LA-founded and operated Hellfyre Club epitomizes the saying, “You are the company that you keep,” a mantra that holds true within the realms of hip-hop and the street culture associated with it; to be loosely translated, the idea goes hand-in-hand with the ghetto rule-of-thumb stating that “Fate chooses your friends, you choose your family.” Founded and streamlined by Nocando, he surrounded himself with individually like-minded cats that had a niche for writing rhymes over beats in a way that enticed a contextually unfamiliar vernacular that was stylistically familiar at the same damn time. Enter Open Mike Eagle, native Chicagoan, Hellfyre Club member and proud indie rapper. Upon today’s release of his most recent LP, “Dark Comedy,” Open Mike Eagle held it down in the rap game for nearly 20 years – living somewhere between hip-hop’s realms of gangster rap and the eclectic hip-hop that Hellfyre Club has built their foundation off of. We sat down with Open Mike Eagle to talk about what it means to be an indie rapper, the changes in hip-hop and why he should stop reading articles about himself.
LA CANVAS: How’s life?
Open Mike Eagle: Life is treating me well, I’m just sleepy most of the time and I have to come up with a better way to strategize sleep. I take my son to school in the morning, no matter what happens the night before; I had a show in San Bernadino last night and didn’t get home until 3am and he got up early today for whatever reason so I’m operating on about a third of my brain capacity right now. *laughs* But that’s almost typical, and that’s kind of weird to me.
LAC: Well, we only use about 10% of our brain don’t we?
OME: Yeah, but I’m at about a third of that ten, so I’m more like at three right now. *laughs* So guess what I’m going to do after this? Take a big, fat, juicy nap.
LAC: Your album “Dark Comedy” just came out. What are some of the concepts that went into the album, what are some of the stories behind it?
OME: So many stories, man, each song is a different story by itself. I spend a lot of time crafting each song – there’s 13 songs on the album and each ones comes from a really different place. I was probably in a very different mind state for most of them.
LAC: I mean, I figure with a title like “Dark Comedy,” I’d assume it’s some heavy content.
OME: There’s some heavy stuff and there’s light stuff, but there’s also making light of the heavy, vice versa and the juxtaposition of those things. I think there’s where I live: in that space in between what’s serious and what’s not serious because people ask me sometimes if a song is serious or if it’s a joke, and sometimes I don’t know because I think it can be both.
LAC: Because life is like that – all different shades of gray.
OME: Exactlly; and most of the time the things I enjoy from other people’s art are things along that line too. So, I didn’t really answer your question, but truthfully its because I don’t know how.
LAC: So to pick your brain further, what’s the creative process for when you’re writing your music?
OME: The beat that I love is asking me something, and I have to figure out what it’s asking. And then I play it over and over and over again until it reveals itself to me on how I should talk or what I should say, and the songs develop from there pretty much. If it’s a good song, I’ll get a pretty clear picture and then just start writing. Sometimes I’ll write starting from the first bar to the end, other times there’s a lot of note-taking and going back to craft it.
LAC: Do you ever read what bloggers or journalists say about your work?
OME: I do, but I think I do it too much.
LAC: Does it ever get to your head?
OME: It does because my ego is very sensitive, but it’s also very large. And that’s because I’m an American male and I rap for a living. Those things are very tough on an ego — that’s like weight-lifting for a cast iron ego and so I do want to know what people are saying, but even when its good it’s not good the right way or it’s never perfect. I should just stop *laughs*
LAC: I always imagined it’s hard for artists to present this body of work and then have someone come out of left field, who doesn’t know you’re coming from, and just interrogate it, whether the resulting critique is good or bad.
OME: What makes it worse is that a lot of times they think they know where I’m coming from. If you as a writer are going to present your interpretation of something is at least state within that’s it’s just a mere interpretation – it’s not the ending definition of anything. There are some songs on this album where I have a hard time dissecting where I was coming from when I wrote it. Some of them are two years old, so the distance between where I was when I was writing it and now where I’m talking about it is very far away – and that’s me talking about my own project, let alone some writer from some publication to interpret it.
LAC: What was your reaction to being called an “indie rapper”? I know with some folks, it might strike a nerve or some kind.
