Well, now you’ve done it. You’ve gone and pissed Open Mike Eagle off. And in a mere three minutes and seven seconds, he’s scorched every last feeble rapper on “Middling,” a track off his new Sir Rockabye EP (yep).
This feels like some serious catharsis, the most aggressive/clever of diss tracks. Not even the diss-ees will get it. Mike Eagle cuts where it hurts the most, over the piano-loop production of Quelle Chris: “You eat plain frozen yogurt / and won’t know what to do when reality shows are over / I’d like to stick your head in an empty can of Folgers / I got with your member card from your local grocer.” This is Mike at his meanest, and I love it (“Pick a thing and you’ll ruin it.”). But even he softens the blow, admitting at one point: “OK, that was kind of mean.”
Like all Mike Eagle tracks, “Middling” demands your line-for-line attention. Don’t blink or you’ll miss a joke.
Three of Los Angeles’ finest emcees at the forefront of the avant-rap scene â€“ or whatever you wanna call it â€“ are joining up for a fall tour that will stop at Rhythm Room on Oct. 24 (though at this point I’m not sure who is promoting it, so I have little in the way of ticket/age information).
Busdriver, Nocando and Open Mike Eagle are as prolific as they are talented, often showing up as guests on each other’s work, so a collaborative tour makes sense.
In the case of Busdriver and Nocando, they released the album 10 Haters under the Flash Bang Grenada moniker last year. But all three have either released or will release solo material in 2012. Busdriver dropped Beaus$Eros in February; Open Mike Eagle released 4NML HSPTL this summer; and it looks like Nocando is close to unveiling a new album.
In conjunction with the tour announcement, Busdriver premiered a new video for the song “Utilitarian Uses of Love” over at Potholes In My Blog.
In an interview I posted with Open Mike Eagle last month, the L.A.-based art-rap auteur opened up about his new album, 4NML HSPTL, due out June 26 on Fake Four: “Itâ€™s the place where rappers, or any artists, go when they try to know too much. Itâ€™s a place you end up at. I decided to call it the animal hospital â€“ you go there when your head explodes.”
Let the mental purging begin. “Universe Man” is the first leak off his third album (with beats handled entirely by UK producer Awkward), and like most of Mike Eagle’s songs, this one is brimming with the type of pop-culture references and bookish rhymes that challenge our Twitter-conditioned short-attention spans. It really does sound like his head might explode if he doesn’t get all of this out.
Pigeons and Planes premiered the song a couple weeks ago and has the album’s tracklist.
Like listening to his albums, conversations with Open Mike Eagle tend to be enlightening, thought-provoking and pretty damn hilarious. The L.A.-based emcee is due for a big year: After headlining our Friday bonanza at Hidden House as part of the Desert Viper tour with Has-Lo, he’ll head to Uganda for three weeks on a hip-hop education mission. Then he’ll drop his third full-length album, 4NMLHSPTL (“It’s the war on vowels,” he says), in June.
He discusses all this and then some in advance of Friday’s rap spectacular with Has-Lo and Random.
So tell me a bit about the Uganda trip. Thatâ€™s coming up in a couple weeks. Yeah, the plane tickets are bought and immunizations are gotten. The program isnâ€™t fully funded, but itâ€™s funded enough that weâ€™ll get there and make something happen. (Donations for the trip are still being accepted here.)
How did you get involved with the trip? Thereâ€™s a non-profit Iâ€™ve been working with for a few years — thatâ€™s J.U.I.C.E. They saw a grant opportunity for an exchange and they knew about a Ugandan volunteer group.
Have you been outside the country? Iâ€™ve been to Japan for rap. But thatâ€™s really the only time Iâ€™ve been off this continent.
Youâ€™re a former teacher, so itâ€™s great that this sort of brings together that and music. Iâ€™ve actually done some hip-hop education before, so itâ€™s right up my alley.
What have you done before? There was a program in L.A. called For Real Hop. I would write curriculum for hip-hop — did a lot of media education, breaking down songs. Those kids had grown up infused with rap. I was definitely trying to get them to understand what they were hearing every day.
What are you going to be teaching in Uganda? It will be real basic in terms of how to construct rap music. Iâ€™m not able to do too much preparing because Iâ€™m not sure what they know. But weâ€™ll break it down to basics, things like what cadence is and how to construct rhymes. Ras G will teach them how to produce beats. If Iâ€™m mistaken and theyâ€™re already super into it, we can get into some conceptual stuff and critical thinking. We really have to get there and see what weâ€™re working with.
What can you tell us about the new album? I know itâ€™s got a title. Yeah, itâ€™s called 4NMLHSPTL. Itâ€™s coming out on Fake Four on June 26.
