The Gospel of Atlanta According to Killer Mike
The rapper—and small business owner—breaks down the city's influence, growth, and why it's become rap's capital.
Every time the world starts to feel a little scary, Killer Mike seems to appear like some sort of hip-hop Deepak Chopra to offer our weary hearts some sage words. There was that episode of Bill Maher where he silenced rap's critics by reminding them of the art form's positive roots, or in the dark days after Ferguson when he gave an impassioned speech about the pain he felt watching yet another young black man gunned down by cops. Then, there was the confusing time following Trump's win when he appeared flanked by the ladies of The Real and explained why it all went down the way it did. He's got this uncanny ability to parse down and articulate the world's most complicated issues into explainers that make them easier to digest.
So, when it came to understanding how Atlanta became the hip-hop world's molten core, he was the guy we turned to for answers. Born Michael Render, Killer Mike is a Morehouse College dropout who spent some of his youth working in the trap, essentially embodying of the tale of two cities that makes up modern day Atlanta. In other cities, there's the underworld and an establishment and never the twain shall meet. In Atlanta, legends of the trap are likely to rub shoulders with the city's politicians or bookworms from the HBCU's at institutions like Magic City. It's that sort of fellowship that's allowed artists like TI, Jeezy, and Mike himself to make the transition from respected figures in streets to role models recognized by the city's elite.
Days before Run The Jewels secured a musical hat trick with their third critically acclaimed album, I spoke to Killer Mike at SWAG Shop, the barbershop he owns with his wife Shayna, where he talked at length about his love for the city that raised him.
Noisey: When you were a kid, who were the people that you looked up to?
Killer Mike: People who really brought something to the community. My heroes were found next door. Like my elementary school principle, Mr. Twiggs. Like four streets behind me. He'd pull up on your house, but he was an honorable man. So Atlanta for me has been all that the African American experience could be. So a hero was never hard to find if you really were looking for it.
Do you think the younger generation looks to the rap community as heroes as role models as opposed to the types of leaders you're talking about?
Not hero, a role model. You a role model by way of someone will model after your role. They'll model themselves after what they perceive is success. That doesn't mean they take your morality and virtue seriously. They want what you want, and they're willing to do what you do to get it. So if they're going to clumsily bounce around on the mic for eight to ten hours a day if that's in their dreams, the least you could do is own something on the corner in case that doesn't work out. To me, I have to; I'm compelled to do more than just be famous.
Right. Well, on "Reagan," you have that line about, "We talk about getting bread but none of us are bakers…"
…We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres. None of us own acres and none of us grow weed. Then who will feed our people when our people need to eat. So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding and all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing.
What does that mean?
Exactly what it says. It means it's like we're flexing. Like we are flexing, and it is to the detriment of the society that is faithful to us. Like these kids are faithful to you to the point where they are joining street gangs and dripping in prescription cough syrup.
The things you're saying are the things they want because you tell them that this is the best in the world, and that's cool. But if you're going to do that, have the shit you're talking about. If you're going to do it, you got to get this shit for real. You can't be saying this shit still living mentally a welfare life. Like don't buy the Benz before you buy the investment property. In places like Cleveland, you can buy 3,000 square foot investment property in some parts of town for as low as $10,000 right now. So as you're throwing up money from the clubs, you're taking pictures with a fucking brick of money by your ear. What you can do with 10, 15, 20, $25,000 at this moment in time, right now, is amazing.
I don't let people talk bad about Rick Ross around me. Like you can't do it. He owns, I've heard a legend, 30 wings stops in the areas he grew up near. You can never say anything about him. If that represents ten jobs per place, that's 310 jobs provided. He affects the economics of 310 families. You can't preach that. I don't give a damn what you say he did or didn't do. I don't give a damn how real or not real you say he is. That is one of the realest moves.
But that seems true to some degree in Atlanta, where it's businessmen like you, TIP.
Absolutely. Luda, Luda just got chicken and beer open in the airport. You know how significant that is? That's a third of this airport is owned by African Americans.
So why can that happen here as opposed to other cities? What allows people like you, like T.I to have that sort of mobility?