OME: I loved it. I love indie rap. That’s the nicest thing someone could call me, really – there’s a lot of worse ways to describe what we do. I enjoy indie rap as a concept because it’s like how rock music has all these different kinds of rock; you got rockabilly, hog, punk, art rock and there’s just these so many different ways within that genre for artists to express themselves. Ultimately, I think a lot of what me and my friends do is trying to establish that same reality within rap so that we’re not bound by the expectations of one kind of rap music or one kind of rapper, which tends to happen because the media only shows rappers shown on larger media outlets.
LAC: If we’re talking about hip-hop today, who’s really out there dominating mainstream rap? You have TDE and Kendrick Lamar, and then you have like Tyler the Creator and Odd Future.
OME: But even those two, those are better than what has been around for a long time, which was straight up gangster rap, but there a few new voices now, which is cool, but again, it’s just a few. Our angle is closer to that but it’s more unique and more vulnerable. Tyler is kind of shocking a lot of the time, which is his thing. Kendrick is doing his own thing, and I really have nothing bad to say about either of them, but compared to them, what my friends and I (in Hellfyre Club) do are just a lot more open, less macho-man type stuff, you know?
LAC: I mean, you guys are constantly being described a crew that’s “super left-field.”
OME: Which is weird because Nocando is not weird at all. He’s the normal-est rapper I hang around. He listens to a lot of stuff that I can’t listen to because his ear is to the street. So it’s interesting that he gets lumped into that – I mean, I know I’m more left field, and the thing that’s common between us is that I know we’re both vulnerable, but I really don’t think he’s weird or left-field at all.
LAC: You started your rap career mostly associated with a few different crews (Thirsty Fish, Swim Team, Project Blowed) when did you start doing more solo work?
OME: When I was in college I started writing solo songs because I didn’t have a crew back then. Then when I moved out here, I was in Thirsty Fish, then we started the Swim Team, which was a bigger outfit. Somewhere between doing all the collaborations with those two, whenver we got together to hash out ideas for Thirsty Fish — trying to figure out our common bond, even though we were all really different – when I’d go home and do my solo stuff, I’d be super into it. I think I started to find my voice through collaboration – I would start to learn the difference between me and my friends in how we approached things. When I wanted to work on my solo stuff, I could just indulge in this voice that I’m not often able to inject into that situation. When we were making our first record in 2008 (with Thirsty Fish) I was working around a lot of my solo material in that time. I had an EP beforehand but at that point in 2008 I started working on songs for albums.
LAC: How does that dynamic work? You’re talking about you’re able to find your voice among working with so many different people, but to backtrack, how do you put out a single album or project when there’s so many moving parts?
OME: It got to be difficult, to be honest. By the time we got to our second album, I think all of us had kind of matured more in terms of our own individual aesthetic so it became harder to find a place to meet on all concepts or directions because I think we all came into it as solo acts first. With three people it got to be agreeing on a beat was difficult, and agreeing on a concept was difficult, and agreeing on how the hook should be got difficult to the order or how the verses should be broken up. There’s so many phases to have to agree on, but there are some groups that have done it for years and I can admire that.
LAC: What do you have planned for the rest of 2014?
OME: I have some spot dates for now, but no tour booked yet. I have a show here and there, I’m doing the Hop Scotch Festival in September, a show in New York City later in the year. We just did a Hellfyre Club tour, which was great, with some hopes of another one next year. But we’ll see. I’m starting a podcast that I’m excited about, which is still in the works.
*WERK IT OUT, OME.
Azizi Gibson will be releasing a new mixtape on June 15th named after the classic anime film Ghost in The Shell. The 1995 movie which is set in the distant future after we have all become globally interconnected, where cyberpunks are hacking into networking systems for their own gain in a setting which might’ve eerily described 2013. Although Azizi Gibson is no “cyberpunk,” the globetrotting rapper could easily be described as a modern-day punk, going against mainstream hip-hop conventions – he’s the young self-boasting MC newly signed to the famously unconventional electronic label, Brainfeeder.
Though the streets of L.A. may differ from the fantasy world of Ghost in the Shell, the mixtape’s songs resonate with us, providing the perfect set of summer jams to cruise to. We certainly would have no issues with Gibson hacking his way into our iTunes. Read below as we chat about Gibson’s roots, influences, and how he got into hip-hop.
Your bio on Alpha Pup starts with “Azizi Gibson doesn’t have a home,” can you elaborate?
Well, I was born in Frankfurt Germany but not because my family was living there. I’m a military brat, and my dad was stationed in Zaire, Africa. The hospitals over there were dirty, so they flew to Germany to have me. Then we flew back to Zaire. I lived in Africa for a little while. Then I moved to Thailand and then to Singapore, then back to Thailand. I moved to Cambodia for a little bit, and finally I moved to America by the time I was almost 11 (years old).
