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Open Mike Eagle on the past, present and future of West Coast rap

Take Two's A Martinez (right) with rapper Open Mike Eagle.
Take Two's A Martinez (right) with rapper Open Mike Eagle.
Julian Burrell

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In the late 80s and early 90s, West Coast rap was all over the radio.

Guys like NWA, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg pushed the sounds of the region all over the country.

The records were sold, the money was made. It all sent a clear message to the music industry: When it comes to hip-hop, the West Coast rules.

"Business-wise, the major labels controlled everything," LA-based rapper Open Mike Eagle told Take Two's A Martinez.  He said one reason local hip hop got so popular is because savvy producers like Dr. Dre discovered new artists that could really break through.

"Once they found a talent bed, especially like the kind of high-quality stuff that Dr. Dre was making out here, and putting people together, [it was] his vision and his bent towards perfection and how he was driving the talent around here to be hard and be productive and make music that had a wide appeal. I believe he was the reason the West Coast was the leader for a long time."

But that level of success is hard to maintain. In the late 90s, the boom of West Coast rap started to ebb. 

Tupac—THE symbol of the West Coast—was killed. The focus moved East.

But the pride in West Coast rap never really went away.

"I don't know if there's too many other genres where the sound of it reflects the people in the part of the world or part of the nation they come from as much as rap does," Eagle said.

Today, Eagle and others say that the West Coast rap scene has really picked up. DJ Mustard, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, they've all helped create a new sound with California distinctions.

The origins of West Coast rap

New York is mostly considered the birthplace of rap as a genre. "There were all the tales of things that were going on in the hood," Eagle said. "There was a little more of a thrust of trying to overcome it and trying to be positive and find ways forward, at least in terms of music that labels picked up and distributed."

What helped buck the trend was when artist Schooly D released a song called "PSK."

"It was the first time anybody had anyone glorifying crime and pimping things that were going on and some people really knew," Eagle said. "But usually, some people really into that lifestyle kept a distance from hip-hop. People who were into hip-hop were trying to get away from all that."

"PSK" inspired LA-rapper Ice-T to put his hustler life into his music. He wrote a song called "6 N the Mornin'." It was one of the first West Coast songs that reached a mass audience. 

"Ice-T heard someone glorifying the life that he lived," Eagle said. "We don't have to pretend that it's something we're not into. I can put my hustler life in my rap life. That started this whole new lane that Eazy-E and NWA and all those guys [from the West Coast] followed."

Why West Coast rap found a nationwide audience

Dr. Dre's album "The Chronic" was released in late 1992. It received acclaim and went triple platinum, a rare feat for a gangster rap record at the time.

"That was the first time that the national music consumer got behind a product that was glorifying that life," Eagle said.

Eagle said that the album's appeal came from the fact that it had a message that many in the country could identify with.

"Ultimately what is described as gangster rap, which is this rugged individualism and glorification of capitalism, I think is a reflection of the unspoken American values as a whole," he said.

"I think a lot of people say America is about ... free speech or liberty or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but I believe there's this undercurrent of capitalism that we all experience. We all know that money is kind of the central game of this country. What you get in a really powerful gangster rap record is a very raw reflection of that capitalism and how important it is in these people's lives."

The modern West Coast Rap renaissance

The California rap scene slowed down in the late 90s and early 2000s. But now, there are tons of local artists who have captured an expansive audience.

But while the last explosion of West Coast rap was largely identified by gangster rap, Eagle is not sure how to qualify the newest version of the sound.

"I believe it's still figuring itself out," he said. "The power right now is with the individual artist. I believe that we're at a place now for the first time ever where young black artists have the power to make music that reflects their values."

"Black youth in LA are at the forefront of figuring out what their identity is post-gang-banging," Eagle said. "You look at Kendrick Lamar, at the head of L.A. rap right now. He's a guy who, quite obviously, has had a lot of that in his past, but he also seems really excited about being able to figure out his own identity going forward. He seems to represent that for a lot of people, too."

Where the sounds of the West Coast will go next

Even with all of the new artists coming up in this part of the country, Eagle doubts that the West Coast will ever rule the genre like it used to.

"I don't think ruling hip hop is a thing any one cultural center can do anymore," he said.

That said, it is still a fun time for local fans of rap. Where the genre will evolve next is anyone's guess.

"Every album that I see come down the pipe only reinforces the fact that it's very open-ended," Eagle said.  "If you're making music that appeals to people sonically, there seems to be no ceiling for how far you can go. You look at the Kendricks, the Vince Staples, the Earl Sweatshirts, there's no limit. So to me, it's just the people at the forefront figuring out where they want to go next. That is very exciting to see."

To hear the full conversation, click the blue player above.