Alt-Rap Gets a Concept Album From Cavanaugh That Changes Everything

Serengeti and Open Mike Eagle team up for something special.

If you’re a fan of alt-hip-hop or backpack-rap you’ll be delighted to know that Christmas came early.

Indie genius and universally celebrated creative force-of-nature Open Mike Eagle has teamed up with experimental genre-bending auteur rap institution Serengeti on a collaborative project called Cavanaugh, which has produced the first great hip-hop concept album of the last decade. From the press release, here’s a summary of the “Time & Materials” album’s meta plot:

In a new urban development on the far west side of Detroit, Florida, it’s mandated by a 5 to 4 city council vote that a new housing structure be erected that has both luxury condominium units available for private ownership and section 7 housing in the same building. Via separate entrances the Cavanaugh building services two very different populations. And though the lifestyles of the residents vary, each unit relies on the same system of pipes and wiring and are serviced by the same crew. Mike and Dave have a combined 14 years of experience in Cavanaugh maintenance. They usually work drunk, mumbling greetings to the residents, soaking up all the disdain that the higher and lower income inhabitants have for each other. They talk shit to each other all day. Complaining about their home lives, spinning passive aggressive tales where they pretend to be angrier, stronger, more expressive men.*

Both Mike and Serengeti live on the tip of your tongue, if you’re the type of person who regularly defends the genre of hip-hop against predictable criticisms. They’re wordsmiths reflecting on cultural disconnects backed by party-infused earworms that seem more thematically at home in the world of indie film than explosive-laden action summer tentpoles. Open Mike Eagle has been dropping multiple releases each year since 2010, alongside a podcast about the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time and various forays into the impenetrable world of standup comedy. Similarly, Serengeti (David Cohn) has been chasing a decade of character-based narratives with an impressive list of artistic collaborations, including Son Lux and Sufjan Stevens.

Which brings us back to Cavanaugh’s Time & Materials. It’s a daring, dangerous release that clocks in under twenty-six minutes but reaches for the kind of artistic heights that have guaranteed the first single a permanent rotation slot on NPR. We had the chance to sit down with both Mike Eagle and Serengeti to talk about this massive artistic achievement, and what it’s like to forge new monuments within young genres.

What was it like to wait until you both mastered your artistic voices before creatively crossing over, despite knowing each other before either of you had dipped into performance?

Serengeti: Not a moment of this felt cheap. Every beat, every word was earned.

How did a Chicago upbringing define your sound?

Mike: A little of the industrial nature bleeds through in the sonic arrangement. My Chicago influence is very much in my foundations as a rapper, but not as a conscious choice. I was defined by my early rap values. Some were immature and had to be overcome. Especially back in my era, Chicago rap was super segregated, Whether you were South Side or West Side— that defined what was important to you and twisted your identity.

Serengeti, you’re known for collaborations with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux. What makes Mike different?

Serengeti: I’ve known Mike for such a long time that finally crossing this bridge was just so overwhelmingly rewarding. I feel like I just keep saying “Mike is great!” but unfortunately that’s how simple and positive I see the entire process.

Mike produced the entire album but it drastically separates itself from your other arrangements. Where did you focus your attention?

Mike: I’ve always been in love with the idea of production. I’ve probably made one thousand beats in my life. The first thing I did on my first computer. I make these beats and left them to die alone. This project started with beats I just kinda… had. I never looked at them as something I’d use, and then Dave heard those and pointed out what made this run of tracks different. There was a new energy to go in and make these things support songs. The colors I’m painting with are the beginning of my journey, musically.

There’s a difference in how I make beats versus what I gravitate toward as a performer, and I’m finally blending the two. A lot happened in post production on this album. Some compositions were very static and as I tried to make them more active I pulled things in and out and layered elements over the top. A lot of the synth stuff was brought in later as I found my footing with throbbing harmonic elements. The way I manipulate samples, I like to mash things together to the point where the notes become electronic and ambiguous; definable but you can’t identify a single instrument.

Tell me about making your first big public foray— the “Screenplay” music video directed by Ryan Calavano, and premiered on NPR.

