In 2010, Open Mike Eagle defined his style with the title of his debut, Unapologetic Art Rap. That basically means he can be clever without being a dick, referential without being cliche, and intelligent without sounding like a nerd—unless he really feels like it. Eagle’s tone embodies a wittiness that went missing in the modern age of purposely botched rhyme schemes and forced nonchalance in hip-hop. His new album 4NML HSPTL is out tomorrow, and in bracing for the full aural experience, we’re breaking down the track “Universe Man” produced by Awkward and featuring fellow Chicago native Serengeti.
“Universe Man,” as Eagle explains below, follows the rantings of an insane person, borrowing a hook from They Might Be Giants’ “Particle Man.” For the first time ever on LAYERS, we’ve got words from both the producer and the MC on the track. So, without further ado, let’s get a taste of this tag team enlightenment. Go!
Awkward: The beat for “Universe Man” started completely differently than the finished version on the LP. Originally, it was a first choice beat to give to fellow Machina Muerte member Zackey Force Funk for an EP called Unfollow The Leaders. After we picked a more uptempo electro B-boy style track, I decided to pass this on to Mike for the LP we had started to work on. In fact, it was one of my least favorite beats I submitted at the time. After I got Mike’s rough vocal take back, I went to work on resculpting the track around his lyrics that were so amazing I felt the beat had to step up and do them justice.
Awkward: This is the whole drum track as one. It’s made up of about four different drum breaks. Some filtered out, some chopped, and some parts just looped. I added an 808 snare and heavy kick for extra slap. Mike favored a more understated snare for this version.
Bass part and hidden drum
Here is the main bass sample. It’s a loop. One of only two sample loops on the whole LP, in fact. I’m not going to reveal the source. That would be telling. There is also another hidden drum part here. I don’t remember why I added it. It’s there though.
Open Mike Eagle: This part plus the space percussion and sunshine parts below constituted the beat as I originally wrote to it. All other sounds were added after in order to construct the song. One of the reasons I enjoy working with Awkward is because he is a producer in the classic sense. He starts with a beat but does a lot after the lyrics are written to fill out the piece musically.
Mysterious note noise and Neon Keys
Awkward: This is very mysterious. It came from a longer sample that I edited because of a crazy space noise Mike didn’t like. The origins of this sample are highly mysterious. The neon keys are resampled from a slowed down keyboard I played. I think they really are a key in setting the track off into space.
This is a one-bar loop sample of my homeboy Benjamin One playing a electro style percussive jam he did for another track of mine. So nice I used it twice. I feel it gives the song momentum, creeping through the universe, etc.
This part was on the original beat. It’s a cosmic jazz sample looped and rearranged a little. It colors the bass parts in a really nice way that’s not too happy. If I told anybody what this sample was it would be crazy as I have long forgotten where I sampled it from. It’s nice though.
I call this part the universe loop. I’m always trying to fit that one extra sound into a track. It’s a habit of mine I can’t seem to break. This adds a more exploratory universe travelling aspect to Serengeti’s verse at the end, where I imagine a mysterious space catastrophe you could never put into words. Notice the abrupt end of the sample. I do that a lot.
Open Mike Eagle: I was definitely in support of switching up the vibe a bit for Serengeti’s guest verse. I wanted it to feel like the song turned a corner from the zaniness I had established on my verses. I didn’t necessarily have a sound in mind, but this was perfect.
The full beat
“Universe Man” instrumental.
Open Mike Eagle: This was in the final wave of songs written for the record and one of the few that survived from this phase. I had been having some experiences that were drawing me to absurdity and I wanted to write some things that had the tone of a Coen brothers or Wes Anderson movie. I settled on the concept of advice from a lunatic. All he’s basically saying is to cherish the little things. The difference in the color-coding of trash cans for instance.
Awkward: So there you have it. This has gone from one of my least favorite beats to one of my top favorites off the LP. Peep.