking and working to make reality align with his expectations.  

Max Bell is a writer in LA, and his life is also a dark comedy. He's on Twitter - @JM_Bell23

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Vic Mensa: The Mentalist

Danny Brown: The Heavyweight

Meek Mill: Born Howling

Lakutis: Resistance Is Futile

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