Photo by Emari Traffie

Ten Million Shows and the Cult of Open Mike Eagle

Paul Thompson

The underground rapper has built a career out of being on the fringe. Now with his great new album 'Brick Body Kids Still Daydream' and a Comedy Central show on the horizon, maybe it's his moment.

Photo by Emari Traffie

You can watch it on YouTube. "The Last Robert Taylor Homes Hi-Rise Demolition, Pt. 5." 47 thumbs up, 19 thumbs down. The description, from February 21, 2007: "If you used to live in this building, I should warn you: it may be unsettling to watch."

The top comment is "Mr. T use to live here." The scroll continues. There's a story from a woman who lived in the buildings until she was five years old, whose father was killed there; there are racist agitators with obviously fake screen names. A man named Frank (who appears to have uploaded his own, wind-engulfed video of the Cabrini-Green Homes, in which he says "If we were standing here in this spot about 20 years ago, we would have been shot") blames the demolition for his buddy's car being broken into twice. One comment just reads "and yet you still claim your patriotism???!!?"

A crane raps like a woodpecker on glass and brick.

***

"I came into it with the proper amount of athleticism and hustle, but no technique." It's noon in Culver City, at a coffee shop just a short drive from Mike Eagle's home. He's recounting a string of rec league volleyball games—his team lost two out of three, but he's smiling, briefly. This is about a month before his new album is set to come out; as we talk about that record, written mostly during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump holds a now-infamous press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan, calling the white radicals at a deadly melee in Virginia "very fine people."

The first time Mike and I sat down like this was three years ago, in the spring of 2014. We were a few blocks south of the Paramount lot; it was less than a year after Edward Snowden unveiled the NSA's massive surveillance program, which tapped and continues to tap the phones, emails, and various other communication channels of Americans. "It confirms what a lot of people already assumed to be true," he told me at the time.

Dark Comedy, his album that came out later that summer, gave some order to that blanket paranoia. It was a brilliant record—the sort of thing that would get five mics from Kafka. Open Mike Eagle is an absurdist ("for those who haven't heard of me / I'm bad at sarcasm, so I work in absurdity") who writhes on the floors of Chinese restaurants and books rap shows on the moon. That album marked a creative breakthrough, a postmodern response to postmodernism that was sorrowful and hilarious and full of resolve. But what does an absurdist do when cable news tries to beat him at his own game?

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is the response: an alchemic blend of native myth and arcane housing policy. It traces the life cycle of the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing block on Chicago's south side that was destroyed by governmental shrug ten years ago. "What if somebody just decided to demolish the pyramids now?" he asks in the coffee shop. My laptop is open in front of me, showing the record's cover—Mike as the physical embodiment of a project building. "This is me saying, 'Man, I wish I could add to the mythology.'"

***

In 1950, a man named Robert Taylor resigned his seat on the Chicago Housing Authority board when the city council balked at plans for integrated housing. Twelve years later, the Robert Taylor Homes were completed and dedicated to him; for a time, the series of 28 high-rises was the largest public housing system in the world.

Michael Eagle II was born in the fall of 1980 in Chicago. He was raised at various points by his parents and grandparents; his grandmother's sister had a place in the Robert Taylor Homes. "Some of my earliest memories, me being four or five, were in these buildings," he says. Cousins of all varieties congregated there, sometimes for the whole summer. It was also where Mike's great-grandmother had lived.

"The people who moved into those houses in the 50s, they thought they were benefiting," he says. "This was presented to them as an opportunity to have nice, modern apartments in this high rise building. The tenements that were on that land before were shacks, they were like shantytowns. It would seem like such an improvement at the time. But that's not really how it played out."

The history is labyrinthine. The shantytowns Mike refers to were outlawed by the Housing Act of 1949, but instead of good-faith efforts to combat poverty, many in the wave of housing projects to follow were merely segregation measures cast in brick and iron. Crisis on Federal Street, a 1987 documentary produced by Chicago's PBS affiliate, documents in exhaustive detail the history of the Robert Taylor Homes to that point. A stoic, white academic calls the high-rises "an unofficial attempt to constrain the black population...in the smallest geographic area."

Mike recounts the broken elevators, the stairways that smelled like piss, makeshift sports games in the hallway. One enduring feature of the towers that doesn't pop up in his childhood memories are the iron gates out front. "Those were added later," he says.

The life cycle should be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in American domestic policy: public services that are perceived to benefit black people are neglected, and then vilified, and ultimately evaporate. Utilities flit in and out, homes fall into disrepair, EMTs hesitate when they look at the address. But those walls, ignored by the CHA, housed a closed-loop economy and indeed, an entire culture. (Mike, on the aftermath of the buildings' demolition: "Some of the people took some of the culture with them, which might not align with where they were living subsequently. People of opposite gang affiliations were suddenly living on the same block. There just wasn't any thought put into any of that.")

And so the destruction of these buildings—carried out over a decade and shoddily commemorated through grainy VHS—was also the destruction of an ecosystem, complete with cancers and values and legend. Beyond that, of course, are the material concerns: though Robert Taylor residents were technically promised different accommodations after their homes were destroyed, but by a couple years after the demolition was complete, only a third of the 30,000 residents could be accounted for.

