Words by Marcia Howard
Photography by Allen Cooley
Michael Render, better known by the moniker Killer Mike, wears too many hats to count: he’s a politically astute activist; co-owner, along with his wife, of the Atlanta barbershop S.W.A.G. (formerly Graffiti S.W.A.G.); a self described gangster rapper; one half of Run the Jewels; and more recently an unlikely talking head on CNN and Fox News following the death of Mike Brown and the protests in Ferguson. Suffice it to say, Killer Mike is an artist that defies categorization.
Though Killer Mike was busy rehearsing for his tour and preparing to release his latest album Run the Jewels 2 (and if we’re lucky, Meow the Jewels) he stopped just long enough to talk to us about the trajectory of his career, his politics, his barbershop and his legacy.
Bevel Code: You’ve been releasing albums for about eleven years now, what is the difference between previous stages of your career and this one?
Killer Mike: All cylinders seem to be firing at the same time on this one. At different phases in my career I’ve been commercially hot but not critically acclaimed. Other times I’ve been critically acclaimed but not commercially hot. Nothing has ever synced up properly in my career thus far.
Everything is syncing up now so there’s a renaissance of sorts for people who knew me and a brand new introduction for people who don’t. I’m in a precariously lucky situation and it feels pretty cool.
BC: Can you describe the evolution of your music that took place between Monster, Rap Music and now with Run the Jewels?
Killer Mike: Well I started as just kind of a protégé to Outkast and back then people expected me to carry on a Dungeon type name and or sound. I won prominence in simply being a member of the era.
I became an overtly aggressive, hard-core, dope spitting, dare I say conscientious guy. It’s a harking back to what Gangster Rap was: brutally real, brash and poetic. I don’t think my region has had that since guys like Big Mike or Scarface.
That guy evolved into ½ of Run the Jewels, with me and El-P. We’re currently defining for a generation of kids what a rap group looks and sounds like. It’s amazing that my career has progressed to where it is.
BC: At the beginning stages of your career did you cater to the Dungeon Family audience because of that expectation?
Killer Mike: Of course I did. I’m a dope rapper. A dope rapper can be dope regardless of the situation. Its not like I wasn’t a Dungeon Family fan. Its not like I didn’t want to do the things that I did. But I recognized that I was different. You don’t always know how to say it, but you know, Dre understood.
Had I recorded the whole album with Dre, then I think it would have sounded more like what El-P and I ended up becoming. Dre recognized early what he liked about me: the aggression, the brashness, the directness, the intelligence. He understood that the sound could be hard and dope and it could be danceable. I’ve had other producers give me dope hard stuff, but to make it danceable? El-P, the music we make, I dance on stage. Like running around stage rapping lyrics about shooting a poodle dancing. (Laughs) It’s utter absurdity.
I’m really glad that I found this sound working with El-P. And I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m happy I stuck it out.
BC: With your appearances on CNN and Fox News, your role as an activist has come to the spotlight, do you feel you have a responsibility as a celebrity to speak out?
Killer Mike: I do have a social responsibility; it has nothing to do with being a celebrity. My social responsibility comes from being an advocate and activist since I was fifteen.
My social responsibility and accountability are because I know better. My grandparents taught me better. My grandfather was a union member. My father was a union steward. My grandmother marched with Dr. King for civil rights and took me to vote. I have a responsibility because I’m an Atlantan. I’m a black that grew up in a renaissance city. In a politically empowered city. It’s my responsibility because I’m an American and I have constitutional rights and privileges that are honors, which no other country in the world does for their citizens. I feel honored to be a spokesperson on behalf of all of our liberties, especially when I see them being unjustly trampled on. I take responsibility to be outraged as an artist. Even if we can never change, we have a voice and we can show it.
I do have a social responsibility; it has nothing to do with being a celebrity. My social responsibility comes from being an advocate and activist since I was fifteen.
