A couple months back I was in a Bushwick bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror, when I turned around to ask a most refreshing hip-hop artist, Open Mike Eagle, if I could start the interview he agreed to do with us. Thankfully, he said yes. And so began not only these next series of words and thoughts your about to digest, but to the beginning of shooting his latest Kris Merc directed video “Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps) featuring Goldpanda.”Our subject matter ranged from photobombs of Jesus, Kanye vs. Common and honest talk surrounding our individual truths and roles as consumers. There was a lot. Oh, and Hannibal Buress got in the mix too.
The Soul Dynamic | You said you’re from Chicago, how did where you grew up influence your art and music?
Open Mike Eagle | I just grew up in a time when hip-hop in Chicago was very segregated in particular ways, where people who I grew up with on the South side were listening to a lot of east coast and underground stuff. There was underground stuff everywhere. While on the west side there was more L.A gangster stuff, gangster stuff was effecting that region. So I had a very particular framework within in which hip-hop that was introduced to me. I had a lot of aesthetics and values that I performed with for a very long time, and I still have it a little bit in terms of my relationship to hip-hop being kinda of about the b-boy experience of like four arts, graffiti and break dancing and the craft of everything. So that’s always been important to me because of where I grew up and the time I grew up in.
The Soul Dynamic | Who or what has been the biggest impact that has influenced you to become a hip-hop artist?
OME | Again, I’ll go back to being in that time. Because when hip-hop got introduced to me it wasn’t necessarily something to just listen too, it was something that if you felt like you were apart of, or you wanted to be apart of hip-hop culture, you had to do. It wasn’t enough to consume it, you had to do it…the way I read it you had to do at least two things: I was a rapper, did graffiti and I was break dancing too.
The Soul Dynamic | You still do that kind of stuff?
OME | Ah I mean I was never really good at graffiti and I did it for a long time. Now I do a fair amount of graphic design. I think some of that came from my early interest in graffiti. I don’t break as much these days, but I’m on the board of a non-profit out here (L.A) that teaches hip-hop to the youth and that’s mostly people b-boying. So occasionally I’ll go in there and dance a little. It’s not like an everyday thing you know and it hasn’t been that way for many years.
The Soul Dynamic | Yeah, tell me more about this non-profit stuff? In learning more about you, you feel to me very conscious on a social level. Hip-hop artist that come to mind when I think about that are guys like Talib , um, I saw that you used to be apart of AmeriCorps too, so obviously you fucking care about where you’re at, you care about influencing the world in more ways than through your art — can you tell me more about that?
OME | I think I just see things in more of a communal way, with all of us trying to share an experience on this planet…I think we do better as a species when we’re looking out for each other. And us living in a country that’s capitalist creates this individualism, and people kind of get over that way. And I have a little bit of that in me too, that competition thing, but on a deeper level I think there’s enough resources for everybody here. I always put a lot of energy towards making sure things are fairly laid out, at least according to my value system.
The Soul Dynamic | What do you love about hip-hop today?
OME | I think there are particular innovations happening right now in terms of minimalism in hip-hop. I think it’s really interesting, like in terms of where I pay attention. Flows have gotten a lot more sparse in terms of how much space is left in the beat. Beats are becoming a lot more stripped down and basic and trying to get to what the essence of what an effective rap song is, I think that’s really interesting. I also really like that there’s very few guidelines now, less than ever in terms of what particular approach a MC or a rapper has to take. So if a rapper wants to sing bars that’s fine, if they want to mumble bars, that’s fine — it’s like whatever approach the rapper wants to take, it’s (hip-hop) more supportive more than ever now, where it used to be things were locked into certain patterns based on people’s expectations. I think those expectations are blown open more these days, so I appreciate that.
The Soul Dynamic | Ok, Ok, I like that. What don’t you like about hip-hop? What are some negative things that are going on or trending right now that you’re just not having?
OME | I mean I don’t think any of it is inherently negative. I don’t like how the music business continues to support only a certain kind of real capitalistic, real materialistic sort of rap, and because that’s what the corporate entities have chose to get behind now, it creates this echo effect. Cause since those images are promoted more, it creates more of that image in the culture you know? And of course there’s arguments for materialism and capitalism in the culture, but I think there’s a multiplier effect thats happening. You know if there’s anything I would change, it would be that. It would be where the entity with the most resources, if they chose to and it doesn’t make any sense that they would choose to do this — but it would be my wish that they would support more different kinds of voices. And that’s kind of happening now anyway, cause some of the strongest artists like Kanye, even Drake in some senses — what they’re doing image wise isn’t the classical, street corner, tough guy kind of thing. There’s more flexibility within the image, in some senses the corporations are having to push these guys, because they’re the best guys doing it right now. And they’ve opened things up too, but I just wish there was more experimentation on that level, how the resources get doled out, because different kinds of voices could do well.
