Killer Mike is like a personal trainer for the soul, bellowing commands at you to try harder, not letting you get up from the chest press until you’re sweating buckets, blowing his whistle more times than a ref when Lebron goes up for a layup. Love him or hate him, you have to listen to him.
Killer Mike’s latest album “R.A.P. Music” is a carnivorous display of antagonism and intimidation. It finds Mike seamlessly philosophizing about religion, social and political imbalances, and fearing for his family — each track wallops with the pulverizing force of a roundhouse kick to the jaw. Behind the boards is legendary Brooklyn producer El-P, whose bracing, futuristic instrumentals turn Killer Mike’s grave postulations into a nightmare. You might imagine the Bomb Squad making beats like these, assuming the Bomb Squad studied robotics.
Despite the album’s air of hostility, it would be an injustice to describe R.A.P. Music as simply a work of blind aggression. Rather, it is the effort of a concerned man determined to enlighten us to societal contradictions. As we find ourselves in an age of hip-hop in which passive aggressive artists earn as much love as the perennially aggrieved, it’s refreshing to see rappers like Mike unabashedly fight for what’s right. Sure, Drake might offer empathy and solace, but Mike offers “what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.” —Alex Koenig
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, you stated that you had you have the following objective when recording each new album: “I need to kill the last version of me.” How do you think you accomplished that goal with R.A.P. Music?
I gave people me. I have always given people my opinion, and I have always given people what I feel is superior artistry. And with this record I set all that aside and I gave people a show; a vulnerability that people haven’t seen out of me. As of late, emcees talk about insecurity in a very superficial way, and that always leads to their popularity with girls. I talked about being insecure about being smart. I talked about it being dangerous to have humanity when I grew up as a child, because I grew up as the crack era was exploding.
I think that I share facts with my audience—cause you know, a million rappers say “fuck the police”. Not a million rappers have said, “I embrace some police”. I say that because I’m the child of a police officer. I know the differences between cops.
So I think that I want the audience to know the man behind the mask. What makes a hero is their mortality or their humanity. I think that in a lot of ways, because I don’t have fans as much as supporters—you’re working with a relatively small number of people—I probably know some people who listen to my music in every city, unlike a lot of bigger artists. When people have seen you in costume or doing magic or being a performer is one thing; it’s another thing when you open up to that group of people.
People have heard four or five jams notable and a dozen others in which I attack people who I feel are attacking people who are at the bottom, whether those people are white or black, male or female, or republican or democrat. People have heard “That’s Life” 1 & 2. People have heard “God In The Building“ 1 & 2. People have heard those records, but people have not had an opportunity to hear me as a rapper say, “I hold accountability for this shit,” like on the song “Reagan”. I don’t think other rappers have the courage or the honesty to do it. And, you know, I did the last album the same capacity. So I had to one-up that Mike, and when I start making this next record, my goal will be to forget about R.A.P. Music.
You’ve been an avid churchgoer since you were a young man. Have the sermons from the pastors and preachers you’ve listened to over the years been an influence on your rapping style?
I don’t think I ever consciously set out to have a sound that was reminiscent of a preacher. I used to say this in interviews and I think that people thought I was cocky or trying to seem dangerous, but the first people I admired were preachers and drug dealers. As I got older I realized what I admired was how people looked at them, and I happened to grow up around very charismatic preachers and drug dealers. I didn’t believe in what they were saying as much as I was hypnotized by their talk, their conversation, with the shiny shit they had on. And I think maybe I absorbed some of the cadences, some of the talk, some of the lingo, shit like that. But I absorbed how to rhyme from my dad, just talking in rhyme.
I think that in terms of preachers, I never believed in a ceremony and the shit they were doing, and the fact that when they’d touch people and people would shake and heal. But I heard the words they were saying out of the book that they were reading, and I believed those words, and that’s what began me being uncomfortable with the church; that’s what began me being uncomfortable with the preachers. Because even though they were coddling people, the words they were saying were true, and I believed it. And the more I believed it, the angrier I got.
Throughout your career, you’ve come across as someone willing to offer your listeners a very candid and honest look at your life, whether it is your sentiments on religion, your devotion to your family, or your love of strip clubs. But are there any aspects of your life that you prefer not to reveal in your lyrics?
I mean, of course. We all have those. We’ve all had a lot of shit that we’ve done. You might just catch my fat ass at a sex capital [laughs] with a bunch of women in a room in Vegas. But I think that the stuff that I keep from you guys is just the most precious stuff. Even though I’m sharing more now, I’m still not showing the true depths of the love for my family. I could tear up and cry just thinking about my grandma. You know, my children fill me with a pride that’s indescribable. I have very private, happy things that I don’t share. But it’s funny you ask that, because I’ve been thinking about my next series of songs, just talking about stuff like that—stuff that makes me happy. Not stuff that I’m thinking about, but what I’m feeling. I think this record opened up some of my feelings.
