What is “Art Rap”?

“I used to throw these sensitive parties for art rap. / No regrets, but I was foolish to start that. / Sophisticated fuckers left a bitch of a bar tab . . . / And now we just throw pizza parties.”

Open Mike Eagle

The above lyrics, from the song “the otherground pizza party” by milo and Open Mike Eagle, might represent the first time I was introduced to the term “art rap”. I can’t quite remember, but it happened sometime, about a year ago, when I was first delving into the ineffably fresh music of milo, based on the recommendation of a friend.

I was a bit confused by the term. Isn’t all music technically art?, I thought. Isn’t it, like, pretentious and dismissive to call yourself “art rap” and thereby kind of insinuate that other, “normal” rap doesn’t qualify as art? I did a bit of google-exploration, and that, surprisingly, didn’t reveal much. In 2010, LA Weekly published a write-up on “art rap” in which they said this about Open Mike Eagle’s definition of the term:

Art-rap, he’d say, is the continuation of the lofty concepts embodied by Jean-Michel Basquiat, K-Rob and Rammellzee (RIP) back in ’83 — hip-hop as high art.”

Apart from that blurb, I found little online to define “art rap”. It seemed, as per the LA Weekly piece, that Open Mike Eagle had coined the term as a way of distinguishing a certain type of rap that aspired to be “high art”—i.e. institutionally recognized, highly valued cultural-artistic artifacts. What has traditionally been called “high art” usually originates in an urban-based, culturally-concentrated environment in which artists can realize their vision with few restraints; high art also tends to synthesize a broad range of experience and knowledge.

Cover of Open Mike Eagle's recent album, 'Dark Comedy'.

Cover of Open Mike Eagle’s recent album, ‘Dark Comedy’.


For some, the idea of “high art” is, in itself, problematic and elitist. Academics in the world of art certainly can’t come to a consensus as to what constitutes “good” or “bad” or “high” or “low” art (or if such distinctions even exist), especially in a time of artists like Banksy who seem to transgress historically delineated boundaries. Many would call the term meaningless, but those people might be given pause when pressed to explain how the oeuvres of Dali, Picasso, Pollock, or Basquiat are not to be prized more than a doo-doo-smeared canvas created by a toddler. Or how Justin Bieber’s music isn’t “better” or “worse” than Rachmaninov’s.

This is the problem with trying to clearly delineate artistic value—there will always be an element of subjectivity in an appraisal of a work, but most all of us have strong intuitive feelings about the superior quality of some art. Instead of getting too wrapped up in this rabbit-hole of a discussion, I suggest we take Open Mike Eagle’s aspirations toward “high art” not as an egotistical declaration of superiority, but rather, as a disillusioned message to those who stigmatize rap music, or view rap as a “lesser” art-form, or believe that all rap is fundamentally the same or about the same themes.

A Request

Open Mike Eagle is not an elitist—he’s a soft-spoken, self-effacing dude who is exasperated at the disenfranchisement of rap as an art-form generally, at the Internet-era decline of underground rap music, and at being pigeonholed as a “rapper” (with all of the one-dimensional, wealth-worshipping, party-hungry connotations that the word carries) when his own poetic funhouse encompasses everything from social criticism (“I’m president of the rappers that don’t condone date-rape.”; “My friends are superheroes. None of us have very much money, though.”; “N****s hurt too.”) to metaphysical/epistemological meditation (“We’re all just collections of past events, that’s why I’m so protective and passionate.”; “Keep getting tattoos of old black riddles ‘cuz nobody knows.”); from absurdist daydream (“I used to throw these sensitive parties for art rap.”) to pop culture spoof (“I’ll fuckin’ interrupt your telecast hella fast in blonde-wig, blue-eyed Ellen mask. Watch me dance.”), from parables of the everyman (“I w-w-wipe my son’s ass and get shit on my hands.”; “But me, I’m just washin’ dishes, tryna work around the house more, make an income.”) to lamentation of uniquely 21st-century anxieties (“I’m all full of data like a Spiderman villain!”; “Is our ability to unify dependent on broadband connection and bandwidth?”); from self-psychoanalysis (“Cuz every word that comes through me—it was born in a nightmare.”) to black humor (“I watch bad movies because that’s what I deserve.”; “On that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tip.”).

