Episode 38: Mike Eagle
Not many rappers list They Might Be Giants as their primary musical influence. But Mike, who performs as “Open Mike Eagle” isn’t like most rappers. Labelled as Art Rap by the L.A. Times, Mike’s songs are thoughtful, wry and uncompromising. He opens up about the struggle to fit in at a school for gifted children, the uncertainty of familial love in an unstable home, and the need to discuss the mental effects history has had on African Americans.
Paul: Welcome to episode 38 with my guest Mike Eagle. I’m Paul Gilmartin, this is the Mental Illness Happy Hour – an hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads. From medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive, negative thinking, feelings of dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy, and that vague, sinking feeling that the world is passing us by. You give us an hour; we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky. This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional, medical, mental advice. I’m a jackass that tells dick jokes. This is not the doctor’s office – it’s more like hopefully a waiting room that doesn’t suck.
Before we get to a great interview with Mike, I have a couple of notes. Please visit the website – it’s mentalpod.com. That’s also the Twitter name you can follow me at. But the website’s got a bunch of great stuff. You can take a survey. You can post in the forum. You can read how people responded to a survey. You can buy a t-shirt. And we do have some links for – if you want to know more about where to get professional help, we have a link on the site.
A couple of different ways you can support this show. You can support it with a donation via PayPal or buy stuff at Amazon through our link on our website. Amazon gives us a couple of nickels. And a lot of you have been doing that, I really appreciate that. And you can support us non-financially by going to iTunes and giving us a good rating. That I really, really appreciate when people do that. And keep the emails coming. I love getting emails from you guys and you can also leave a voice message on Skype. The phone number is 818-574-7177.
I’d like to read someone’s response to the survey on the website. Her name’s Natalie. She’s in her twenties. She says she was raised in a fairly chaotic environment. Her most common negative thoughts are, “Even when I try my best I’m not smart enough or strong enough. Nobody understands me. I will never find the right guy and have kids. I will die alone and unsuccessful. When I’m in a relationship, I sometimes think that I’m not good enough for him – that he’s only with me because he wants to get laid or because the woman he really wants to be with won’t date him.” Describing any behaviors she engages in but wished she didn’t, she writes, “I put things off until the last second, get too involved in the things that I start at the last second. Thus, I’m perpetually late. I often forget to bring the things I need with me. I dwell on moments of failure far in the past and get really stressed out about failing in the present. I act how I believe other people want me to act rather than how I want to act. I’m hypersensitive to my surrounding and often react emotionally in ways that make most people uncomfortable. I trust too easily and tend to disclose too much information to people I hardly know.” Sweet Christ, I feel like she’s describing me. Anything keeping from her being happy, she writes, “Most of the time it’s just me.” Her defining mood is anxious and restless. Her primary activities are obsessing about others and procrastinating. To the question, “What causes you to feel ashamed, if anything,” she writes, “Failure. Mediocrity. Anytime I leave a situation knowing I could have handled it better.” Does anything make you feel guilty? She writes, “Not being there for those who need me. The feeling that I’m not doing enough.” What makes her feel angry? She writes, “Being poorly misjudged. Bigotry. Cruelty. Being talked down to.” And then finally, to the question, “If there is a God, what are some things you would say to God?” She writes, “I wish you were more tangible. I wish I could just hear you and not the religious nut jobs that claim to speak to you. I hear their voices a lot more clearly than I hear yours and that aggravates me. Sometimes I have doubts about you, but there is never a doubt in my mind about veganism, my newest ‘religion.’ That definitely won’t lapse as easily as my Catholicism. I believe that there is a good reason for everything you do, even if I can’t see what it is right away. Even though I don’t always live as you would have me live, I know that you’re a lot more accepting of me and more loving than some of your pretentious, self-righteous followers. I love you, but I can’t stand your church sometimes.”
Paul: I’m here with Mike Eagle. You don’t want to be known as “Open Mic Eagle” offstage, do you?
Mike: Doesn’t matter much. It’s enough of my real name either way, so it’s not really a big deal.
Paul: Mike is a rapper who I met a couple of weeks ago. We were both on Paul F. Thomkin’s live show at Largo here in L.A. and we were just shooting the shit backstage and I don’t know how we got on the subject, but you just struck me as somebody who would be a great guest for this show. And so when I approached you with the subject, you seemed really open to it and also mentioned that you had studied psychology in college, which I was like, “Oh that will be good.” And then you mentioned that you were from the south side of Chicago, which I’m from the south suburbs but I’m also familiar with the south side of Chicago. But before we get to that, I want to tell you a little bit about Mike. He’s a rapper. He’s got an album out right now called Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes. It was described by the L.A. times as, “art rap.” Is that also how you would describe it?
Mike: Kinda yeah. Mostly. Actually I kind of coined that term
Paul: I don’t listen to a ton of hip hop so I would probably not be the person to judge, but my feeling is that there isn’t a ton of vulnerability out there in at least in main stream hip hop. Am I off base there?
Mike: No, you’re absolutely correct. There is a lot in like in independent and kind of underground hip hop, there’s definitely a lot of it. But by nature of it being independent and underground, most people aren’t aware of it.
Paul: I think most main stream art forms lack vulnerability because I think the easiest thing in the world to do is to kind of put your walls up and be cynical and say, “Here’s where everybody else is wrong.”And you don’t risk anything because you’re not revealing anything of yourself. But one of the things that touches me the most in art is when somebody does reveal something about themselves and your album is full of it. I really enjoyed it. I know all art has a philosophy behind it but there’s just kind of a philosophical undertone running through your songs that I really enjoyed. Especially the song Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes. You kind of pause at this idea of where are these guys going to be 20 years after they’re selling out stadiums? And can you give a sample of some of the lyrics that you say about – or is that uncomfortable for you?
Mike: No not necessarily. We’re in a booth. This is kind of similar to where I do stuff anyway. I guess the hook is the best representation. What is it? “They use to act all active and lawless / They used to live like bachelors ballin’ / But all actresses hit menopause / And rappers will die of natural causes / They’re going to need hip fractures from fallin’ / They’re going to need Viagra and bypasses / They’re going to wait for their grandkids to call them / And rappers will die of natural causes” And that kind of sums up where I come from on the song.
Paul: The line that I love is, “They’re going to wait for their grandkids to call them.” I think what I like about that so much is you just poke in the hole in the idea, the image of the rapper as being the guy that doesn’t feel, that just fucks and rakes in the money and has no sensitive side to himself. And I just really like it so if you’re so disposed, go pick up his album. You can go to Mike’s website which is www.mikeeagle.net. And that LA Times article had some really nice things to say about you. I didn’t see – is that on your website, that article?
Mike: No, I have to figure out a way to start doing that. Is that weird, to like post press?
Paul: Oh my god, you are a perfect fucking guest for this show. (Laughs) Oh my god, I found somebody with lower self-esteem than me! This is awesome.
Mike: (Laughs) It’s a really like thin line between like – I mean believe me I’ve posted it all on my Facebook and Twitter and all that. I definitely let people know about it.
Paul: Dude, that should be on the front page of your website.
Mike: Yeah. I don’t know.
Paul: At least a quote from it.
Paul: That’s my feeling. But when I didn’t see it on your website, I was like, “Okay”
Mike: Yeah I just haven’t put much press, you know what I mean? I use it for new music and let people know what’s happening but I just haven’t tended to put much press on the website, but I guess I should do that.
Paul: Listening to your CD, one of the lines that I liked is, and I’m paraphrasing here, maybe you could tell me the exact wordage, but you say that, “All of my words come from my nightmares”? What is the exact wording again?
Mike: “Every word that comes through me was borne in a nightmare.”
Paul: Yeah. Can you expand on that?
Mike: I have different ideas about where creativity comes from. There’s a certain thing that happens when we’re sleeping where our mind kind of travels different frequencies, places. It may be in the same physical space but just kind of our mind is free from having to experience whatever our body is experiencing. Kind of travels. And I think travels different frequencies is the best way that I like to think of it. And I can’t say it because I’m not sure about this, but I have this notion that creativity comes from this other place, this other frequency, that gets interpreted through our conscious mind and things come out that way. It’s obviously not a very developed theory. (Laughs)
Paul: I think I know what you’re saying because I’ve had moments on stage as a stand up comedian where I almost feel like a puppet for some energy that’s moving through me, and it’s like I didn’t really think… it’s like, that thought came out of my mouth. I didn’t even think it. It’s like something is operating me and those, to me, are the moments when I believe that there’s got to be something out there in the universe. Even if it’s just an energy field, but it’s almost like you’re sitting back and you’re watching yourself perform at a level that you didn’t ever expect yourself to perform at.
Paul: Yeah. I’ve heard some artists say before that the best thing that I can do as an artist is to just get out of the way and let it happen.