BC: Between your Billboard editorial, the note on Instagram, and your television appearances, you’ve really struck a cord with a lot of people. What do you think it is about your view in particular that resonates with your audience?
Killer Mike: I just think it’s common sense, to be honest with you. People told me how great it was, how impressed they were, how I should run for office and I just thought it was common sense. What did you think was different about what I said?
BC: Well I thought it resonated because you stepped back from the race argument and actually talked about the humanity of the whole thing. What it meant for this to happen to an American citizen.
Killer Mike: Right. I will never tell you that race does not exist. Race does exist. I’m not going to tell you that I believe that somehow full equality has reigned, it has not. I’m not going to tell you that everyone has a fair shot because everyone doesn’t.
I’m also not going to tell you that there is a grand conspiracy that’s so against you that you can’t win or that it’s hopeless. I’m not going to tell you anything that will make you not try as a minority to get past the perception of you and the racism that does effect you on a daily basis. So I don’t see the value of going on TV and saying, “They killed a black boy and we’re angry and we’re protesting.” There is nothing wrong with that, but if you truly believe that these people hate you. If you truly believe that they’re without compassion, why are you asking for it? You have two choices. You can burn the city down and go to war with the municipality. Or you can take a step back and say, “what’s really happened?” And what’s really happened is, because of racism, there is a whole team of people who want to fight for American rights, call them conservatives or tea party-ist. They don’t want their rights taken away but they’re not advocating for your rights too.
You have to call the bullshit where it is. If the NRA is against the militarization of the police, and I say this as a member, then the fact that they weren’t in Ferguson, was piss poor shameful and it shows you the inept racism that must run through the top of the organization for that to happen.
So we have all these people that are fighting for the rights of these groups, but these groups should be fighting for the rights of all. So I just said, I have to start approaching the world as a world citizen, as an American citizen and definitely as a black man. I can’t expect sympathy from people if I’m saying that you’re evil and I can’t believe all people are evil. I believe once I show people the humanity in us all, the humanity will respond back. That’s what happened.
I also got called a sell out, so you can’t win.
BC: Let’s switch gears a bit. Why did you open a barbershop?
Killer Mike: I opened it because I have loved barbershops since I was a kid. I like the way they smell. I like the humor, some humor raunchier than others. I like the fact that the men in the shop are upstanding figures in the community. I like the fact that it’s just guys in there for the most part.
I like everything about a small shop called Bell and Wilder Barber Shop on Simpson Road. Mr. Bell was my barber and he was an old man. I remember the first time I got in the chair I kind of spazzed out. I’ll never forget him picking up a leather strap, like “You want me to hit your leg with this.” I was like, “No!” and I sat still through the whole hair cut. He’s the only reason I can sit still during a hair cut now.
I grew up in that shop and I grew up having such respect for them. I liked the culture of barbershops they felt more like social clubs for men.
I just wanted to have an effect on the community that people didn’t expect. You know people expect rappers to pop in a YMCA and then disappear until its time to promote their next album. People expect rappers to pop up when they need an image cleansing after they’ve done something bad. I wanted to be a more consistent influence in my community and a part of the merchant class. In any community you need a merchant class that looks like and resembles the community it serves because it teaches the kids that you too can be an owner and you too can get a fair shake. I don’t accept excuses from people because I haven’t been able to give a lot of excuses. We have to push ourselves to do better, to become more.
I wish this for everybody: I’ve had a good life because I’ve been willing to work. I want to give everybody that I can this same opportunity.
BC: What would you like your legacy to be? What are you building?
Killer Mike: (Laughs) That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that. I would like to leave a legacy of having been a good and decent husband. A good and decent father. A good and decent businessman. And have been one of the greatest rappers to have ever touched the microphone and graced the stage. I want to be successful for a multitude of reasons. For financial gain. For being able to take care of my family. I’d like a street named after me somewhere for some reason. I’d like to have kids that grow up to be good adults, like me and my sisters did. I’d like to get flustered when my wife walks into the room. Very simple. Very working class values.