It’s been over a decade since Killer Mike released a solo album, and he’s never put anything out as personal and potentially career-changing as the simply titled Michael. Stuart Stubbs travelled to Atlanta to meet the Run The Jewels rapper in the only city where his story could have taken place
They’re queuing around the block at the Trap Music Museum in Atlanta. On a Saturday night, two hours before it closes, I thought I’d glide in, but that’s because I underestimated how this city feels about hip hop. It’s not as if the signs weren’t there: for a start, they have a trap music museum, founded, naturally, by T.I., who pioneered the subgenre in the early 2000s alongside other Atlantan rappers Gucci Mane and Jeezy. Inside is a faithful recreation of a ‘trap house’, complete with a grimy crack-cooking kitchen and dealer’s living room. There’s a jail cell too, a walk-in closet of firearms and the pink Chevy from 2 Chainz’s ‘pink trap house’, which started out as a marketing stunt for his 2017 album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music only to become a local landmark. Other attractions include a themed escape room (Escape the Trap) and the TMM bar, a party spot where rappers and producers like to road test the tracks they’ve made in the neighbouring studios that day. Next door is T.I.’s restaurant, Trap City Café.
The party continues in every car that passes me on my walk back to my hotel, every vintage muscle car and sun bleached Prius shaking to a sound put on the map by Outkast in 1995. The East Coast-West Coast feud of the early ’90s had had no time for Southern hip hop, until André 3000 and Big Boi famously arrived at the Source Awards in New York that year. To a hail of boos they collected the Best New Rap Group award. Once they reached the podium, Dré took the mic and said: “But it’s like this though, I’m tired of them closed-minded folks, it’s like we got a demo tape but don’t nobody want to hear it. But it’s like this: the South got something to say.”
Atlanta hasn’t let up since. Outkast ran on rocket fuel and brought CeeLo Green’s Goodie Mob along for the ride. Crunk (another of the city’s inventions) bubbled up in the clubs thanks to Lil Jon, before Ludacris took it to charts around the world; T.I.’s and Gucci’s trap legacy hasn’t just lived on in Atlantans Migos, Young Thug and Playboi Carti, but in half the top 40 beats you’ve heard over the last fifteen years, from Lana Del Rey to Bieber, to Ariana Grande to, most notably of all, Drake, whose two collaborative albums to date have been with Future and 21 Savage, and not by coincidence. So when people say that Atlanta has become the centre of hip hop, it’s hard to argue against them, and easy to see why, in 2017, the city officially made 17 July ‘Killer Mike Day’, in honour of perhaps its proudest rapper, businessman and activist.
I first meet Mike on the set of his new music video, for a song called ‘Motherless’ that will appear on his first solo album in 11 years, simply called Michael. A 30-minute drive south east from downtown Atlanta is plenty of time to reach Georgia’s golden countryside, and a traditional Southern house with plenty of private woodland and a big front yard. Mike ghosts onto the set after an hour of the crew calmly taking care of their own business to prep for the first shot of the day, involving two vintage cars in a field out back.
Today’s song is the emotional high point of Killer Mike’s most personal album yet; a tribute to his mother and grandmother, who died in 2017 and 2012. So he’s respectfully given plenty of space throughout the day, and when he’s not in front of the camera he does an incredible job of making such a big guy appear invisible. Or maybe the crew are just professionals.
He comes over to introduce himself and I tell him how much I like the album and the fact that this particular track – the record’s most tender moment – has been pulled out as a single. He thanks me and says in a quiet and sincere way: “Y’know, people got into Pac for all sorts of reasons, but I loved Pac for ‘Brenda’s Got A Baby’… But it’s one thing to have a vision for this,” he says, nodding towards the crew and cameras and cars, “but to have a group of people help bring it to life, I just hope my mom can see it from where she is.” Before he’s called back to set he suggests that we meet at lunchtime the following day, at “some properties I’ve bought in the city.”