Mike: Right. To be mindless in that sense, not to be so controlling of enforcing what happens. And I think what you do, and especially the improvisational part of it where you deal with the crowd, like really it’s a conduit, it’s a perfect portal to reach that place where you can’t control what’s going to happen so you leave yourself open to the moment and that other creative force can kind of step in and take over.
Paul: Yeah, if you can manage not to shut it down with fear and expectation, which is always just waiting with a shotgun at the door. But the reason I brought that line up is because I thought it was kind of your way of saying, “All my art comes from a place because my life was a nightmare.” So I was totally off base in interpreting that.
Mike: You know what, not necessarily off base. I wouldn’t say that it means that as much as it means what I was saying, but it means a little bit of that, too. Because I don’t necessarily think in totality that my life is a nightmare, but I think some of the challenges that I have with just existing as a person on the earth, you know – and it’s not too much different from what everybody else does – just the particular way that I process things is kind of a nightmarish scenario and a lot of my work comes from that as well.
Paul: Well, let’s talk about your life. You were born on the south side of Chicago. I think you said 30th and College Grove.
Mike: 35th and College Grove is where I like to say grew up, but I lived there from like age six to maybe age 12 or 13. That’s where I lived, and that’s where I always remember as home.
Paul: And where is that in relation to the Robert Taylor Homes?
Mike: Robert Taylor’s I think down on 39th I think. But they’re very close. I had some family that lived there so I used to be there a lot.
Paul: Okay. For those that don’t live in Chicago, the Robert Taylor homes were kind of an idea that went wrong. It was these large, low-income housing project that were built in, what was it the 50s or 60s?
Mike: I have no idea when they were built, but probably around the 60s.
Paul: Yeah, and it was just way to many people condensed, in my opinion, way too many people condensed into one area. And they eventually tore them down, but it was – for a white guy from the suburbs – when you drove up the Dan Ryan Expressway, and you could look over to the right and you would see the Robert Taylor Homes, just this feeling would come over me that A) I hope my car doesn’t break down, because you hear all these horror stories, and B) I would feel very grateful that I didn’t live in a housing project. And what’s it like growing up, living near the Robert Taylor Homes?
Mike: I mean, I spent quite a bit of time in the Roberts. Like some summers we would just be there every day.
Paul: Like I had a friend who she was from like 70th Street, a little further south. And she said that she was afraid to go in there because she was a light-skinned black. And that really struck me as, like, wow. That wouldn’t bode well for me.
Mike: I mean, you know-
Paul: Was she exaggerating?
Mike: No, because basically the feeling that she’s speaking on is feeling like she would look out of place there. And that’s a very serious concern because if you feel like that and people can see that, then you’re going to have troubles there. But by the same token, there are white people who used to go hang around [16:43 Caprini Dream?] to buy their drug of choice. And they would be in there comfortable and regular. And then you know white families that were in those things, too. So it’s not cut and dry necessarily about physical differences, but it’s about one’s familiarity or one’s level of comfort in that kind of environment. And it’s the kind of thing that if you’re nervous about it and it shows, then yeah you’re definitely going to have problems. Definitely.
Paul: Like so many things in life – if you let people know… I think that’s why vulnerability is so hard, because it’s like, “When is it okay to be vulnerable?” But let’s go back to your childhood growing up there. What kind of sticks out in your mind from those times?
Mike: This is the thing: I lived with my grandparents because my mom had some legal issues when I was very, very young. And they lived in kind of like this, it was a high-rise building but it was like the opposite of a project. It was like basically a lot of older people, not quite retired, but middle-class, older black people that had lived in these buildings. They were these big, tall, white buildings that were kind of like near the projects. It was an enclave. So I was kind of sheltered. Like I went to school, my elementary school was like right in the middle of the projects. But I would get picked up and dropped off and I didn’t have any time in between, so it was like school was kind of crazy but home was always sheltered. I didn’t play with a lot of other kids because there weren’t a lot of other kids in the building. There were a few, but not a lot. So most of my time was spent playing Nintendo, or playing with toys and reading books and watching too much TV. Watching entirely too much television. Like, my brain is just filled with useless memories of just hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of watching television.
Paul: (Laughs) Well, not completely useless because you made a reference so some sitcom that I remember thinking – in one of your songs – that I remember thinking, “How does he know that song? He’s too young to know that.”
Mike: But see, that’s the thing. I mean, seriously watching too much television. I used to watch [19:01 Naked Night?] a lot when it first started. And everything they were playing was from the 50s. I used to watch Dobie Gillis and Donna Reid like every day when I’m like 11.
Paul: Whey do you think you were so into that?
Mike: I don’t really know.
Paul: Is there something comforting about it? Or was there something that, this is something that’s unfamiliar to me and I want to figure it out?
Mike: I honestly think it just came down to options at that hour.
Paul: You’re just bored and there’s nothing else to do?
Mike: And I just kind of gravitated towards whatever was comedy from whatever era. If It was comedy, I’d watch it.
Paul: Boy, you couldn’t have picked worse comedies. (Laughs)
Mike: (Laughs) The people that program the station! I didn’t know either. I like Dobie Gillis though, I thought Dobie Gillis was cool. That was my first experience seeing somebody who was like a beatnik. Because they had that guy who played Gilligan–
Paul: Bob Denver.
Mike: Yeah, and he had like his goatee and he was all-
Paul: [??? 19:56]
Mike: Yeah, and I used to trip out on it. Like, that dude is weird! But so I mean, that created this reality that was very isolationist. By the time… I ended up going to a different school around fifth grade and it was a more white school. It was on the north side. I would get bussed there. And for some reason, I guess around that time, socially I started to be more concerned with having friends and I just found myself not really able to relate to other kids very much at all. And having, in many sense, having this feeling like I needed to force it. I needed to, like, find out whatever they were watching at home so I could go home and watch that. And I can make sure and come back and talk about it the next day, just to try to find some type of bond. But now when I think about it, there were a lot of isolating factors for me.
Paul: Did you feel like your natural self? Was it enough to connect to these kids, and you needed to do this? Or had you tried to do it and you kind of failed and you thought, “Back to the chalk board.”
Mike: I didn’t have enough of an idea of a sense of self to really kind of identify with anybody else on that level. My idea of what connection to people meant was real surface. It wasn’t substantial. It was just trying to fit in, literally.
Paul: Well in your album you described yourself as a kid and you paint this great picture of you wearing a sweater with corduroys and penny loafers and being into test tubes and Bunsen burners and that not really working as far as your popularity.
Mike: Right. Yeah, absolutely. And that was a tough um… that was the rude awakening. All of that kind of happened I guess around fifth grade. I went to this school. It was like a gifted program or whatever with all these smart kids. But like, I don’t know whatever accelerated educations these kids came from, also there was like an accelerated social atmosphere that came along with it, too.
Paul: It was just competitive socially. Is that what you’re saying?
Mike: No, I mean like at my old school, everybody was kind of cool. And maybe that was just age. We were in first to fourth grade. Everybody was just cool Some people were dressed a little funny, but whatever. Everybody was generally cool. You had like some bully situations, but everybody would play games together and everybody would generally get along. And then I went to this other school and socially the environment was way more, like, mature than it probably should have been. And I think that had something to do with just like these kids that have been, most of these other kids had been in these gifted programs since they were very young. And just socially it was like this rude awakening. So all of a sudden, I had to wear the right clothes. And I didn’t really understand how to go about that because my grandmother worked at K-Mart and she would literally just bring home clothes from K-Mart and that’s just what I would wear. I didn’t have a thought and any conception like choosing what to wear. I just had sweaters and I had corduroys and I had pleated pants and I had shoes.
Paul: I think Diddy got it from you.
Mike: (Laughs) I was a little to ahead of him for my time.
Paul: Wasn’t he the first one to start, or who was it that-
Mike: Well, Russell Simmons always wore his sweater vests. But that’s preppy style. But I wasn’t wearing preppy. I was nerd-style straight up. Like it wasn’t a coordinated or cool thing. It was just like whatever she thought was weather-appropriate that was on sale.
Paul: But you felt like an outsider around these other kids. And was it kind of an ethnically mixed place?
Mike: Yeah. And I’ll say this much: whereas appearance-wise and ethnically it was mixed, it was a whiter situation. It was the north side of Chicago and it was people that all pretty much came from families that had decent amounts of income and so it was more of an American/urban experience than a ‘hood experience where I was coming from.
Paul: Chicago is interesting in that the south side of Chicago is extremely segregated. I mean, literally if you cross the street in certain areas, it’s on. You better watch your back. The north side – it’s really not segregated. It’s kind of a melting pot. And I don’t really understand why it is that way, but that’s just kind of how it is.
Mike: It’s just how it ended up. There was a big migration of people from the south there in the early 1900s I think, and then I think it’s just all the black people settled on the south and the west sides and all the white people that lived there previously moved north and then so yeah.
Paul: Or south to where I lived.