But yeah, I keep feelings from all this. I think it’s because people from the rural South out of the World War II era raised me. It was hardship for them, and they didn’t have time to coddle. I was raised by a cop. [laughs] I was raised by a truck driver. My mom was a very stern woman.
Given that you’ve identified yourself as a religious and politically conscious emcee, are there any bible passages or political texts that stand out in your mind when writing rhymes?
Nah, I just strongly believe that freedom of speech is precious. In my high school civics class, I remember I had a teacher: Her name was Miss Ellison, and she was this round woman with short hair, a turtle-round face — like a cartoon turtle — and these little pop eyes with glasses. She couldn’t pronounce massacre; she pronounced massacre as “mass-a-cree”. And she was spitfire mean! But when she talked civics, it was like listening to one of those preachers—I loved the words she was saying.
I remember she had us memorize the Bill of Rights. I remember she explained the importance of the Declaration of Independence. She didn’t let me bullshit, she didn’t let me be the class clown or let me talk to girls. She was just on my ass that year, and I knew not to fuck with her cause she had my mom retake a class.
So I think that it was high school civics, and learning the freedom of speech and how precious it was, and that I can remember reading about Libya and Egypt. And I can remember reading about China and parts of Africa as a child, and realizing that this (free speech) wasn’t something that was common around the world.
I believe in the country in a way that most people don’t. I believe in the ideals of America. I believe that African Americans, through fear and through a certain history, have not tried to embrace the fully American experience. That’s why when I talk about gun ownership, I’m not talking about wanting to own a gun in case something happens to me. No. I hunt. I fish. I believe more Americans should. I believe that government should fear the people and not the other way around.
As far as bible passages, my grandmother loved the 23rd Psalm. She loved it. And I honestly believe that I am protected. I believe I walk amongst evil and the devil, and people who would wish to see me quieting every day, and I’m divinely protected.
You’ve admitted that El-P was initially resistant to the idea of him producing the entirety of R.A.P. Music, but after calling him enough times, you convinced him to change his mind. What specifically did you say to get him on board?
I don’t know. I just know that I can be an aggravating son of a bitch. [laughs] I don’t know what I said; I just know with each record, it became more powerful. Like every time we made a record, it was like, damn.
Check this out: “Butane” was (originally) for his (El-P’s) album (Cancer For Cure), and he said, “Just see if you can do something to it.” Cause he was like, “Yo, I gotta get on your album.” And we did it. The music inspired more music. But I knew it was going to be limited to twelve (songs), so I always pitched that to him. Once we got done with three or four, I’m like, “We’re a fourth done. We’re a third done.” So I always pitched that, I always played that card.
But I knew I wasn’t gonna do more than twelve songs. I really wanted a classic. I felt that what kept Pledge 1, 2, and 3 from being (a classic) was not have the courage to cut the fat off. This time I felt like he (El-P) did. So I think that once he saw how quickly I worked, and once he saw that I was on a mission of sorts, he just jumped on with the plan.
Prior to working with El-P, would you have ever thought that his production method would be suitable for your vision?
Yeah, but I never thought that I was going to reach him for an artistic place that I would be allowed to. So, you know, I thought about working with him in the context that I had heard dope beats from New York that I would have liked to rock on, but I had never thought that’d I’d be spitting in a room and just doing that shit. And I’m glad I had, cause I came into the situation almost like a child.
I use an analogy—we’re like two 16-year-old kids. Imagine two kids that just end up at the same high school. They don’t necessarily have a shared history of being geographically right next to one another, but they both listen to the same music. People find it amazing that he (El-P) and I work so well, but we both listen to the same music. I was just further embellished growing up in a region that was creating its own version of hip-hop.
After your release of 2003’s Monster through Colombia Records, you moved away from major labels and haven’t looked back since. Are you still comfortable with that decision?
Yeah. I mean– there are money days. Being independent, and chucking all your own dough into it, you know, you might be rich nine months of the year, and three months you might be dumping it all into the next campaign. So from a money aspect, there have been some times where I’ve been like, “should I have?” But I like the fact that my woman and I control our destiny. My oldest son will be like, “Dad, just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s dope.” I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to think about that stuff. I just have to take care of my people and do what I do well.
At age 37, you’re one of the few grown adult rappers catching serious recognition. Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with the younger generation?
I don’t understand the concept of keeping up. All I know is, I’m dope. And if you put me on a track with anybody older than me or younger than me, Imma be dope and I’m gonna rock the shit out of that track. And that’s why I love rap.
You know, when Ray Allen steps on the court with any other player, the other player is thinking, “I can’t let this motherfucker jack six threes on me.”
I interviewed Ray Allen a few years ago and I asked him what his fondest basketball moment was. He talked about the Georgetown/Connecticut game, where they (Conecticut) won and beat Allen Iverson in the championship. Ray said that both of them didn’t play that well that game, so it wasn’t like he was so proud of himself. It was just that there was so much talk about A.I.—he enjoyed denying him that (the championship), and he relished that. And that’s what I have when I rap: I enjoy getting on that track, and beating that motherfucker up.