Where in America did you move to?
I moved to Maryland. I was moving around a lot in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area.
So where did you find hip-hop? Did you find it abroad or over here?
I found it over there. I was just hearing what my sisters and brother were listening to. We didn’t really get a lot of rap on television, so we got a lot of mainstream stuff like Eminem. But Slim Shady was one of the biggest influences that made me want to become a rapper, even though I was already a fan of Outkast and The Pharcyde. And because there wasn’t a lot of rap, rock music was accepted overseas and MTV would play Linkin Park. The rapper from Linkin Park, the freestyler – I forget his name, also made want to freestyle. He’s the one that got me into freestyling.
What brought you to L.A.?
I was living in Maryland, I was doing my music, I had a little fan base but nothing to be proud of or speak about, I just knew my music was tight but I just didn’t have a way to get it out there. Honestly, I took a chance… I moved over here praying and hoping. I just never thought of anything else but doing music. I was like “shoot, California might happen. It has better opportunities.”
And it kind of worked out. I ended up meeting Flying Lotus randomly at a gym. I was living in this building, sleeping on a couch, and I went down to the gym one day, I saw Flying Lotus – told him I was a fan. He gave me his e-mail address but it didn’t work. It wasn’t a fake e-mail, it was just full.
Then I got laid off from my job and the same day I had brought everyone a CD copy of my mixtape, some people didn’t show up so I had some extras. Later I was at the gym, saw Flying Lotus, and I was like “Hey man, I tried to e-mail you, I think your email is full, here – take this mixtape.”
Apparently he listened to it right after he left the gym. I got on my twitter and he shouts me out. He DMs me to kick it with him. The day after I gave him my mixtape we were playing video games at his place. We built a relationship over three months. I’m was going to his shows and these dope events. He then wrote me an e-mail and said, “Let’s make it happen.” I had a Brainfeeder contract.
Did Flying Lotus influence you to sound west coast?
People say I sound “west coast,” but I don’t understand what that means. I’m not from here at all. I just love the lifestyle. People say I have an “LA Swagger,” I don’t know what that means! It’s a cool compliment though. Maybe California and him have influenced me a lot, because I’m definitely more laid back. I don’t try to worry too much. I don’t like the stress.
I think Flying Lotus inspired me the most, before and after I signed. I was just a big fan. He’s an African American producer that made really dope stuff, and I related to him immediately because I’m a producer myself.
You don’t collaborate with a lot of people, is there anyone you would love to collaborate with?
I would collaborate with anyone, but I just feel like you got do you first. I would love to do a song with Danny Brown, Schoolboy, or A$AP Rocky, but I don’t want to do a song with them first and then I’d be the guy who made it because I did that one big song with A-Trak. It’s cool and all, but then people would think you’re trying to hop-on just to get further.
I notice you follow Bjork on twitter, is there anyone else you listen to that we might find surprising?
I love Little Dragon, Gorillaz is still my favorite band, I’m listening to The Strokes, and I’m a super-duper Thundercat fan.
What’s the meaning behind the title Ghost in the Shell?
Well the reason why it’s called Ghost in The Shell is because the first anime that I ever watched was Ghost in The Shell. It was shown to me by my father. We were in Thailand, he told me to watch it. I got into it and It got me into animation.
Ghost in The Shell is my first solo mixtape on my favorite label. It’s me introducing myself to the world so that people who are into anime, who are into this type of music – this is kind of me saying to them “here, this is me getting you started.”
Do you think you’re going to be staying in L.A?
There’s a possible chance I might be moving to New York within the next 60 days. I really don’t have a home so traveling is the best thing to do. I try to meet people and spread my music like a nomad.
Kendrick Lamar has certainly blown up since appearing in our Downtown Issue last May, especially following the hype of his summer hit with Dr. Dre, “The Recipe.” But that was by no means the only jam or big-name cameo from his sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city.
The album’s latest single, “Poetic Justice,” features a little help from Kendrick’s friend Drake, who delivers his rhymes via phone from a hotel room, where he sits next to an angelically passed-out-post-coital woman (every man’s fantasy). Meanwhile, Kendrick looks dapper in a square-print button-down as the tragic love story unfolds. Up to you to decide whether the bloody ending is indeed poetic and just.