Mike: I told Ryan the theme we were working off of and places we had access to shoot. With the bar as the backdrop we could clearly paint these guys as the character versions of both me and Dave in such a simple way that it introduces all the viewers to where we’ll be coming from for the other eight tracks on the album — two dudes with a job to do that have some shit to shoot at the end of the day and only their co-worker could truly understand where they’re coming from. Ryan’s acumen with editing and lighting exceeded my expectations for this video, because we just wanted to capture such a simple thing. I saw some of his work a few years back and immediately hunted him down on social media to command him to represent my visual aesthetic. We’ve done some great work together, including this year’s “Celebrity Reduction Prayer.”

What’s it like to break a hip-hop track on NPR?

Mike: It’s exciting for me that NPR’s music coverage has become very robust. I’ve been listening in my personal life for many years. I always thought I would be a cool fit for the audience and here we are. Dave said he was really pleased to see that what we had done was on a site like NPR as a representation of hip hop. NPR has a lot of casual listeners who aren’t dialed into what’s beneath the surface of things so it was cool to rep that— just being in a position to show people that something unexpected was going on. We’re gonna catch some people off-guard. It helped the outlet that we provided a concept to go along with the visuals. If they’re hearing that from indie rock projects with big dreams on the regular, then we’re speaking a familiar language.

Walk me through the building of “Zorak” piece by piece. It’s a brilliant song and I have no idea where to start deconstructing it on a mechanical level.

Mike: It started with a loop we laid down and laid our original vocal tracks over; then developed the structure. That’s a song I put a lot of effort into making bigger and more complex. Not overly complex — but what it deserves. I built the synth layer and took snippets out to make that sample dance as it developed. If you heard the demo version, you’d be stunned by the density I arranged over a small rock moment that was so simple to understand.

How many characters do you see yourselves as within this album? Is there a difference between the characters of Maintenance Workers Dave & Mike and rap-stars Open Mike & Serengeti?

Mike: There is no difference in the characters. It’s not so much the character escapism as it is a situation me and Dave are in. It’s a way to understand how me and Dave work together. And the work is making the songs. If you compare us to two guys who bitch and moan and complain and deal with different populations of people— well, that’s what we do. There’s an exciting perspective in treating art like manual labor and neither of us could have understood this perspective until this point in our career.

I’ve read some of the reviews, and everyone seems genuinely concerned about the two of you? Do you see this album as a request for anti-depressants or is it just disarming to people when they hear a hip-hop album that isn’t brimming with bravado?”

Mike: In one sense, absent of the general expected bragging rap-mode, there is this vacuum of people who do not know how to deal with what we presented. Me and Dave also have dark sides. Part of why we separately make music is to deal with the tough moments in life, but our material reflects that in different ways. And a space was created between us to talk about whatever dark stuff we wanted to resolve. So yeah, minus the traditional ways people get rap on, me and Dave are frighteningly emotionally available.

Were there other songs that didn’t make that cut for the album or were these the nine meant for this story?

Mike: We recorded two more songs that we started and then decided that’s not what we’re going to do. Then pieces of a few others. These were the original nine that we planned out. Serengeti lives in Chicago and I live in LA, so we basically had two sessions to lay down this entire album, and those main nine were our focus.

There’s a refrain on the final track of the album that cries “Keep the us with the uses / The yous with the yous” and I wanted to know if you consider this the thesis of the album?

Mike: There’s a run on “Pinky” that Dave delivers:

*Practice my whimsy; become the next Herb Dean

Sometimes in rap you start to lose steam

Plane trips and towns don’t seem as interesting

After night’s over start to ask yourself some questions*

That embodies the spirit of us as independent rappers. We’re trying to make substantial shit that embodies the unseen things: the loneliness, the self-doubt, and the questioning. That’s at the heart of the album.

What kind of plans do you have in store for the live shows?

Mike: They’re secret. We’re putting our heads together to make it something special.

The album runs less than 30 minutes so there’s a lot left unsaid here. What is Cavanaugh doing next?

Mike: We plan to make more stuff and as that stuff gets made we’ll feel out the context. We’ve talked a lot about how we’re going to develop more music and the nature of how we work once we have a foundation. We’ll come up with everything after that.