Whatâ€™s the concept behind the title? It’s the place where rappers, or any artists, go when they try to know too much. It’s a place you end up at. I decided to call it the animal hospital — you go there when your head explodes.
Youâ€™re describing yourself? Iâ€™m describing a whole lot of rappers I know. It can be literary types or creative people. â€¦ You can get into this really crazy mental place and end up in this place thatâ€™s difficult to describe. I find I always have to go through this before I can make something. Just this last year I got caught up in how to talk about this place.
How about the production on the album â€¦ is it handled by multiple guys like youâ€™ve done in the past? No. Itâ€™s all with one producer, Awkward. Me and Awkward had planned to do a record together. Heâ€™s one of the few producers who Iâ€™ve been able to build a good, strong working relationship with. I tend to make music kind of fast. Not all of it ends up being usable, but the way my process works is hyperproduction, and heâ€™s been able to keep feeding me music so we can keep working. Weâ€™ve been able to get to a good place communication-wise.
With him being in UK, it had to be a bit of a challenge? It was. I never really felt time difference until we were actually finishing things. Little changes â€¦ it would be a little thing, but it would be three in the morning his time. But for the most part, everything has gone really well and really easy.
It seems like youâ€™re on an album-per-year pace. Is that a part of being hyperproductive or do you feel like itâ€™s necessary part of todayâ€™s Internet age where everything feels so fleeting? I think there was time when I felt that way, like I had to do that. But I donâ€™t think so much right now. I might come out with an album next year, but at this time last year I was planning on coming out with this album.
I want to let this one breathe. I donâ€™t want to cut off the development of it. I want to let it take its time and see what it can be without the pressure to do something immediately behind it.
Are you concerned that listeners’ attention spans are too short these days to sort of absorb everything from your albums?
I donâ€™t think so. I used to think that would be issue. But I think I have begun to cultivate a kind of fandom that expects there to be layers and I expect that theyâ€™ll want to keep listening and keep finding new stuff. People with super-short attention spans are probably not going to like what I do anyway. It doesnâ€™t translate very the well first time, so it doesnâ€™t do me good to try to please them.
And letting it breathe is kind of about me, too — me wanting to take my time and just see what happens. I definitely feel like these first three records are an arc. Maybe next time Iâ€™ll feel like I want to do something different. But I donâ€™t want to get so much into habit of a project a year that I miss a turn to explore some other avenues.
In the same regard, youâ€™re a pretty accessible guy whoâ€™s on Twitter and Tumblr. Is that something you enjoy or also just a necessary product of being an independent musician? I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t always enjoy it. I have a pretty good understanding of what the level of acceptable realm of things to discuss and not to discuss is. That doesnâ€™t cover all the thing I want to talk about all the time. I end up in places psychologically or emotionally where I canâ€™t exist in that realm when Iâ€™m going through certain things. Iâ€™ve seen some people have rants on Twitter and go back and delete it. But Iâ€™ve never been comfortable sharing past a certain point of what tact level is. So I treat it like itâ€™s part of the job, but I do have fun doing it and engaging people.
To me, thereâ€™s psychological space that I havenâ€™t figured out how to deal with it. I post stuff and run away. I donâ€™t read my Facebook timeline. Twitter, to me, is a little more informative and a little more entertaining, despite the nature of it. Facebook is kind of other peopleâ€™s business I donâ€™t want to know all the time.
I know you’ve spoken highly of Has-Lo. What drew you to his music and had you guys talked about arranging a tour like this? He was the kind of person where, before I heard any of his music, I could tell by how people who knew me talked about him that he was making something interesting. â€¦ I heard his album and it just blew me away. It felt like it could have come out when I was the biggest hip-hop fan Iâ€™ve ever been, like in â€˜96. But it didnâ€™t feel dated, like someone trying to turn back the hands of time. It was just genuine, expressive and really dark in a way I hadnâ€™t heard. Itâ€™s not over-the-top dark, just someone trying to work through something. It was refreshing for me to hear.
Then I met him in Philly when I was on tour last November and all our touring partners, like Zilla and Castro, hung out and it felt like a natural extension of people I hang out with here in L.A. It became apparent that we have a lot in common personality-wise.