Mike: Or the south suburbs. And yeah so the north side ends up becoming like the metropolitan kind of place where it ends up being the melting pot and everything is inclusive. But the south and west sides are still generally mostly black.
Paul: So you’re in this mixed classroom. You’re feeling kind of left out. Is something feeding your soul at this point? Are you connecting to science and school?
Mike: I mean, really I’m connected to music. Because what ended up happening, as I ended up… I ended up losing – I don’t know how much intentionally – but losing a little bit of my academic prowess after a while at this new school. I just stopped being as into it. I always tie it back to the first time I ever got homework on the weekend – that was just like the beginning of the end because then all of a sudden I had all this time to procrastinate and I would wait until Sunday night to try to do two or three days worth of homework and that’s like the beginning of like, “Oh man, I’m going about this all the way-“ and that didn’t stop until like after high school.
Paul: Obviously your grades were good enough because you went to college.
Mike: Yeah, good enough, but they weren’t great. They weren’t great at all. I really stopped applying myself around the fifth or sixth grade.
Paul: Is it fair to say you realized how much effort you needed to put forth to get by, but you wanted to put the rest of your energy into something that moved you? Or is that not fair?
Mike: Umm hmm. I think I just felt… I just started to feel defeated in many ways by this new school situation and that ultimately, I stopped-
Paul: Academically or socially you felt defeated?
Mike: Both. It started social and I think it bled over academically to the point where I stopped even getting the… like at my old school I used to feel pride about getting good grades or being the kid who knew the answer. And I stopped feeling that, and so it’s a little bit less motivation.
Paul: At the second school, was there a social status based on the grades you got or how smart you were?
Mike: No. There was a nerd stratification there, too, but those kids were like geniuses – the ones that were nerds. They were geniuses. They ended up like skipping grades and like their parents were scientists kind of thing. So my nerd didn’t even compare to their nerd. There was no competing really in that, either. And then they had their own little social group that had weird little politics and it was just a lot of politics that I hadn’t dealt with before. And so like I went through a lot just dealing with that and I changed a lot.
Paul: Did it make you feel, not stupid, but did it make any pride you had about your brain – did it kind of hurt? Or did it not really matter to you?
Mike: I think I just ended up developing an inferiority complex that just kind of spanned all levels of experience in that school situation. So socially, academically, just about in all senses. I just came out of it feeling like I couldn’t win and I internalized a lot of that for a long time.
Paul: So then what do you think you did with that feeling that you can’t win? Did you ever share it with anybody? Were you close to your grandparents?
Mike: You know, no no. I ended up making some friends. Making some outcast friends. And we would kind of bond and talk about some things. Even within us, we wouldn’t get too deep into it because I don’t think any one of us… all of us had this fear of losing connection to kind of the mainstream social situation that was happening in the class or whatever in the school. So as much as we would complain and have our own thing, we wouldn’t’ necessarily… we wouldn’t be too vulnerable even within ourselves because we didn’t want to feel all the way outcast.
Paul: And plus I don’t think kids, that’s not something kids naturally do. They may talk to their parents about that if they feel safe with their parents, but I don’t think kids very often – maybe girls do among each other – but as a kid growing up, I don’t ever remember seeing boys saying, talking to each other about their feelings. Maybe if it was about a girl.
Mike: You know, I definitely had friends where we did do that. I think that was kind of like a survivalistic thing. I remember this one day… and this is the other thing, too: I came to realize a lot later that a lot of it had to do with just economics. A lot of it was just plain economics.
Paul: How so?
Mike: A lot of… I want to say almost discrimination I felt against me. And it wasn’t quite that, but that’s a good word for it. It was based on the fact that my family didn’t have any money, and so there was just a lot of things that these other kids were able to do, a lot of situations they were able to be in, where they related to each other and a lot of it was based on economic. They had access to be able to do certain things that I couldn’t do. They had enough money to wear… they would tell their parents, “I want this brand of clothes,” and then they would get them and that was kind of what everybody had and I had my K-Mart stuff and I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’m so awkward. I don’t fit in.” But that’s what it really came down to was the fact that I couldn’t afford the “uniform.” So what I was going to say was one of the kids I bonded with, it was because we both had free lunch.
Paul: Oh, really?
Mike: Later I can look back and say, “Oh, we were both kind of poor. Okay, so that’s kind of how that happened.”
Paul: It felt safe. It felt comfortable.
Mike: Yeah, because what would happen if you had… Because all the other kids brought their lunch. Because that was the thing. That was the status thing is who had the best lunch box and who had the flyest fruit snacks or whatever was on the TV commercials like that was what everybody wanted to have. So me and these couple other kids not having that, like we would have to like leave class a little bit early to go to lunch and get in line with the trays and all that. And so we started to bond that way. We ended up having a lot of serious conversations about stuff, but we never got all the way vulnerable.
Paul: That must have felt good, though, to have somebody that you could…
Mike: Saved my life probably. Probably saved my life. I used to feel so down, so so down.
Paul: Like talk about some of the things you would think or feel.
Mike: I remember one of the earliest feelings that I had that was something was wrong with me because I was black. And so I used to go through a lot of… at some points wishing I wasn’t black because I didn’t want to feel as isolated as I felt.
Paul: What percentage of the kids at that school were white?
Mike: I would say like probably 65% white, and then we had some Latinos, some Indian, some Asian.
Paul: So there really weren’t very many blacks at all.
Mike: No. I think when I first got to my classroom, there were two. There was me, and I was new. And there was a black girl and a mixed boy. And I don’t think that was every a thought of any of us all hanging out together because that would have been too much a separation from the mainstream.
Paul: It would have called more attention to your status.
Paul: Do you feel like what was the next phase of your life then where something changed?
Mike: When I got to high school. I ended up going to – do you know somebody who went to [33:35 Wendy Young??] High School at all?
Paul: I believe so, yeah.
Mike: That’s a college prep school. It’s a very good school, but it’s mostly black.
Paul: Where is it?
Mike: It’s on the near-west side. It’s near downtown.
Mike: And then a lot of stuff changed. A lot of stuff changed.
Paul: Like, how so?
Mike: I think the general level of income kind of got more closer to where I was, so I was a little bit more comfortable relating to people. And at this point, and beginning in elementary school, I had really, really taken a lot of solace in music. Music was just huge for me.
Paul: And who was moving you and influencing you?
Mike: They Might Be Giants.
Paul: Love them.
Mike: And this band called King Missile and then like Frank Black. But primarily They Might Be Giants and Kind Missile were like my favorites.
Paul: And who turned you on to these?
Paul: I don’t remember MTV… I remember them playing They Might Be Giants, but I don’t remember them playing Frank Black.
Mike: Frank Black had a single called Headache off of his second solo album, and he had a video from his first solo album, too. I don’t remember the name of it. Los Angeles something. But by that point, by the time Frank Black’s album came out, I was already heavily into listening to the radio too. So the alternative stations – Q 101.
Mike: XRT. Yeah.
Paul: XRT is a gift from heaven.
Mike: Oh my goodness. So that was my comfort. I found so much-
Paul: When I fly to Chicago, and I get in the rent-a-car, the first thing I do is turn on XRT.
Mike: Yeah. So when I got to high school, I really started to bond with people about music. And that started to create a lot of friendships I have to this day.
Paul: There were other kids at the high school who were into kind of non-mainstream music as well?
Mike: Oh yeah, way deeper than me. And I also started to get into hip hop around that time, too, like really get into it.
Paul: And who was-?
Mike: A Tribe Called Quest. De La Sol. The Roots. Common. What they used to call Alternative Hip Hop back then. The Bohemian stuff is what I was really into. Then I really got into break dancing and graffiti and rapping and DJing and stuff like that. So I just found through that I started to find a sense of self and ways to take pride in other things.
Paul: And would other people notice what you were doing?
Mike: Yeah, and then I had this kind of group of friends and we were all kind of discovering it together. We were all a little bit weird, so the fact that we had found these things, we were becoming good at and people were seeing that we were good at these things. It was something that helped us all socially have something to stand on at the time.
Paul: That had to have felt great.
Mike: Oh, it did. It felt awesome. It was like the complete… I mean, all of a sudden, like- because girls were a problem in elementary school. Girls were a huge problem, because no girl wants to be with the weirdo unless she’s like a super weird girl, which nobody wants to be with the super weird girl. But like, having these things to take pride in in high school, it really changed a lot of that.
Paul: So your confidence began to-
Mike: Yeah exactly.
Paul: And fair to say that you finally started to feel like you had a voice?
Mike: Right. I started to feel like I had a place in the world.
Paul: And if you could kind of sum up what your newfound voice for expressing yourself was saying, what do you think if you could sum those up in a couple of phrases, what would that newfound voice be saying?
Mike: It was juvenile at the time, but what we used to do was we used to go around calling people out for being plastic. We were always just so about that.
Paul: Very Catcher in the Rye.