The Soul Dynamic | All right. You have a line in “Dark Comedy Late Show,” where you say (I ask laughing), “I saw Jesus taking a selfie and I photobombed.” Would you actually photobomb Jesus?
OME | Yeah of course I would!
The Soul Dynamic | Awesome.
OME | That’s funny cause I was at a festival once and that’s when that line came to me. I was in the backstage area and there was this dude there dressed like Jesus and he was taking a selfie and I was thinking like, “Man if this was the real thing I’d try and photobomb him right now (we both laugh),” that’s where the line came from.
The Soul Dynamic | And what if he didn’t tag you, what would you do?
OME | I don’t know, I’d be upset, cause he certainly can.
The Soul Dynamic | I love that line man, I was just like, “damn!” It’s good shit. Tell me about the work, as a fellow artist I like to ask a lot of questions about the process, as far as coming at the work from a creative point of view. Like everybody has a certain way that they go about creating right? You know, you may go really fast, that’s how you work. Or you like to space things out, so the question is what is it about your process that makes it successful for you and what do you do when you have to push through challenges, when maybe things aren’t working out, how do you grind through that?
OME | I like to be trying to be working on a few different things at once. So maybe if somethings not clicking necessarily, I can move onto some other thing, something that comes along a little easier — I don’t get a lot of “writer’s block,” or anything like that — because I’ve given myself permission to write about anything. Like if I was doing the dishes, you know what I mean? Whatever idea I get, I feel completely permitted to write about it. I don’t feel like everything has to be the same level of importance socially or culturally or even personally. Whatever I want to write about is fine, some things make the album, some things don’t, but I’ve never had a real problem not having something to write about. It’s more of trying to chisel down an idea and make it more direct, make it better, but that’s always something to write about.
The Soul Dynamic | What’s the most memorable performance you’ve ever had or you ever saw?
OME | I performed on this show called, “WITS,” it’s based out of St. Paul. I’ve performed there twice. It’s a big theatre show, but they record it and make a podcast out of it. If you’re the musical guest you also get to participate in the comedy skits and sketches that they do and it’s kind of ‘old radio style,’ where everyone has their scripts on stage. It’s funny and interesting and the band’s really awesome and every time I do that show it’s the best show ever. Being able to perform in a big nice place and have that musical support, and the support of the talented people who allow me to indulge different parts of my creativity, doing the comedy bits, it’s really refreshing for me every time. It’s always the best.
The Soul Dynamic | Nice, is that where the concept for your last EP (A Special Episode) came from then?
OME | Not necessarily. That came out on it’s own, maybe a little of that was in there too, but it wasn’t a direct thing.
The Soul Dynamic | Who’s your favorite artist out right now?
OME | This rapper named Serengeti, he’s my favorite rapper. He’s also a good friend of mine. But he makes what I think is the best stuff.
The Soul Dynamic | Is he on Mello Music too?
OME | He is on Anticon.
The Soul Dynamic | You have friends out here in New York and you’re currently based out in Cali, what’s the difference between the two right now? There’s always going to be something, different vibes being put out there, you know, New York being quick and fast, and L.A. we’re just taking our sweet ass time, but what’s going on currently in that East/West thing, if anything, vibe wise?
OME | You know it’s hard to say because it’s so specific. In both places there’s so many different types of experiences that a person can have. It’s more difficult to compare and contrast. There will always be a huge difference in cultures with these two places, one is so reliant on public transportation and generally being around each other all the time. And L.A. being very separate, everybody kind of having their own inner car experience. But then out here too, increasingly there’s people on the bus, people on the train, it’s not the dominant mode of transportation like it is in New York. So proximity to other people will always be a big factor in terms of how the cities feel and I don’t know if that will ever change. But increasingly there’s so many different types of varied experiences a person can have based on what kind of job they have. A lot of it is pretty much is kinda of based on income and who you socialize with and all of that. There’s a L.A. experience for rich people that I’ve seen, but it’s not part of my life at all (I laugh). I live in a place called Culver City, which is not that far from Beverly Hills, but I never go there, there’s no reason to ever go there. There’s a placed called Century City, it’s literally up the street, but I never go there either, I have no business there in the literally sense. The people who live there have an entirely different experience than me. And New York is different, people come in and out of the boroughs and Manhattan, there’s different places you go in the city depending on what your experience is…I feel like in New York you end up rubbing shoulders with every type of person all the time.
The Soul Dynamic | That’s true. All right if you could kick it with anyone dead, alive, from any era for one night who would it be?
OME | Oh man.
The Soul Dynamic | It can’t be Jesus.