Youâ€™ve been to Phoenix quite a bit in the past couple of years. Have you seen enough to develop any thoughts on our city? I feel like I should have (laughs). Iâ€™ll tell you the truth: Thereâ€™s some markets where you keep going and seeing the same people. With Phoenix, I feel like every other time I come, itâ€™s a completely different group Iâ€™m in front of. Maybe itâ€™s just working with different promoters. I havenâ€™t figured out how to get that consistency …. it hasnâ€™t happened mathematically like it should,
But it seems to be a combination of who Iâ€™m playing with and who Iâ€™m working with on the ground there and what else is going on that night. For the Southwest, Phoenix is a pretty big spot and there seems to be a lot of rap shows and a lot going on there.
You have a 3-year-old son. Does he have a general idea of what you do? Yep. When his mommy asks what I do, he says, â€˜Goes on tour, making the music.â€™
It sounds so easy. Itâ€™s a pretty accurate assessment. At least itâ€™s half of my job.
Does he listen to your music? Yeah. He knows some words to some things. Heâ€™s pretty attentive listener. Heâ€™s big fan of guys I consider peers. He might like Serengeti more than he likes me. He likes Busdriver. He likes Billy Woods. Heâ€™s really into Shabazz Palaces. Also, heâ€™s really into Yo Gabba Gabba.
Changing topics here, weâ€™ve played some pretty intense Scrabble matches. Do you play Words With Friends as well? I keep trying. I had it on my phone for a while, but the board was weird. I felt like I was scoring 1,000 points every time. When I play on Facebook, itâ€™s not so bad. But I can barely play all my Scrabble games right now. Iâ€™ve probably got a shit-ton of Words With Friends games people are deleting.
Do you have least favorite letter in Scrabble? I canâ€™t stand â€œC.â€ I donâ€™t like Câ€™s. Kâ€™s I can deal with. The reason I hate Câ€™s is because thereâ€™s no two-letter words. If someone ends word with a C, that whole area is fucked. I donâ€™t like Uâ€™s and I donâ€™t like Iâ€™s. But, yeah, Câ€™s are terrible.
So you wonâ€™t be writing a song incorporating all the two-letter Scrabble words? I tend not to write like that (laughs). A band like They Might Be Giants â€¦ they have songs that are just plain writing exercises. I canâ€™t even think to do that.
Paul Barman is probably a guy that could do it, the way he plays with words. Heâ€™s the first guy that made me realize I canâ€™t do that. I wouldnâ€™t even know how to start. Itâ€™s pushing the art form for sure. Iâ€™m a little stupider than that.
Something I’ve been meaning to ask you about is how you sing a hook on “The Processional” that came from Busta Rhymes’ “Abandon Ship” from The Coming:
Thatâ€™s one of my favorite albums of all-time. For my money still and the more I learn about him, Busta Rhymes is one of the most talented rappers of all-time — just his rap ability and skill is ridiculous. … There’s like six or seven songs (on The Coming) that are just so incredible.
So it’s kind of like a personal homage?
Yeah. I mean, thereâ€™s weird rules in rap about things which you can and canâ€™t do. The moment I realized that a lot of things people would say in rap would borrow from older rap songs I hadnâ€™t heard simultaneously weirded me out and opened my head. They’re reinterpreting lyrics. It’s a whole sampling culture. The new album has four or five instances of pieces of other songs as hooks or bridges. There’s They Might Be Giants, Ben Folds Five, Sly Stone.
You’ve talked before about They Might Be Giants being one of your favorites. When were you first turned on to them? I was 9 the first time I heard one of their songs. It was “Birdhouse In Your Soul” … I just saw the video from when I was super-duper young. As far as I was concerned it was perfect music. Just the songwriting â€¦ and Iâ€™m a huge melody fiend. There’s these huge, sweeping chord progressions in that song. … I got that album a year after that and was in love with them ever since.
Are people surprised to hear you like that band?
I love rap a lot, too. But itâ€™s becoming hard to love the genre that Iâ€™m in just because Iâ€™m just hypercritical of everything. So listening to some jazz or rock just gives me distance to appreciate something and not be picking it apart.
Busdriver, the resident braniac of experimental rap, wrote a tweet the other day that gave me pause: “It’s boggling how much effort goes into any given song that ultimately gets converted into a violently disposable MP3.” It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment that speaks to our habits as digital consumers and asks the non-musicians among us to be more respectful of the artist at work.
It’s a point worth remembering, especially as I present to you an MP3 from Flash Bang Grenada â€“ Busdriver’s new project with Nocando. But this track, featuring their fellow Project Blowedian Open Mike Eagle, is hardly a throwaway.
When three of rap’s most progressive and self-aware MCs come together â€“ over a spellbinding beat from Mono/poly â€“ it’s going to take more than one listen (or five or 10 or more) to appreciate what’s happening here.
Flash Bang Grenada’s full-length 10 Haters comes out on Aug. 23.