Killer Mike is always in command. The thirty-nine-year-old rapper and business owner is a forceful presence, and his dexterity and depth are further improved by the unexpected perspectives he often takes. In his verses, he’s mastered thickly detailed street narratives, big and beastly battle raps, hilarious punch lines, and fierce political exhortations.
It has been well over a decade since the MC left Morehouse College and gave up selling drugs to focus on his rap career. He was introduced to most listeners as a protégé of Outkast—particularly member Big Boi—the first Atlanta rap group to be shown respect by the national hip-hop audience. A member of their Dungeon Family crew, Killer Mike was given a showcase spot on “Snappin’ and Trappin’,” a song from Outkast’s Stankonia album, from 2000. Between that record and 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he had featured verses on the single “The Whole World” and “Land of a Million Drums,” from the live-action Scooby-Doo movie. His own 2003 album, Monster, and single “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” on Columbia Records, were moderate successes. After moving to Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon Records, the label’s issues with Sony Records prevented his follow-up, Ghetto Extraordinary, from receiving an official release. Between that album and his apparent resurrection these days, he kept developing his talents and his underground following with the street albums I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, and PL3DGE. From 2006 to 2008, he also worked on Frisky Dingo, an animated show cocreated by Archer’s Adam Reed, creating music and providing the voice for one of its characters, and beginning his relationship with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
In 2012, Killer Mike released R.A.P. Music, a furious and emotionally raw record that paired the forceful Atlanta-based rapper with the malevolent beats of El-P, a longtime champion of New York City’s independent hip-hop. This on-the-surface odd couple teamed up again the next year for the Run the Jewels project, further united in an attempt to update the approach of late-’80s and early-’90s hip-hop artists like Ice Cube and EPMD. With these two impeccable releases, Killer Mike further established himself as a powerful and imposing voice in modern music.
Mike spoke to me on the phone from Graffitis SWAG Shop, the barbershop he owns in Atlanta, first from the main floor and then from somewhere much quieter. He had recently returned from a trip to New York, where he was working with El-P on Run the Jewels 2. Earlier, El-P had posted a list on Twitter of the amount of drugs that were consumed during those sessions: “2 ounces of sour, 1 ounce of shrooms and 4 grams of hash in 6 days…”
THE BELIEVER: At what point in your life did you decide that being a rapper was going to be your life’s work?
KILLER MIKE: I decided that when I was nine years old; it just didn’t happen in a very linear way. I learned to fly planes at fifteen years old because one of my teachers thought I’d be a better pilot than rapper. I was in the arts program all through high school. I got a scholarship to Morehouse, where I went. My desire for higher learning has always been high, but I wanted to get out and really start chasing rap. I did some of the right things and some of the wrong things. Right when I had my first daughter, who is now seventeen years old, I said, I gotta do it, and I’ve gotta do it for real. I independently started pushing, Big Boi got wind of it, and he gave me an opportunity around 2000.
BLVR: At any stage between when you were nine years old and where you are now, did you think it might not work out?
KM: Yeah, you think that. Doubt has always fueled me. I get nervous before every show. To get onstage I have to fight through that doubt. When I was younger, because of the geography of where I lived, [being a rapper] wasn’t possible. I was in the South. And then later on it was less about geography and more about how I don’t make pop rap, I don’t make dance rap. That was the burden. I can’t tell you that I’m 100 percent sure that my career is totally on the path it should be and how everything is going to go after this. I know that a huge fear is going back to the place I was six, seven years ago, when I had “fallen off.” I don’t ever want to feel that again, so I work hard every day.
BLVR: When you were in that period when you had supposedly fallen off, were you thinking about cutting your losses?
KM: You think about cutting your losses, but I’ve lived my life fueled by a dream. What that time taught me was that even though I wasn’t going to give up rapping, I did have to figure out a financial way to support myself, which is why I’m sitting in the middle of a barbershop that I own, doing this interview.
BLVR: Tell me about that decision to start the barbershop. Was it a matter of having something to fall back on?
KM: You just need multiple sources of income. I like not having to depend on rap money, and the way I don’t have to depend on rap money is finding other endeavors, whether it’s merchandising T-shirts or merchandising the shop or developing a product to support, which we’re currently in the process of doing. For me, it’s always been about creating as many streams of revenue as I possibly can, so I can be free to rap the way I wanna rap.
If I wish to rap something like “Burn” or “That’s Life” or “Reagan,” I have to be more like Hosea Williams and less like other members of the civil rights movement. Hosea Williams was one of the most outspoken of Dr. King’s lieutenants. He was able to be defiant only because of who he was. I watched him my whole childhood; I went to see him speak in the seventh grade. I realized that he was able to be as outspoken as he was because he owned businesses. He was a chemistry major, and he owned businesses off of that. He owned property; he owned a bonding company in Atlanta. He was my example of what you should be as a leader. I knew that if I was ever given the opportunity to have lump sums of money again, I was going to invest directly in things that were accepted by the community and that didn’t have anything to do with music. The barbershop became one of those things.
