The official word for it is “pantoglot.” You probably know it better as that rare ability a few people have to speak in any language, depending on the environment in which they find themselves. For instance, if they’re around, say, a group of Gucci Mane-loving teens, they can talk their lingo. But if they’re in a room full of starched-collared CEOs, they can drop enough three-syllable words to make Dennis Miller envious.
That’s Michael Render. Were you to listen to his 2003 major label debut, Monster, you’d hear tracks speak about trap houses and the traps of the current socio-political landscape. If you see the guy around his native Atlanta streets, chances are as good he’d be heading to ladies night at a club as they were that he’d be attending a male-only lecture at the local university. That’s just how versatile the young man is. And if you were ever to ask Mike, that’s exactly how he intends on keeping it.
“I think it’s just me,” starts Render, who goes by Killer Mike most of the time. “I think that’s what makes me unique. And I think, for a long time, people weren’t necessarily open to that ’cuz people were really used to a rapper taking a lane and staying there. I find that people who listen to me tend to be people who have a mind that can think on a few different levels, and they’re really not honed in. They’re not so perplexed on one thing that they don’t think outside their box.
“I really did use part of my teenage years to engage in juvenile delinquency. Some would call it the trap, rolling rock and running around doing stuff affiliated with gangs. But at the same time, I always valued being smart. I saw the way people who weren’t smart got treated and I wasn’t with it.”
The good, bad and ugly
Furthering his case as a man with a diverse palate, Killer Mike recalls all-over-the-map rap acts from the past decade like Too $hort, A Tribe Called Quest and Jeru the Damaja as influences on his style. “The ’90s were a different time,” notes the 34-year-old who was introduced to the masses via OutKast’s “The Whole World” back in ’01. “It was a wilder time. But I really got education stressed. My grandparents raised me. So, that was just something that was big with them. I’m a unique individual, but I really just feel like I’m the sum of what a black man in America is. I feel like a lot of people should be listening to my music. If you’re a black man in America that’s grown up in the last 20 years, you appreciate a similar experience.”
And if there’s a subject that moves Killer Mike as much as the state of hip-hop, it’s the plight of black men who listen to hip-hop. Some of his past songs like I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind’s “You Don’t Want This Life” and Grind II’s “Pressure” might thump like any normal club anthem, but in the midst of the rump-shaking percussions, there’s thought-provoking prose about spending money in the hood or turning bad situations good. Like the science teacher you had in high school who’d make cumulus clouds seem cool, Mike slides li’l knowledge bits in his bars. Your toes never miss a beat.
That said, Mike’s fans—as you’d probably expect by now, they range from college kids to Coca-Cola execs to Chili’s cooks—are going to find the rapper’s latest project, Underground Atlanta, twice the fun. A double-disc ode to his home, the record certainly leans more towards the booty-shaking, crunk side of town with cuts like “Get Ya Cash Up” and “Bunkin’.” But in classic Killer Mike style, there are some fairly introspective moments with Bobby Ray and Grip Plyaz tossed in the mix too.
All audiences welcome
“When I go out on the weekends in Atlanta, I’m an Atlantan,” says Mike, who’s got an official album planned for 2010’s first half, released through a new partnership with his Grind Time imprint and Grand Hustle. “I wanted people to experience Atlanta that haven’t been here. Atlanta has its share of nice dance clubs and bars and you hear a lot about that. I got a lot of that on this record. But in addition to that, Atlanta has a way funky art-rap scene where kids are with live instruments and doing big things. This record is like a record where Atlanta gets together—no matter race, class, creed or color—and just getting together and funkin’ it and havin’ a grand time.”
No matter the audience, he’s got something to say. If “pantoglot” were to ever make it into the hip-hop dictionary, a picture of Mike Render would have to sit directly beside the definition.
“I’ve grown as an artist,” Killer Mike admits, “in terms of trusting my instincts more and building an audience of like minds. When you take people of a caliber of Goodie Mob, of Common Sense, of Kanye [West], of Jay-Z, those are people who everyone doubted. They built and created and connected with people of like mind. For me to see The Roots go over 10 years strong and build and develop an audience of like minds; I’ve been able to do that [too]. I’ve been able to step out of the shadows of people who introduced me to this and build my own thing. That’s an accomplishment.”