Cassette tapes are crucial building blocks in hip-hop’s documented history. It’s the very medium on which much of that history is captured, many of them since digitized, from Grandmaster Flash mixes to early Rakim freestyles. Rappers like E-40 and Too Short made their names literally selling self-released tapes out of the trunks of their cars. And even now, when it’s become harder than ever to track down a functioning dual cassette deck, the terminology remains industry standard—even if they’re digital, hip-hop still nonetheless reliably produces a seemingly bottomless supply of mixtapes.
Cassettes likewise helped to shape Open Mike Eagle as a rapper. The foundation underlining the L.A. rapper’s eighth album is the collection of tapes he made from college radio hip-hop shows in the ’90s. Bits and pieces of those tapes find their way into A Tape Called Component System with the Auto Reverse, whose artwork depicts a ’90s-era Sony stereo component system complete with tape deck (also note the full title “A Tape Called…”). Though not specifically an exercise in nostalgia, it’s an examination of the music and medium that helped shape him, told through reflections both warm and characteristically humorous. In his words, “Every album is a little collection of pieces of yesterday.”
Component System, naturally, flows like a great mixtape, the production style rotates with the cast of beatmakers (including Child Actor, Quelle Chris and D.I.T.C. legend Diamond D) as Eagle builds a patchwork of Maxell memories from some of his best one-liners. Tracks like “Circuit City” find Mike at his most playful and fun, rapping “I’m a brand new man doing the same dance/It only seems confusing because I changed pants” over a cinematically lo-fi beat from Madlib. The woozy, Child Actor produced “I Retired Then I Changed My Mind” surveys some hard lessons learned from early in Mike’s career: “I’m gettin’ too old, my first album title might’ve been too bold/ I conjured up a gremlin, how do I get rid of you?/”What the fuck is Art Rap?” in every damn interview.” He swaps staggering wordplay with Armand Hammer in standout “Burner Account,” and pays homage to a late hero in “For DOOM” (“Got two songs with you, but only spoke through a go-between/Was still proud as fuck to reach ground zero/’Cause who the fuck ever gets to rock with they heroes?“) in a moment potently concise enough for a Madvillainy bonus track.
In a brief but highlight-stacked 37 minutes, Open Mike Eagle intertwines origin story with reaffirmations of his own love of hip-hop, wallpapered with a tapestry of fading ballpoint-pen tracklists. He unspools fragments of an autobiography in the form of an aural history, complete with the presence of a few history makers themselves. Component System is an album that wears its affection for hip-hop on its sleeve, and Open Mike Eagle is generous in sharing that love in the most accessible way he can; as he puts it, simply, on “TDK Scribbled Intro,” “…I decided to make you a tape.”
Label: Auto Reverse
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.