Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, has never been as well-known on the national stage as local peers like T.I. or Ludacris. But he’s been doing his thing since 2000, when he made his debut with Outkast on “Snappin’ and Trappin’.” Initially signed to Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon roster, he made a move to T.I.’s Grand Hustle/Atlantic imprint in 2008. Yet mainstream success eluded the big man until he joined forces with Brooklyn-based producer El-P (an indie hip-hop icon from his years with Company Flow and as Definitive Jux’s CEO) for 2012’s R.A.P. Music. Arguably among the year’s best albums of any genre, the record earned rave reviews and established Mike as a sociopolitical force to be reckoned with. We recently spoke with the MC about his long and winding career path, and what comes next.
You were at the epicenter of the local hip-hop scene back in 2000. How would you say the
Atlanta sound changed the face of rap music?
I was so caught up in the moment of having a record deal, I didn’t even recognize the paradigm shift that was happening. I just knew that the first year T.I. and I went to New York they were playing no Atlanta rap music besides Outkast and Lil’ Jon. Six years later, New York radio sounded exactly like Georgia radio. That’s when I realized the power of the music we had produced.
How has the game changed in the decade since you made your debut album, Monster?
Artists have had to become independently minded. They have to think strategically and be proactive. You’re in the middle of the jungle and you’re figuring out how to kill, hunt, and eat. I like it. The survival environment is better suited to me. My formula—drop music, tour, drop more music, tour—works flawlessly. I do my own music, shoot my own video and get whatever college or community radio play we get, and then tour around that. I’m a people person, so I want to be out there in people’s faces.
Sociopolitical rap isn’t trendy these days. Why is it important for you to have a strong message in your music?
I can’t profess to be a real nigga, to be one with the people and represent, if all I’m talking about are things that are above the means of the average person on the street. I see it as my responsibility to speak out on their behalf. I don’t think everyone has that responsibility. I don’t think everyone is even capable of doing it. But there are MCs like me, Bambu out of California and Saigon out of the northeast that people should embrace.
Can you talk about working with El-P and how that album came together?
The record was made during one week in Atlanta and four weeks in New York, over a lot of marijuana and a lot of cool talk between two people. That’s what this record is about—friendship, a love of rap and making dope music. It didn’t matter that he was from New York and I was from Atlanta. We’re both the same age and grew up on the same musical influences. When we came together, it was like lemon pepper and hot wings: You don’t understand how lemon pepper on wings is going to be good, but once you taste it, it’s like, “That shit needs to be together!”
Is there something to that chemistry that you’re going to try to replicate in the future?
You’re damn right! I’ve been fighting to make this record ever since I made Monster in 2003. It was about having the perfect sound bed to compliment what I’m doing. This was like Ice Cube meeting the Bomb Squad. So yeah, I’m absolutely going to replicate getting into the studio with El. In fact, we’re going back in about two weeks! I never want to not make records with El-P again.
Do you feel like the rap game on the whole has yet to recognize your brilliance?
Absolutely. I’ve been slept on, bullshitted and damn near forgot about. That’s part of what makes me even more tenacious. I can remember being young and liking Johnny Cash, and not understanding why he wasn’t as big as Elvis. It took me a long time to realize that when you’re doing something of substance, when you’re coming from a raw place, sometimes it’s going to take people a little longer to get it. I’ve had faith that people were going to get it, and now it finally seems that they are.
If it’s not record sales or major-label deals that fuel you, what is it about music that continues to reward you and keeps you hungry on a day-to-day basis?
Touring. Being out there and getting a chance to exchange that energy between me and an audience.
You opened a barbershop, Graffiti’s Swag, in Atlanta in 2011. How’s that going?
We just celebrated our first year anniversary. Last summer, when I was recording R.A.P. Music, a barbershop came up for sale via Craigslist and I bought it over the telephone. I’ll never forget telling my wife. She was like, “WHAT?!?” But it’s a beautiful shop, and we have great barbers. I would eventually like to have three shops in every major black market. I think it’s going to be an incredible franchise.
You don’t seem to be motivated by money. What’s your ultimate mission?
Don’t get me wrong: I like making money. I want to be a millionaire. I’m not poor, and I have no aspirations of being a noble poor man. But capitalism does not take precedence over my community. My barbershop plan has more to do with money than not, but my focus is on the black community. If I have 10 barbers that pay me $100 a week, that’s $1000 a week for me, but they each take $900 back into their community. If they buy a car from one of the black car dealers located in our strip mall, then that has turned the black dollar over three times in that community. These barbers donate to our kids’ baseball and basketball teams, so the community is taken care of—and all because a rapper chose to buy a barbershop instead of a gold chain. I think creating that sort of symbiotic relationship with the community is something more entertainers should be doing.