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Son Raw told the owners of Kim Foo’s Chinese Delicacies not to host that underaged rave, but they didn’t listen.

I only ever met Open Mike Eagle once, in the halcyon days of winter 2012, when he was opening for a pre-R.A.P Music Killer Mike at the Echoplex in Los Angeles. I was in town to play Low End Theory later that week, courtesy of this site’s editor, and was happy to catch the kind of underground rap show that just wasn’t popping in the frozen Montreal winter. We actually shared a promotional note about it here [ed. note: it was a POW Presents if I recall]. Reading it with 10 year’s distance, Mike didn’t seem thrilled about the state of underground hip-hop events at the time, saying that most were “unorganized… poorly lit… funny smelling… take place at ‘venues’ that were Chinese food restaurants hours earlier.”

(As a DJ, I’ve played my fair share of Chinese restaurant shows. Bad venues generally, but you can at least usually get some wontons on the way out)

That didn’t stop Mike, who promoted the show in gracious and gregarious hustle mode, from showing us love when we turned up. He even slid me a copy of Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes, which I still have despite three moves – undoubtedly because I was blogging about music and that’s the sort of thing artists do to get their names out there. I liked the album.

But I’m not writing this to lie to you on some “I knew this guy was going to be THE MAN” bullshit. Far from it. For one thing, my own musical interests at the time were almost exclusively focused on grime, and an indie rapper with a love for They Might Be Giants just didn’t really fit in with my passion for high-speed UK dancehall vocals with gun sounds as percussion. More generally though, I was just down on underground hip-hop: six years after Dilla passed and about as many since trap had become the default sound of rap music, I just couldn’t see a way forward, outside of then singular outliers Roc Marciano and Ka.

Being an underground rap fan in 2012 was like being a fan of the worst team in the league for five years straight: you wax nostalgic about the good times (Cold Vein! Madvillainy!) but you’re not rocking the jersey quite as proudly, and maybe start looking for an alternate team for the playoffs.

Except Open Mike Eagle never did.

Record by record, track by track, Mike grew as an artist, all through an era where the press, this site excluded, didn’t give underground (or otherground) rappers the time of day. Then, with last year’s Component System With The Auto Reverse, something clicked: maybe it was coming off a divorce, maybe it was the Covid induced lockdown, maybe it was saying fuck that other shit and just focusing on the kind of rap music he wanted to hear, but that album smacked. I voted for that joint HEAVY in last year’s Fader year end list.

I’m writing about all of this underground scene nostalgia because, if it wasn’t already obvious, Open Mike Eagle lives and breathes underground rap history, and if his latest release, Another Triumph Of Ghetto Engineering, has a thesis, it’s that those nights in dingy Chinatown venues mattered. Across the album’s 25 minutes, but specifically on ‘we should have made otherground a thing’ and ‘Dave said these are the liner notes’, there’s no rap message board argument worth forgetting or local artist too obscure to shout out.

This is an underground rap album about how underground rap matters to way more people than the media would have you believe. Like Component System, it’s also an incredibly fun listen with guest spots from Mike’s crew (shout out Eshu Tune), Blu and a truly hilarious Young Zee – a continuation of the “spit first, ask questions later” approach that made Component System so compulsively listenable.

It dropped at an interesting time too. In case you’ve been under a rock all summer, every outlet that still has a budget commissioned a “50 years of Hip-Hop” feature celebrating the same names and the same narratives. Here, the liner notes alone serve a robust counterpoint – a shadow canon of artists that, more often than not, didn’t have a chance because some editor in a Von Dutch trucker cap decided to chuck out his Rawkus CDs when The Clipse got cool. Meanwhile, as major label rap flounders, exhausted and depleted, with a witless cohort of A&Rs desperately mining TikTok for a hit, underground rap is as healthy as it’s ever been artistically (though the money continues to be elusive). Hell, it’s probably doing better than grime at this exact moment – though one should never count grime out.

Frankly, if you’re reading this site, I didn’t have to sell you on a new Open Mike Eagle album, but I wanted to write this for a few other reasons. First, any celebration of hip- hop has to celebrate the underground: it wasn’t always smooth sailing but every rapper that fought through the lean times deserves their flowers in 2023. Second, Another Triumph Of Ghetto Engineering is a reminder that participating in underground culture (however you define it), even when the powers that be don’t recognize it, is an act of resistance in itself – a protest vote against the worst impulses of a corporate media machine fruitlessly looking for an algorithm to cut out the human soul from art and culture.

And finally… this gave me the chance to write that Open Mike Eagle piece I wanted to get around to in 2012. It just took a while.

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