"The funny thing is, a lot of times when people are asking me about the record, they want to make it about gentrification," Mike says. "Because gentrification in a way is sexier. It's an easier way to try to understand it. But no, it's not really that. This was a system of buildings built by federal money that were supposed to improve people's lives, and did for a little while, but went to shit and got torn down. And there's so much un-dealt-with trauma in just that destruction."

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is exactly that trauma-processing agent. It opens with one of those new, imagined myths: "legendary iron hood" is one of Mike's imagined hieroglyphics, a project kid who fashions a helmet out of a radiator and becomes invincible, so long as he keeps his head down. It's sunny, wistful—a feeling Mike undercuts from the jump: "You think it's all good, but it's really a gradient."

The record's sequencing is invaluable in attempts to understand it. From "iron hood," Mike moves to the nervous fugue of "(how could anybody) feel at home?" and the quasi-religious "hymnal," where church songs are hopeful bits of escapism. ("I was an acolyte," Mike says of religion in his youth. His grandparents sent him with a group of project kids to a nearby church every Sunday, and his father is still in the ministry, though Mike shed much of his religiosity in college. "I used to wear a white robe and white pants and white shoes and light candles before service.") The latter song also has a superb turn from Sammus, who strings the same rhyme through her entire verse.

Brick Body Kids begins in earnest on "no selling (uncle butch pretends it don't hurt)," which is more or less the comic counterpoint to "legendary iron hood"'s learned stoicism. "no selling" is, by a comfortable margin, the song here that skews closest to earlier Open Mike Eagle records, high-concept and outwardly hilarious. (At one point he says, smugly, "I had an asthma attack during the last bar.") The ties to the album's central conceit come mostly by proximity, though when he raps "I had a weird childhood, my shit was wild hood / but crying ain't my style, 'cause I can smile good," the looping images from Crisis on Federal Street are hard to shake.

At various points, Brick Body Kids sounds like a videogame where the final boss is the Secretary of Housing & Urban Development. "breezeway ritual" is grainy and gritty and downright horrifying. The song was conjured from memories of the lobby-less Robert Taylor buildings, where the sounds from basement boilers would moan and creak when you stepped inside at night. "I imagined that as a place where the shadows would come grab you and try to take you underground," Mike says. "That was a figurative thing, but it was also where you might get recruited into selling crack." From those shadows comes the album's most chilling thought: "What if there's a God but they scared of us?"

When the album is lighter, it's often at its most emotionally complex: lead single "95 radios" has a painful jolt of nostalgia, and as an ode the south side in summer is heartfelt, even beautiful. But it also Trojan horses in the LP's fundamental argument: the image of kids wrapping their hands in tinfoil to pick up radio signals from the sky at dusk makes inescapable the fact that people and their material homes cannot be separated. And "happy wasteland day," a plea for a 24-hour respite from the country's demonic king ("zombie sheriffs are trying to lynch us / guess I'll call up my congressman") is as resolute as you can be when you're exhausted down to the bone.

"A lot of this album is about economics," Mike says. "And how things shift violently economically, the trauma of that. Everybody experiences the sweeping changes to our economy in a different way. We're all victims of the wave, even people who benefit from it." On "TLDR (smithing)," he takes pity on someone you imagine to be a banker cast out by the recession: "If you was rich and 'bout to be broke, I can coach you / 'cause I can show you how to kill a roach with a boat shoe."

The twin centerpieces are "my auntie's building" and "brick body complex." The latter comes exactly in the album's middle, a nod to the peril that comes at the end. The chorus:

"Don't call me 'nigga,' or 'rapper'
My motherfucking name is Michael Eagle, I'm sovereign
I'm from a line of ghetto superheroes, I holla
I've got something to bring to your attention (attention, attention, attention, attention)
I promise you I will never fit in your descriptions, I'm giant
Don't let nobody tell you nothing different, they lying
A giant and my body is a building (a building, a building, a building)"

He's old granite, battered by ten million snows; mom's in the basement, "smoking something." "my auntie's building"—the album's closer and the most powerful song Open Mike Eagle has ever written—is the destruction that was looming all along. "They blew up my auntie's building," he raps, "put out her great-grandchildren / who else in America deserves to have that feeling? / where else in America will they blow up your village?" There are no pools in the lobby; the kids running up the stairwells are Rocky. "It was people there, and kids there, and drug dealers, and church folk." And then it was gone.

***

Photo by Emari Traffie

Last November, Mike threw birthday party at a club in East Los Angeles. He tapped a handful of comics to do short sets, interspersed with rappers like Nocando. He even circulated a tongue-in-cheek flier, promising a performance from himself doing "songs that aren't finished yet."

As far as I can remember, he played two new songs that night. The first was "No Selling," which was more or less the same as it is today. The other was over the beat that eventually became "Brick Body Complex," but had entirely different lyrics. Nearly a year after that party, in the coffee shop in Culver City, Mike raps the hook of that demo version. In a singsong:

"My grandmother grew begonias
So we won't inherit shit
We should all grow marijuana
So we'll all be filthy rich
Everyone become a hustler
Turn your nephews into customers
Turn your aunties into customers
Make 10K a week from home!"

