Open Mike Eagle may live in Los Angeles now, but his Chicago upbringing will stay with him no matter where he moves. The rapper has been on the rise ever since he released his first solo album in 2010. He’s collaborated with everyone from Kool A.D. to Aesop Rock over the years, but it’s his narrative pieces in the alternative side of hip-hop that showcase what he’s best at. And on his newest record, it took prying into his childhood days to give his verses their strongest impact yet.
On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle focuses on the Chicago South Side housing project Robert Taylor Homes, specifically its neighborhoods and communities that fail to get proper, rounded coverage in pop culture. The buildings were there when he was growing up. By the time he left for college, they were demolished. To capture the real personality of its old residents, he decided it was time to be upfront about his album narrative for once.
“The biggest takeaway with that was to put human faces and emotions onto a tragedy that a lot of people were distanced from,” he says. “I wanted have people walk away thinking about how tens of thousands of humans that lived in this place and then it got demolished. Just like that. I spent some time in there because I had relatives there. It was a community and you knew people on different floors, so you would sometimes go to their apartments, and they were completely different in terms of how they were decorated. Apartments were an extension of those people’s personalities. This was early in the ’80s, so there were a lot of late-’70s-style decorations: hanging beads, velvet paintings, plastic furniture, and all sorts of ornate, everyday items.”
To help explore Open Mike Eagle’s backstory a bit more before he performs at the Sinclair, we interviewed him for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask bands questions inspired by their song titles. True to his album, the answers bring anecdotal words to life with flair.
1) “Legendary Iron Hood”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the heaviest weight you’ve ever seen someone lift?
EAGLE: I just watched a guy on Monday night lift the cab of a big rig over. He came from one of those strongman competitions, though, so I don’t know how rigged this was. They made it look pretty realistic. But that’s my jam. I watch wrestling every week. I like the fake drama.
2) “(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home”
DIGBOSTON: Where is your home away from home, the place you feel most comfortable that isn’t technically your own?
EAGLE: The airport bar at, like, any airport. My favorite one is in Minneapolis. It was the first one I went to where you order your drink on an individual iPad rigged into the bar seat. You don’t have to talk to anybody. You just pay and press a button. People bring you stuff. It’s very modern. Lately, I’ve been getting whiskey sodas.
DIGBOSTON: Were you religious growing up?
EAGLE: Yeah, I was heavy into church. I was an acolyte. I used to wear the white robe and light candles and sing in choir. I liked some parts of it and others were very weird. But it was just part of life growing up in the situation I grew up in.
4) “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretending It Don’t Hurt)”
DIGBOSTON: Which family item has been passed down to you that you would never sell?
EAGLE: My kid’s trophies. They’re for basketball. He plays in a couple leagues.
5) “Happy Wasteland Day”
DIGBOSTON: Which item are you the least resourceful with?
EAGLE: I can’t cook, and that’s a big problem. Like, if things go bad in the world, I’m out there all alone [laughs]. I never cook, or mostly never. The last thing I made was a turkey burger because it’s one of three items I can make. Really, I’m awful.
6) “Daydreaming in the Projects”
DIGBOSTON: Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?
EAGLE: I used to have dreams where I wanted to jump off tall buildings, not in a suicidal way. I would think, “I’m up here and I’m scared, but it’s the only way down.” I’d be standing on the tippy-top of these sky-rises. Just falling slowly. Those were the dreams I had at night. My daydreams were mostly about cartoons, like Transformers and BraveStarr.
7) “Brick Body Complex”
DIGBOSTON: Who taught you how to be emotionally and mentally strong growing up?
EAGLE: My dad and my grandmother and my grandfather. My dad used to take measures to try to “toughen” me up a bit because I was a nerdy kid. My grandparents mostly talked me through things. They tried to help me find strength and resolve that way.
8) “TLDR (Smithing)”
DIGBOSTON: Who do you prefer: the Smiths or Robert Smith?
EAGLE: I’d probably gotta go with the Smiths, but if you ask me in a year I’d have a different answer. It’s because they have, out of the two of them, the songs I’ve heard the most recently that I got obsessed with.
9) “Breezeway Ritual”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the first thing you do everytime you walk inside your house?
EAGLE: Check the mail. I go get the mail key to get the mail. It’s like a breezeway in this apartment complex, so when I get home I have to turn around and go back out to check the mail.
10) “Wedding Ghosts”
DIGBOSTON: Can you describe the most ridiculous wedding you’ve ever been to?
EAGLE: Probably mine [laughs]. We dressed in black and had it in an alley in Chicago. It honestly kind of looked like a mafia wedding. The idea was both of ours; we both warmed up on it.
11) “95 Radios”
DIGBOSTON: Are there any local radio stations you still listen to?
EAGLE: I don’t listen to any in LA on purpose, but I’ll turn on NPR there sometimes. All my favorite radio stations are in Chicago. WHPK in Chicago is great. I listened to Q101, too. Chicago stations are my stations. I tend to avoid the radio now. WHPK only has three shows that I liked out of a diverse lineup of shows, so I try to wait until the shows I know I like are on. Those were underground or independent hip hop. Another was college rock music from the ’80s and ’90s, because I love that. I like ’90s grunge music a lot, too.
12) “My Auntie’s Building”
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you visited your aunt?
EAGLE: I have not seen that aunt in many years. My mom just sent me a picture of her and I realized, man, it’s probably been 20 years. The last time I visited would’ve been at her daughter’s house, my cousin’s house. It’s a long time. I don’t get to Chicago for family stuff. I tend to go for shows. My family is dispersed now. Some are in Gary, Indiana, and some are in Chicago suburbs. I keep in touch with my mom, sister, and brother often, though.
WHY?, OPEN MIKE EAGLE. WED 2.7. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/18+/$20. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM