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Open Mike Eagle’s uncompromising lyrics continue to resonate

Open Mike Eagle | PHOTO BY EMARI TRAFFIC

There’s an especially arresting metaphor, on an album rich with urgent, vivid poetry, from Open Mike Eagle’s most recent release “Hella Personal Film Festival,” the Chicago-bred Los Angeleno’s lavish and forceful collaboration with British producer Paul White. In the track “A Short About a Guy That Dies Everynight [sic],” Eagle – who headlines Schubas Tavern Jan. 15 as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival – expresses the survival likelihood of young black men today vis-à-vis law enforcement as “Born on the train from Auschwitz to Birkenau.”

Open Mike Eagle, Psalm One, Femdot, Crashprez 
When: 9 p.m. Jan. 15
Where: Schubas Tavern, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets: $15  (18+over)
Info: www.lh-st.com

“A Short About …” is “literally just the premise of a singular being that, every night, is aware he’s going to die,” said the self-described practitioner of “unapologetic art rap” (Eagle’s 2010 debut-album title). “But in writing the song, I started to draw upon police-brutality violence. Those were the images that came into my mind.

“The part that scares me,” Eagle added, “is how little surprised I am anymore, when a verdict doesn’t go the way I – the way a lot of people I know – feel it should. You get that kind of cultural statement over and over again, and you just stop being surprised at it at a certain point.

“You have to have a racial awareness,” he emphasized. “You know police, and authority, a different way as a black male [when] you know you’re in danger of losing your life.”

Eagle’s potent, uncompromising lyrics are enveloped in the soul- and funk-laced gorgeousness of White’s production throughout “HPFF,” released last March on the indie label Mello Music Group. Its 14 strikingly varied (yet of a piece), no-filler tracks clock in at a leave-‘em-wanting-more 45 minutes. “I feel like that’s a good place to end a statement,” the artist said with a smile in his voice. “I’ve been leaning towards that lately.”

His previous, equally essential project, “Dark Comedy,” was unanimously voted 2014’s best album (among Los Angeles artists) by writers at L.A. Weekly. The taste-making alternative publication declared Eagle “Indie Rap’s Sharpest, Funniest Social Critic,” observing, “He speaks the way he raps – with innately melodic cadences and a levelheaded calmness to balance the discontent.”

And speaking of comedy, the MC’s decades-long friendship with stand-up star Hannibal Buress has helped him accrue wider exposure. The two are fellow Chicago exports, not to mention fellow brilliant iconoclasts, and they’d both been fellow “ackies” (junior-high students enrolled in Whitney Young Magnet High School’s accelerated Academic Center) though they didn’t become truly acquainted until both attended Southern Illinois University.

“My first performance was at Whitney Young’s senior talent show,” said Eagle, who’d formed a hip-hop crew that included schoolmate Cristalle Bowen; now known as powerhouse Chicago MC Psalm One, she is scheduled to open for Eagle at Schubas.

“We’d come together to write a rap about life in Whitney at that time – and we got called into the assistant principal’s office after we submitted our lyrics,” Eagle commented with a touch of pride. “We were speaking in detail on some things they didn’t know we knew about.”

Fast-forward to SIU, where Eagle spent some time as Buress’s R.A., and where both honed their skills at a regular campus open-mic session called “Culture:” “Just poetry reading and rapping, and then Hannibal started bringing comedians in.”

Eagle and Buress have performed together on numerous occasions, and in summer 2015 the former made a memorable guest appearance on the latter’s Comedy Central television series, “Why? With Hannibal Buress,” alongside the show’s esteemed DJ, Flying Lotus, and the wizardly bass guitarist Thundercat (whose credits include Kendrick Lamar).

“Mike’s a good rapper and a funny dude,” Buress remarked in a phone call, noting, “Mostly, rappers perform live with deejays, but in concert he’ll bring his own laptop and equipment, and set up his songs himself.”

Experimentation is second nature to the adventuresome Eagle, a driving force in the National Institutes of Health’s 2012 investigation into brain activity during freestyle rapping. NIH had already been studying “brain function during piano improvisation,” Eagle said; he and a research-inclined friend, hip-hop producer Daniel Rizik-Baer, thought they might be interested in freestyle rap as well.”

And that is how Eagle ended up rhyming, supine, in an MRI machine. “At first, all I could do was rap about being in the tube, until the shock of it wore off,” the MC recalled. However, to facilitate the clearest images of his gray matter in flow state, Eagle was obliged to remain motionless.

Which, as he pointed out, “is nearly impossible. It’s so important for you to keep the rhythm of a rap, but your brain can’t consciously do that because it’s thinking of words to say.

“One of the main things I learned,” Eagle concluded. “is how much your body is a metronome.”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.