BLVR: Do you think having multiple income streams legitimizes you in the eyes of others, so they will let you do what you want?
KM: The motivation to me is to make money and not be dependent upon the shallow pool called the entertainment world or the rap world or the hip-hop world. My value in hip-hop matters. My value in another field as a hip-hop guy matters more. Take Ted’s Montana Grill: Ted Turner is a hell of a guy. Ted Turner has a television station I grew up watching. Ted Turner is someone I may or may not ever meet, but I can go to his restaurant and get a piece of his vision for eating clean and being an outdoorsman, so I feel better connected to Ted Turner. The same works for the barbershop. I’m able to make money by brokering whatever celebrity I have into a shop. The shop looks beautiful. It’s more like a Hard Rock Cafe with haircuts than it is a regular barbershop, so I bring added value to the trade, but this is about creating a new stream of revenue. It’s revenue that sustains wealth, it sustains parts of our household, and I’m not dependent upon rapping and touring in the same capacity. I love rapping. I’m going to rap even if no one pays me to rap, but just in case people ever decide to stop paying me for rapping, I have to make sure that my four children and my wife are going to be well taken care of.
Another reason I wanted to open the barbershop is to provide jobs. I have six barbers working for me. I went and bought two new chairs today because two new barbers want to be hired. And I have two barbers moving in from out of town. So I’m capped off at ten barbers. Within the next few weeks, when those four chairs will be filled, we’re going to be looking for another location and opening another shop. First and foremost, I represent a group of men in this country who are doubly unemployed nationwide. Black men have double the unemployment rate [of white Americans], but no one seems to be alarmed by that.
BLVR: One of the things over the past couple years that has helped people connect with what you’re doing is that you’re rapping from the perspective of someone in their thirties rather than someone in their teens or twenties. Do you think that older perspective is missing or underrepresented in rap right now?
KM: I don’t know if it’s an age thing for me, but it is very much a class thing. The working class is underrepresented in rap. There is something valuable that the working class has to offer that doesn’t get honored in rap music in the way that it should be or could be. I don’t drink champagne that often; I drink whiskey every day I can. That’s the difference. So I tend not to rap about champagne-type things, I tend to rap about whiskey things, things that a workingman gets off his job and contemplates. Scarface was twenty-three years old when he wrote “I Seen a Man Die.” There are rappers who are forty-three years old who will never write anything with that type of depth.
BLVR: It seems like a lot of younger rappers feel the need to rap about the champagne-type things because they’re projecting a fantasy.
KM: Yeah, and I can’t criticize the fantasy; it’s just a fantasy, though. Kids have fantasies. Kids rap about Bentleys and diamonds because that’s what they want or that’s what they think you’re supposed to do to get rich. My job is to offer an alternative, because the people I saw who got rich, they did some diamond-y things, but they also did very practical things that I saw my grandparents do. When I think of rich rappers, I’m thinking less of the guys who I see on MTV every day and I’m thinking more of E-40, who independently became rich, got big checks from rap, then diverted that into community and businesses. It’s why I tell people that one of my favorite rappers is Rick Ross. The fact that he owns a Wingstop and is in negotiations to buy twenty-five more: when I hear that I go, Wow, he’s probably going to employ two hundred to two hundred and fifty people. That’s very significant to me. That’s a reason to congratulate and to support him.
BLVR: You’ve rapped about the culpability of rap artists in terms of the values and ideas that they spread and what they give back to the communities that they came from. When did this obligation begin? Did rappers always have this obligation, or was it when rap became a global and commercial force?
KM: It’s always been. I don’t place obligations on you because you’re a rapper; I place obligations on you because you’re a man. Most rappers are black men. If you’re a black man, you owe something to the community that you came from. If you’re rapping about the community that you came from, and you’re romanticizing parts of it for the entertainment of people who don’t look like you, you certainly owe something to the community. That’s why when people try to criticize a person like my good friend T.I., I remind them that all the shit you want to talk about him, one of the first things he ever did with his money was start a construction company, and they were building houses in the community. How many rappers have the gall to do that, to build a construction company to build houses in the inner city? To me that shows a lot of forethought.
I hold rappers just as accountable as I hold the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. I hold them just as accountable as I hold Herman Russell. I know they don’t have a hundred million dollars like Herman Russell, but you’ve got twenty-five thousand dollars to open a chicken-wing stand, and to make sure that the people working in that chicken-wing stand look like you, and to make sure you don’t have bulletproof glass and the people aren’t being served like animals in cages at the zoo. You can do that instead of buying a funky-ass gold chain.
