Consider the Juggernaut.
Cain Marko. Step brother of Charles Xavier turned X-Men antagonist by a mystical ruby. Big beefed-up dude with no motherfuckin’ brakes.
A curious idol, but this is who Open Mike Eagle chooses as his muse for the opening of his 2018 opus Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. It’s not that Eagle envies Juggernaut’s invulnerability or his alluring outfit. It’s the villain's tragedy he relates to.
“Started walking, now my legs in perpetual motion,” he raps on “Legendary Iron Hood.” “Can't stop, can't stop, but I'm not just boasting/I had to ’cause home’s overcome by roaches.”
Eagle, who plays Turf Club on Friday, is a classic polymath. A Rap Goldberg machine powered by pure idealism. Not only has Eagle been grinding for the past decade as one of independent hip-hop’s most unique talents, but he also hosts three podcasts and writes for the new Comedy Central show The New Negroes. This past October, while taking time off after Brick Body, he started his own record label, Auto Reverse, and dropped a five-song EP titled This Is What Happens When I Try to Relax.
“Really, the category of my approach is self-sustained,” Eagle says. “I’m from a long line of people who really, legitimately rap and make rap songs and do fucked up tours and make these albums that no one is really asking for, but they’re in you, and you have to get them out.”
Like all rappers, Eagle is addicted to the hustle. It’s an inescapable vocation. As he admits on “(How Could Anybody) Feel at Home,” even in his fantasies, he’s working. It’s a common predicament among Juggernauts of Eagle’s sort—run yourself into the ground or face irrelevance.
Brick Bodywas Eagle’s most accomplished work to date, an idiosyncratic diorama of the Robert Taylor Homes, the public housing project in Chicago where Eagle spent part of his youth. Pitchfork called the record “a diverse and singular piece of contemporary hip-hop.” Vice’s Noisey lauded it as “a stunning, wildly ambitious, meticulously researched record.” The consensus was in: Eagle had reached the pinnacle of his oft-meandering career.
“Some version of that narrative gets said after every one of my albums,” Eagle says. “Because of how psychologically unhinged all creators are, I have to synthesize narratives on a really simple level. I look at it like this, ‘Oh, people are saying good stuff? Good!’ And that protects me.”
For Eagle, there can be no pinnacle. No mountain without a mountain beyond. He looked at all the adulation of Brick Body and responded a mere month later with Try to Relax, a frank EP that lays a shocking film of reality over the fantasy of Brick Body. Despite his many-faceted success, Eagle struggles. As he told Billboard following the EP’s release, “I damn near have to justify my existence over again.”
Hustle is a hallmark of rap, to the point where its presence in bars is obligatory. Every rapper works harder than every other rapper, and no one puts in the grind that you do. Eagle suffers from the same dangerous mentality, but at the very least he recognizes the absurdity of it all.
“Every rapper I know thinks they’re the absolute shit,” Eagle says. “They think everybody should stop listening to what they’re listening to and listen to their shit. And I also think that about me. The psychological contortions I have to do when I walk into any establishment and they’re playing rap music and it ain’t mine. I have to square myself with the fact that people around the world are enjoying this music and they’re not enjoying mine. I have to rectify those two thoughts all the time, and it pushes me to keep going.”
Try to Relax is punctuated by “Southside Eagle (93 Bulls),” a straight-to-the-bone mythbuster about the glory of indie rap. Pitchfork and Vice might think Eagle has reached an artistic zenith, but he’s still living in the red, marking success in podcast appearances. He didn’t start Auto Reverse out of some personal creative mandate. He did it to improve the margins of his records.
“There was an aim to be really transparent about business shit,” Eagle says. “A lot of it is on your own fortitude and your own beliefs, your own willingness to stand on your creativity. I wanted to start from a place where I was pulling the curtain back on just how dire this shit can be.”
Though effacing (“It can all go away,” he chants ad infinitum on “Microfiche”), Eagle’s stone-faced resolve helps him avoid the most toxic trappings of the polymath’s dilemma. Somehow, he’s able to enjoy the unending work.
Delighting in the process has been integral in sustaining Mike through his many passions. It’s what kept him from flunking out of Southern Illinois University Carbondale his sophomore year. That’s why he sees the media narrative as a recurring theme rather than a novel insight. Of course every new release is a plateau. It is not provenance. It’s the result of regular, disciplined improvement.
“It was always important to me that I was finishing things,” he says. “I like that follow-through. That’s what I’ve hung my hat on. Starting some shit and finishing it. That’s the key to having any success in this business, whether you wanna go the mainstream route or DIY.”
Eagle claims this benchmarked focus has helped stave off the sustained pressure to create. With everything he throws himself into, he does so with the intention of a finished product, and that’s the source of his happiness. But happiness is not the same as satisfaction. For the Legendary Iron Hood—Juggernaut-inspired polymath—there may be many stops, but there can be no end.
“I want to be heard, I wanna be seen,” he says. “I’ll never be satisfied.”
Open Mike Eagle
With: Video Dave, Sammus, Medium Zach
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m Fri. March 29
Tickets: $14; more info here