Mike: Oh, holding coffee all day. That’s what we were on. We were just the social police for making sure that people weren’t being fake. But it was BS, too, because at the same time-
Paul: Which in itself is a little plastic!
Paul: But you don’t know it because you’re so young.
Mike: But at the same time, those are the girls we wanted ultimately. The ones that were hanging around the football players and the basketball players, we wanted to be cooler than them, too. So we were calling them plastics behind their backs, and sometimes to their faces, but we wanted to be buddies with them.
Paul: You were building your nerd street cred is what you were doing.
Paul: Getting pissed off at the popular people but secretly kind of wanting to be their friend.
Paul: I definitely know that feeling.
Mike: Exactly. And really wanted to figure out how to ride that line. Like that was big, too.
Paul: That’s one of the most fucked up things about being a human being is that you can look at somebody who you are physically attracted to, and even if there’s a part of their personality that’s kind of repugnant, you still kind of are attracted to that person. That’s such an awful-
Mike: I mean, you know our reproductive organs don’t care much about how much of a jerk somebody is. Doesn’t really matter. You still get them pregnant. That’s all your junk cares about.
Paul: Do you feel like you’re at the point now where, like if an attractive girl were to come up to you but she had a hideous personality and she wanted to fuck you, would you have sex with her or are you to the point now where you’re like, no the personality’s a deal breaker.
Mike: Well, I’m married so I have to like hypothetical.
Paul: Let’s say if you’re single.
Mike: It honestly depends. It probably depends. It depends on what I was looking to get out of that interaction. Like if I’m just looking to get laid then I might do it. Especially if I think about all the time, if I was single on the road. I get on the road a lot. If I was feeling needy that way… I don’t know. I don’t know. Because I do… the personality is kind of big. Because I have to be able to hold a conversation with somebody in some kind of real sense to be able to really kind of… to be interested enough to try to inch near that.
Paul: Yeah. So let’s go back to the high school thing. So you’re feeling like you’re starting to find your voice, your belonging. Music is starting to be a way for you to express yourself. What happens next?
Mike: Um. The first year of high school was pretty awkward. It was kind of an extension of elementary school, but it was like a vaster territory so just more feeling of inclusion but still kind of dealing with a lot of the feelings of self worth from before. By the sophomore year, I had actually gotten on the football team because I always enjoyed playing sports. I actually tried out for the team and made it on. But I didn’t get to play much. But the very end of the season – we were actually playing a pick up game after school, and I broke my leg. And so this was right when people were doing the driving school thing and getting drivers licenses. And I was at home for a few weeks actually nursing a broken leg and I couldn’t drive when I got back. And it kind of put me back in an isolationist world, but that period of time was when I really, really dove super deep into the hip hop. Into the performance aspect of hip hop, into rapping. Not dancing of course, but really into the music and into thinking about production.
Paul: Writing lyrics at this point?
Mike: I think I was. Or just practicing free styling a lot, which we did way before we ever really started making songs. We used to just free style all the time. And so that was the end of my sophomore year, so over that summer and then for the rest of high school, it was hip hop and that was when all the other things started to happen and the confidence, pride and all of that. And academically I’m still just treading water. Still just treading water. I’m not really applying myself at all. So I ended up going to a Southern Illinois University.
Mike: Carbondale, which is basically like a 13th grade.
Paul: I know a lot of colleges have a reputation as party schools. Well Southern Illinois is considered the party school.
Mike: There’s not much of a requirement to get in. So a lot of people really just go there.
Paul: The weather’s a little nicer because you’re at the southern end of Illinois.
Mike: And people just kind of party like a fireball until you get kicked out kind of thing. And I knew a lot of people who would just end up there 10 years. They had been kicked out of school for 6 or 7 years. They were just down there because you could just be down there living cheap and partying.
Paul: And you don’t have to grow up. It’s kind of a suspended animation deal.
Paul: So did you immediately begin to major in psychology, or was there-?
Mike: Yeah. Because I had a psychology class in high school that just turned my brain on. It was like hitting a light switch. Like this is the most amazing subject ever in life.
Paul: Talk about that.
Mike: This is the thing… this is a terrible thing. All I can remember from the class is him talking about Freud a little bit and then him showing us a bunch of movies, like pop culture movies. But he would talk about them from the psychological aspect, or psychological perspective that just blew my mind. We watched like Twelve Monkeys, oh and it was the first time I saw One Flew Over the Cuku’s Nest.
Paul: Fantastic movie.
Mike: Oh my gosh. Just to see that, like wow this is a class? People learn about this stuff?
Paul: It doesn’t feel like work.
Mike: Right. Because I’m sitting there figuring myself out, too. Oh my god, like all of this stuff is just revelatory to me and all of the things I’d gone through and the processing of who I am as a person. So I was like, oh of course psychology. Instantly. So I’d always knew I was going to major in that and the moment I touched down at school I just ran and signed up for that immediately.
Paul: And once you go to college and started taking psychology classes, did a little of the shine wear off it, or were you still into it?
Mike: I loved it for the most part. Later on, you start to get to the higher-level, 400-level courses and stuff that I’m not necessarily interested in so it was like, “oh okay, let me get this over with,” but I still love the field. I love what psychology is – just the studying of how life affects individuals. Because we can never really know what it’s like to be another person. You can never know what it’s like to experience life as another person. So just the study of all these different things that can be going on in somebody else’s mind is just amazing.
Paul: It’s maybe the closest you can get to getting there. And the fact that there’s so much left to interpretation that not only is there maybe no absolute truth but it’s also possible that two completely contrasting truths are in place at the same time. That to me is one of the coolest things about life is I hate this. You love that. And they’re both valid. Or I think that this situation that happened was completely fucked and another person thinks it’s the best thing that ever happened. And they’re both completely valid. Nobody’s wrong.
Mike: Right. It’s all relative. It’s all subject to beholder, or whatever that phrase is.
Paul: I’m reading Steve Job’s biography right now, and the thing that keeps sticking out to me is the fact that here’s this guy that had these visions about how he wanted the future to unfold in terms of technology, and the way he went about it… the fact that he pursued these things has changed all of our lives drastically. The fact that I’m even doing a podcast happened because at least at the time in happened, because he was so driven. But he shit on all these people along the way. So to me, what he did is great, but what about the person who he fucking mowed over whose self-esteem he crushed who is still licking their wounds in Cupertino, California? And both of those things are true. And that to me is one of the most fascinating things about being alive is that all these- everything contains its negative, it’s opposite. Everything is everything. How the fuck do you rap? How do you even get out of bed knowing that? Because I want to know the truth before I pursue something, but we don’t get the luxury, do we?
Mike: No, and it’s funny because the way society is, it kind of lends itself to people who don’t care about that. Those are the people that win because they’re only focused on their goal. So it’s a game that’s kind of set up so that the sociopaths win.
Paul: But on the surface they’re winning, but I wonder sometimes: Are they winning because are they comfortable in their skin? And that’s something that you can never… I wouldn’t want to be a billionaire who was uncomfortable in his skin all the time.
Mike: The thing about being a sociopath is you’re cool. As long as you’re accomplishing what it is you want to accomplish. That may be one definition of a sociopath, but it comes along with not feeling. When you go to bed at night, you’re not concerned with who you may have victimized because everything or everyone is either like a hindrance or a help.
Paul: Yes! Exactly. And that’s how Steve Jobs treated people, is you were a bozo or you were on the A Team in his mind. And it’s fascinating watching… it’s funny because he’s into electronics and in many ways his brain is very binary the way it worked. It switches on or it switches off. And not a lot of grey area. And yet to me, the best art is the stuff that lives in the grey area.
Mike: To me, that’s where all life is is in the grey. That’s part of my artistic mission as a rapper is to just constantly produce from the grey area because I feel like that’s where my experience is and that’s what I have to contribute is to make things a little bit more defined in terms of helping people understand it’s not black and white. It’s just always something in between.
Paul: I definitely get that feeling from the album of yours that I listened to, because it’s like you take these stereotypes and you add this other color to them. Rappers getting old. To me, that’s so funny to show another angle. Because everything has some unexplored angle, but sometimes as an artist we feel like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to take that… spend any more time looking for that angle because people might not get it.”
Mike: Talk about fears – that’s one of my biggest ones. Like I said, most of my artistic impulses come from that place of- I live the grey area. That’s where I live. The most successful rappers that do anything near what I do – these guys will go to Europe and play for a crowd of 5,000 people and then they come here and they got to stand in the post office line like everyone else. Nobody knows who they are.
Paul: Who are some of those guys?
Mike: There’s a guy – bus driver. Asop Rock. There’s a bunch. It’s a lot of guys. It’s just an interesting filed.
Paul: It’s almost like the situation with the blues guys in the fifties. They would have to go to Europe to get their due, and they would come back here and nobody knew who they were. I have to say, a lot of times I feel like I’m a white person from the fifties with rap because I can talk about the blues all day long. I know those guys, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to knowing what’s going on in the hip hop world, and yet I know 20 years from now I will kick myself going, “Why wasn’t I listening to that person?”