So Atlanta is a place where a black voting block, a black economic base in terms of a true middle and working class exists, and of course you have an enormous amount of poverty. So there's black poverty here, one of the biggest, most disproportionate rates in the nation actually. That's something we have to work on in terms of electing, who we're going to elect mayor. But this city is America chocolate. And I don't mean in a novelty way, from top to bottom. From the land you're sitting on is or was once owned by an African American. Streets over, most of the neighborhood I'm from, from the west side. The east side has been gentrified but just past that, you have the county of Decatur, one of the largest black counties. So it is a place where opportunity found itself, and African Americans have been a part of it because the people that were here; African American and whites understood that if we keep— and we aren't perfect— but if we keep repeating the cycle of destroying each other, we're only going to destroy this grand opportunity in the southeast. This is truly the gateway city to the southeast. African Americans have found enormous opportunity here and will continue to do so, so long as they can keep their economic footing here, and that's what I'm a part of, I hope.
When you talk about black poverty here and that disparity, you've lived in both of those worlds to some degree.
I grew up working class in Atlanta. My cousins lived in the projects in apartments. There were just poor whites that lived there. They sold their houses at about a 30 percent markup to blacks that had brokered the deal to turn to Collier Heights essentially in the west side, a black enclave, so that the racial tensions would be gone and they would have something. So the banks, the politicians, the people organized it, made it happen. So I grew up in a set of houses on the Front Street, little A-frame houses of the Collier Heights and embedded in them were mansions. Cause all black people had to live together.
So when you leave, I mean this is this pocket though in Georgia. Like what happens when you leave Atlanta and you go to other parts of Georgia?
Well, I tell people I live in Atlanta. Georgia's outside of Atlanta, absolutely. But my family's from the very rural south. My family's from Tuskegee, Alabama. And they're from Eatonton, Georgia. Places like Greenwood, Georgia, my family is from…so I've seen it both ways. It doesn't bother me any. I just know when I'm going through south Georgia and north Florida, you know watch my speed limit, prepare to see a lot of confederate flags, get pulled over, say: "Yes, sir. No, sir." Survive the encounter. Get my ass to Tampa.
Did you hear about when the Migos getting locked up?
Yeah, it broke my heart. I mean I knew they were going to be OK. I just know that that part of Georgia doesn't play that shit. That' s all. That part of Georgia, that's the same part of Georgia had locked Dro up. It's a university town and my wife is from a town not far from there. My wife is from Savannah, Georgia. That was down in Statesboro but all my homies have always told me when you do a show at Statesboro, leave the weed and the guns at home. And I'm not saying that they did anything wrong. I'm just saying my homies usually, I have weed on me. And if I don't have weed, I have a gun but if I have a gun, I won't have weed. So they just say just leave both of them home. We got you when you get down.
When stuff like that happens in the community, in the rap community, how does that make you feel? To see artists get locked up?
I know they get spotted and targeted cause they're artists. We all know that. It goes without saying. The thing about it is you just got to try your best to protect yourself, cause you can't always say: "Oh, man. They're flaming racists." We know there are racial overtones of course.
Did you hear about our relationship with that whole trial?
Noisey had come here before and done an episode with the Migos, and then they played that episode in court in the trial. What do you make of that?
That's the south. I mean that's this justice system too. But you know man; rap is dope because rap has made far more money off cocaine, guns, weed, and drugs. For black people long-term, probably then cocaine, weed, guns and drugs, right? But sometimes, the line can get so blurred. So you try your best to avoid it while still maintaining the persona that's needed to drive the narrative that gets people to listen to your dope ass music.
If I'm dealing with cops in a metropolitan area, I would much prefer to deal with an Atlanta cop because at the end of the day, I'm dealing with someone who's so used to seeing people like me, that his or her, and that's black or white. But his or her use of discernment is more effective for me because they don't look at me and instantly see what TV has fed them.
That fantasy that you're talking about though. What is being fed to people do you think?
What's being fed to people is what's always been fed to people since when black people were belonging to people in this country; the advertisements were of docile nice Negros who did what you said. When black people became free, that's when black people turned into killers and voracious animals, and that's never stopped. That's never stopped. I looked at a movie this morning. And I mean the guy said shit is so cold in the movie, I had never heard anything on the streets and I've been on the streets just like damn. Like who thought of that? But that came out of the mind of a writer. But when I watched that, that's what I ingest. And that becomes my truth unless I diversify my friends, which I charge more white people to do.
Right, there's an interesting dynamic between us in the media and artists because we listen to the music and I guess pursue that imagery. We want to tell the stories in a sort of companion way.
Honestly, it seems like you're trying to give yourself a door and say: "Hey, it isn't our fault."
