Abe Beame only cooks with butane.
At the end of the Summer of 2009, Grand Hustle released a cutting room floor compilation titled Underground Atlanta Vol. 1. The lead single is, “I’mma Fool With It,” featuring Big Kuntry King, a rapper who achieved a negligible level of fame in the aughts because he had the good fortune of beginning his career in group with T.I., and Michael Santiago Render, or Killer Mike, who at the time was the label’s big free agent acquisition. Mike is flawless and compelling on the track, somehow in a perpetual state of unhurried breathlessness, as he has been on literally every verse I’ve heard him spit on no matter how awkward the beat, hook or concept since his debut with fucking Outkast in 2001.
The Nard and B beat has all the grace notes of that moment in Atlanta rap minus that spark of menace and inspiration that the style its aping had in its best form. It’s skittering, ominous and wants be album filler on Thug Motivation 101. Incapable of taking a verse off, Mike spits hard but is hemmed in by the subject matter. Rapping intensely and angrily about a night out just doesn’t land as effectively as searing historical political diatribes, but he’s positioning himself somewhere between Bun B and Biggie on the track; if you squint you can see the career path he was beginning to lay out for himself.
Mike had been frustrated by his tenure as an artist under Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon imprint. He was well respected and his talent was self evident on his man-on-fire mixtape work. But the broader question was: how to best employ it. At first he took the conventional path. He got with Grand Hustle under T.I., at the peak of his fame — a winning team that would allow him self determination, to build his own label and enjoy a productive, lucrative career. This was Atlanta, this millennium’s premier launching pad for rap artists and Mike was well positioned in the middle of it.
Unfortunately, the special interests in the major label system had one way of understanding rappers from the city at the time. Mike could have easily followed this generic trajectory and probably would’ve had his own moment of pop dominance and internet notoriety like say, 2 Chainz. But instead, he made a decision that was equal parts obvious and remarkable. He turned his back on the mainstream before the mainstream could turn its back on him.
If you were a hip hop fan growing up in upstate New York in the 90s like I was, you loved all the staples of the Golden Era, but it was difficult to connect to songs about an urbanity you never really experienced as a kid who would attend parties that consisted of people drinking around fires in the woods, who smoked bowls on top of mountains during lunch breaks and who didn’t have much to fill the time besides getting fucked up, reading a lot and listening to music.
My first real connection to hip hop wasn’t necessarily the popular rap music I also listened to like Wu or Tribe or Boot Camp, but weird sub mainstream shit like Necro, Cage, Celph Titled, Aesop Rock, Apathy, C Ray Walz, Jean Grae, Cannibal Ox, Louis Logic, Non Phixion, J Zone, Jemini the Gifted One, Dilated Peoples, Immortal Technique, People Under the Stairs, K-Otix, Binary Star, Jedi Mind Tricks, Mr. Lif, The High and Mighty, J-Live, RA the Rugged Man, and of course, Company Flow. At the time, we called it underground.
I think what drew me to the music was its common, familial sense of otherness. The content was dark, profane, paranoid, radical and abrasive. The production was odd and beautiful, featuring bizarre samples and breaks that were not like the shit you’d hear anywhere else in pop. In other words, it was a soundtrack engineered specifically for the disaffected and uncool.
Now, our whole lives are on the internet. The very idea of otherness has been divided and expanded to the many, many tributaries that feed into a mainstream atomized, polarized and blown up to an inscrutable abstract that is impossible to define as monoculture. We’re all othered and niche and in our own corners with our people now. Everything is mainstream and nothing is mainstream and everything is underground and nothing is underground. In this climate, the very idea of an underground is anathema.
And yet, when I think of the idea of the underground as it was once constituted, what it stood for and what it meant to hip hop and its fans that lived and loved beyond the pale, I believe its mantle in this modern era has been carried and represented by Killer Mike, an unlikely but very capable standard bearer of hip hop’s underground and the misfit toys that still love it and yearn for its disjointed connection.
Mike’s unlikely success story is completely aligned with this decade in rap and the strange bedfellows the internet has the ability to make. Jason Demarco isn’t exactly our Puff Daddy but he is an outside the box tastemaker who has helped guide rap’s underground since Williams Street Records was founded in 2007. Demarco works for Adult Swim, the late night block on the Cartoon Network that features anime and a wide array of *hits blunt* programming. At some point, the corporation decided to form a label to score their offerings (the traditional label folded in 2015 after deciding it would be easier to just pay artists for their work and give the music away). He’s been something of a rap mad scientist, helping bring together MF Doom and Danger Mouse or Flying Lotus and Earl Sweatshirt, among others. And this is how Mike met Jamie.
El-P was in many ways the godfather of the northeast underground scene I described above. Rawkus was the beating heart of late 90s underground, but Def Jux was its soul and El Producto its guiding spirit. After Rawkus melted down in the early aughts El-P went solo and got weird(er). His three albums released between 2000 and the folding of Definitive Jux in 2010 were generally well received but haven’t aged well, too Ginsburg and screamo and coked out for their own good [ed: note — I completely disagree here, but we must let Abe Beame Abe Beame]. For my tastes, El needs a Bigg Jus to ground him and he found a new and improved model in Mike. It’s been a symbiotic relationship from which both men have found an enormous creative benefit.
