Killer Mike, Venerable Rapper/Activist, Talks New Album, Drug War, and Maybe Running for Office
Killer Mike is a venerable force. Atlanta's self-described "Pan-Africanist Gangster Rapper, Civic Leader, and Activist" has embarked on a career you could tell your kids about: 12 years of cultural and artistic influence that began with his cohorts in OutKast and propelled through five classic albums, as well as a parallel life as a community leader who's just as regularly called upon by Sharpton's National Action Network as he is by hip-hop radio personalities. With his distinct, gritty-warm tenor and triple-time Southern rap style, he hovers in the top tier of hip-hop artistry, handily linking the day-to-day of the streets with larger sociopolitical issues and the knowledge that they're never separate. He may deploy a lot of adjectives about himself, but most simply, he's a truth-teller.
Recently, with his outspoken involvement in the movements for Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin, he's become ever more visible to activists and politicos outside of his home state of Georgia. And his sixth album, R.A.P. Music, completes the cycle. Recorded entirely with Brooklyn rapper/producer El-P on beats, and charged by the political climate, Killer Mike has made his greatest statement yet: a hulking, unflinching work that indicts the war on drugs and young black men, ignites a fire among would-be revolutionaries, and puts forth a statement that is human, adult and personal. I spoke with Killer Mike over the phone about recording the album, his stance on the drug war, how he's voted every year he could, and whether we can vote for him anytime soon.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: I want to talk to you first about your album, and then about politics. So can you tell me about R.A.P. Music, and the idea behind collaborating with El-P?
Killer Mike: The title comes from Maurice Garland, a cultural writer and great advocate from Atlanta. He’s just a great guy. In a random Twitter rant, he put up “RAP: Rebellious African Peoples' Music” and after one minute, I put up, I’m using it. A friend of mine named Jason who is working at Cartoon Network was like, “How’d you like to do a record that’s just stuff off the beaten path that people might not expect?” El and I got into the studio together and after the first two days, I hit Jason back with, “Do you think he’ll do the whole album?” Because our chemistry was just that. El was working on [his solo album] Cancer for Cure at the time, so he wasn’t sure he would be able to do it, but I pestered the shit out of him. After [he spent] a week in Atlanta, I ended up going to Brooklyn last summer, stayed there for four or five weeks and we recorded the whole album on the Lower East Side.
I think it’s akin to when Ice Cube left Los Angeles and went to record Amerikkka’s Most Wanted with the Bomb Squad. When Scarface left Texas to record The Fix with Kanye in New York. I really look at this like a pilgrimage record. Like all my influences from the time I discovered rap at 19 years old to now are on there. Either in reference or feeling, how I convey certain songs and certain flows. Pledge is a classic record, my last album, and then I went to top that with RAP, so it seems like I’m in a good place right now.
JES: Do you think getting out of your element culminated everything you’ve done? You’ve done a lot of great stuff with a lot of iconic people, and to then do a whole album with El-P, that’s a big statement.
KM: I think so, too. I know I’m Killer Mike and he’s El-P. We bring our respective audiences and our respective legend to this, but what I most enjoyed about this project was for the first time in my musical life, I didn’t have to hunt beats. I didn’t have to figure out what was next. I recorded Pl3dge, really, in a good place, but with RAP Music, I don’t think I wrote three lines per song. Jaime [Meline, aka El-P] would put the beat on and I’d stand in front of the microphone and shit just came out. That’s the entire record. And that’s not, “Yeah, I don’t write. I wanna be Jay-Z.” That’s me saying that it’s almost, to be totally corny, it was an Avatar moment. He and I just plugged in together and the vibe was there without question. It was just pure instinct.
Killer Mike and El-P are two legendary rap guys who have made their mark, but Jaime and Mike are two kids who fell in love with rap at about the same time at about the same age and they grew up on totally different parts of the East Coast, but have been influenced by similar things and that mash up. I don’t think anyone else going to be able to compare with that.
JES: Do you think working outside of Atlanta jogged your memory and history?