OK, cause when I hear rappers is, I have the ability to listen to rap and be like: "Goddamn, that was good. That man talks bullshit but that shit sounds good." I knew Dre and Cube and Eazy were not shooting at the cops. It was just exciting to listen to. And I knew that Jason Voorhees wasn't going to kill me because my dad sat next to me and said it's just makeup. I think that you have people that are inclined to say: "This is my real and actual life." And I don't think most artists do that.
And if that is that artist, I pursue the story, just like you started me with these questions and you get deeper and deeper and deeper like peeling off the layers of an onion. I would like to see more stories where you get that with those types of artists, but you'd really do the peel. You really do because there are stories, man. There are like, a lot of these kids that made it.
Like the more I meet people around Atlanta and realize how much Thug has been around, the more I realize what a rich tapestry of suffering this motherfucker went through to be who he is. And I already knew I liked him. I already knew I liked him more when Tip reintroduced me to him, but to see his artistry really is from a pure place of like, man, he had to, like he was fucked up, even where he's from. Southeast Atlanta, we're talking about Cleveland Ave, Jonesboro Road. That shit is desolate. It's desolate. But to blossom out of there is to me a more beautiful story than: "Oh, he's wearing a dress." I don't give a fuck if he's wearing a dress. I give a fuck that he took a style he was influenced by like a Lil Wayne style, grafted it into a Patois.
He wasn't like too keen on talking to us. I guess he's a little distrustful of media.
Can't blame him.
He just appears to me to be literally a superstar that's introverted. You don't expect Prince to talk to you. So the kid's to me, I look at the kid and I see a superstar. I do and most people I've seen like that are introverted. I've been around Beyoncé. She didn't say five words. Got on the phone with me one time, thanked me for something. But that's a lot of sauce to show, man. Every time I've seen him, he's just been sitting there quietly or talking some, thinking and then rapping. So I don't know, I wouldn't trust the media in terms of; those guys have a lot more to lose.
I mean when you're the top, everybody wants to knock you down. But like I said, I think he's a star. I'm a fan of his. I think he's dope and I think he's been provocative and good for the game. There's a real ghost of Dungeon Family in this city, and you'll mistake it because the music to you doesn't sound like it. But when you see kids like Thug, man. That is permission to buy the experiment that people like André 3000 and Big Gipp and Cee-Lo Green. Like you know what I mean? It's permission to buy that because they already got looked at crazy, called out their names. They did it and they made it okay for any kid in Atlanta to push their creative limits like that. So I'm proud of my city for still producing these types of people.
How has it changed from that era, from the Outkast, Goodie Mob era, which you're connected to. To today, to this new crop of kids like Savage or Yachty?
I mean, Yachty's story to me is bigger than is he or his music going to be big in three years. He's a part of Atlanta's artistic legacy. His father's one of the most famous photographers in this city. So that to me, that's just that's beautiful no matter what you think of the music. It makes people happy. It made you happy, and Atlanta had been missing that for a while. So he's needed.
Atlanta changes every three years. Atlanta's a city where always things have coexisted. At the exact same time you would hear Goodie Mob, you would hear Kilo, so even right now, you got kids that'll play Nick Grant and right comes behind it, they're playing 21 Savage. So I think Atlanta has one of the most diverse artistic and musical ears and they always have. And I encourage them not to change that.
Right, but for you personally, you've been around and you've had this longevity through these changing scenes. What do you attribute that too? How does one avoid being a flash in the pan in a city like Atlanta?
So for me, the first eight years, I was just trying to figure it out. But I was making some dope music. And I've never abandoned home. Like I always found a way to make some cool music with the people I thought were cool from here, or to support them in some way.
What do you say to young guys you talk to? I mean like what advice do you give them?
The advice I give all of them is buy a house as soon as you can. Just take the first 30, 40, 50, 60, $80,000 you make, just buy something in the city. If you don't ever live in it, you can put your own studio there. You can charge yourself for recording like it's a company. That's it. Just shit like that. Cause once you got your money issue, you can figure out the other stuff. Once you got your money issue, that's really it, man. You don't want to get in a bad place. I've seen that happen to some people I care about. Shit has happened to me and I've seen the decisions you have to make. So I just try to help people.
I don't talk about other people's issues on camera. I've just seen it not go well for rappers. Now for me, it didn't go well because the first advance I got. Big and Dre were very honest businessmen. They allowed me to walk away when I was just like: "Enough of the big companies. I want to do it independent." I learned on my own independently. And I got a chance to re-approach it again with a different set of books I haven't been reading at that time.