The VLNS Compound – a name Mike tells me with a devilish, loud cackle – almost takes up an entire block of industrial space in East Point, and will do once he acquires the remaining two end buildings. “I always thought villains drove the best cars,” he says as he shows me around, starting in the vast vehicle lockup that currently houses his ’72 Cutlass, ’74 Caprice and a modern muscle car, a red Dodge Hellcat. The shell of another that he bought from Big Boi is mid restoration in the corner, “and there’s a couple of Swiff’s here too,” he says, pointing out an orange 1965 Buick that he bought for the Outkast DJ to repay him for some studio time he gave Mike when money wasn’t so good, which must have been quite some time ago. “So yeah, this is 12-year-old Michael’s head,” he says. “I own two thirds of this whole block, and we’re gonna transform this into a thinking and creative space. There’s gonna be a studio here, and shit like that. Car storage, event space, living quarters.”
In a meeting room upstairs – full of toy cars to fit the smaller space – I ask Mike how he’s feeling after the two-day ‘Motherless’ shoot. “You get in the zone and you’re putting out fires on the first day, and it’s looking dope, visually,” he says. “And then you leave and you feel it. You come the next day and you’re immersed in it all day because your nephew who’s playing your dad looks exactly like your dad, and the woman you cast as your mom as a teenager looks exactly like your mom. So all day it weighed on me. And not in a bad way. It was a heaviness but not a burden. I smiled and cried all day.”
Our conversation follows something of a similar pattern. When we talk more about the women that raised him, Mike allows tears to melt in his eyes and roll down his face. At other times he gets real quiet and direct, and shows me how he can load a whisper with as much weight as one of his venting tirades; the type that has made him such an effective public speaker. And when he laughs, which he does a lot, he nearly falls off his chair, flashing the smile that Kim Walton once told him she liked. “After Kim Walton said that you couldn’t tell me shit,” he booms. “That’s Kim Walton, the prettiest girl in third grade! I knew I was cool. I knew I was fly. I knew I was dope. Shit, motherfucker seen my wife!?” He roars with laughter even though he’s not joking at all.
Michael Render was always a confident kid, who was never embarrassed about his weight. He revelled in being “a chubby Run DMC”, and started rapping when he wasn’t yet a teen, calling himself Sir Fresh. He still remembers his first bars: “I am Sir Fresh / I am the best / I’ll rock your party from east to west / Might make you laugh, might make you sad / But when I brought the party you will be glad / I start empires…” he trails off. “Some other stuff from a 12-year-old’s ego.”
He says rap was his mother’s music first, who loved Kurtis Blow and Whodini, and had Mike when she was just 16. Her name was Denise and Mike says she was “deeply sensitive and an artist by birth who wanted to experience the world.” He makes no bones about the fact that she was a drug trafficker, who made the extraordinary, selfless decision to allow her mother to raise her son across town, as his grandmother, Betty, who’d been unable to have multiple children, wished. Mike spent weekends with his mum and discovered his own generation of rappers in an order of The Fat Boys (“I found them interesting cause they’re tubby little dudes but they were fresh as FUCK,” he shouts), Run DMC, Ice T, NWA and Scarface. “By then, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna do this the rest of my life. I gotta find a way to do this.’”
When Mike told his fourth grade teacher that he wanted to be a rapper she told him he was too smart for that, and that he should become a pilot. “So at 15 years old I went and learned how to fly a plane,” he says, “from a man named Jim Berto.” (Names, I realise, are important to Mike, easily recalled from his past, and then shared, out of respect for the roles these people have played in his life.) “It was an enlightening thing because it taught me you can do anything you want to do – your mind is good enough to do whatever you want to do, but all I wanted to do was rap. I remember telling Miss Ely, like, ‘I still wanna be a rapper, Miss Ely, I had to come back and tell you.’ She was like, ‘Well, y’know baby, I know you’re smart and you have other options.’”
