By Jimmy Ness and originally published at HiphopCanada
Killer Mike destroys outdated clichés that Southern rappers are terrible lyricists who mistake swag for talent. The Atlanta MC covers strip-clubs, Reaganomics and police brutality without losing any of his ferocious delivery. Mike’s potent lyrics push the listener to improve themselves, and it’s tough to ignore his wealth of life experience.
After being taught the intricacies of selling drugs by his mother, Mike was making a living hustling until issues with the law forced him to turn his efforts toward music. His first break came from OutKast’s Big Boi and he’s since worked with numerous third coast legends including UGK, T.I, Three 6 Mafia and Dungeon Family.
At 37, Mike’s an outspoken individual with a passion for church, family and politics. But he’s no ageing hip-hop scholar reminiscing over dusty boom-bap records. His newest release R.A.P Music is a strong contender for album of the year and shares similarities with the Ice Cube classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Mike’s bellowing social commentary is backed by production from Brooklyn’s EL-P, who is a renowned underground rap figure himself. HipHopCanada spoke to Killer Mike before his Into The Wild Tour with EL-P, Mr Muthaphuckin eXquire and Despot,which touches down in Vancouver on Monday 2nd July. We chatted about meeting Notorious B.I.G, his new album and his friendship with Pimp C.
EL-P produced your latest album R.A.P Music, which is an interesting pairing considering he’s known for an underground East Coast sound and you’re from the South. How did you two link up?
I met EL-P through Jason Demarco, who works over at Williams Street Records and is a mutual friend of ours. He also had done some business with us, like putting me on a single, matching me up with Flying Lotus to do a song. He just asked if I would be willing to do a record over there. To do a record over there would give me the kind of freedom you don’t really get with other record companies. He asked if I wanted to do some cool experimental stuff and I said yeah.
The first producer he put me with was EL-P. I just quickly kinda fused with El and we started working on a whole record. Within that we became friends and made a classic record. We are probably going to continue to make music for most of our careers.
Tell us about the creative process between you and EL-P making this record.
I had rented an apartment close to where he lived. I went to his house every day. We smoked our weed, he made beats and whatever came into my head I stood up and said on the microphone.
Your grandmother marched with Martin Luther King and your grandfather was a union member. Is politics something you’ve always been interested in?
I’d say from the level of social politics. Just doing what’s right for the community, so yeah in that aspect. My grandparents weren’t shmoozers in any aspect to any particular politicians, but they were very supportive of African American rights, worker’s rights. They made sure that we were politically aware and that my sisters and I were into voting, being part of the political process. It just made me more aware of the world around me.
One of my favourite quotes from R.A.P Music is “I believe that government should fear the people and not the other way around.” Tell us a bit more about this idea.
I honestly believe that unless the government is scared about the will of people, their moral compass is always off. I’m not saying that the people always have the right answers but I definitely think that the government is a representative of the people, for the people. If it’s only working on the behalf or for the interest of a small group, I don’t see the value in that government.
I believe the people should always be vigilant, making the government aware that at any given time a vote could happen. Revolution could happen. It doesn’t mean everybody picking up arms and wilding out, but it does mean we will vote for someone else. It won’t be the typical we will choose between the lesser of two evils. So I’m interested in seeing people grow that and just focus more on liberty instead of making a choice and joining political parties and their ideologies.
You also mention some unique subject matter like your father being a cop and loyalty to your wife, that’s not something the typical rapper would put in their music.
Well it should be. You know, I’ve never really learned how to be the personification of something I’ve created. I’m just me. I’m lucky enough to have people interested in me. And they like me. It interests people that my wife and I smoke weed, do business, take care of our children and still find time to go to the strip club and fuck around with girls and talk shit. You know, that’s some cool shit so people are interested in that. I don’t have to figure out a weird ass persona or other shit to give you. It’s just easier for me to give you me. I’m a man of complexities and contradictions and people are always looking to see how I balance it, because I believe everyone has certain inclinations that I have. I don’t hide. I just put me out there for people to see and it interests them, I’m fortunate in that.
What happened on the first night you recorded with Big Boi from OutKast? I heard you also met Gucci Mane.
We went to an old strip club. I had a homegirl that was dancing out there. She was helping me get the demo money and shit together. We all just went out there together on one of the first nights we hung out. They saw that I got treated like a man of respect. We got cool after that and I think I did “Snappin and Trappin” with Big that night and then later we did “Funkadelic.” Those were the first songs two we did together.