That version of the song, he explains, was about perceived game-changers, the kind of thing he'd realized never happens to him or his career. "I think about it as me being a niche act," he says, "a rapper that exists outside of most parts of the rap conversation and machine. My products aren't put through that machine, so they don't reach the same amount of people—and because of that I don't have the pressure to do that either, and I have the ability to indulge all of my own whims sonically. Which kind of doubles down on my own being outside of that. So there's no magic bullet for me."

In a purely musical sense, this is true. Mike was drawn to rap when he was young: "When you visually aligned yourself with b-boy culture at the time, it took you out of [questions about gang affiliation]. Nobody sweated you on that if you were wearing ski goggles and had dreadlocks. Columbia jackets and Eddie Bauer backpacks." He started attending a program after schools on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Promontory Point, where the city had set aside a small amount of funds for a breakdancing program. In effect, hip-hop kids of all stripes flocked to the lakefront, and in short order Mike was drawn to the cyphers, where he studied and imitated people he could see and touch. (Chicago legends like Rhymefest and Juice spent time at the park, too.)

The second (and to listeners, even more apparent) formative period in Mike's development came through Project Blowed in Los Angeles. The legendary open mic night in Leimert Park, which developed and spawned its own collective of brilliant and experimental rappers, was already firmly established when Mike showed up. That was where he sharpened his already pointed, off-kilter sensibilities, and where he met early collaborators Dumbfoundead and Psychosiz.

From there, Mike's career snaked through rap's underground, which by the mid-aughts had become diffuse and economically depressed. A debut, Unapologetic Art Rap, garnered some fans and local press in Los Angeles; Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, released through Nocando's Hellfyre Club imprint the following year, became something just short of a cult classic. Mike's music at these early stages was certainly weirder (and more muddily mixed) than hip-hop that was charting or covered by mainstream critics. But it wasn't exactly unapproachable. Take "Right Next To You (For the Neighbors)," from Natural Causes: it's about the same sort of urban enjambment that Brick Body Kids tries to untangle, and it opens with an earworm falsetto. It's structured like a radio song, even if it's a little smart, a little distorted. But without the proper machinations, and without accidents of time or co-signs, so little cuts through the din.

By the end of 2013, Mike had put out another record (the rewardingly obtuse 4NML HSPTL), but was only a half-step ahead in terms of notoriety. It was around then, though, that Hellfyre Club began to gain momentum, not as a label, but as a collection with four principal players: Mike, Nocando, the underground legend Busdriver, and a promising newcomer more than ten years their junior named milo. The quartet toured together and anchored a compilation, Dorner vs. Tookie, that was chaotic but frequently excellent.

That set the stage for a 2014 that vaulted Mike into far more laptops and cell phones than ever before. Dark Comedy was a critical darling and vastly expanded his reach. He was a guest on Marc Maron's podcast. One of his friends, Hannibal Buress—a guest on Dark Comedy—went from being a beloved comic's comic to a genuine superstar. (Mike was Hannibal's R.A. at Southern Illinois University, where the pair also became close with the avant-rap genius Serengeti.)

Mello Music Group, the Arizona-based label to which he was now signed, guaranteed a built-in audience, but Mike stood out as a unique talent, and an arresting personality. When Hannibal was hosting a sketch show on Comedy Central, Mike was one of the musical guests; he also became something of a podcast savant, co-hosting on topics from wrestling to animated TV, as well as his own solo show, Secret Skin, which interviews public figures about the nature of public life and creativity. (About Secret Skin: "Certain things got ratified for me. One thing that I thought was everybody has this darkness that they're trying to find a light for, and that drives the creativity. That's the other thing: nobody's really, genuinely happy in their station.")

All of this is to say that Mike Eagle is now presented with plenty of opportunities. "There's been a huge increase in the potential for breakout success," he says, but is wary of seeing anything as a one-shot game changer. He and the comedian Baron Vaughn have a show, The New Negroes, slated to debut on Comedy Central next year. It's a variety hour of sorts, which blends comedy and music and has what Mike describes as "a lofty goal": "To destroy the monolith." He goes on to say he plans to take aim at "this new, high self-esteem racism, the self-important, I-belong-here-make-space-for-me racism." He pauses for a second.

"There are a lot of things I want to say, but I have to learn how to say them because I don't know that yet. This [show] would be the first step to a very long career in that if I do it correctly."

There's trepidation, though. "I've worked on so many things that I see what my instincts are, and I get a consistent amount of feedback from people who work inside of that industry about things that I have to do that aren't the things that I want to do. And I'm coming to this point where I have to make a decision: am I gonna figure out how to do that? Or am I going to commit to being challenging in that way?"

I mention that it's interesting, with the greater name recognition and with a TV deal in motion, that he would make a record as uncompromised and heady as Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Then I ask: "Do you have an underlying anxiety about whether or not your instincts are right?"

"Of course."

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.