Killer Mike’s Origin Story

The Atlanta rap icon discusses crafting Michael, his generational statement and first solo album in 11 years

Music Features Killer Mike
Killer Mike’s Origin Story

It’s the morning of Shana Render’s birthday. Well, it’s late morning at least; Michael Render, who raps under the alias Killer Mike, hops on Zoom at 11:40 a.m. He’s a tad hungover from the previous night’s festivities and celebration and hasn’t had breakfast yet—but he’s here anyway. If I were hungover, then the last thing I’d want to do is be interviewed by a journalist for a national magazine. The fact that Killer Mike is this happy—delighted even—to talk to me is commendable. In fact, he’s hanging out with his wife right now, so I vicariously wish her a happy birthday, which Killer Mike passes on with a smile: “Hey, the people at Paste Magazine say happy birthday!” After a brief pause: “She says thank you.”

Killer Mike loves his family. That much is apparent even just a few minutes into our conversation: He spends part of it at the breakfast table with the rest of his family after his wife beckons him to the table (“She’s the boss!”), but he insists on continuing to talk to me anyway (“We’re still doing an interview though!”). Both within and outside of his music, family is a core facet of Michael Render; it’s the nexus through which he explores larger societal ills like structural racism, police brutality and economic inequality. It only makes sense that the aptly named Michael, his first solo album since 2012’s sterling R.A.P. Music, chronicles his lineage through lenses both past and present. He has reached a point in his life where an album like Michael is fitting. As a self-described Killer Mike origin story, it details the Atlanta hip-hop titan’s personal history that broadens its perspective to gaze on the world at large.

“I honestly know for a fact I’ve made a generational statement,” he says. “I hope you do more than listen to it; I hope you live through it.” Given the disarmingly autobiographical narrative that grounds Michael, it would be hard not to. Killer Mike leaves his full, complex humanity on display: contradictory yet cogent; earnest yet wry; apologetic yet brazen. Like the man himself, Michael contains multitudes. Initially, he was reluctant to delve this deeply into his own psyche. He figured he was already exposing the darkest and most honest parts of himself, considering the album already complete, but, at the behest of executive producer No I.D. (whose real name is Ernest Dion Wilson), he took the extra step. It wasn’t finished yet.

“I can remember Dion saying to me, ‘There’s a deeper level that you need to go to,’” Mike recalls. “At this point, I’ve got songs like ‘Shed Tears’ and ‘Something for Junkies.’ I rapped about being the cause of my own demise. The fuck you talking about deeper?” No I.D. asked Mike what he was truly afraid of, to which he responded: “I am really afraid that my mother and grandmother are dead.”

Thus, “Motherless” was born. Placed toward the end of the album, “Motherless” is the most direct, blunt, and unflinching track here. Mike doesn’t hide behind clever wordplay or dexterous flows. He leaves it all out on the table for everyone to plainly see and hear. “My mama dead / my grandmama dead / to keep it honest, I get depressed and be feelin’ scared,” he raps after Eryn Allen Kane’s mesmerizing gospel intro. It’s simple and to the point, an ode to loving matriarchs and how Killer Mike reckons with their deaths. “I got in the booth, and I just started wailing,” he says. The way he talks about it, it seems like he didn’t write the song so much as he conjured it. It had been waiting there throughout Mike’s storied career, ready for him to reify it whenever the moment struck.

Still, that’s not to say the two other aforementioned tracks, “Shed Tears” and “Something for Junkies,” are impersonal. The former documents Mike’s feelings of inadequacy, particularly for his family, when his mother isn’t here to guide him in the right direction. Yet, it primarily looks inward as a battle with the self, grappling with heavy themes like suicidal thoughts: “I shed tears every morning in the bathroom mirror / face to face with fate, had to face my fears.” On the latter, he empathizes with addicts and the constant battles they face day in and day out. Specifically, he consoles his aunt through an intervention that she’s grateful for, one in which he demonstrates his unconditional love: “She said Michael, you say you love me, I know you mean it / Cause you still treat your junkie auntie like a human being.”

