Open Mike Eagle does more in one week than most people do in a year. A rapper, podcaster, and host of a live comedy night at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Eagle has also been known to do pop-up performances at laundromats and bowling alleys, and guest star on shows hosted by Hannibal Buress and Marc Maron.
Amidst all that, Eagle still made time to record an album in London last year, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2014 album, Dark Comedy, and his 2015 EP, A Special Episode Of. His latest effort, Hella Personal Film Festival, is a 14-track hip-hop journey that incorporates ’70s funk, galactic ambient, and cool jazz, and touches on issues ranging from Black Lives Matter, to prescription medication reliance, to riding the bus in L.A.
Here, Culver City-based Eagle talked to us about writing music in front of other people, the separation of public and private lives, and walking while Black.
Why did you decide that now was the right time for Hella Personal Film Festival?
I think it’s always time to do another album. I don’t know if I’ll ever not feel that way. I think it’s just part of the way my brain works; it’s just a constant kind of creation machine happening in my head.
You worked with a few different artists on this album, including producer Paul White and Aesop Rock. How did those collaborations come about?
Both of those guys are guys whose stuff I love. Me and Paul White had decided to put the album together, and we started working on it in the fall of 2014. [The process] was different song by song; the first song that we did, I just kind of did real quick. And then other stuff, it took a while to develop, it took a little longer.
What was different about this album than your first, 2010’s Unapologetic Art Rap, in terms of the production and creative side of things?
I typically record myself at home. This is the first project I’ve done with another studio; I did it out in London. In that sense, I was like, writing stuff and bringing it into the studio to record. That was a different process for me. Going in to a really nice studio to record, there’s audio benefits for sure, but I’m not necessarily at my most comfortable when I’m recording with other people.
I think everything came out good, but just psychologically, I feel better on my own.
Did that get easier as time went on?
Yeah, for sure. I think the first song we recorded in the studio, we didn’t even end up using ‘cause I was getting used to the sound.
In terms of my vocal performance decisions, I tend to try a bunch of different ways of going about things before I settle on the best way [to do] a song. And when I’m recording with other people, I’m conscious of them sitting there listening to me do that. They could be somewhere doing something productive, and I’m there figuring stuff out. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. Nobody does anything to make me feel bad about myself, it’s literally all in my head.
Some of this album was inspired by Black Lives Matter, right?
It was. It was suddenly in the consciousness then, the Black Lives Matter movement. It really caught fire around Ferguson, and the news that the cop wouldn’t be indicted [broke] while I was in London working on this project. That was very much in my consciousness and the public consciousness.
There’s definitely a song on there that the fact that I was thinking about that comes through, particularly this song called Smiling. It’s like, at its chorus…I feel like people don’t smile at me as much ‘cause I’m a Black man. I say that in the song, and the verses when I start talking about that touches on a lot of Black Lives Matter.
That sucks — that’s terrible, noticing that people don’t smile at you. How does that feel?
It’s something you just get used to. You expect it after a while, and you kind of internalize it. You kind of make yourself look nonthreatening. It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s…there’s just certain situations you’re aware of.
Like you try…let’s say there’s a [person walking] to their car, about to get in. I am aware that if this person sees me walking past and they don’t get enough of a lead time, they could be surprised in thinking I’m trying to sneak up on them. I have to like be visible. It’s like, weird things like that.
Like, staying in the light instead of the shadows, kind of?
Yes, exactly. You end up doing that; not always, but it’s just a thought that I have to be somewhat aware of.
So, you do tons of different stuff — in addition to music, you do some comedy, and you host two podcasts. What place do you see your work having in the current cultural climate?
I’m not like, an entertainer in essence. I don’t make escapist entertainment. So I just look at it more like…I want to say artsy, or arty. To me there’s no separation between the statements I want to make and the work I want to make. It’s all intertwined.
I don’t really do comedy. I’ve performed in comedy shows, stuff like that, but I’m not a comedian. I have a lot of respect for that craft.
You have a show at UCB though, right?
It’s called The New Negroes. It’s me and Baron Vaughn. It’s a showcase for alternative voices in black comedy. I cohost, and I riff onstage a bit.
Amidst all of this, you also host two podcasts, which is amazing. Tell me about them.
Conversation Parade is literally about that cartoon [Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time]. On my podcast Secret Skin, I talk to authors and artists and interview them on a personal level.
What made me want to start Secret Skin — and it’s funny, ‘cause I only realized this recently — I assumed that most entertainers I knew had like, issues that they dealt with in private, that they didn’t have a chance to give voice to in public. I’ve come to the understanding that that’s not true. Some people put all of their stuff out there. I think I felt like that ‘cause I do that. I started looking for that place in other artists; sometimes it’s there, sometimes its not. It still makes for a really cool conversation.
Were there certain people you really expected to have hidden issues that surprised you when it turned out they didn’t?
In a lot of cases, I think I suspected it with rap, because everybody has a stage names and there’s a lot of expectations for people. But actually I know quite a few rappers who really just put all their stuff out there, and there’s no separation between their stage name and themselves. I always think about Jean Grae; you listen to her music and you kind of don’t necessarily internalize it as a real person’s personal problems. It seems like commentary. But when I talked to her, it was like, “Oh, this is her real life!” There’s no movement back and forth with her.
Has that realization—that the reason you were interested in other artists’ separation of public and private is because you keep things separate yourself — changed the way you approach your work?
It makes me think about that a lot more. It makes me at least want to be more aware of it. So if I’m going to go the other direction, to think about it, be conscious of it.
The album has elements of so many different kinds of music—jazz, funk, ambient—how did you come up with the sound?
Really a lot of that was up to Paul. He makes a lot of different kinds of beats, and I kind of just followed his lead on a lot of it. I went with what I liked and what made me want to write, and a lot of layers and a lot of instrumentation and pretty much all of that, that’s him.
It was kind of an odd situation to work with someone you never worked with before. I was aware of him, mostly the stuff he did with Danny Brown, that I had heard, and I found out we were aware of each other and we kind of just connected.
Open Mike Eagle will be performing in the L.A. area on the following dates: