The Uncanny Empathy of Open Mike Eagle

The rapper, comic, and podcaster on what he learned in one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects.
The Uncanny Empathy of Open Mike Eagle

The rapper, comic, and podcaster on what he learned in one of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects.

Words: Jason P. Woodbury

September 28, 2017

In 2007, the last of the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects came down. The storied buildings, home to upwards of thirty-thousand Chicagoans, weren’t replaced with new office buildings, luxury condos, or even a parking lot. In the buildings’ place stood nothing. Recently, the site’s become home to urban gardens, but it was in that negative space, the idea of something being replaced by nothing, that rapper Michael W. Eagle, a.k.a. Open Mike Eagle, formed his sixth album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.

Over twelve songs, Eagle raps around clockwork beats and synthesizers that warble like there’s something wrong with the power source, accompanied by squealing guitars and live piano. His voice often slips into his trademark rhythmic drone as he details living “in a space that should have never existed,” as he puts it. He examines the process that turns young men and women into comic book archetypes whose superpowers render them hardened enough to live in desolate situations but seal them off from the rest of the world.     

The Robert Taylor Homes were erected in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago, at the beginning of the 1960s. The towering high-rises were named for architect and housing activist Robert Rochon Taylor, onetime Chair of the Chicago Housing Authority, who resigned from the CHA after it became apparent to him that the city council did not share his commitment to citywide desegregation. Taylor died in 1957, just a few years before construction began on his namesake apartment buildings in 1961. Though they didn’t affirm his hope for integrated spaces—it’s been noted that he likely would have opposed their construction—the high-rises nonetheless represented a step forward for many black people in the city, symbolizing the ideas of prosperity, upward mobility, and modernity.

By the time the last building in the complex came down, the Homes had become synonymous with urban blight. They were designed to house eleven thousand, but the number of inhabitants swelled well beyond that. Fueled by a cocktail of systemic poverty, poor building maintenance, and a lack of public funding, life in the buildings was difficult. Police rarely patrolled the area, and the drug trade moved in. EMTs wouldn’t come in to help residents in crisis, fearing for their own safety.  

Eagle spent time in the Robert Taylor Homes growing up. He had family there—an aunt, cousins—and when I meet him in Los Angeles to talk about his new record, he tells me that the “buildings are such an iconic part of [his] memory” of Chicago. He remembers the hallways, where the lights were often out, and the elevators, which “smelled like urine constantly.” He grew up about a mile away, but the buildings left a permanent impression. When he pictures the Chicago skyline, he sees them “right off of the expressway.”

“I became fascinated by what’s there now,” Eagle says.  

He tells me that when he looked into what replaced the Robert Taylor Homes prior to the recently-planted gardens, he was surprised to find the answer was essentially “nothing.” “I think that’s where the album comes from: the nothingness,” he says. “Just an empty field where this entire culture [once existed].”

Building a baseball stadium or new freeway involves displacing people, Eagle acknowledges. But erecting a new structure in place of an old one at least satisfies a certain mental urge.

“I think even just visually, having a building stand where buildings used to be, helps in lessening the impact,” he says. “It makes you forget. When there’s nothing there, what does that mean?”

It’s enough to trigger an existential crisis. Eagle’s work is often driven by these kinds of concerns, and he thoughtfully addresses his ideas across multiple disciplines. In addition to his solo albums and frequent collaborative work, he hosts two podcasts. On his Secret Skin pod, he’s spoken with guests like Marc Maron, Jean Grae, and Chuck Klosterman in between confessional disclosures. On Maximum Fun’s Tights and Fights, he discusses the intricate world of pro wrestling with co-hosts Hal Lublin and Danielle Radford. He’s appeared on TV—check out his exceptional performance on Eric Andre’s Rapper Warrior Ninja segment—and recently, The New Negroes, his live black comedy showcase with Baron Vaughn (Grace and Frankie, Mystery Science Theater 3000), was picked up by Comedy Central.

“When there’s nothing there, what does that mean?”

His comedic voice is clear. Tinged with absurdity and exasperation, it’s one of the factors that makes Brick Body Kids Still Daydream as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. But it’s his knack for world-building that imbues the record with a true sense of place. It’s not a single snapshot but rather a flickering slideshow, alternately bittersweet (“Hymnal”), nostalgic, (“95 Radios”), claustrophobic (“Breezeway Ritual”), and “hella morose” (“(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home”). Eagle dismisses the idea that the album is a “sad one,” stating instead that it’s a dark one, and “heavy.” Part creative-writing exercise, part research project, it nods to the political, but it’s ultimately personal: Carefully, Eagle weaves biography together with an examination of a crumbling system.

“A big part of the record is about exploring trauma,” he says. “The story of black people in America, there are so [many] parallels that involve trauma. How we got here…segregation…lynching… The creation and destruction of these public buildings is another one of those things that never really gets unpacked.”

Eagle was away at college when the Robert Taylor Homes came down, and their destruction didn’t register with him then. Most of his family had moved out before the demolition forced them to. But documentaries on YouTube got him thinking about the spaces again, what they stood for, and what their non-existence might signify.

“There’s that American promise of prosperity,” he says. “And these were supposed to be a symbol of that. At the time, they were so modern. If you saw what was on that land before, it was really horrible—it was like shantytowns. That was the kind of impoverished place people lived in before. So people were jumping for joy at being able to have modern apartments, these high-rises. Black people in high-rises? That was amazing. But so quickly, they were allowed to go to shit.”

As a kid, Eagle obsessively read comics, especially The Uncanny X-Men. His rhymes are littered with references to Marvel’s merry mutants, and among Professor X’s students, he found heroes he could identify with.

“There’s pathos in there that isn’t in other stories,” Eagle says. “The analogues of prejudice, racism, and all of that, I think [X-Men] was a perfect vehicle for that. You’ve got a universe where people have powers—‘Oh great, these guys got bombarded by cosmic rays and they came back and now they’re heroes.’ And on the other side, you’ve got these people born with powers—they can manifest at any time.”

Heroes born as outcasts, misfits, and weirdos. That struck a chord with Eagle as a thoughtful young kid.

“You’ve got somebody who’s as strong as a high-level telepath, and you’ve got someone whose power is that they can make milk spoil, you know what I mean?” he says, laughing.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is framed like the first issue of a comic book. It sets the action into motion and introduces characters who’ll guide the listener deeper into this world. “Everybody’s secrets / Inspire all of my scenes / I write in all of my fantasies / And I die in all of my dreams / My superheroes I maintain / I take control of my scene,” he raps in “(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home.”

Of opening track “Legendary Iron Hood,” Eagle says, “that’s a superhero story, a superhero origin. Me being a kid in that environment, the fantasy you have is sometimes to supersede that environment.”

On the album cover, rendered by artist McKay Felt, the Robert Taylor Homes have faces, arms—impenetrable like the X-Men’s Colossus, immovable like the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’s Blob.  

“Iron Hood wishes to be harder than he is,” Eagle says. “There’s a hardening that takes place in that environment. So the kids become the buildings. They become harder… They turn off their emotions and sensitivity. That’s like the other side of the power. There’s a power there, but there’s also a degradation there where you don’t live the full expression of life if you’re not allowed to be sensitive and vulnerable. But vulnerable people die in that environment.”

On the album’s closing song, “My Auntie’s Building,” Eagle conflates the buildings themselves with the bodies of the people who occupied them. “They blew up my auntie’s building,” he raps. “Put out her great grandchildren / Who else in America / Deserves to have that feeling?” They’ll knock you down, he warns, in Chicago or Benghazi, employing his prophetic voice to question what it takes to carve out the space to exist. The Robert Taylor Homes were full of drug dealers, as well as churchfolk, children, elders—and they were displaced and traumatized. And for what? As the record ends, Eagle’s voice, softly repeating the phrase “Tearing my body down,” is engulfed in static.

“Forty years of culture of a place, having it be erased and all those people displaced,” Eagle says. “Thinking about that—marinating [in]on that—is a lot of where the album came from.” FL