Perhaps what Michael does best is how it centers its subject, Killer Mike himself, in a compelling, nuanced fashion. Take “Talk’n That Shit!” and its braggadocio rhymes (“Sprinkle salt / I spray pepper / You play bad / I go evil”) and how it juxtaposes the penultimate track, “Don’t Let the Devil,” which confronts the evil state of the world and rejecting its temptations. Meanwhile, Killer Mike is gazing downward, “looking at Earth’s circus” and relishing his time at the top. But he didn’t get there alone, and he acknowledges that as much. In particular, he shouts out the late Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo, a friend and frequent collaborator who died tragically on New Year’s Day, for getting him in touch with DJ Paul, who contributed production to “Talk’n That Shit!” and “Scientists & Engineers.”

As a whole, the liner notes for Michael play like a who’s who of Killer Mike’s artistic orbit. There are fellow Atlanta rap staples like Future, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, and André 3000. There’s James Blake, Curen$y, Ty Dolla $ign, Blxst, 6LACK, and plenty more. Most crucially, though, is El-P, who produced “Don’t Let the Devil” and even contributed his own guest verse. As the other half of what Killer Mike calls “one of the most badass rap groups on the planet,” Mike and El have established a camaraderie that’s palpable in anything they do together. They connected after El produced R.A.P. Music, and they subsequently released four studio albums together as Run the Jewels. They have become one of the most badass rap groups on the planet indeed.

Having Young Thug on “RUN,” the album’s lead single, feels pertinent, as well. Thug and his fellow YSL contemporaries have been part of an ongoing court case that saw them indicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges. Fulton County authorities, using the rapper’s lyrics as evidence, claim that Young Thug and 13 other defendants participated in criminal gang activity. The whole case highlights the government’s nefarious attempt to criminalize rap music, a largely Black art form, by suggesting that rap lyrics can be used as evidence in court. Of course, you don’t see that happening with other genres of music, namely ones dominated by white artists.

“Run,” which describes an uphill battle against racist state hegemony, dropped on Independence Day last year. It’s a symbolic gesture, as the first person to die in the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks, was Black. Throughout Killer Mike’s career, he has paid homage to his origins in West Atlanta, and “Run” is a continuation of that—now expanded to encapsulate a topical struggle against the incrimination of Black art. Unfortunately, that very same song features an introductory monologue from transphobic comedian Dave Chappelle, a disappointing move considering the widespread, horrifying anti-trans legislation making its way through Congress. Platforming Chappelle is, frankly, an unequivocal misfire.

When I ask Mike for his thoughts on the transphobic jokes and why he chose to work with him anyway, he defends Chappelle’s harmful transphobia as “push[ing] boundaries” and “free speech,” an argument often used by the right-wing politicians Mike once railed against in his lyrics. There’s also the paradox of Mike calling this “a record for the working class” despite his recent landlord ventures and clunky bars that levy poverty as an insult: “N***** talk to me about that woke-ass shit / Same n***** walkin’ on some broke-ass shit;” “I’m a landlord, bitch / Pay rent.”

That aside, Michael, as a record, signifies artistic growth and autonomy. The fact that he’s included so many of his contemporaries for this album only feels appropriate. There wasn’t any intra-label meddling, either. He contacted whomever he wanted to include on a given song. “It made me trust my instincts in a way I hadn’t before,” he says. Working with so many of his friends also “taught [him] how to be a better artist,” Mike says of what he takes away from his creative relationships. “That’s in very big ways, like how you record, and in very small ways, like trusting yourself to know that you’re enough.” Because it’s been 11 years since the last Killer Mike solo album, he had to rely on himself and determine just exactly what type of record he wanted to make and, consequently, who he was as an artist. “It forced me to mature musically in a way I didn’t think possible. Yet, here I am. It was done,” he adds.

How did he know when the album was done, though? When his peer and friend Jay-Z told him how he felt after listening to it, like going to his aunt’s house and watching a movie, that was the sign. “You know when you’re a kid and go to your aunt’s house, you get a chance to watch Eddie Murphy: Raw and A Clockwork Orange and a bunch of shit kids should never see,” he asks with his infectious laugh. “It was a huge compliment because I want people to see the words I’m speaking and not just hear them.” He cites the final song, “High & Holy,” as the end of the movie he’s created, but it’s the beginning of something new. As he puts it, “The sound is going to carry over.” One generation informs the next. Just as Killer Mike unites his current, 48-year-old self with his nine-year-old self, Michael connects with the past in a way that looks toward the future.

Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.

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