KM: I think for me what it did was, it brought rap back to where rap just really supposed to be. Rap is just supposed to be a dope-ass rapper, a dope-ass producer, doing dope-ass shit, and that’s it. I don’t think I was out of my element, I think I was in my element. I was out of my element for 10 years, because the music I grew up loving was for the messages, the rebellion, the almost punk aesthetic. Then it became homogenized and commercialized. The music that I grew up loving has become a subsidiary of pop bullshit. Hip-hop is not pop. I think I was actually in my element making RAP Music and that’s just being in the studio with Jaime doing shit. Without thoughts of Is this gonna be on radio? Or, Will they play it? None of those thoughts. We’re just gonna make the dopest shit possible.
JES: Did having the title help shape the project?
KM: Well, it did, because Rebellious African Peoples' Music doesn’t refer particularly to black people, believe it or not, but it doesn’t just refer to rap music or hip-hop, but all peoples' music. That’s not even a question. But what I meant by "Rebellious African Peoples' Music" was just the time after that African Americans have landed here and there, music has been our greatest help. It’s helped other cultures understand us, it helps us talk in an encoded way, it helps progress the people whether you’re talking about gospel, jazz, rock ‘n roll, soul, funk and you know, you’ve heard the record, you know the title track, I’m naming all of those. Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Sade, Too $hort. Who names Too $hort after Sade? But those are people who have made incredible American music marks here in this country, so I gave it up to all my influences on this record. That’s what Rebellious African Peoples' Music is about. It's just about us being on our own shit.
JES: I know that you’ve been a force in politics especially as of late with Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis and Occupy. As someone with a lot of cultural influence, do you also feel it’s important for you to be involved in politics, or at least outspoken about them?
KM: I have to be. I’m a black man in America. My dad was an ex-police officer and I still remember him sitting me down on my 17th birthday, and me thinking I’m gonna get something great. Like when he called me into the room thinking, Oh shit, he’s gonna give me a fucking car. But what he gave me was a speech saying, "You’re 17 years old now and in the eyes of the law, you’re looked at as an adult, and there are foolish things that you’re not going to be able to do." And it made me understand the gravity that I grew up with. My 17-year-old wife didn’t have the same problems or worries or issues. My 17-year-old friends who came from wealthy families, black or white, didn’t have the same problems or worries or issues. My dad, we’re working-class people, so that’s just saying: always stay out of trouble.
I have to recognize that I am a target in this country. You talk about crime, people think about someone who looks like me. People talk about welfare going through the ceiling, they’re talking about someone who looks like my sister or my mother. These facts don’t have to be true, that’s just how they’re presented. So I feel as an African-American man in this country, I have a responsibility to be on the side of the people who are on the bottom and always speak truth to power. I have to be politically active because I am viewed as a political linchpin, whether it’s ESPN talking about how hip-hop athletes are ruining the sport or disrespecting Congresswoman Maxine Waters with the crack pipe joke in reference to Whitney Houston. I feel I have to be politically active and I have to be a credit to my race.
JES: You’d still be doing this if you were not—?
KM: I was doing this before I was a rapper. I’ll be doing this if I don’t rap tomorrow. I voted in every election, local and major, since I was 18 years old. I’ve been to every presidential election since the early '80s, since my grandmother started taking me to vote. She marched with Dr. King.
JES: What do you think are the most important things to be outspoken about and involved with?
KM: As an American, I feel that we’re trading in our rights for safety. I’ve seen too many things pass in the past 10 years that have limited the rights of Americans. And people need to know, I’m not a political zealot, but yo, I want everybody to be politically active, but I want people to have the freedom to do what they want to do. The reason I’m such an asshole about politics is because: I like smoking. I think you should be able to go to strip clubs. I don’t care if you wanna marry the same sex. Whatever you want to do is cool, as long as you’re not infringing on other people.
But on a very local and very personal level, black males are the highest unemployed people in this country. When we talk about "unemployment is at 9 percent" and that’s shocking, but black males are at 16 and 17 percent, and that is a problem. Prisons are [privatized] and they profit when they lock these boys up—and if you can’t get a job, you’re going to sell petty drugs or do petty crime, but you’re gonna get major time. That’s not right. There needs to be a job program for young men who look like me. I think that [people should] start investing in small localized businesses, be it franchises, fast food, liquor stores, whatever will give people in the community jobs. I have to think in terms of my community, because I’m one of these young men. That’s my reality in terms of the political process. As an American, I want my rights not to be limited.
As an African American, I want the freedom and opportunity that’s promised in the Constitution, that you can get well-paying jobs when young men are working, young women are working, families stay together, communities become better.
JES: Do you think Occupy has been helpful?