Gucci was there, he was rapping too. I mean everybody was in the streets but everybody was rapping too, trying to get out of the streets.
You decided to pursue music because your crew was facing major criminal charges?
I was a hustler, they were robbers. They robbed people. They got caught with someone in the trunk and they spent a year and half fighting the case. And they beat the case, it was like 40 years to life. I just used that time to get my mind sharp, start grinding. Forget about everything around me and get busy. It was at that point that I wanted to get out of the streets. I just knew that while they were gone, it wouldn’t be long before I ended up in someone’s trunk, you know.
OutKast, Bun B, Three 6 Mafia, Dungeon Family you have worked with some of the South’s most famous talent, was there anyone you were particularly impressed by?
I would just say you know being able to call 8 Ball, and being able to call Bun B and reach out to Pimp C and have MJG acknowledge my verse, it’s dope. It’s just an amazing feeling. It’s what I sat at high school and day dreamed about, rap. For me, getting that opportunity to be in the studio with Paul and Juicy and seeing the process of making a beat and putting cuts on records was just an honour for me.
I just feel like I’m a very fortunate fan and I’m a very capable MC. I brought a lot of honour to the South and I appreciate the slang, and I appreciate the respect I get because of that. Basically I’m just a rap fan and I get to compete, contest, to make music and to have fun with my heroes. That’s an amazing feeling every day.
You met Notorious B.I.G when you were younger?
Yeah like standing at the back of a warehouse when they were walking back. I was literally just like “oh shit, Biggie! What’s up? What’s up?” He gave me the blunt roach before he went into the club. I had to be like 17-19 maybe. It was at like the end of high school and beginning of college. It was before he had like all the way blown up, you know what I mean. It was when him and Nas were talked about in interviews, Puff was running around with Faith then. It was around the same time he was at one of the barbecues. He had popped and had a presence in Atlanta.
[Killer Mike is referring to a performance Notorious BIG did in Altanta in 1994 at OutKast’s Atlanta Barbecue music festival. Mike would have been 19 at the time.]
You also wrote to Pimp C while he was in prison and he visited you when he got out?
Yeah I wrote him while he was in prison and he wrote back and he visited me. He gave me a verse, but I don’t know if I’ll ever release it. I really felt love from him. He gave me some advice. I asked him “do you have any advice from me?” He just said “whatever you do man, it’s about how you rap. Rap like a drowning man fighting for air. You just gotta be on it. Be cool and all that. Nothing else matters, not your age, how long you been going or any of that. What you gotta do is just keep at it and keep going.” I appreciated him for it you know, I really do. He took time to talk to me. He helped me.
How do you feel about the growing popularity of the South? Earlier it was considered the downfall of rap music and acts like OutKast were famously getting booed in New York during the Source Awards.
I’m just glad that hip-hop is open to all possibilities. When that was going on in the South, it was like that hurt. It definitely hurt your feelings, but we knew what we were doing was dope. Same for the West Coast, same as I imagine for New York kids who started hip-hop when they were rallying up under disco. I’m just glad that some of the regional differences are gone. But with that said, I think it’s important that we maintain some of our regional differences so we don’t have this one homogenous style. We had to honour our greats and we did, and now we’ve reaped the rewards.
You haven’t been on a major label since your first album with Columbia in 2003, how was the transition into being independent? The internet wasn’t quite the music marketing success story it is now.
I’m happy. What I’ve been doing has been working for me so I’m fortunate. I don’t really put a lot of thought into what I was or how that experience was. I was what I was and I am what I am. What I am is respected and revered and in control of my own destiny. Rapping like a motherfucker. I like where I am, I appreciate it.
You decided to invest back into your community by opening a barber shop. What made you get into this business?
I think that the music is there and that our culture and society is there, so what better place. Rappers need to do something other than making new rap records and music, and start reinvesting in their community. And part of that reinvestment is owning things like barbershops, car washes and small stores. Paying back to where we are from. I’m very proud to be part of a group of people who has done that.
Tell us about the Into The Wild tour you’re bringing to Vancouver?
Yeah, the Into The Wild tour is Wild! Despot, Mr Muthaphuckin eXquire, Killer Mike and EL-P. We are just having a ball, we are all good friends and just going from city to city. I know that we just love the audiences out there and they get a chance to see, touch, taste and smell the music that they love.
What’s next after this tour?
Relax with the family and put out another album!