What the fuck is art rap? Hmmmm…It’s self aware, chalk full of irony…and it’s not particularly amenable to static definitions-but we can try to identify what an art rapper is. Sorting that out is an intuitive exercise. You just kind of know, and conversely, I hope, you know what ain’t. De la Soul was among the first art rap acts. Busdriver art raps all the time. He offers you a nagging nimbus, in fact (Dali would be proud). His fellow Project Blowed emcee and Mush records label mate, Open Mike Eagle practices it regularly-without the slightest compunction. As a matter of fact he coined the term and released the album Unapologetic Art Rap this year. And, he will allow the expression to outlive its usefulness as soon as rap stops being confined to its own version of the virgin/whore dichotomy: conscious vs. gangsta-or its more recent iteration “real” vs. mainstream. Hip Hop, rap, or whatever you choose to call it, carries heavy baggage. There’s a lot of pressure for it to do assorted parlor tricks and mean something (usually political in nature), or mean absolutely nothing (highly combustible, and assalicious in nature). Consider Open Mike, and other like-minded art rappers, champions of hip hop for the sake of it. Open’s a sort of conduit for all the geekery, idealism, malcontent, high hopes, self-deprecation, and creative confluence of the indie hip hop whale, that amidst a sea of back-packer cliches and mainstream malaise, is reinventing itself by embracing itself. It’s saying: let’s just do us-and let’s be extremely good at it.
Open is everything you’d expect and not. He wears hats and ties on stage because he’s a bit weird-not because he’s attempting a hipster aesthetic. He doesn’t keep up with the latest in music trends, yet he’s attuned to what the tastemakers dig (he’s been listening to Tune-Yards lately). He grew up in Chicago, but his style reads L.A. underground. During the birth of gangsta rap, Open felt like an inadequate token for the white kids he knew, as they were acting “blacker” than he was with his closeted penchant for grunge rock. But he didn’t start a rock band. He is undoubtedly hip hop. Open Mike first started emceeing at L.A. indie rap’s legendary Project Blowed in 2000 and settled in SoCal for good in 2004. His favorite hip hop album is Midnight Marauders and he rhymes with a sardonic wit and obscure references reminiscent of Posdnous. He teases out the undercurrents of controversial topics with a tinge of irreverence; peppering in ‘shits’ and ‘fucks’ with purpose. He’s long-winded when discussing the state of rap music, but his responses are earnest. He’s above all, a pragmatist determined to do things to his own beat. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Open Mike is on his way to becoming a self-actualized weirdo, and he wants his fan base of nerds to meet him there.
I recently sat down with him after a kooky show in Santa Monica. He opened for a hip hop fusion band (whose violinist, we suspected, might be a self-actualized weirdo too!). We walked around for a bit, at first avoiding, and then praying, to run into a Starbucks. We didn’t find one. In true underdog style, we obediently ordered lattes and swiftly got booted out of a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (and regrettably it wasn’t because of our wild hip hop behavior). So, we settled on a tough bench at the Third Street Promenade and started talking: waxing philosophical about hip hop being super crap lately, race, why the westside is kind of weird, closeted rock fans, and playing word association games. Toward the end, I was treated to an a cappella version of a soon to be released homage to hipster hair cuts, which you can hear, along with the video to his single about a thankless day job, via the you tube links below.
Enjoy the edited, and best of:
Why would you have to apologize for art rap?
Because there’s a stigma associated with it. Its like a rap slur…a lot of people do it but very few embrace the term.
Define Art Rap.
Art Rap? Art rap means whatever the fuck I want it to mean and that’s exactly why I use it. And I actually don’t really use it that much anymore because now people expect me to do whatever the fuck I want to do so I don’t have to give a context in that way. I started saying that….
Because it’s unapologetic right?
Exactly. I started saying this…….I was in the car driving to Vegas one day-the fucking world reveals itself to you when you drive a long way by yourself-and it occurred to me that it’s perfectly ok for there to be an art rock, lots of people make money doing art rock. But rap is just like, gangsta rap or conscious rap, it’s all these broad, dumb categories that don’t really describe anything. And I felt like we needed to have something that’s free. Art rock, college rock, indie rock…all that really means is you go into it expecting whoever’s doing it to be good, in whatever way they think good is. You’re not expecting to hear some mainstream shit. Rap needs a space like that.
Do you think hip hop has some sort of special mission that other genres don’t?
Not a special mission, but a special function…by word count alone, its bound to be more informative-it doesn’t have to be but it can. More than any other genre i think a rap song is like a conversation. There’s many different kinds…there’s jokes, there’s dissertations, there’s arguments.
What do you think is holding rap back?
The fucking rap audience. I thought for a long time it was just the artists. There’s a lot on unconscious racial shit in rap. I think the reality that has to be dealt with is the majority of America is white people, so the majority of just about any market is white people so if we’re talking about rap music, the majority of people who buy the music are white people, so I think when it comes to them and how they appreciate rap music, there’s this certain expectation from them that something be street or hard to be genuine to them. So when they hear somebody like me, they hear somebody like Busdriver….that’s why the journalists are like ‘Oh he speaks surprisingly well for a rapper!’
He was on time to the interview!
Right! That kind of shit….
He didn’t order the chicken….
Right, ‘he didn’t have have watermelon between his teeth when we were talking’……The expectations for us as human beings are so fucking low when you put it through a rap filter because their expectations for what a rapper is, is really stupid shit……..The bar is too low.
So how do you plan to get the geeks out, and reach your audience.
I just have keep calling for you guys, man. I have to think what’s a bat signal for the nerds……We’re used to staying home.
I was telling a friend that a lot of us are defecting……
In one way it makes sense because you want to go where someone is challenging something, where someone is being true to whatever their experience is. That kind of artistic integrity attracts us.
What are you listening to now? Are you excited about anything in 2010?
I’m listening to the Arcade Fire album……there’s some moments of greatness on it. A little Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros.
You’re a big Pavement fan and mentioned you worked on a cover of “Cut your Hair”. What’s your fantasy cover song?
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” by they Might be Giants……. It’s the perfect song. Perfect chord progression, perfect lyrics……..it feels like an orgasm in heaven.
What projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
Art Rap After-party EP is dropping next month….the new Thirsty Fish album “Watergate” is finished and will be out next spring. Im finishing my next solo record tentatively titled “Rappers will die of natural causes.” Im 2/3 done with an album with producer Awkward from the UK and I just started working on a project with Ras G for the Hellfyre Club/Alpha Pup label.
What gem can you share with the kind of weird. Not creepy weird, but awesome weird.
Weird, like socially awkward, cerebral, live in our heads?….. I’m still learning how to do that. Part of the big challenge to me in even being a performer is that I have to get up in front of people all the time when I’d rather be by my fucking self reading a book-usually. But it’s just like being true to that in front of people is my challenge so that I can be more of a self-actualized weird person.
For more on Open Mike Eagle check out these links:
In case you were curious, here’s a snippet of our word association game:
shit…hermaphrodite was in my head. But it’s the rumors!
You got one word!
I’m sorry! I appreciate part of what she’s doing.
Maybe next year