Open Mike Eagle Builds A Whole World On ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is Open Mike Eagle’s RX-approved, imaginative, concept album about the lives, dreams, and stories that unfold in the remnants of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes housing projects, which were demolished in 2007. Shot through with comic book imagery, charismatic wit, and razor-sharp insights, Brick Body Kids is Open Mike’s sixth solo LP, and also his best to date, as it challenges all former perceptions of what a concept album should and can be.

I met with Mike at Spot Cafe in Culver City to talk about the inspirations behind Brick Body Kids, the immaculate level of execution that brought the concept to life, and the most interesting original superhero around, The Legendary Iron Hood, a comic book-inspired character that Mike invented for the album, who makes multiple appearances in the lyrics and associated media (peep the video for “Brick Body Complex” below).

So, I guess the question I want to start off with really is: What age were you when you invented the Legendary Iron Hood?

I was 36. That’s all lore that I’m inventing kind of right now to describe the feelings of what it was like to be around there at that time. I wish that I had invented the Legendary Iron Hood when I was seven. That’s when it would have been most helpful.

Tell me about him. How flexed out is Iron Hood? Does he have powers? What’s his origin story?

I wrote these couple of lines about him one day. It was just like, “He’s got a helmet made out of a radiator.” Because all the project buildings in Chicago, they had radiators. They had a lot of iron in the buildings. We fashioned the helmet out of that. His whole thing is that he can put his head down and just walk through anything. He can walk through anything. Walk through walls.

Put his head down and walk through anything.

If it’s a blockade of hoodlums in front of the crib that’s the opposite set, he can just walk right through that. If Mom’s is tripping, he can just walk through the wall.

That’s resonates. There’s a line on “The Legendary Iron Hood” that goes, “I got swole ’cause I wanted revenge / My brother Charles got hurt when we was playing pretend / Started walking right then, just me and the wind / That asshole better hope I never see him again.” It’s exactly the hood tale in four bars. You know your best friend didn’t make it because they thought he wasn’t hard enough. You gotta be 10 times harder than he ever was.

But that’s the thing, it comes from a place of protection, but ultimately it turns into… now, he’s this hard dude. What access to humanity do you lose if you are constantly so hard that you don’t let anything affect you?

Since you didn’t have Legendary Iron Hood back then to protect you, walk me through a day in the life at the Robert Taylor homes.

Well, now keep in mind, I didn’t live there, but I spent a lot of time there, right? My aunt lived there. The most time I would ever spend there at a time, it’d be like … We’d be over there for a couple months out of the summer or something like that. But, I stayed about a mile away from my aunt, so I used to be there all the time, hoping my first cousin was there, because that was the kid around that was my age that we used to toss the football around with in the hallway. We used to play basketball, but there wasn’t no hoop, it was in the hallway. We were just trying to dribble past each other. Running up and down the stairs and maybe we’d go to the store or something. And I’d sit and watch the TV in the house.

You were an inside kid, you weren’t an outside kid?

I was outside when I was allowed to be outside. There was just a lot of danger outside. They wasn’t really trying to let us kick it because gun fighting was regular, there was a lot of people there, people around there doing harm to people, all kind of madness. They kept us pretty sheltered.

The album title, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, speaks to the hardening that happens if you’re in that environment for too long. It kinda leaves you in a place where you don’t access your feelings and your emotions as much as you might want to because it’s hard to be vulnerable in that environment.

It’s also drawing this line between what happened to them when the buildings were knocked down, the erasure of that and how that erasure was even possible only because people didn’t really think about the families and the lives of the people there. It’s that the same kind of attitude, sometimes, happens when black people lose their lives. I feel like there’s a lot of people who have an apathy for that, like when something tragic happens to a black person.

It’s like, “Oh well. That’s just what happens to them.”

Right. It’s this attitude of… let’s say it’s a police brutality incident, the first thought for a lot of people is like, ‘Oh, well he’s a thug. What did he do?’

“Should’ve complied.”

Right. Instead of connecting with the feeling of loss that that family must be feeling right then having lost a person, it’s connecting with the situational thing and try to make the person deserving of it somehow. I feel like that’s the same apathy that went along with them buildings getting knocked down. Not to say that they should still be standing, but it wasn’t done with a plan. A real solid plan. They was just like, “We’ll just move them out.” But now you got…

You’ve got Gangster Disciples living next to Vice Lords (two rival street gangs).

Exactly. On the same block.

But yet, they still daydream. I thought that that was really deep that even though they’re hard on the inside, some of the hardest, most gangster dudes I know love Dragon Ball Super. And are asking, “Oh, you go see Black Panther?”

That’s that escapism, man, and I think it’s really necessary when you’re in those kind of environments. I think that’s why people in (the hood) connect to anime and comic books and stuff like that, and it’s not something that they’re known for or even something a lot of them talk about. But like you said, Dragon Ball is big in the hood. I think the way those stories are told, they’re really attractive to people in those kinds of environments.

