The first time I listened to Open Mike Eagle, I was in a car full of people. I pressed play on the track "DeGrassi Picture Day," and when it was over, everyone sat stunned and silent, trying to process what we'd just heard until a voice called from the back seat, "Run that back!"
We listened at least five more times until we pinpointed why the song was so special. He had taken such a familiar concept — a day that everyone's experienced but never thought of again — and celebrated it in the grand fashion a rapper usually reserves for extolling their own virtues. The result felt next-level fresh, and it's not the only such song in his catalog.
Eagle often takes relatable concepts and turns them into a work of art, or he drops a thought you had just yesterday into the middle of a verse so intricate with word play, you may not even hear it until the third or fourth listen. When you do, it illicits the same surprise and momentary excitement you feel when a $5 bill falls out of your laundry.
To call him totally unconventional wouldn't be accurate. A discerning listener can hear the Native Tongues influences in his rhyme patterns. Unpretentious is more like it. His lyrics are high thinking, but his execution feels laid back and assures his verses never cross over that fine line from brilliant to contrived. LA Weekly anointed him the hottest thing in indie rap. On his latest album, The Dark Comedy, he anoints himself the "King of all rappers who don't condone date rape"
He described his creative process this way: "A beat has to get me pregnant in a sense. I stay with it for so long it becomes a part of me. Once I'm away from it, I play it over & over in my head and these concepts start unfolding... It's like I see a box and I just start unpacking it."
Eagle was born in Chicago. He credits A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum" as the first song that made him realize he loved hip-hop. "I heard it and I said okay, that's the rap I like."
He moved to L.A. in 2004 and says his wife is the person who pushed him to pursue music as a full-time career after he was laid off his job as a 3rd and 4th grade special education teacher for at-risk youth. He said at his former job he worked in a classroom with three teachers, and 10 students who had suffered many tragedies and had the behavior problems they leave behind.
"I'm good at listening to people who aren't used to being listened to, and that was part of these kids' problem", he said, "but they also had other real problems."
Before moving to L.A., he attended college in Southern Illinois where many of his classmates and friends were from the St. Louis area. I asked how he felt about hip-hop's role (or lack thereof) in the Ferguson protests.
"In a sense hip-hop isn't useful anymore. It used to be functional. There used to be songs that would be the catalyst for things to happen." He recalled a recent guest on his podcast who had spent 30 years in the industry saying that hip-hop had now taken on the ideals of capitalist America instead of the counter-culture viewpoint it once represented.
"For instance, I was so disgusted with Young Money (Entertainment) for really pushing Anaconda in the middle of what was happening in Ferguson. It's already bad enough (Nicki Minaj) gotta sell her ass like that, as talented as she is. But then it's like, You're not gonna have any awareness of what's going on? You're not gonna let that factor into your decision at all? If ya'll push back one week its gonna hurt your campaign that much?"
I asked what he thought of the absence of hip-hop's biggest names in Ferguson, like Jay-Z. "Well, you know what he'd say — 'my presence is charity.' That quote was in response to criticism from Harry Belafonte, but situations like Ferguson are exactly what Harry Belafonte was talking about. Artists in his days were on the front lines. The biggest ones understood what the culture meant to their careers."
Tonight will be Open Mike Eagle's third time playing Knocturnal at Snug Harbor. The free show is part of Knocturnal's 2nd anniversary party and also features Quelle Chris, Serengeti and Dillon.
"Charlotte is great. I tell everybody about Knocturnal," Eagle says. "In this region, you never know what you're gonna get, so it's great to have something consistent like that."
The first time he played, there was a cook-out happening on Snug's back patio when the tour arrived. "It felt like we showed up at a family reunion and we didn't know we were in the family already."