Sir Fresh first rapped to an uncle he idolised, as a way of being allowed to hang around with him and his group of friends, who were usually up to no good. Then he took it to school. Battling. “There was this dude from [performing arts school] Tri Cities called Daddy Ray,” Mike remembers. “He had a fucking cheerleading squad with him and it fucking pissed me the fuck off. Him and six other guys, like, ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Daddy Ray!’ Y’know what I mean, he was good, and he was a showman, and it irked me. And it ended up with me and him battling, and it was a hell of a battle. Stylistically, I was in awe of him, like real shit, ‘cause he had convinced his boys to be part of it, to ooooh and arrrrr at him, and I knew it was a cheat code. It’s not his raps; his raps are regular as fuck! And I pivoted in the last round of the fight, like, fuck him, go for them. And it was some real Eight Mile shit, where I picked off all his partners, basically saying: ‘You’re. A. Fucking. Bitch! You came as a cheerleader!’ And there was nothing he could do to regain the crowd, because it wasn’t about him anymore. I walked away that day understanding the importance of showmanship. You’ve got to put on a show… Shout out to Daddy Ray, though.”
As part of one display in the Trap Music Museum there’s a plaque that reads: ‘2003: Killer Mike releases Monster – the first attempt at a conscious trap album.’ “This is sex, drugs, rap and roll / Corrupt your soul / Pop your roll, dope some more / Throw your life away and smoke,” spat Mike on a debut that came after a decade of dealing drugs, that started when he dropped out of college after he got his girlfriend pregnant. “Mama, I don’t wanna sell crack no more,” went another hook that everyone could sing along to. But Monster was also playful, hilarious and overloaded with swag, with Mike introducing himself on ‘Rap is Dead’ with the verse: “Fuck rap, rap’s near death, bloated and sick / Too many n*ggas still ride Big and Pac’s dick / Fuck that, next year, they more deader / And I write more rhymes, more deadly and more better.”
It all comes from Atlanta, he says, and growing up in a city where he’s not a minority; where his dad was a cop and his mother was a florist and a drug trafficker; where some of his neighbours were regular folk and others were Black millionaires; where mayors and doctors and lawyers and shop owners looked like him.
“I get misunderstood so much that I had to go and find out why people are misunderstanding me,” he says when talking about how other cities simply aren’t like his own. “Most Blacks don’t have my experience, and I had to start realising that you’re speaking to someone where your experiences are an idea to them. Even if you have Harlem in New York, you’re still a minority. Even if you have Compton, at one point you were a minority. When you look at Atlanta, not only are you dominant in numbers, you had your first Black millionaire [Alonzo Herndon] here over 100 years ago.
“There really is the Norman Rockwell Americana vision of America,” he says. “That’s what I live, only it’s chocolate. It’s just Black. So all of my heroes and villains look like me. If there’s a conservative, he or she is Black. If there’s an ultra liberal, he or she is Black. I don’t have to search for fairness because it’s already there. So other Black folks from other places think I’m speaking aspirationally, and I’m not. They think I’m talking ‘what if’, and I’m not. This is what I’ve grown up in, this is what’s produced me. My grandparents migrated to this city for that opportunity. They produced a woman who bought her house at 19 and paid it off at 29. They produced three grandchildren through that woman – one sister graduated trade school as a beautician, the other sister graduated as an accountant, the dropout ended up being a fucking millionaire rapper and businessman. You know what I mean? I don’t know ‘I can’t’, so I don’t operate from that space.”
Mike doesn’t judge anyone for dealing drugs, but is adamant that it needs to be a means to an end – invest the money you make into escaping the life, not relishing it. His art teacher, Mr Murray, who plays a role in the ‘Motherless’ video [pictured below], taught him that (“I knew he was going to be a piece of work,” said Mr Murray when I asked him what he remembers of meeting a 13-year-old Mike for the first time), “and our principal, who I love and adore, Dr Samuel Hill,” says Mike. “A very disciplined man.” So Mike did stop dealing crack, and invested his record label advance for Monster in weed to sustain himself for the next year. His first royalty cheque from his 2012 album R.A.P. Music – his most successful solo album until Michael is released – went on a house that he and his wife still rent out. He also owns three barber shops in the city, called Graffitis SWAG, with plans to open more – a source of income that also provides employment and opportunity in the community. “I’m trying to think hyper-locally,” he says. “I don’t know if I can affect the world, what I do know is I can affect 10 people here, who can affect 10 more people here, and that can transform the here.
