Atlanta’s burly-voiced rap preacher Killer Mike has had an unusual career arc – coming up as part of the Outkast-affiliated Dungeon Family in 2000 before stepping out as an independent solo artist with his severely-underrated “I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind” mixtape series, then experiencing a late-career revival in the last couple years after collaborating with Brooklyn veteran (and former head of definitive indie-rap label Definitive Jux) El-P for his 2012 “R.A.P. Music” and this year’s Run the Jewels self-titled. Soundposts caught up with him via phone right before he had to head out on his last run of shows for the year to talk about politics and, of course, rap music.
Q: How’s it going today, Mike?
A: It’s pretty cool, man. It’s pretty cool.
Q: So you’ll be in Seattle on Wednesday for this Red Bull Sound Selects show…
A: Yeah, shouts out to (Seattle U men’s basketball) coach Cameron Dollar up there! We went to elementary and high school together, I’ve cheered for him his whole career. But we were like arch-nemeses in elementary school — which is why I think a lot of this anti-bullying is B.S… there are extreme cases, but sometimes kids just need to go hard on each other to build resilience, know what I mean? Me and Cam went at each other’s throats and made each other better human beings for it.
Q: Wow, small world. So you’re both from Atlanta, where you initially started your career as part of Outkast’s Dungeon Family. You then kinda went your own way with the “Pledge” series and your independent stuff, but then linked up with El-P for “R.A.P. Music” and Run the Jewels. How have you managed to put out so much varied material while staying true to yourself and your Atlanta roots?
A: Honestly, people kinda act like this politics thing — or social commentary is what I like to call it — is new, but it’s kinda what I was trying to do on [“Monster,”] my first record. I feel like I got better each time. People make analogies, as rappers we like to imagine ourselves athletes.. but I saw my career as something more like baseball. Baseball is a thinking man’s game — not that the others aren’t — but baseball you can really think your way through it. You can be a player that comes in on the margins and you can improve certain skill sets, you can adjust a batting stance and you can improve numbers. Like with “Monster” some people say, ‘It’s a classic,’ but if I accept that I must accept that it’s an imperfect classic, because there were some things there that I didn’t know the formula to because I hadn’t created it yet. I hadn’t created a “That’s Life” [one of Mike’s first outwardly “political” tracks] formula. It took ‘That’s Life’ to come out of me for me to understand how to improve upon it with “That’s Life 2.” With each “Pledge,” I had to challenge myself to get better. I’ve always envisioned my career as more like that baseball thing — I can get better every year, I have to challenge myself, I have to use times when I’m not visible during the off season to refine my skills, and I try to impress the audience every time. I always sell more records in Atlanta than other places, even at my lowest commercial point or highest underground point, the focus has always been speaking a story from this kid from Atlanta, this young man growing up in Atlanta’s perspective, so I always try and stay true to that and just consistently better and it seems to have worked. And I don’t know why and I don’t know how but I’m very thankful it does.
Q: You collaborating with El-P kinda surprised a lot of people given your different regions and backgrounds, but “R.A.P. Music” sounded pretty natural even with your different styles.
A: That’s it, that’s how it happened. We went in the studio, and within 48 hours I think both of us pretty much realized ‘This is gonna be easy.’ I took it a step further and realized I’m probably not gonna make music again if its not in correlation with this guy in some way. Because as a human being I loved him. Just growing up in the same era, we had seen a lot of the same things socially, musically and culturally, and yet we had different experiences cuz he was from Brooklyn and I’m from Atlanta so we were very interesting to one another in terms of perspective and writing, so it just made all the sense in the world for me. I got paid to make a friend, man.
Q: You can definitely hear a lot of chemistry on the Run the Jewels album. Do you two have any more upcoming projects you’re working on?
A: Well we did a new record for the European release, and yes, El announced the other day that we’re going to work on a Run the Jewels 2. I was just smoking a blunt and getting into whatever I was getting into at the time, I didn’t realize it was getting leaked. So now we’re going to work, he got tracks all ready, they’re amazing, and we’re back at it like a crack addict.
Q: Ha. Speaking of crack, your song “Reagan” seems to be one of the most popular at your shows. What would you say America needs to remember most about Ronald Reagan and what he did?
A: I’m not a neo-guerrilla fighter on the front lines of a movement saying that this is why I’m taking the Reagan administration to war. I’m a kid that grew up and saw the world change in front of him because of co-conspirators and a conspiracy out of the White House to fund an illegal war that allowed the influx of drugs into a community — and then laws were set to be more punitive based on race because that drug was flooding that particular race’s community. I was here when jobs started to leave, and men in those communities started to lose jobs and turn to selling and manufacturing crack – derived from cocaine that came out of this government conspiracy. With all that being said, just beware of any propaganda that attempts to make any politician seem equivalent to a true and moral social leader. Study it for the truth. I don’t trust pictures with Obama next to King next to Malcolm, because he’s a president of the United States — not that he’s a bad man or isn’t a good man — he’s a politician, so he doesn’t belong on that picture with those men, based on them taking a bullet for strictly moral and spiritual reasons. That’s how I feel about Ronald Reagan. I will not accept the media lionizing him as the great leader of this country in the same way that they tried to shape other presidents without acknowledging the evils that were done under his regime. That’s all.