What were your daydreams like? What did you daydream about?

The SilverHawks a lot.

The knock off ThunderCats?

But, I liked them. I don’t know, the characters were a little weirder.

Because they had lasers.

They played the guitar and lasers came out the guitar. There was a window pattern in my elementary school classroom and the way that the window panes were, they were staggered next to each other, one was higher, one was lower. In my brain, I used to imagine the outline of their ship because if you kinda … It was laid out like that, too. I used to daydream about a lot of stuff I watched on TV. I would just replay things. I would think about music a lot, songs would play in my head. I used to always finish my work early.

That leads me to a question I really wanted to ask you about, because ever since I heard “95 radio” … It’s been kind of in my head. What was the song that was playing on the radio that you guys went on this mission to find out?

In the story of the song, me and Has-Lo are grown. We’re making music. And then, somebody’s like, ‘Yo, I heard something on the radio that sounds like ya’ll.” And we’re like, “Shit, we gotta find a radio so we could hear what it is.” We can’t find one.

It intrigues me about how seeing someone from the hood make it can turn around and feed back into that daydream and give you something to hope for and believe in. Was there anybody like that in your neighborhood or from your area that really played that role for you?

Honestly it was Common. I lived blocks away from where he grew up. Him being what he was and making records how he was making them, shouting out the neighborhoods he was shouting out. He said, “Taping W-H-P-K on a Tone Master, took the sixth instead of the 28th to get home faster.” That was my life, dude. Taping that very radio station, on that very kind of tape, and taking that exact bus home.

One of the things that really hit me was on “My Auntie’s Building.” It sounds like deconstruction. Was that something that fed into that and were you looking for sounds like that?

Yeah I was. I was literally working with a producer and I told him the concept of the album. He played me an early version of that beat and I’m like, ‘That’s perfect.’ That’s the buildings falling down right then. The buildings falling down is the whole feeling of where the record comes from. That song was called “Demolition” for a long time. Even when I put it in my sets, I write “Demolition.” I wanted to put “My Auntie’s Building” as the title because I wanted to make it more personal, but that song is the “Demolition.”

Why dod you decide to begin the album there, and have it be a flashback, instead of ending the album there?

I didn’t necessarily like starting with a catastrophe, as it were. To me, the end of the album is almost snapping you out of this fantasy place. The whole thing is exploring the lore and the methodology and building on the legends of this ruined place. I wanted you to be in that, and feeling that, then punctuate it with the real life demolition, to snap you out of that.

You’re one of the few rappers, aside from maybe Kendrick Lamar, who really has executed the concept album on such a level that it actually sounds like everything’s in the concept. But you took it further than that, with the website and the videos.

I learned over the course of making and releasing records that the more ways I can come up with to make it an immersive experience, this helps people digest and understand the record more. That’s the thing, man. I think a lot of stuff out a lot, but then sometimes it’s hard, just in songs, for people to understand how thought out something is.

If I can stretch the concept to the video, stretch the concept to the website, put out these visuals leading up to the announcement to get people in tune with what it’s about, I think that helps people understand and it’s all very thought out — it’s the stuff that they should be listening to and digging through, rather than giving the surface listening.

In my review, my main comparison was to another Chicago rapper, Lupe Fiasco. Because on “The Cool”, he promised this great concept and then four or five songs on the 19-track album were about the story. I was like, ‘That would have been so cool if had just been those five songs.’

This is all conjecture, I have no idea, but that is the difference between me. Him being in the position he’s in where he’s on a big label, he probably has to answer to a lot of people. He might have made that album and they might have been like, “Okay, but we need this kind of song, we need this kind of song.”

“We need a club banger.”

‘… We had somebody write this song. We want you to put this hook. We want you to put that on the album.’ He’s not in the position to really be like, ‘Nah.’ I used to trip out off of Eminem, because I had been an Eminem fan for years. When he got big, I used to wonder like, ‘Man, why you always make these big, weird arena rap songs?’

Then the more you learn about the business, you understand it. If this album sells two million and the next album is projected to sell three million, then they’re marketing and spending money to get it to there. If it sells one million, these people will lose their jobs.

It’s a success, but it’s a failure.

Yeah. It’s not even just a failure artistically or economically, it is real life for these people who work for these labels. Especially in this economy where dollars are steadily moving out of it. People get fired. People lose their livelihoods. Suddenly, you as a rapper, you can’t just think about you and what you want and your concept album and your fanciful thoughts.

All of a sudden you got to worry about other people. Then when the label is like, ‘We need this kind of song.’ You’re like, ‘Alright.’ At that point, it’s not just for you. I’m in a position where, for better or for worse, it’s just for me. Sometimes I want access to those kind of resources, but that’s the trade.