What changed with Mike, and what earned him his position in this series, was his savvy decision to play to his strengths and lean into uncompromising, lyric-oriented hip hop over wrecking ball production. Mike makes music that is fierce, and fun, and reverent of the traditions and history of hip hop, but it is also crucially progressive. If Kendrick Lamar is our Hillary Clinton and Rick Ross is Donald Trump, Mike is rap’s Bernie Sanders, and not just because he was a very early adopter of Bernie’s presidential run in 2016. [ed: Not sure if I quite follow the first half of this analogy but let’s just go with it for the sake of argument]
Some rappers spit facts and politics but Mike is the only rapper I’m aware of who spits an entire coherent ideology. Long before Bernie shifted the entire Democratic Party left, Mike had been endorsing a Sanders-adjacent platform on MP3. As an artist, he’s a militant Democratic Socialist radical shoring up our far left flank. An MC who made the leap when he finally found his Bomb Squad. The music he’s made this decade aspires to more than rote technical proficiency that has marked much of the rap you could qualify as modern underground. It’s insightful and intellectually rigorous, pushing past the cliches we often fall back on when debating politics on comment threads and he does so over exquisite, surprising indie production as an unapologetically Southern rapper. It’s legitimately important. Mike is as nimble with his bars and thoughtful in his messages as any rapper featured in this series, Kendrick Lamar included.
Speaking of Kendrick, I wrote about him several months ago and at the time said this about the career path I’d once imagined for him: “You could project he’d have his subset of die hard next gen Rawkus kids, he’d fucking own every college campus in America; he’d go on mid-sized venue tours every two years when he’d release an album and be in heavy rotation on Lyricist Lounge-type Spotify channels.” I had actually accidentally mapped this decade for Killer Mike. He’s become the sort of dorm room top 5 talent I grew up worshipping who sells out the mid-level hip hop venue in every city. (I didn’t account for the fact that this level of fame gets you a Netflix show in 2019.)
Mike reached the pinnacle of rap’s post modern underground when he consummated his attraction to El-P with R.A.P. Music, an album I still rank in my top 10 for this decade. It’s the reason why Mike is here. Their first album together is the completely random, one-off championship season that comes out of nowhere. He put all his tools together, El-P delivered an absolutely perfect suite of beats, it was an MC/producer mind meld the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of Gangstarr. But more accurately it’s reminiscent of Prince Paul’s best work with De La Soul, the rappers vibing off the deranged brilliance of their producer and following him everywhere he wants to go.
Run The Jewels is the type of Marvel What If hypothetical fantasy mashup that would’ve only existed on message boards and in the imaginations of rap nerd fetishists twenty years ago. It’s the Nas album produced entirely by Primo, or the Commission LP your boy swears he heard a rough cut leak of but he can’t find the tape just this minute. But fanboy culture has officially supplanted culture and if you want to uncancel a sitcom or see a prequel to an 80s franchise or have your two favorite superheroes fight you can post it into existence. In many instances these manifested wishes make for shitty art that inevitably disappoints the fanbase that thought it was rabid for this impossible event. But as it turns out, Killer Mike rapping over El-P’s trademark glitchy Sega Genesis Vangelis-on-even-more-acid production is pretty fucking awesome.
Killer Mike’s pivotal decision to embrace his otherness, to take inventory of his particular set of skills and take agency over his career is something any artist, no matter the discipline, could learn from. He turned what could’ve been a mediocre career he was well overqualified for making shitty pop trap into an industry. My favorite Mike song is appropriately untitled, off R.A.P. Music, of course. It’s a song about nothing and everything. It’s about the pleasure of listening to a truly great artist at the peak of his powers ply his trade. It’s meandering, it’s angry, it’s personal, it’s sad, it’s defiant, it’s something a very small subset of people can throw on regardless of context and fuck with, and it’s perfect. It feels like home.
ROD: Killer Mike – Digital Underground
- Thursday in the Danger Room (ft. Kamasi Washington) (Run The Jewels 3 2016)
- Reagan (R.A.P. Music 2012)
- Ready Set Go (Remix) (ft. T.I. & Big Boi) (Pl3dge 2011)
- DDFH (Run The Jewels 2013)
- The Work’s Hard (ft. Pill) (4180: The Prescription 2009)
- Gonna Go to Ghana (Ghetto Extraordinary 2008)
- Kill Jill (ft. Young Jeezy & Big Boi) (Boomiverse 2017)
- Close Your Eyes (ft. Zack de la Rocha) (Run The Jewels 2 2014)
- Burn (Pl3dge 2011)
- N****z Down South (Remix) (ft. T.I. & Bun B) (Underground Atlanta 2009)
- Willie Burke Sherwood (R.A.P. Music 2012)
- God In The Building (I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II 2008)
- May the Force be With You (ft. XV & Mac Miller) (Vizzy Zone 2010)
- A Christmas Fucking Miracle (Run The Jewels 2013)
- Untitled (R.A.P. Music 2012)