Mike: You know, it’s the way the delivery systems are set up right now where you have to do a lot of searching, a lot more searching than the time in your day probably permits, for you to find out what’s going on in independent hip hop. There’s not enough money in it where it has tentacles that are reaching into your life at all. Like I mean, if it weren’t for the show we were both on, we never would have met. There’s nothing that happens in your day that would leave you in the path of having a kind of experience where something independent-rap wise would happen to you.
Mike: And that’s just the reality of it right now. It doesn’t make enough money. It doesn’t. Especially to consume something like what I make. You have to kind of… if you’re the kind of person who just turns on the radio and just kind of bobs your head with whatever comes out of it, especially with rap, you’re going to hate what I do. It’s almost something completely different – that’s why I called my first album Unapologetic Art Rap because I feel like it needed to be called something else.
Paul: When I listened to your album, it struck me as this is the closest to pure poetry that I’ve heard with rap because there almost seems to be a conscious decision on your part with your songs that I’m not going to make something that people are going to get up and jump onto the dance floor on. I want them to sit and listen to what I’m saying.
Mike: And there’s a lot of people, even going back to like Public Enemy and Chuck Deep was one of the most ahead of his time in terms of adding real content to his rap music. But even he’ll tell you, like, and a lot of people think this: they think if you can’t dance to it then it doesn’t even count. So that’s a lot of my impulse, a lot of my aesthetic is to kind of combat that as well. But it leaves me in this very niche kind of outcome that I have to live with that, like not putting myself in a position to reap a lot of the benefit that will come along with successful rap music. I’m not putting myself on that path. But it’s because I’m trying to be true to my own artistic impulses. The fact that They Might Be Giants are probably my chief musical influence, and as a rapper I have to make that work if I’m to make something that I would even like. And I always really try to make something that I would like so that’s the choice that I’ve made and it’s why I’m going to be living in obscurity. (Laughs.)
Paul: I don’t know. You’ve got the LA Times doing an article about you. You’ve got Paul Tompkins putting you on his live show.
Mike: Those are the kind of things that gives me the strength to continue. Like, “Oh man, this person that I think is awesome kind of things I’m awesome a little bit and that’s great!” But you know, those things don’t happen very often.
Paul: They don’t, and they don’t sustain you. They may for a day, a week, a month, maybe half a year, but eventually how you feel about yourself is going to take back over and are you a piece of shit, what are you? What are some common negative thoughts that you have about yourself?
Mike: I’m really afraid that I’m not good. Like, I’m really afraid that at the end of it all, what I’m doing might be interesting, but it’s not really good because there’s always this thought that if it’s good, it will attract whatever, especially in the internet age. If it’s good enough, it will spread like wildfire. And that’s never happened for me so it’s like, oh man am I just not good? And that’s a battle I have to have with myself every day. What I’m doing; is it just for me? And if that’s the case, then I’ll never be able to make a living off it if it’s just for me.
Paul: I disagree with that. I absolutely disagree with that. I think some of the best artists ever are ones that just set out to do stuff that please them, and because there was such a purity to it – first of all, it has to be original. If you’re doing it to just please yourself, it can’t help but be original. And anything good and lasting, all stuff that’s good and lasting pretty much, is original. So I think that you have to be doing that.
Mike: The other side of that is that people have to be able… I mean, if you’re going to make a living, if you’re going to be popular in any sense where people are paying you to do this, people have to get some kind of enjoyment out of it. And how much enjoyment are they getting out of me working out my own shit in an album? And that’s the catch. Yeah, I can do it. I like everything I do. But there’s always this moment in the process where I have to pick, like one of these songs are people actually going to like? Because I have to consider that, too, if I want people to pay for them. Especially rap-wise. It’s just not… the artistic integrity of it isn’t valued the same way it is in a lot of other mediums, especially like visual art. That’s one of the ones where people will pay you ungodly amounts of money for your own original work if it’s just you working out something in yourself that’s visually striking in some kind of way. And there’s politics in that, too, but just the overall value in visual art… it’s just valued more. I can’t say in all music, but in rap music it’s valued very little by the people who typically consume it. They could kind of care less.
Paul: What you’re saying. Or what your personal experience is that you’re bringing to it?
Mike: What, if any, ground I’m trying to break. I just mean to say this: Typically popular rap music is a form of escapism for consumers where they would like to leave their troubles and go to some place where everything is okay. And that could be in a club. That could be in a car. Whatever. They just want to not think about the drive to work.
Paul: But isn’t all mainstream versions of art form never really get beyond the escapism level?
Mike: I agree. It’s the same as big budget movies I imagine.
Paul: Comedy. I mean, some of the most popular comedians don’t really dig beneath the surface. They just want you to be comfortable with yourself.
Mike: But I think I was explaining to you that night, too, the economics of comedy are still such that there’s enough people who are interested in laughing at something that’s not surface level. There’s still enough people that are paying enough money to experience people do that there’s a value in that. There’s more value put in it. Where in terms of people who listen to rap music, there’s just a smaller amount of people who are willing to pay money to experience something that’s deeper than what’s on the surface.
Paul: It’s harder to get people to be interested in groundbreaking stuff in rap.
Paul: That makes sense to me. So do you want to do a fear thing?
Paul: A fear off?
Mike: A fear off? (Laughs)
Paul: Yeah I call it a fear off. We swap fears until one of us runs out.
Mike: Oh yeah I didn’t bring a bunch of fears. I was afraid to write all of my fears down.
Paul: That will be your first one. I’m using listener fears because I’ve drained myself-
Mike: Drained the fear weasel.
Paul: (Laughs) – on previous podcasts. So I’m going to start off with fears from a listener whose name is Nick. Nick says, “I fear that a family member will die and I will have no emotional response revealing some sociopathic personality.”
Mike: Oh, wow, that’s a good one. Do you discuss them at all? Or just go on?
Paul: We can if you want. But generally we kind of go through them.
Mike: Well, I have a similar one. I’m afraid to reach out to my grandfather. We haven’t talked in like 13, 14 years or something like that.
Paul: I think we’ve got to talk about this one. And he raised you, right?
Mike: Yeah, he was integral. He was definitely there.
Paul: What do you think the fear is? What do you think is going to happen?
Mike: Okay, so my mom got in legal trouble. She actually went to jail for quite some time. My grandmother and my grandfather raised me from age six to maybe age like 13, and then I started living with my mom after that. But soon after I started living with my mom- oh, actually, my grandmother died when I was 12 when I was in the eighth grade and then he had us kind of like the last year until I moved with my mom. But soon after I moved with my mom, I found out that he wasn’t really our grandfather, that our grandfather died before my sister and I were born. Somehow that changed our relationship.
Paul: Because now you knew he wasn’t blood related to you?
Mike: Um… I think it was because he knew that I knew that we weren’t blood related. There started to be a little bit of tension that never really got to be explored, and then one of the times I came back from college and you kind of need a home to go back to. So he was really the closest thing that I knew. My mom was never really stable enough to try to live with since.
Paul: In what ways was your mom unstable?
Mike: She just… I just think she didn’t grow up for a very long time.
Paul: Selfish? Irresponsible?
Mike: I think irresponsible. Immature.
Paul: Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to be more important to her and you weren’t?
Mike: No, because I never… well, as long as I can remember I never really took it personally.
Paul: You just felt like, “She’s fucked up and this is how it is?”
Mike: Yeah. By the time we moved in with her – me and my sister did – I was already kind of my own person just from the things that I had gone through. Not that I was self sufficient like that, but I already had an identity of myself outside of especially my mother because she wasn’t really around. So I had gotten past the point of needing her to be that person for me. And I kind of saw how she was to my sister and it just was very ugly.
Paul: How was she to your sister?
Mike: Just her manner of parenting just left my sister feeling very hurt a lot. Very unsupported. Very oppressed I would say. I didn’t really need anything. I wasn’t in the path of that. I just saw it happen to my sister, and I didn’t think-
Paul: But what kid doesn’t need some love from their biological mom that they’re living with? Aren’t you just justifying that you didn’t want to get hurt anymore?
Mike: Maybe I had built up some kind of wall, and that’s very possible. That need – I had transferred it to my grandmother a long time ago.
Paul: That she was mom.
Mike: Yeah. She was that person.
Paul: What did you feel like then when she died when you were 12?
Mike: Oh, it was the worst. That was the worst. That was the- I mean, my dad’s always kind of been in my life, too, but just the parent that you live with that nurtures you and takes care of you day to day that you feel like I have a home because this person is providing things for me and giving like that.
Paul: She was your rock.
Mike: Yeah. That just changed everything.
Paul: What specifically do you remember feeling or thinking when she died?