“That’s rap music!” he says. “What the fuck is going on on my block!? That’s how I knew what was going on in the Bronx and Brooklyn and Compton and Oakland and Huston and Memphis – rap is your newsletter. And after getting national acclaim and attention, the devil will coerce you, but fuck all that – I still gotta make sure I’m doing the right thing locally because this city made me!”
It feels like Killer Mike is always being asked: “Would you ever consider running for office?”, often delivered with a silently screamed “please”. If you’ve seen any online videos of him speaking at public meetings, letting councillors have it, or addressing protestors so emphatically and passionately in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, you’ll know why. But as good as Mike Render is at straight talking in forums where it’s needed and lacking the most, Killer Mike is an even better rapper, who’s had to be patient in getting his wider dues. Or as Kendrick Lamar put it on To Pimp a Butterfly’s ‘Hood Politics’: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.”
“I care about the respect from other rappers because this is a fraternity; not everyone can do it,” he says when I ask him about his reputation as a rapper’s rapper, 20 years into his career. “That part of me is satisfied, but With. That. Said,” he says, thumping the table between us on each word, “Motherfucker, I’m better than these other motherfuckers that’re playin’ with y’all. That’s it! I don’t need to imitate this other shit because there’s something so pure in me it’s gonna connect.”
In 2012, R.A.P. Music took a repeatedly-punching-you-in-the-face approach to that connection, and it took Mike to another level. On a record where R.A.P. stood for Rebellious African People, Killer Mike had never been a blunter instrument, his police-state anger simmering down as it peaked, just to make sure we heard him loud and clear when he plainly stated “I’m glad Reagan dead” on the album’s centrepiece; a track that dismantled the ex-President’s racist anti-drugs policies and his government’s role in the 1980s crack epidemic that ravaged inner city Black neighbourhoods.
Crucial to R.A.P. Music levelling up, though, was the fact that Killer Mike was no longer raging alone – for the first time he was working with Brooklyn producer and rapper El-P, whose bludgeoning breakbeats only goaded Mike into rapping meaner and harder, as the pair rammed their record down our throats.
Run The Jewels was essentially forged then and there – a main-stage spinoff that’s seen both rappers park their solo careers for the last decade and release four classic albums together, uniting hip-hop purists, hardcore kids, skaters and anyone else who appreciates a wall of death and the inclusive energy of Cypress Hill and Rage sharing a festival bill in the ’90s. Mike says he can’t put his finger on what’s made RTJ such a hit, but he notes how powerful it is for an audience to see a Black guy and white guy doing it together, side by side. He also says: “In the first three hours that we got together I knew that, for want of a better word, I’m married to this motherfucker – I’m meant to be rapping over his shit.” And once they formed Run The Jewels proper: “I’m like, ‘Okay, this is the rest of my life. I’m a member of a rap group.’ I just knew my life had changed.”
All of this is in Michael. All of these people and moments and lessons. Denise’s sacrifice and Betty’s strength (‘Motherless’), Mr Murray’s lessons in taking care of your coin (‘N Rich’), Atlanta’s importance in a tempting tide of fame and adoration (‘Don’t Let The Devil’), the dealer who feels empathy for his customers and no small amount of guilt for what he’s doing to them (‘Something For Junkies’). Sir Fresh even gets a shout out on ‘N Rich’, and Mike’s ’72 Cutlass on the nearly dreamy ‘Spaceship Views’, featuring 2 Chainz. Other Atlantans rep the city with guest spots too: Andre 3000, Young Thug, Future, CeeLo Green – plus Ty Dolla $ign, Curren$y, 6LACK, and of course El-P.
This is Killer Mike’s 48-year life laid bare over 14 soulful tracks that take a different approach to connection than repeatedly smacking you in the mouth. “I want people to understand that Michael is an experience,” says Mike. “I want people to listen to it, but I hope it strikes you as a movie. I hope you see the characters. Interestingly enough, that’s what Jay-Z said. I sent him the album much earlier – he said, ‘I felt just like I went to my cousin’s house.’” He pauses a second to pull up a text on his phone, then turns the screen towards me while we both read it back. From Jay-Z, sure enough, it reads: “I really enjoyed the album! Felt like I was at my cousin’s house watching a movie. I love the album title!”