KM: I think Occupy is attempting to help. I think that they have me to help. I want to see more diversity in the Atlanta Occupy movement. And I’ve seen a lot of diversity in New York and Oakland. But I support Occupy. People say they don’t have any real leaders, they don’t have any real organization. That doesn’t matter to me. They didn’t have leaders so there was no one to assassinate, but everyone was responsible for different pieces. I take the fact that they don’t have pick-a-head leadership as genius—that everybody can handle certain responsibilities is genius. That the Occupy movement can keep pushing forward and not regress and people get quiet. They’ll continue to get my support.
JES: What are other organizations or movements you feel strongly about?
KM: As a rapper, because I know it’s been a rocky road between Al Sharpton and rappers, I support the work of National Action Network. I think that they have a platform that can help the lowest and the highest in the African-American community and beyond. I really like the work they’re doing. I like the old organizations. I think they’re doing a good job, but I think that more important than a specific organization, I’m a supporter of ideas. I really think that people need to get together. I think African Americans who are disenfranchised want more rights, want more civil liberties. They’re tired of the cops threatening them, they’re tired of public schools being broken and skeletons of what they’re supposed to be.
Ron Paul is being accused in the African-American community of being a racist. That may be true or that may not be true. I don’t care about that. I care that his policies would immediately free non-violent drug abusers. It would get people with the minds to run businesses back in the community. I care that he cares about freeing and legalizing marijuana. Not just so I can smoke and get high, but you have a hemp industry, you then can put a paper factory in the community so young men could work in it. You then could be creating clothes, so young women could be working. And that’s what I’m about. I’m about what is going to give my people an opportunity to get off the bottom of the well.
JES: You take away those drug laws, and you have half as many people in prison.
KM: Like 66 percent of the people in prison are in for nonviolent drug offenses.
JES: As far as the election goes, are you supporting anyone in particular?
KM: No, this is going to be the first presidential election I don’t vote. I’m very disgusted with former administrations and their handling of particular African-American issues and I’m pretty disgusted with this administration also. What I do is chart: What has happened differently in my community that I can say we have opportunity and have seen real change? And I have not seen that. I have not seen a young black male job program. And people keep saying, Why do you keep going back to young black male jobs? Because any time you talk about crime, that’s what you talk about. If you wanna talk about reducing crime, you have to talk about increasing economic opportunity. And the way you do, after World War II, after the '70s, is giving people jobs.
You give people jobs, communities get stronger, houses get bought, cars get purchased. Almost an instant change happens to the community. Gang warfare drops and similar things that are plaguing my community. I need to see that. I need to see a stronger stance on decriminalizing marijuana because I’m tired of riding around in the South being all paranoid about something I know most Americans do. I think that the signing of the bill that would allow Americans more easily identify the terrorists, I almost see that as a fact that the administration—I am not willing to trade my freedom for safety. Because I’ve never felt safe anyway. I could walk across the street and be murdered by a car, get hit by a car and die. But I will never trade—I will jaywalk if I want to. That’s where I am with this administration.
JES: Do you feel optimistic at all?
KM: I think the best answer is, I’m not hopeless. But I’m not hopeful based on what I have not seen. I’m not hopeful, but I’m certainly not hopeless because I honestly feel that Americans, at our core, are good people. I honestly believe that we want the best for our fellow Americans and for ourselves and if we could let the petty differences of our social caste system of economics, the social caste system of race, the social caste system of geography of middle America, of urban America, I think we could put all those caste systems aside and get to the core of America, what makes us more free, what makes us more happy, I think that all of us would be voting on behalf of each other and it will benefit us all. I honestly in my heart of hearts believe that.
When people say, the Christian Right, they put up some ridiculous video trying to control what—saying that we’re a Christian country. No we’re not. We’re secular as can be. But the beautiful thing about being a secular country, as a Christian, God gave us a choice, he gave us free will. And what better expression of free will than to have signs that say "Do Anything You Want to So Long As You Don’t Hurt Anybody." Me having an open side makes me a better religious person. It gives you the option of living in a secular world. If you don’t, that’s between you and god, but I want to live in a secular, free society.
JES: Would you run for office?
KM: As much as I would like to run for office, I just want for no bullshit. You can look for me in the next four or five years running for a public office in Atlanta.
Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music is out May 15, but the entire album is currently available to stream here.