Mike: It was hard, too, because she had cancer and it was kind of like a long fight and she was hospitalized for like months. So she was out of the house and it was kind of a thing where we all knew she was going to die eventually. So it wasn’t so much that the day she died that I felt this big change, but it was the entire process of just trying to understand what life was going to be like after that. And my granddad, I think he really did the best he could, but I have this feeling that in the midst of that, too, he started to pull back under the understanding that we weren’t really his grandchildren.
Paul: Now is that just you interpreting that, or do you really thing that’s the truth?
Mike: It’s possible, but I felt a distance. See, there was some stuff going on. Like, I don’t know how long they had been together even before we were born. I don’t really know how long that was. I don’t know if this was like a… I don’t even think they were married. I think they were just like common law or something, and I don’t know how long that relationship had been going on. I don’t know how attached he was to us outside of her.
Paul: I see, and so because there was no blood relation, and maybe not even a legal connection, when she died it was like-
Mike: Yeah, I definitely felt… I started to feel, especially when I would come back from school, I started to feel like a burden. I started to feel like I was bugging this guy to like let me sleep in his house, you know what I mean.
Paul: That had to be a terrible feeling.
Mike: Yeah, it was. It was. And I’m not sure… you know what I did? I ended up… I stopped going home after awhile in college. I just started staying over the breaks, I would just stay in the town. And then I ended up befriending-
Paul: But you had four years living with him before you went to college, right? After your grandma died? Or you were with your mom then?
Mike: I was with my mom then. When I was in high school I was living with my mom.
Paul: But your mom was… it was too chaotic to go visit her?
Mike: Well what happened was when I graduated high school, she moved to Gary, Indiana, and she moved to a place with one less bedroom so I didn’t have a room. So not only did I hate Gary, if I went there I had to like sleep on the couch. It just wasn’t a good situation.
Paul: Gary is not a fun city.
Mike: I hate Gary. I fucking hate Gary. (Laughs) It’s one of the worst places!
Paul: Gary is a very depressing, very depressing city. I’ve never lived there, I’ve only driven through it, but like when people do movies about post-apocalyptic movies, you wouldn’t have to hire a set designer in Gary.
Mike: Go downtown.
Paul: Just go downtown. It is… hope is an expatriate of Gary, Indiana.
Mike: I remember one summer because I went one summer I went and I stayed in Gary, and I was like, “I’ll never do this again.” I used to get up and walk to the library, and I used to just fantasize about tagging the word dream everywhere. It was so terrible. Just desolate. Just a terrible place, awful, awful place to be. But yeah, so she lived out there in a place where I didn’t have a room, so that just didn’t seem like the thing to do.
Paul: How does that not fuck with anybody though, Mike? Feeling like every time you get tethered to somebody or something, it breaks? That rope kind of breaks?
Mike: I definitely think it has affected the kind of person I am for sure. It got to a point – and I’ve had some problems with this lately, too – where I started to value the friends and people who I chose in my life more than my family because I didn’t feel like other than the circumstances of my birth, there wasn’t a connection. There aren’t a lot people in my family who are like me, so it wasn’t even like there were people to relate to or people in similar situations. It was just like, these are the people that you’re obligated to. To me it just stopped being a reason to try to keep connected, so all of that I started just putting it into my friends. So the guys, we were doing a hip hop thing in high school – those are my lifelong friends. Those are like my brothers. I’ve told them all of my secrets. There’s a song on my album called Nobody Knows, and it’s about how I treat my friends. It’s like, to me the real connection comes when you let people know all of the things that went into making you who you are, and those are the kind of bonds I built with them. So their love is important to me.
Paul: I think there is something really special about the love of a friend because they don’t have any obligation to love you.
Mike: Not at all. It’s their choice.
Paul: It’s a choice, so you know this has got to be real. I think the ego will always try to poke holes in everything that’s good in our life, and every once and awhile it will come up against something that can’t have holes poked in it, and I think the love of friends and doing nice things for other people are the only things that can’t have the legs really cut out from underneath them. I suppose friends can let you down, but I don’t know what made me go off on that. So let’s get back to the fear off. Nick says, “I fear that my standards to happiness and normalcy are too high and that what I’m feeling is what everyone feels but I’m too weak to stand it.” I’ve felt that one before. Maybe I just expect too much out of life and this is really as good as it gets. That’s a scary thought.
Mike: That’s a tough one. For real.
Paul: Feels good to at least say it out loud, though, you know what I mean?
Mike: I’m afraid to let go of people’s opinions.
Paul: I totally get that one. Although it would have been nicely ironic if I would have criticized that.
Paul: Nick says, “I fear that my compulsive lying will tangle me in a mass of lies that I won’t be able to distinguish from the truth.” How do I know when his fears are true?
Mike: (Laughs) Oh, man. I’m afraid that I overthink even overthinking.
Paul: I relate to that one. He says that, “I fear that my addiction to pornography will corrupt me and prevent me from expressing my sexuality appropriately.” I’ve felt that one for many years.
Mike: That’s deep. I mean, do you feel like pornography takes something away from you?
Paul: I do. I gave it up coming up on two years. It’s not that I was watching a lot of it. I just found that… I don’t know how to explain it. It felt like it made me put distance between me and my wife. Somebody had said that you kind of have a finite amount of sexual energy and why would you spend it in other areas because then you have less to give to that person. And so what I discovered was when I stopped watching it was I did feel more present when I was with my wife because that energy had built up and it’s definitely not convenient because there’s time when I want to fuck or whatever and she’s at work and it’s like, oh I’ve got to wait until she gets home. But it’s been my experience that most of the things in life – almost everything in life – that is good, is inconvenient. That’s what I’m now discovering more than halfway through my life. I wish I would have discovered this shit much earlier. But yeah, that’s been my experience with porn. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to it, but for now I’m finding that I don’t really miss it except when I scroll through Direct TV and I see some Cinemax movie that has a move title, and I’m like, I wouldn’t mind seeing some titties right now. But I’m like, I feel like I’m on a little bit of a roll and I want to stay on it.
Mike: That’s interesting, too. I think one of the things I’m definitely becoming aware of is I need to raise the level of vibration I kind of exist at. Like, a lot of lower energy kind of… doesn’t necessarily command my behavior, but it is present in my thoughts and I feel like if I were able to elevate a little bit. And I feel like that might be kind of what you did.
Paul: When you say elevate, you mean kind of a higher spiritual, moral, ethical plane?
Mike: Maybe it’s that. For some reason, it’s not necessarily spiritual. It’s just where you’re less subject to like mortal desires. Less subject to desire in general. I want to release myself from those things occupying my thoughts.
Paul: My kind of take on that is it’s hard to do it just intellectually. It’s almost like there are actions that we need to take…
Mike: Physical disciplines.
Paul: -or things we need to stop doing to allow that to happen.
Mike: That’s why it reminded me of it. I mean, you changed a behaviour and it’s made you more present in another way and I think yeah that’s exactly the kind of thing… I mean, not necessarily in that arena per se, but just like the jealous kind of thoughts I can have. Or feeling like I haven’t… or the self-worth feelings in my art. I feel like if I’m at a raised elevation, if I’m on a different frequency then those thoughts aren’t really as significant.
Paul: Or as powerful.
Paul: So how do you get to that?
Mike: Right. I used to do yoga a lot and yoga was a kind of awesome thing because in that first couple hours after I feel great. But it’s just like I need something a little bit more sustainable than what that was giving me.
Paul: You know what fills in those time periods for me is talking to somebody about it, getting on the phone with somebody and saying, “I really feel like watching porn right now but I don’t want to go back to watching porn,” or, “I feel like a piece of shit. I feel like my career is over.” Whatever it is that’s making me anxious, having people that I can be my absolutely, look my ugliest and weakest and most petty and know that they’re still going to be my friend.
Mike: You know and I’m suffering a little bit from that, too, because most of my network still lives in Chicago and I’m definitely suffering from not having one of those people here. Like, my wife is the closest but even sometimes an issue can be something between me and her, and I can’t necessarily talk to her about it.
Paul: Sometimes you need to figure it out by talking to somebody else before you can bring it to her in a way that’s palatable.
Mike: That is so accurate and I’m definitely suffering from not having a person here to connect to in that way, and it’s hard because I’ve realized, too, like I said earlier, I think like a lot of what has made me as close with the people who I am close to is that I have been completely vulnerable with them and let them know almost everything about me. And I don’t really have any interest in doing that with new people. I don’t really have like…
Paul: Do you close yourself off to the idea of it, or do you just don’t pursue it.
Mike: I don’t pursue it. I feel like it would take a lot of energy and a lot of time, a lot of investment that I’m not necessarily willing to take a gamble on a person to see if that kind of friendship would develop over years. When I was in high school and I really needed it, I was ready to do it at the drop of a hat. So I did it five or six times and I still got those friends but now there’s so much stuff going on that I have a hard time imagining how I could switch from normal operating mode to let me sit down with this person and tell them all of this shit in the building of a friendship. It doesn’t seem like that kind of time is built in to what…
Paul: I think living in Los Angeles where everybody is so focused on their career and the self-boss in their head never really turns off, I can understand that because it’s… we always bump into people that aren’t really present, whose heads are thinking about their career or their job or whatever. But LA is rife with those people, but there are people here that are that way. They’re just a little harder to find I think than in other cities. I think a lot of other cities, when people go home from work they go home from work and they’re like, “okay, now I can leave my job behind.”
