Open Mike Eagle embraces gallows humor on Dark Comedy

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Open Mike Eagle certainly knows his way around a punchline.

On Dark Comedy, the most recent album from the L.A.-by-way-of-Chicago rapper, he shares a track with stand-up comic Hannibal Buress (the urgent, uproarious "Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)"), boasts of his fondness for the absurd, and hails the ridiculousness of the modern music era.

"And if your rap career ain't hitting/ You can rap over videos of kittens/ It's the golden age!" the MC rhymes on the twinkling "Golden Age Raps."

But, as the album title suggests, the music frequently ventures into far murkier territory, with Eagle spinning battered verses inspired by countless hours logged in solitary hotel rooms - "This is the loneliest planet I've ever seen," he sighs on the muted travelogue "Idaho" - and a world he sees steadily coming unglued at the seams. "There's mad shootings on the news/ Unless it's in the Chi, 'cause blacks and Mexicans can die," he huffs on "Dark Comedy Morning Show."

As the rapper explains early in the recording, "[I'm] on that laugh to keep from crying tip," and his steady embrace of gallows humor helps ease the sting of songs almost universally steeped in emotions like confusion, angst, sadness and anger.

"The default for a lot of rappers is braggadocio, and I've found my [verses] tend to coalesce into ridiculousness," said the MC, born Michael Eagle 33 years ago, during an early October interview from his L.A. home. "I started to notice I was doing that to get at some bigger ideas and to underscore some things I was feeling and going through. I've always learned about the world through humor, and … I think I've started to use it more as a way to express ideas and feelings I didn't have the words to express without it."

Eagle grew up on the South Side of Chicago, raised largely by his grandparents, who were careful to shelter him from the violence plaguing the neighborhood. The rapper said gunfire was a regular occurrence, and he recounted one time in third grade when a classmate passed out from a cocaine overdose. Even though the elementary school he attended was only blocks from his grandparents' home, he wasn't allowed to walk there on his own.

"It was the '80s, it was [the] crack [epidemic], and the school we went to was in the middle of the projects. It was all right there," he said. "My grandparents took care to shelter us, and what that meant was sitting me in front of the TV - probably too much. I think that's what sparked my imagination. There were 70 cable channels … and it gave me this window into the world of creative [types]."

Though Eagle received his earliest exposure to hip-hop via his mother, who introduced him to N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E when he was in first grade, it wasn't until he discovered the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Common and the Roots in the early '90s that he first felt a connection to the music. In the interim, he developed a fondness for alternative rock, immersing himself in the bands he discovered watching "120 Minutes" on MTV - an influence that carries over into the musically adventurous cuts dotting his latest. They Might Be Giants, in particular, remain a favorite to this day.

"Their work has always had this real vulnerability, and this real freedom, and this real willingness to go places and not adhere to strict ideas of things like, 'This is what it means to be a man in society,'" Eagle said. "They play with all of those things, and that playfulness has always been interesting to me."

Early on, Eagle's lyrical approach owed a heavy debt to underground MCs like Del tha Funkee Homosapien and MF Doom, and the MC said his first album, Unapologetic Art Rap, released in 2010, sounds like the work of a man still auditioning styles in an attempt to find his own voice.

The tide started to turn with the 2011 song "Dishes," a slice of everyday penned at a time the musician used to spend the better part of an hour each night washing the family's dishes by hand. "But now it's late evening/ I'm still busting suds/ That's what a house husband does," he rhymes at the onset, going on to detail elaborate daydreams of spray painting a Volkswagen Beetle gold and following Slug of Atmosphere on tour.

"Whenever I washed the dishes I used to put on beats and let my mind wander, and then I decided to write a song about that," Eagle said. "That was the first time I wrote a song where it really had the tone and color I wanted. There was a certain three-dimensional aspect to it, where you could kind of see a guy just washing the dishes and counting his thoughts as they go. It was like, 'OK, this is it.'"

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