BLVR: There’s an interesting dynamic in all music, but it’s particularly at the forefront in hip-hop, where the artist has to decide how much they want to differentiate between writing and rapping from the perspective of himself or from the perspective of a fictional character. How do you approach that issue? There are two interesting examples of storytelling raps on R.A.P. Music. On “JoJo’s Chillin’” you tell the story of a character you’ve created, but “Don’t Die” is a fictional story that incorporates actual autobiographical details, like your father being a cop.
KM: I sit down and think, I’m going to write a truth. Not, I’m going to write the truth. What I’m writing is going to be a real truth all across the board, or it’s going to be a truth that resonates with certain people for a certain reason. When I did “Don’t Die,” that certainly is a mesh of some autobiographical stuff, some historical stuff, and just some characterization. The autobiographical stuff is that my dad is a police officer. The historical stuff is Larry David and, in particular, Fred Hampton—Fred Hampton because he was a twenty-one-fucking-year-old man who was murdered by the Chicago police department, and the whole world now is like, “What do we do about Chicago?” We’re forgetting that Chicago and its establishment helped put us here by killing off the leaders of the community who were trying to make a radical change that revolved around poverty and violence. And it’s a characterization because I want to put people in a hyper-visualized violent place, to let them know what, at times, I feel this country is becoming. This country is becoming a place where police departments are being replaced by storm troopers. It’s a place where police departments are busting in on grandmothers and killing them because they assume they have a gun. It’s a way to give an audio movie to people to get them to think about their rights in a different way.
Now, with “JoJo’s Chillin’,” I just got to tell you, I’m a fan of the bad guy. I’ve always been enamored of villains in movies, because a lot of times villains have very noble causes. I wanted to tell a story that was like [Slick Rick’s] “Children’s Story,” but without the repercussions of people getting caught. JoJo is never really admittedly a criminal; JoJo just kind of got caught up in the mix. I thought it would be an entertaining story to do about a guy who doesn’t know if he’s on the run or not. JoJo is kind of crazy. You don’t know if it’s really his schizophrenia or paranoia. Nobody really knows why JoJo is running, as much as JoJo thinks the Feds are after him. Although I haven’t known that story to be true, bar for bar, I’ve known people who were like that in the neighborhood, slangin’, hustlin’. You meet all kinds of wild and weird people.
BLVR: “Don’t Die” is a good example of this, but how do you blend having a concept about a social issue you want to get across and telling a compelling story?
KM: I don’t feel the need to preach or dictate. Minister Farrakhan, the pope, the president—all those people do a great job at that. I mean that with no condescension. I’m trying to entertain you to think. I’m trying to “edutain” you, dare I say, like KRS-One did years ago. I want you to be entertained. I don’t want to prove a particular point as much as I want you to think about the point because I’ve forced you to come to the right conclusion. I trust that humans have the empathy to understand why police violence is wrong. The kids who are listening to “Don’t Die” are going to be graduating from college in two years. These children are going to work. Some of them are going to be police officers. I would like those children to have heard “Don’t Die.” My cousin, who is a police officer, listens to “Don’t Die.” I would like to think that he engages with the public in a different way than some of the officers I’ve known. I have empathy and sympathy, and, dare I say, love for men who put their lives on the line to serve our community, like my father and my two cousins. With that said, if you’re a police officer and you abuse that power, I feel that life imprisonment and the death penalty should be options, based on the fact that you’re abusing the public trust.
BLVR: Maybe it’s changing now with the greater availability of production software, but I’ve often found that when rappers are younger, they write out their rhymes without music, but as they get older and start getting into studios, they start writing to specific beats. At this point in your career, are you still writing first, or do you always write to the beat?
KM: I do both. I write without a beat, and some of those records you guys will never hear, because they’re all just thoughts. And then when I get into the studio, different beats tell me what to say. I don’t really pick up a pen anymore unless I’m at home, sort of practicing. In the studio I don’t use a pen or pad. I know a lot of people say that, and I don’t say that with any brag on it as much as I didn’t write R.A.P. Music, it just poured out of me. The beats will tell me what to do, or I’ll come in with thoughts and ideas, and the producers and I figure out the beat to give the emotion that I want.
BLVR: You have a point you want to get across or a feeling you want to get across?
KM: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a whole concept. Sometimes it’s just an emotion. Like “Willie Burke Sherwood.” I always wanted to write a record that talked about the values that my grandfather had. A lot of times the values that are celebrated in some cultures, and are kind of looked down upon by others, are values that rappers have grown up with. We just haven’t had the freedom to express them. The only other rapper I’ve heard say “I fish,” besides me, is Young Buck. Both of us are from the South. My thing is, if you’re from the South, how could you grow up not fishing? If you grow up in Atlanta, maybe, but if you grow up anywhere else in Georgia, how could you grow up not being outdoors in some capacity? “Willie Burke Sherwood” is a song that gave me an opportunity to honor men like my grandfather. And I believe the vast majority of men in the South are like that. I used that opportunity to get that emotion across.
