Portrait: Kim Newmoney
To the discerning hip hop fan, right now seems like the most productive and prolific Open Mike Eagle might ever have been. His work has certainly been opened to a new audience via Comedy Central’s The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn & Open Mike Eagle, an amalgamation of socially aware stand up comedy and music. It’s woke, as you can see from this barber shop chat with Phonte.
“It feels productive in that there’s new cuts out all the time, but it feels so strange to me that it’s on television, it’s on YouTube, but the songs aren’t on Spotify. All that’s coming, but it feels weird to me. There’s songs that are out, but not where songs go. It’s a little bit of a head trip for me just coming from music where you release something, and there it is for everybody. Now it’s released, but it’s not released… musically.”
Naomi Ekperigin, David Gborie, Shalewa Sharpe, George Wallace, Clayton English, Ian Edwards and Donnell Rawlings are just some of the names you’ll see on the show. “That represents a really wide swathe of the black stand up comics that are currently working in the States right now. A lot of them are based in LA, a few of them based in New York. But, all over the country. It’s gonna be new to people, ‘cos it’s a lot of people who we know from doing comedy all over the country, but maybe haven’t been on TV, or been exposed well.”
Racism 2.0 ft Sammus, who also guests on Hymnal from Brick Body Kids. “I wanted to bring her over for this tour but she couldn’t do it. She might be the best performer I know. She’s incredible.”
Baron Vaughn isn’t a new partner for Mike. “We met at a comedy rap battle. I think it was a mutual respect of how we were both coming that day, and there was a lightweight recognition of each other. I was familiar with him from a couple of things, and maybe he was also familiar with me. We showed each other a lot of respect, and reached out to each other to do things from then on out. We started working together and talking, and it got real cool from there.”
Promotional artwork for The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle
The series takes its name from a term encapsulating a movement of black empowerment which arose during the Harlem Renaissance. Bearing this in mind, it makes sense to conjecture that one of the main aims of the show is to educate. “Absolutely. It’s about more of what the struggle is, what the struggles are at the moment. We live in a time when oppression, discrimination, the reality of black life in America is a lot more nuanced than it used to be.
“There’s always this predisposition people have to paint their impressions of their experiences with other people with a really wide brush. I think people just really don’t want to know what it’s like for other people a lot of the time. Basic lack of empathy, or a will to understand what someone else’s situation is, creates this environment where we constantly have to explain the differences of our experience. I think that through each person’s comedy on the show, through these songs and through the things that Baron and I talk about through the episodes, a lot of it is having these conversations where we describe the nuanced differences between what it means to be black in America versus not.
Those experiences and how high the stakes are… it’s not a thing that people understand a lot.
“None of it is a value judgement, it’s all just like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna talk about double consciousness right now’, because it’s the kind of thing that everybody understands, but it’s something that’s life or death for us. If we don’t understand how it is how we’re perceived, and we are around people who are ignorant, they could be sending you messages that are dangerous and you don’t even know how to interpret them.
“You have to have this double consciousness, you have to know what it means to be around dangerous, racist people. You have to know that there are certain things that people say, or do, or write on the wall that mean you should leave. Those experiences and how high the stakes are… it’s not a thing that people understand a lot. We have these kind of conversations and I think a lot of the comedy, and the writing that comes in our show is from that place.”
Is it a case of the more shit changes, the more it stays the same? “I would say that there certainly has been progress, but I think that people assume that progress follows the same trajectory as when progress first started happening. In the States, it was fifty years ago or more, civil rights. We picture progress in terms of, ‘Okay, we can all use the same water fountains now’, we don’t get hosed in the street for being black in public.
“Certainly progress has been made from there, but that’s not the same progress we need right now. We have to adjust the machinery to deal with a psychological thing, more than an overt behavioural thing. We have to deal with how people create prejudices for one another, and that’s within our community and within the larger community. Those are things that need to be dealt with.
“Now we’re at the point we have to have these really sensitive conversations about…” he pauses, trying to quantify. “About how real the experiences of being an American or someone in the UK, or anywhere, can be different based on how it is that you look, and your culture. The conversations are different than they used to be. Progress for sure, but we have to start using finer tuned instruments than the blunt ones that we have used for years.”
I listen to everything that I’ve ever made with a little bit of sweat on my brow.
Were there any worries about taking forward the messages from the stage show to television? “I can’t say (we were) worried, no. I think I have to be mindful that it’s not just my audience and it’s all sorts of people, who are most likely not familiar with me in any way, so I have to know that I can’t get, necessarily, as dark as I want to. It’s also the platform that it’s a comedy programme…”
L-R: Quinta B, Method Man and Open Mike Eagle on set for the video for Eat Your Feelings.
Do the duo self regulate that or does guidance from the network determine content? “Um… a little bit of both. I think we understood where we had to aim, and I think sometimes we still aimed a little too dark, darker than what they were expecting for sure. So in that case, we have a conversation with them about who their audience is , and whether or not they feel like what we’re serving up will satisfy that audience.”
There isn’t a plethora of black comedy on Comedy Central, although they did broadcast two significant shows. “The Chappelle Show and Key and Peale were both (on there),” continues Mike. “Even though they’re not historically thought of as that pro-black network, and they’re not, honestly, but they do have a track record of success when it comes to black (comedy). We understand you’re not going to change a cable network’s demographic overnight, not that that’s even our intent, but we know who’s watching. It would be crazy for us to expect that all the white people would turn it off, and all the black people would turn it on all at the same time.”