Mike: No, we’re at work 24 hours a day. We’re always at work.
Paul: We may not be physically moving, but we’re sitting in our heads staring at the wall thinking, “I’m fucked.”
Mike: We’re at work in our sleep. We dream about work. Absolutely. It permeates all moments.
Paul: To me that’s the double-edged sword of being self-employed or being an artist is yeah you get to do whatever you want, but the curse is you got to think about it all the time. And you got to find a way to turn that off and say, “Okay, today I’m not going to think about my career. I’m not going to do this. I’m going to do something nice. I’m going to whatever.” Do you ever do that?
Mike: Nope. I haven’t given myself a day off in, wow, it’s been a few years.
Paul: Why not give yourself a day off?
Mike: Because I am…
Paul: And you realize I’m not going to accept any answer?
Mike: It’s okay. I understand. I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s just what I’ve been doing and the reason is, for me, it’s like I actually really enjoy making music and writing. I really enjoy it and, to me, whenever I don’t have anything to do – well, I mean I watch TV, but even then I’m analyzing it in a way that’s probably not just strictly enjoyment. But I’ve never taken a whole day and not thought about something to write or something musical happening in my head. I don’t necessarily want to take a vacation from that.
Paul: Is it always enjoyable when you’re thinking about that, or you’re doing it out of a sense of obligation that I need to keep moving my career forward?
Paul: Because if you’re doing it for the love of it, I see no reason to- and you’re totally inspired and it excites you- I see no reason to take a day off from that.
Mike: To me, that’s the good part and I want to do that part as much as I can because that’s the fun part.
Paul: Well, fuck me then. That sounds like a, you know… if you love it and you’re passionate about it, I think that’s okay. I think for me sometimes I will work out of a sense of obligation and I think that can drain your battery sometimes.
Paul: I think there’s something to be said, especially you’ll talk to a musician or somebody who plays an instrument, and they’ll say to get better sometimes they need to not play for three months or six months because then it feels fresh when they come back to it. That’s what I tell myself sometimes when I take a little time off.
Mike: I was just on a roll for like a month, and in that month I did not write one line but I didn’t like that feeling. Like, I wanted to write all the time.
Paul: Why weren’t you?
Mike: Just the circumstances of being on the road.
Paul: Because you’re lazy?!
Paul: Because you’re not worth it?!
Mike: I’m sure there was some self-defeating thought in there somewhere but it was mostly just because I was doing a lot of driving and a lot of performing and a lot of trying to go to sleep.
Paul: The road is so inconvenient. It’s so fucking inconvenient.
Mike: Rap tours tend to be hard because unless you have somebody whose super-duper-duper relevant and super “hot” at the moment, your accommodations have to be very efficient so it could be six people in a mini van with everybody’s luggage, everybody’s month worth of luggage, everybody’s merchandise.
Paul: Wow. Wow.
Mike: It can be really tight and in those kind of situations, things in terms of the seven-eight hour drives between cities they become so cooperative in the very basic sense-
Paul: When are we going to stop to piss? When are we going to eat?
Mike: Exactly. What’s on the stereo after a while? Everything is such a- it’s a small, rolling democracy. Except for it to work, if somebody’s not up for it, if somebody’s not thinking about it in how their actions relate to everybody else, that one person can actually fucking ruin every day of it.
Paul: And you’ve had that happen?
Mike: Oh yeah. And it fills everybody up with so much anxiety because you don’t even really want to have it out because you’re in the middle of fucking nowhere. Somebody’s going to want to leave and it’s just really all about finishing the thing without incident. But you just let so much shit build up.
Paul: Especially if you get the feeling that that person is not going to be open to your point of view, or they’re just on a wavelength that they can have no sense of self-honesty.
Mike: Or just no sense of being able to be empathic towards how everything is affecting everybody in the situation and that’s the worst part of it is just the anxiety. When everything’s going well – and everything can go well if people even just understand how it has to go. Even if they don’t like each other, they’re just understanding how it has to go and just taking the simple steps that it takes to not really be imposing yourself on anybody else – it can go great. It can go awesome. Everybody can kind of doing their own thing, and everybody can be clear in their own headspace. Whereas even if the shows aren’t great, the experience of it is cool and it can be successful. But all it takes is one bad apple, one rotting-
Paul: Especially I would imagine if that person is the most powerful person in the car.
Mike: Yeah, that’s the worst situation. That’s the worst of it. That’s the worst of it. That is the worst possible outcome if the person who is the most important person is the worst person. Man, that really imposes a lot of pressure on everybody else in a way that’s not healthy. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good.
Paul: Yeah, and then it’s kind of like, well shit I got in this so I could be free, so I could express myself. And the consequence is that I’m not making a lot of money and I’ve got to do all these other things and now I can’t even express myself so it’s like-
Mike: It’s just not good. It’s funny because after that did happen to me, I had to have a lot of talk with a lot of guys who are successful doing this and understand the proper perspective because I know somebody’s dealt with worse. I know it. And for them do keep doing it, I have to understand which view did you take of this where you didn’t take all this anxiety with you? And what ended up coming to after I had these conversations was the fact that in my head I was still under this fantasy that because I’m doing what I love to do, it should be almost stress-free. I still kind of had that thought. And that’s just so not true. If you’re living off of it, it’s a job, and every job has some shit that you don’t want to do in it, and you can’t identify with just that part. That’s what I was getting close to just being like, “oh my god, is it all that? Is every day going to be that?” But it’s like no, I have to separate myself. That’s the part that’s the job. I still get to do the fun parts, but because I chose this as a living, there’s parts of it that I have to do that I don’t want to do. That’s any job.
Paul: Did you have any more fears?
Mike: No. That’s it.
Paul: Let me see if this guy has one more. Nick says, “I fear that I will become like my father and belittle others as a way to avoid any blame.” That’s a good one. I think all of us fear that – and he wins, by the way. He crushed you.
Mike: He got me.
Paul: I think everybody fears that they’re going to become their parents. Do you ever fear that you’re going to become relatives that you don’t like or have parts of them that you don’t like?
Mike: I probably just am that already and I just feel so separate from my physical, blood family. I feel so separate that those kinds of archetypes don’t really occupy my mind that much.
Paul: I think that’s really healthy that you can be okay with that.
Mike: I definitely think there’s probably something unhealthy in it. There’s probably-
Paul: Why? To move towards a place that’s healthier for you and move away from things that bother- or you feel like maybe you shouldn’t just write your family off. You should still kind of see them every once and awhile.
Mike: Yeah, because I’ve had that. I’ve definitely felt like that. There was one time somebody died and I just didn’t even really care. And it wasn’t that I should have cared, it was that I probably should have been there to help those who didn’t know how to handle it emotionally. If I could have been there for them, it would have been a better thing to do than to stay isolated and just watch them go through that and not care. And that’s the part of it that I have to work out somehow – like, the balance between not feeling obligated to being around them all the time but to honor being part of somebody else’s support system when they don’t have the friends that I have. Maybe all they have is family.
Paul: I think that’s a good balance to try to strike, or work towards. I don’t think any of us do it perfectly. I feel guilt that I don’t go home more. I feel it all the time, but I get stressed out when I get around my mom. I get stressed out talking to her on the phone so I totally get that. Did you have any more seminal moments from your life?
Mike: Yeah, I was in the car with my mom when she got arrested and went to jail when I was a kid.
Paul: How old were you?
Mike: That fucked with me for a long time. I had to be like five. This was before I started school, but that was always like a crazy-ass moment. When I think about it, it was like you were watching it in an action movie or some shit. It was like a car chase.
Paul: Tell us the story.
Mike: We were in Corpus Christi, Texas at the time and she had this husband. I think they were married, but I don’t know. He was like a drug dealer and she used to like answer phones for him and shit and I don’t know if they were watching them. I don’t know what happened but I was in the car with her and the cops started chasing her and she started peeling out but they caught her and I didn’t see her for like a year after that. The next time I saw her, we were visiting her in jail, and it was just like- but the interesting thing about that was it was the end of a kind of chaotic period in my life and the beginning of some sort of stability. But it was just a crazy thing to have experienced.
Paul: Her being removed from her life was the beginning of stability?
Paul: Boy, that had to be scary to be a five-year-old kid and having the police chase your mom.
Mike: It was nuts. But she was into all kind of weird shit. We were like in this-
Paul: Was she high?