But I don’t always sit down, like: the concept is going to end here. I don’t know where it’s going to end when I start the record; I just start telling the story. I’m like everybody else: by the time I finish the last bar, I’m on the edge of my seat sometimes. I didn’t know I was going to end “Reagan” with “I’m glad Reagan’s dead.” Me and El were just in the studio and he was like, “It’s gotta be something like when Kris [KRS-One] said, ‘You know, I’m kind of glad Nixon died.’” It had to be a punch. It had to be an exclamation point at the end.
BLVR: Going into the business side of the music industry, we’re at this stage where no one knows what’s going to happen. R.A.P. Music was put out by Williams Street Records, which is the label of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and Run the Jewels was originally put out as a free download through Fool’s Gold. By some measures, these are the two most successful releases of your career, and you didn’t put them out in traditional ways. Did those two models work because of the quality of the product, because of the following you already had, or because of the models themselves?
KM: I’ve been making quality records. I’m not one of those artists who doubts that they made dope-ass records. From the first record to now, each record has gotten better. I started dope, so I’ve just gotten doper and doper and dopest and super dope. The first record I did went to number ten on the Billboard chart and went gold and yada yada yada. That was cool, but I couldn’t tour that record, because at that time I was part of an industry machine that demanded that the lead guys were the main events and the side guys were satellites. So you have Nelly and the St. Lunatics, you have Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella. When I was getting on, Outkast was going through some differences in terms of where they were going. All the satellites around them had to figure other stuff out. In my figuring it out, Pledge 1, 2, and 3 really are the foundation that my current career is built on. Those are the advance ships and those are the supporters outside of the Outkast realm, outside of me tagging along, outside of “he came from the Dungeon Family.” These kids discovered Pledge 1, 2, and 3 on their own, and they trusted me to do R.A.P. Music, and when they got R.A.P. Music, they appreciated it. And they showed their appreciation by coming out and growing an audience.
I’m happy where I’ve ended up. There’s been hard days, I’ve been afraid some days that it wouldn’t work out, but I’m glad I kept my nose to the grindstone.
BLVR: Do you think hip-hop and the hip-hop community put too much stock in conspiracies?
KM: How can a black man not be paranoid? How can I look at any statistic that tells me that if you’re not an average reader by ten years old, you’re destined for prison? How can I say someone doesn’t have a vested interest in making sure the public-school systems stay fucked-up? How can I trust you when it was less than a hundred years ago that there was something called the Tuskegee experiment, which allowed black men to live with syphilis just to see the effects on the human body. As a rapper, how can I not believe in conspiracies?
That doesn’t mean I believe there’s some secret room of people who had a meeting about gangster rap, and that it was pushed. I’m talking about why public schools are truly fucked, why neighborhoods that never could get fixed, all of sudden when people start gentrifying them, we get public services like trash and regular police patrols. Why are churches getting money to shut up or push certain political campaigns through the community? Those are the real conspiracies I worry about, because those are things that are really affecting us.
I don’t have to think that there’s some grand satanic conspiracy for people to inject reptilian minds into mine; I don’t know about all that. But what I do know is that I don’t trust the church or the government, and anything the church or the government tells me I assume to be a lie or a conspiracy, until proven true.
BLVR: Are you optimistic about the future of America?
KM: Let me say that I am a very proud American. This is truly one of the greatest countries on Earth, and I think that we are severely off track with what we should be doing next. Honestly, my wife has already said that we’re going to retire out of the country. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I don’t think I’m going to end up here. I don’t like to see such a loss of power on behalf of people. I’m afraid that parts of the Civil Rights Act have been struck down. I’m very afraid of some of the justices who have been appointed in the last twenty to twenty-five years. I don’t have a lot of hope that individual rights are going to be the same in this country. As a person who represents a community of people who are only about fifty or sixty years into real freedom, if I can’t get it here, I’m definitely going to try to find it somewhere else.
BLVR: Is there anything in your life or any topic that you haven’t felt comfortable rapping about yet?
KM: Yeah, of course there is. Of course there are always dark parts of every writer that you’re afraid to expose. But the more personal I get, the more it seems to be therapeutic for me and the more it seems to be therapeutic for a greater community of people. I was going to do an album called 16 in the Kitchen that would be about the experiences of being a teenager growing up with a mom who was a major cocaine distributor and what that life was like. My mom asked me not to put that record out. It would have been a great album, but my mother didn’t want that out there. And who is going to go against their mother?