OME | Well this is the thing right, I want to say somebody like Frank Zappa, but I also have to insert in that equation that Frank Zappa thought I was cool, because if he didn’t then he’d be kind of condescending all night. I would pick James Baldwin, but I’d want to be sure that the pick was gonna be open and not the type of person that didn’t like people, or didn’t want the chance to get to know a person, cause it might be awkward all night.
The Soul Dynamic | All right so that’s the prereq, “Mike’s cool,” let’s do it. We do this thing it’s called Versus. It’s basically five really quick questions where I give you two options, like it could be the Rolling Stones vs. Led Zeppelin and you just spit out which ever one you prefer. The topics are all different random shit. Here we go:
Arcade Fire vs. Vampire Weekend | I would definitely say Arcade Fire.
Since you’re from Chicago — Kanye vs. Common | That’s a tough one. Oh my god. I’m gonna have to say Kanye. And the reason it was a tough choice was because early in my rap career Common was very important to me. Being from Chicago, and being one of the few people while we were rapping to see somebody else who started rapping like us, and was also in the industry along side Native Tongues cats and all of our heroes — he was a big deal. His first, I would say five albums (he lists them all off) were really personal, really huge to me. The later stuff not so much. I don’t know, I feel like every artist has their journey and I feel like he kind of got to a place where he was dealing with people that weren’t me anymore, I’m not sure who it was, but it wasn’t me. Kanye…I mean I’m probably an every other record kind of guy with Kanye, but I consider his work right now to be more interesting.
The Soul Dynamic | Chicago Pizza vs. New York Pizza? | Chicago no doubt. Not even a question, without question. Chicago pizza is pizza.
Nicki Minaj vs. Keri Hilson | Keri Hilson I think, wait remind me again about her.
The Soul Dynamic | She’s this beautiful lady, I think she’s a rapper who…
OME | Oh, I’m gonna have to go with Nicki. Nicki is one of the best rappers in terms of the craft of rapping — she’s incredible. Amazing.
Comedy Show vs. Film | Hmmm…I’m gonna go film cause I can get more out of it. Comedy might be a more entertaining program, but film if it’s a good one, gives me nutrients to survive and create more.
Casino vs. Goodfellas | Dang, I’m going to have to go Casino…when Casino came out the impact it had on me was more visceral.
The Soul Dynamic | I know you and Hannibal are close, how has he influenced your art? And in turn how have you influenced his art?
OME | I really don’t feel like either one of those things are necessarily true. It’s funny I certainly see how his influence has effected the world of comedy, especially young black comedy. Listening to young black comics, there’s a lot of observational humor that I would say is because of his influence. On a national level he’s the first guy who was really like a self-identifying black man, but wasn’t subject to the trumps of black comedy. And I know he doesn’t have a problem with any of those things either. He’s his own person. He’s definitely effected comedy in that way and he hasn’t so much effected my stuff, cause in that sense I’ve already done that too.
The Soul Dynamic | If you weren’t a hip-hop artist, what would you be?
OME | I would probably be some sort of writer. Could be a TV writer, maybe writing books, but a writer.
The Soul Dynamic | What’s the one thing you want people to take away from your music?
OME | I want them to understand how much their expectations play into everything they listen too or are watching. I want them to be aware of what they bring to the table as a consumer in everything in life.
The Soul Dynamic | In terms of their worth?
OME | No, in terms of how relative everything is based on a person’s expectations and prior experience. And so I don’t want anybody to think that their thoughts about anything good or bad…and it goes for me and everyone else — if you think my stuff is great or you think my stuff is awful — nobody has the definitive answer cause we’re all having individual experiences based on who we’ve been, where we are and what we’ve been exposed too. There’s no definitive criticism — whatever the thing makes you feel is whatever the thing makes you feel. And that’s your truth.
The Soul Dynamic | I dig it, I love that. Yeah, that’s good, that’s really good…All right the last question that I always ask people is what inspires you?
OME | Other people’s courage I think inspires me more than anything. Seeing other people be brave, be honest, push boundaries — inspires me to do the same.
The Soul Dynamic | All right that’s it bro.
OME | Well all right man, that was super cool.
Open Mike Eagle’s newest video “Ziggy Starfish (Anti-Anxiety Raps) featuring Goldpanda,” came out today. It features appearances by Hannibal Buress, Jean Grae, Quelle Chris, and MC Frontalot and can be seen below. He’s an artist who’s take is extremely needed now, not only in hip-hop culture, but on a wider scale. His thoughtfulness, awareness and innate ability to take it all as it comes will challenge you, while making you smile at the same time. In his words, “whatever the thing makes you feel is whatever the thing makes you feel. And that’s your truth,” and we’re all right with that.
Photographers | Danny Chaparro + Andy J Scott