Cover art by McKay Felt for Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group, 2017)
2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream brought OME many plaudits, an album based around the decline of the Robert Taylor Homes project on Chicago’s south side where Mike grew up. It followed a collaboration with British producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival, an album recorded in London which saw the two inspired by the theme of diversity. Bonafide wonders if Mike has reflected on why Brick Body Kids in particular brought him wider recognition? “I don’t all the way know… but what I’ve always imagined is that has a lot to do with progression. My progression as a songwriter, as a recording artist, that I feel like me continuing to work at those crafts meant a better project.
“Of course, I’ve learned it always helps to have a very clear context for my music. Even if not’s a clear theme, even if it gives you an address, a time/space address to understand where I’m coming from. I don’t always give people that and I notice whenever I don’t, it kind of works against the product.”
So there was more to latch onto with Brick Body Kids. “Yeah, more access points. I think that’s on one side, and the other side I think it’s probably just better song writing and better recording. I listen to everything that I’ve ever made with a little bit of sweat on my brow. It’s so difficult to remember exactly what I was thinking when I made each and every choice on all these projects.
“I know when I listen to my first album, I can see a very clear mistake which I was making a lot. Because it was what my values were at that time. It wasn’t a mistake in terms of possible quality at the time, but a mistake in who I was aiming at.
“So when I listen to later work, and I can hear how much I’ve let go of pre-conceived notions of what I thought to be good, and really be able to explore things and incorporate that with experience, songwriting, production – I won’t say I’m most proud of the latest one, but I do think it’s the most polished. I’ve learned a lot about when to tackle mistakes and I think I used to let a lot of mistakes go, because in my head the stakes were different than they were. Now, kind of understanding what the stakes are, in terms of if you hear something’s wrong, tackle that immediately.
Open Mike Eagle’s musical journey may have started at home in Chicago (we spend some time talking about his time with the Nacrobats starting in high school, around 1996: “That was my first time being in a giant collective. It was city wide. It was a hip hop crew so we were rappers, graffiti artists, breakdancers, DJs, all of it. I did everything except DJ. We all used to rap, go on bombing missions, do big ass cyphers in the middle of the city and shit. Hip hop adventures.”), it continued in Los Angeles.
That city’s musical reverberations around the world in recent years have centred around the club night Low End Theory, originated by Daddy Kev plus residents, including Mike’s friend and touring partner Nocando, aka All City Jimmy. It must have been interesting developing his career in a burgeoning beat scene.
Hymnal featuring Sammus, from Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
“When I got to LA, there was no such things as a beat scene yet. I kind of watched that happen. I came to LA, probably because of Project Blowed, a hip hop collective, which was very rap-centric. Some of the same dudes who used to be around that, who used to have the boom box with the beats outside for us to cypher over, were some of the same dudes who went across town and started doing events just for each other because of the way that we, as egotistic rappers, were not giving them real space to shine, or develop, even to be serious about making songs or anything. They kind of split off and started doing events for themselves.
“Sketchbook (a social started by Kutmah, and still continued in spirit through his radio show) was the first event that I was aware of. Ras G, Dibiase, all these guys that used to be over there with us, they started doing that. The beat scene kind of developed from there. Then Low End came, and pow, it really grew and blossomed. But it’s different now, I think. There was a time when that thing was thought of as a star-maker.
“It felt like what’s happened since then is, the stars who were gonna be stars are stars, but there’s not much industry there. People love beats, but the market in actuality of people who are gonna spend money, and go to shows, it didn’t seem to be able to sustain. I’m outside of it, but I’m kind of watching it and seeing it.
“I think that what happens is, artists meet opportunities, figure their way into the music business, and either they have a good road or they don’t. I think that’s based on a lot of different factors, some people are really fortunate to be in good situations and some people never find good situations. I think that the beat scene as a vehicle towards career making, I feel like the amount of opportunities to develop real careers has started to decrease.
“LA to me is a story of small record labels. When I first got there, a lot of small record labels were making it possible for independent rappers to have careers, because anytime you wanted to you could do an album with somebody and get a five figure advance – if you could do that two or three times a year, you’d be good.
“But as people stopped buying CDs, those labels started to go away. Those career opportunities started to go away. The people who were good already, continued to be good. The people who were just getting into it, like myself at the time – I pull up to that table – there’s crumbs left! My generation, we had to figure it out some other way, like YouTube and Bandcamp and this and that.
All the venues that brings in less money than a CD or T-shirt sale? “Exactly, exactly. And I’ve been able to partner with indie labels that are also trying to figure it out, and I was able to make a way forward, but that hasn’t been the case for everybody and I notice a similar arc happening as with the beat thing. Except for the beat thing, I was there at the beginning. I don’t think it’s over, ‘cos there’s very robust events for beats, but nowadays it’ll probably be people you haven’t quite heard of. And you may never hear of.”
Now Mike has his own indie label on the go, and even more challenges and successes on the horizon. “To me, Auto Reverse is just an open opportunity to do all kinds of shit. I have a fantasy mind where there’s a roster of artists there, I have a fantasy mind where I just put all my shit there, and I think a lot of it just has to do with what happens this year.”
Open Mike Eagle will continue to be in your face. Episodes of New Negroes are available for purchase, and the music videos are still coming, but he’s not done juggling multiple projects. “I’m about to unleash many podcast monsters into the world. If you’ve been following me, I’m going to make some really happy podcast announcements very soon,” he teases. Productive, and prolific.
The New Negroes With Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle: Season One Soundtrack is available to stream now on Spotify and Apple Music.