Mike: Probably. And I’ve overheard enough of her conversations talking about drug stuff that I’m assuming she had experimented. She wasn’t ever like… I mean, I have friends whose parents- I have aunts and uncles who are dope fiends. I had an aunt die of Aids from heroin. I had another aunt who was a heroin addict. But she smoked a lot of weed. She still smokes a lot of weed, but I think she probably just did some coke or some shit. She wasn’t like a crack head or anything like that.
Paul: Despite what Fox News portrays black people as?
Mike: Well, hey sometimes it’s true. That’s the thing is that…
Paul: There are black people with curlers in their hair at the scene of an accident.
Mike: There are, and they talk.
Mike: It happens. To me, it’s a testament to the black experience in this country from how we got here and how things have been, to where- I don’t expect to see a rosy reality because it hasn’t been that kind of ride. Things aren’t going to go well for a while, I don’t think. There’s a lot of conversations yet to be had about black American mental health due to the sum of our experiences here and the institutions of this country. They’re just set up weird, and it’s set up based on- like people like to think that shit is just equal and –
Paul: Because we got a black president.
Mike: Well, even before then because of Affirmative Action or because of this or because of that. I really don’t think people don’t understand what it really means to have taken a bunch of people from one place forcibly, have them in another place under working for free and experiencing oppression in a very real way just because of how they looked for hundreds of years! Hundreds of years, and then to be freed but not really given any kind of economic boost to equal footing. Just kind of like-
Paul: You’re in the race! You’ve been lapped a hundred times but you’re in the race.
Mike: With the level of education it’s fucked up, and no economic skills. Just all of that, and it hasn’t been that long. It hasn’t been as long as the event occurred that it’s not been occurring and there’s a lot to address before we’re going to be healthy as a people. We’re not right now.
Paul: Any ideas in what you think a good direction to head in to make things better would be?
Mike: I think that there needs to be more of a nationwide conversation on what it has meant to the decedents of the people who were in that. I think there needs to be much more of a kind of real, genuine understanding of things before…
Paul: On the part of what – America to hear that? Or on the part of black America to get that feeling out?
Mike: Both. Both. I mean, to me it’s the reason why the n-word is still a thing is because the word really encapsulates everything that happened and since the conversation hasn’t happened, there’s still all that tension every time somebody says the word because it just brings up all these feelings that we haven’t talked about. We act like things are just okay, but they’re not because when somebody says that word everybody freaks the fuck out because there’s real emotions buried in there. There’s real pain in that in the history of everything that’s come along with that and we haven’t dealt with it.
Paul: There aren’t many other words where the meaning becomes its exact opposite based on who says it. That’s pretty powerful shit.
Mike: I call them magic words. That’s a magic word. The word that female dog word is a magic word. The f-word that they call gay people – that’s a magic word. Even if you don’t mean it when you say it, there’s meanings –
Paul: It brings up stuff in the person who’s hearing it. It doesn’t have to have a mean intent for it to bother somebody else.
Mike: Right, because in the word itself just because of the history of how it’s been used, there’s ideas hidden in the word that people have to deal with when they hear it. Like it strikes a certain chord.
Paul: Does it ever bother you when other black guys use the word?
Mike: Yeah, it does.
Paul: What does it make you think or feel?
Mike: I think that when we’re at a healthy place, it won’t be said as much. A lot of people, especially a lot of black people that start really delving into the history, that shit fucks their heads up. You know, it’s funny we were talking about isolation this entire time but I have definitely went through that phase, too, where like super-militant, super-“revolutionary,” but that knowledge –
Paul: Did you have your picture taken sitting in a big wicker chair?
Mike: (Laughs) No, I didn’t do the wicker chair! (Laughs) No, I had dreadlocks for a very long time though. But you start learning stuff and you get more isolated. Each thing you learn takes you out of the mainstream because the more information that you know, you just process life a little bit differently than the herd of people who don’t know. So me personally, when I hear that word it doesn’t just sound like a pronoun. I hear the origin. I hear so much of where it came from and I can’t personally just toss it around.
Paul: But you do use it?
Mike: Um… occasionally. Occasionally.
Paul: Do you find yourself mad at yourself after you use it sometimes?
Mike: Yeah, because there’s been some times where I’ve used it to relate.
Paul: To feel like I want to fit it.
Mike: Yeah, or to like help somebody else know that I fit in. You know what I mean?
Paul: I got you.
Mike: Like hey I’m cool. You know what I mean? And I sit back and, “I shouldn’t have did that shit” because it still means what it means to me, I just made a decision to sell out for a moment for some group’s approval.
Paul: That makes sense to me, though. It’s such a complicated issue and when I was younger, I always thought- I kind of made that mistake that you did when you said you thought the answer was to be more militant. I think the intention is right that, yeah, we need to take this seriously. I think that is what the good part about militancy is. To me what’s the bad part about militancy, about anything, is you’re saying you’re absolutely right and there’s no nuance to this and then you are painting yourself into victim mode and nothing good can ever come from a group of people who see themselves solely as the victim and everybody else as completely the reason for something else.
Mike: It’s because the worse part when people are in that phase and you look at them talk or you look at them write, it’s like they choose that angle for everything and then so all of a sudden nothing else is the reason for anything but that and it’s like damn!
Paul: Self-pity is a drug. It’s an addictive drug because it gives you the ability to be right, to be above somebody else and you fool yourself into thinking, “No, I’m telling you I’m below you because I’m being shit on.” No, you’re doing it because it allows you to feel self-righteous anger. And to me self-righteous anger is one of the most dangerous drugs.
Mike: It’s terrible.
Paul: Look at our political, the political dialogue going on in this country and that is the drug that everybody is feasting on. Very few people care about the truth about issues. It’s about being right.
Mike: I agree.
Paul: Hopefully we can work past that, but dude I’m so glad you came by and-
Mike: I’m glad to be here. I feel good. I feel good.
Mike: I feel great.
Paul: Good. I’m happy you’re able to come and share your story with me and talk about this stuff and hopefully this won’t be the last time we see each other.
Mike: I hope not either.
Paul: But I want to thank you and, as I said, Mikeeagle.net if you want to – is that the best place to buy your CD?
Mike: Yeah. Or iTunes is cool, too.
Paul: And do you have any upcoming gigs that you want to plug? This episode might not go up for a week or two, but-
Mike: If it’s up by the 16th of December-
Paul: It should be.
Mike: I’m playing at House of Blues Sunset.
Paul: Awesome! Are you excited?
Mike: It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun. I’m part of this artist collective called Project Blow and we’re having our anniversary so it’s going to be pretty cool.
Paul: Well, right on. Thanks Mike.
Mike: Thank you.
Paul: I’d like to take it out with a letter that a listener wrote. Actually, before I read that, just a reminder: If you would go to iTunes and give us a good rating you lazy fuck. This comes from – oh, and thanks to Steve Greeve, John and Michael and my wife Carla.
I had asked people last week to send in emails or voice mails for any good or bad Christmas memories that they have. The email you can do that through the website and the voice mail is 818-574-7177. And I got this letter from Jane that I’d like to read. She writes, “Hi Paul. Several weeks ago you mentioned on the podcast that you wanted folks to send in Christmas memories, both good and bad. I wracked my brain trying to conjure something because I wanted to win the t-shirt, but to no avail. Flash forward to this morning. We had just put up our Christmas tree and I began stringing lights – the adult’s job so the children could put on ornaments as they pleased. As I was winding the chord of lights around the tree, I was suddenly flooded with memories of doing this job with my dad. Although a raging alcoholic, drunk every day of my childhood, he always managed to include me and my siblings in the ceremony of adorning the Christmas tree every year. We would stand on either side of the tree passing the lights to one another, and then every year he would lift one of us up to place the angel on the top. No matter how awful and painful all the rest of our days may have been, I suddenly found myself so moved and inspired by these memories. As an adult, I can see what a pain in the ass it can be sometimes to include children in tasks when it would be easier to do them myself. This sudden memory of my dad inspired me to have the children participate regardless of how clunky the end result. I loved that I was able to remember how much my dad really loved this ritual and to learn how valuable it is to be involved with and trusted by a parent. My dad died in 2005 after many years of sobriety. I loved the idea that this gift he gave to me came at such an unexpected time and so organically. I am grateful that though there are so many seriously hard times for us as a family, I have grown to appreciate and recognize that there was also love and appreciation and the mix is well. Weird as it sounds, I hope I can be as patient and kind to my children as my crazy, alcoholic father was to me at times of course. Duh. The fact that I have taken the time to write this droning and incoherent diatribe is testament to how much I appreciate what you do.”
And I wrote her back and I said, “Jane, far from a diatribe. Quite the opposite. I was really, really moved by what you wrote. Thank you so much. You captured the spirit of Christmas better than I’ve ever heard: forgiveness, compassion, reflection, inclusiveness, openness, and humility. Wow. Doesn’t get much better than that.”
If you’re out there and you’re stuck, it’s a tough time of year. Be good to yourself. Know that you are most definitely not alone, and thanks for listening.