Open Mike Eagle on Indie Rap's Breakthrough Year

So there's punk-rap, nerd-rap, avant-rap, and . . . oh, only about a gazillion other hyphenated hip-hop sub-genres. Open Mike Eagle describes his style as "art rap." At least for now.

"I'm unable to replace it," he laughs, speaking with me via phone from his home in Los Angeles. "And it's not even that I want to. I do want people to describe my music using different terms than what people might be accustomed to when they think of rap."

Eagle's getting ready for a short Southwestern tour, coming to the Hidden House with Has-Lo and Random (also known as MegaRan), courtesy of Kevin Murphy's long-running Phoenix music blog So Much Silence (I blogged for him a little pre-New Times).

It's a prelude to a much bigger, broader trip. In May, he's heading to Uganda with Brainfeeder recording artist Ras G, to help discuss and share hip-hop with Ugandan youth. The trip is supported in part by the city of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs, but you can still donate via Stay Classy.

We spoke with Eagle about the rise of "indie rap," Lil Wayne, and his upcoming trip.

Open Mike Eagle, Has Lo, and Random are scheduled to perform Friday, April 27, at Hidden House.

Up on the Sun: Jeff Weiss wrote a great piece about you a few years ago for our sister pager, L.A. Weekly. You guys talked about "art rap," which came from a skit on your record. But the term has stuck and been applied to your music. That was in 2010. In 2012, where are you at with "art rap?"

Open Mike Eagle: I'm unable to replace it [laughs]. And it's not even that I want to. I do want people to describe my music using different terms than what people might be accustomed to when they think of rap. There's definitely an element to what I do that's not traditional. I haven't come up with another good term yet. I mean, ultimately, I guess it would be "indie rap," but that's too blanket of a term I think to really apply to what I attempt to do.

I was out at Coachella this past weekend, and it was really interesting that people were talking about Death Grips, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Odd Future. As someone who has been steadily plugging away and has applied a term like art rap to what you do, do you get the sense that people are looking for something more unique in their hip-hop?

I certainly see that. 2011 was kind of like, you know, indie rap's first big year. The things that were seen more as interesting -- especially in terms of coverage of rap music -- were, like, acts that are very nontraditional. You got Danny Brown, Shabazz Palaces. There's a lot of attention given to those acts, plus Odd Future, Death Grips. There really is a whole new energy behind it . . . I don't know if you want to call it "alternative" yet, but there's definitely momentum happening in that arena. But weirdly enough, there's still an industry barrier in a sense; so it's not quite a youth meritocracy yet, but I think it's getting there. It definitely gives me more hope to continue doing my own thing.

It's not a new thing, but it feels like people are getting excited about stuff that isn't "the norm."

It's all able to kind of exist together in a way that doesn't not make sense, you know what I mean? The sound and the time is altogether where these things are interesting, for all kinds of reasons. It's an exciting time for sure.

Right, the fact that Shabazz Palaces is on Sub Pop, and that makes sense. It doesn't seem weird.

Doesn't seem weird or forced. It seems natural that Sub Pop would want to put out an act like that.

I was actually on a conference call with Drake today, and we didn't get to ask any questions . . .

That is absolutely hilarious. That's the funniest thing I've heard all day.

I know. We got to listen to a press person interview him, and it was very pro and he's a great talker, but I had questions about Jamie xx and Weeknd. What I was getting at is even an artist like Drake, who is as major label as it gets, and moves big numbers -- even on a record like his, there are some minimal, interesting things happening that feel unique to right now.

Absolutely. I would trace it back even further to Lil' Wayne's Carter III record. I remember hearing that album and being like, "Man, there are some things happening on this album...nobody in a board meeting is sitting around telling him to do that. Being artistic, and whatever gets him motivated to do so, and it's working. I think there was maybe a Kanye thing happening around the same time. I remember thinking, "Man, this is really going to open things up." There are even things on the most mainstream releases that are opening things up.

It's stuff like, hey, that's a King Crimson sample, or hey, that's a Can sample. I hate hearing people say stuff like "that legitimizes this music," because that's not the right way to look at it, but . . .

It's not legitimizing it. But to use a more cliché term, it's kind of breaking the mold. From 2001 to 2009 in hip-hop was a horrible time, in terms of homogeneity and things being super-predictable. And when Wayne comes along and he's actually captivating real music listeners and the music media, and is coming out talking about "I'm an alien," it's like whoa [laughs]. It does something to open up the possibilities, and what people are willing to be open to.

What's the plan for this trip to Uganda?

I want to educate some youth in the best way we can, whatever we find appropriate when we get there. The youth go to these centers, and we're going to make some music -- at least one Ugandan rapper -- and we're going to perform out there, me and Ras G. So hopefully the youth will come out having a good handle on what it means or the different ways they can make hip-hop. They're already doing it, but we want to show them different ways. Most of what they are used to is the American standard, and so we're going to find out what it means to them and what's going on with them. We're going to make some music and perform some stuff. It's an amazing feeling knowing this is about to happen.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.