Q: That’s real. On a lighter note, rap is in a pretty crazy place right now. It’s more popular than it’s ever been, but a lot of people think it’s gotten away from its roots. What do you think are the best and worst parts about rap music today?
A: Rap turns 40 years old on November 12 — also my daughter’s birthday. November 12, 1973 was the official birth date of hip-hop. With this music turning 40 years old.. I’m only a few years younger, and I remember when they were like ‘This is a fad, this will be gone in a year.’ Rap is charging full speed ahead, 100 percent. We’re at a point where we could have a rap radio station that plays 24 hours of rap music — having a ‘golden years’ morning show, an evening/early evening that’s the second ‘golden era,’ and then with modern or new rap at night, and then B-sides the end of the night. You could program that and it could legitimately make money; it would have a market. So my thing is I’m happy to see rap made it. ‘Cause we weren’t sure it what it was, we just did it for the love. Some of us are getting the payoff of that now, some of us aren’t, but with that said we all did it for the love, and I’m very happy that the dreams of 9-year-old me got fulfilled and that I am able to sustain myself by rhyming words together over dope beats. That was an impossible when I was nine years old, it just didn’t happen.
Q: And what’s the worst part?
A: That people my age don’t go to the store and buy rap music. That’s all. A lot of people my age like to complain. Once they get over the age of 33, they like to complain about music instead of buying what still reminds them of why they like it or why its dope. But that’s it, I don’t really put any fault on musicians ’cause musicians are just artists trying to figure it out. The cloning I don’t like, but you cant really help that, it is what it is right now. You got Big Beasts, you’re gonna have parasites. Otherwise I just think that people in their 30s and 40s who grew up listening to rap should buy it. Buy the kind of records you like and buy the people who you consider you like but don’t get the shine on radio or whatever. Just buy the music. Play it and chill out and jam.
Q: Yeah, rap has always been a young person’s movement. Young people are still the ones buying records and going to shows. I was at your Sasquatch performance earlier this year, and…
A: Oh, thank you guys, man. That was amazing. Every time someone tells me they saw me there, I thank them. Y’all made that an incredible experience, I really appreciate y’all for that.
Q: For sure. But at that show there were a ton of young people, like college-aged white kids all chanting your name. What’s it like having this entire new generation of young fans supporting your music?
A: It’s ill. Me and El doing this run, and kinda making a resurgence back with R.A.P. Music, I regained some fans that I had kinda left when I left the corporate world. When I left that world I kinda left them because they were getting their music from one source. A lot of the fans that liked me were kids, like 8, 9, 10 years old that grew up with me, with the ‘Pledge’ series. But then there’s a lot of kids who were like I know he’s been around, I remember that one song from back in the day, but because they hadn’t seen me in a while it still feels fresh and new to them. And I appreciate all groups of that audience, man. I have some of the coolest fans in the world. I call them supporters, ’cause they come to the shows and… like I just did Halifax, and like, girls are crowd-surfing the entire time. These chicks are just raging out to ‘Reagan.’ That’s a real thing. When I was growing up hip-hop was still very fused with the skateboarding, BMXing, punk music and the arts — all this stuff was just youth culture together. But punk music, the performances were always crazy to me, and I always imagined me as a rapper, rapping hard at the audience and screaming and shredding with them, and now that’s what I see, and that’s amazing.
Q: That’s awesome. I’ve definitely heard people say that rap nowadays is the new punk — instead of crappy instruments and power chords kids can just have a laptop with some cracked software and make a rap album with it.
A: Absolutely. And it puts that passion, that soul into it. As long as its done with passion and that passion runs through the music, I think it’s pretty dope. I appreciate everything that’s going on with this. Rap is great right now because we have peers, we have several different audiences for several different styles. Just keep appreciating people that go hard.
Q: You’re starting to earn quite the reputation as a live performer. Like you sort of mention in the title track on ‘R.A.P. Music,’ it’s sorta like rap church. What can people expect from the show on Wednesday?
A: If the crazy religious folks are right I’m definitely going to hell, so I just gotta make that night heaven on Earth. Let’s go hard man, let’s party, let’s rage on, and let’s take care of each other. Let’s have church.
Killer Mike performs at the Neptune Theater this Wednesday as part of Red Bull Music Association’s “Sound Selects” series. Local rapper Porter Ray and DJ/multi-instrumentalist OCnotes will open.