Coincidentally, the first time I heard Michael it reminded me of The Black Album – in its cinematic scope as much as its biographical reflections. It even starts with a grand narration, not from Jay-Z’s mother, of course, but from Rico Wade, the Atlanta production legend who co-founded The Dungeon Family collective that Mike came up in, whose members include Outkast, Future, Cool Breeze, Goodie Mob and Wade’s Organized Noize production partners – the team that built hip hop in Atlanta. The track, ‘Down By Law’, is the movie in microcosm, and squeezes into it a ton of blink-and-you’ll-miss-em names and references that are about to be expanded upon through the remainder of the album: drug dealing, its guilt and the victims it creates; the rejection of materialism; the celebration of Black excellence, academics and activists; God; mothers; Atlanta; personal growth and specifically what it means to be man. The Dungeon Family box is ticked a second time by a closing verse from CeeLo Green, which catches up with a recurring B3 Hammond organ that gives the whole of Michael an undeniable Southern gospel feel. “The new Killer Mike show is going to be more like what it was like growing up in church with my grandmother, going to these revivals,” says Mike. “I would like for MTV Unplugged or something – that’s the experience I want for this time.”
Mike connects his phone to the giant speakers in the corners of the room and pushes ‘Down By Law’ through them. As he raps along, pausing the track every few bars to explain them to me, it’s hard to tell who out of the two of us is enjoying the moment more. But it must be me. There’s an obvious question that hangs in the air, though – 11 years after his last solo album, why now for Michael? Or why ever? I don’t mean because Run The Jewels is flying, or because Killer Mike has made a name for himself as the rapper you can count on to shout in a cop’s face, but because all of this is so… personal.
“When am I going to write my great novel if not now?” says Mike, before taking a long pause and then continuing slowly and quietly. “I can get tired of being used by these Black bourgeoisie pundits as an example for their whipping post candidate because they side with their masters, or whatever it is,” he says; something he addresses on new track ‘Talkin Dat Shit’. “And part of me is like, ‘You need to know the n*gga you’re dealing with’. I went to a bourgeoisie Black college [Morehouse], just like you. I could have finished and can go back any time I want, just like you. I come from a working class, salt-of-the-earth background, like many of you did. Let me make clear who the fuck I am before I get outta here. I am a proud Southern man. And I don’t care whether you’re white or Black, being a proud man comes with some thorns in those roses, and I’m going to make sure my story gets told right, because it’s not just my story, it’s a man’s story. It is a boy’s story. It is a young man’s story who gets a girl pregnant in his senior year of high school.” Mike’s voice cracks and tears begin to fill his eyes. “It is a father’s story, wanting to make sure his youngest son who suffers from a kidney disease gets a little life that his mother didn’t because she was robbed of the opportunity. It’s a story of Aniyah’s dad. So when I mention her name, or Mikey’s name, and say that their attitudes come from their grandmother, it’s real, it’s tangible.
“Y’know, all my children’s mothers were here in this building at the same time,” he says, as a line of tears now sprint down his cheek. “One called me who I’ve not always had a good relationship with. She called me and said, ‘I wanna thank you. I felt honoured and like a star.’ She didn’t understand that I was just a kid. I didn’t know any better. I was chasing a dream through drugs. I didn’t know how to treat her, that her soul and spirit needed care. And now I know and I’m capable of loving you. I had to learn. And these are the things that I needed to get out before I die. I don’t want somebody who don’t know me preaching my eulogy. Don’t bring no preacher here, just play my album.”
He leans back in his chair and dries his eyes and cheeks with a paper towel. “Oh man, sorry for letting that go on you like that,” he says, smiling broadly.
“It’s a record that humanises men, and humanises me,” he adds. “Because R.A.P. Music is still the superhero Killer Mike. This time this is it for real. This is not a contrived character that makes the liberals comfortable; this is not a contrived character that makes people who feel you’re beneath them feel you’re somehow keeping it real. This is my naked soul.
“This is an experience that I don’t think anyone has heard on a record before. Because I’m nobody’s underdog.”