And that’s saying nothing of the instrumentals that accompany Mike’s vocals, which are equally kaleidoscopic, layered, soulful, and challenging as his lyrics. It seems that “art rap” is just Mike’s way of saying, “Please look at what my friends and I are doing, and please try to see it as something separate from your preconceptions of ‘rap.'” This supposition is supported by something that Busdriver recently said on Yoni Wolf’s stelliferous podcast: “Imagine rap without the unbelievable load of stigma.” This is less of a definition and more of a request for people to transcend a narrow understanding of rap music in order to see art rap as an art-form that stands on its own merits, in any context, in art history generally. The definition of art rap, then, is to be found where all true definitions of art reside—in the work itself. The meaning is something to become self-evident via the music itself, something open to change and interpretation as other rappers (milo, Busdriver, KOOL A.D., Heems, etc.) continue to build upon and enter into dialogue with the art rap movement.

Genesis & Legacy

If we loosely define art rap as a type of rap music that possesses a meta-awareness of itself as a divergent movement in the lineage of rap and broader art history, as a force that seeks to draw upon a wide array of lenses that have historically been underrepresented in rap music or art generally, then it would be difficult to call Open Mike Eagle the originator of the movement. He seems to be aware of this and to not want to claim credit (“I stay familiar with my lineage and spend a lot of time defending it.”). Perhaps he just wanted to call attention to a strain of rap music that has existed since the 1980s—a strain that has always been about synthesizing a fuller spectrum of culture and life—the mundane, the esoteric, the idiosyncratic, the everyday, the countercultural, the pop cultural, the humorous, art from other mediums, philosophy, history, etc. etc.—into music.

I don’t know enough about the earliest rap music to pinpoint a genesis of this type of music, but I suspect a couple of the foundational pioneers were Afrika Bambaataa and Rammellzee (again, as per the LA Weekly piece). In the late 80s/90s period, names like Kool Keith (self-proclaimed father of horror-core, porno-core), Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (son of an avant-garde artist, eventual author of first grandiose sci-fi rap opera, Deltron 3030), and MF Doom (creator of the cartoon-ish, comic-book-ish, culture-carnival-of-intricate-wordplay archetype that is visible in so many post-2000 acts, from KOOL A.D. to Odd Future) come to mind as guys who were on the wave of the burgeoning avant-garde of rap—who were simply operating within a wider framework of lenses than the vast majority of rappers. In the late 90s/00s, it’s MC Paul Barman (a good friend of Open Mike Eagle’s), Busdriver (a member of the rap-clique Hellfyre Club, of which Open Mike Eagle and milo are also members), Yoni Wolf, and possibly Aesop Rock that come to mind as dudes who were continuing to function far outside the orthodox tropes of rap/hip-hop. And circa-2010 to the present day, I think immediately of the post-ironic, pop-culture-smoothie-making antics of now-defunct Das Racist (and the solo work of its two rappers, KOOL A.D. (sort of a Hunter S. Thompson meets Lao Tzu character) and Heems (a socially incisive and sardonic trickster in his own right)), milo (transcendental idealist; “wiry Platonic apologist”), and possibly Jonwayne, Big Baby Gandhi, Kitty, and Lakutis.

The Point?

This is starting to get complicated, though. “Art rap” is a rather nebulous concept, and if we really wanted to, we could probably extend the label to countless rappers/rap-groups that have been notably innovative in the genre (Pharcyde, Cannibal Ox, Hieroglyphics, De La Soul, Blackalicious, El-P, Atmosphere, etc. etc. etc.). And maybe that’s the ultimate point of art rap—to elevate the entire genre of rap to the status of a legitimate art-form of extraordinary richness, depth, and relevance, valuable as other canonized, Ivory-Tower-prioritized art-forms, evidencing the work of numerous artistic geniuses.

Whatever the case, the music being made by today’s cohort of “art rappers” is sonically diverse, vibrant, clever, penetrating, textured, intelligent, poetic, and relentlessly innovative. It’s being made by guys whose interests span everything from media studies, Wittgenstein, Breaking Bad, existentialism, Neil deGrasse Tyson, foreign languages, comic books, and David Foster Wallace to cartoons, stand-up comedy, Super Mario World, Paul Thomas Anderson films, mythological studies, Bitcoin, Kurt Vonnegut, Dragon Ball Z, race politics, Alan Watts, and the philosophy of language. I don’t know the ideal ordered cluster of words to convince you that the artists I’ve mentioned in this piece—most centrally Open Mike Eagle, milo, Busdriver, and Das Racist—are worth exploring, but if I did, I would write those words in that order right now. Just, don’t take my word for it—listen to these art rap songs and then go find more of them (the sidebar on this site might be a good place to start). Long live art rap:

And, if I may, submit one of my own creations:

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Young existential crisis. I make rap music about the void.

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