What significance does Magic City hold in the scene in Atlanta?
Magic, ah, man it's you know. I remember hearing a story years ago about the mafia coming here and trying to press a black strip club owner. He laughed them out the doors. What the fuck are you going to do to me? You're in a black city. We see you coming a mile away. That's what's significant here. Every aspect of your life in this city can be a variation of the African American experience.
Do you wish other artists or more younger artists took up the charge you take in your music?
They do. We're wrong for saying they don't. When Thug says I paid my sister's tuition, that is physically moving that forward. There's a dope boy who's going to do that too. There's a middle class family that's going to help a kid out. That is for real. When you hear the medicine getting slid, in the songs, I'm forgetting what Future said. Future said a great one too, but the medicine gets slid in. It's just about; people don't always come to music for that. They get that at other places. They come to music to be a irreverent, to get drunk, get high, to party, have fun. And Atlanta has worked as a city because economically black people took themselves very seriously. They went to college here. They got good jobs. They started businesses. But these niggas can party.
Yeah, I also think that you don't have to be overtly in your music to be political in your music.
Absolutely, absolutely. I mean some people have just been, you look at some of the female groups that have come out of rap. Them in rap is a political statement. Period. Like Trina has been dominating for what 15, 16 years? Like still banging their ass out one hit at a time. That takes the whole argument away. Nicki is so dominant now. It takes the whole argument away.
Yeah, and I think to your point, with your music, people maybe say you're a political rapper, but you call yourself a gangsta rapper in your Twitter bio.
Exactly, A Pan-Africanist Gangsta rapper, exactly.
Yeah, I mean can you talk about that. Like I mean especially with you, do you reject the notion that you're only a political rapper or that you're only a Gangsta rapper?
I think I'm more of a social commentator, which I think political and Gangsta Rap are. N.W.A and PE were both politically commentating because of societal things, right? But that's not all I am, cause I'd rather enjoy drugs and strip clubs. And I love doing them with my wife. So if you don't add a little Larry Flynt and Luther Campbell into my liberation philosophy, I don't allow you to stick it on me. You get what I'm saying? [With RTJ3], man, imagine if it was world war Z and me and Jaime were just two teenage boys trying to escape. That's kind of what this album feels like to me.
Is that something you think is going to happen? World War Z?
You never know. I mean shit. I never thought Donald Trump would be president no matter how much weed I smoked. It's America, man. Anything can happen.
In a lot of your music, like two years later, the shit that you're talking about, it comes into fruition even though at the time maybe it sounded a bit conspiratorial.
Yeah. Well, it's amazing to me that people, like I tell people I'm prone to believe, not to believe. I'm prone to be willing to believe a conspiracy. People say why? Have you ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment? Yes, my grandmother's grandfather was one of the men, and as those men were telling people there's something. They're doing something. Something is wrong. People called them conspiracy theorists. I remember seeing a triangle pattern flying over my apartment.
That's 20 years ago, and I was telling I was like: "Man, that's a UFO." I'm saying: "I don't know if it's an alien but those unidentified flying objects, that's a triangle pattern." Years later you see: "Ah, man. Taken picture of unidentified flying object." And it's really just; it could be three military planes. But I'm like: "I know I saw that pattern." I wasn't even smoking weed then. I know I saw that. So you know, who knows, man? Who knows what, I just know I try to, when I rap, I just try to be in tune to what's going on as much as possible and say something. But not, this isn't the only thing I want to rap about but when I say something, I do want to say something.
Yeah, with Trump, do you think he's going to have an effect on Atlanta? I mean it's hard to tell now, but if you had to look into the future.
Well, what I know is all politics are local. And if I were an African American in Atlanta, I'd be far more concerned with who my next mayor is, who my new school board is going to be, my next city council member, and if I'm in Fulton, county commissioner. That's what I'd be worried about if I was in Atlanta. In other places, the president may have a more direct effect but as far as I've seen, in this city what's always affected my life the most drastically has been local and state politics. And that's what I encourage people to be a part of.
Do you see people getting engaged in that?
Yes, absolutely. I saw many, many young people on many sides of the political spectrum up and down this street. We, shit, during A3C, we held a damn near rally in front of the store just talking, going back and forth. I just, I'm excited to see young people run for office. I saw two people in DeKalb County, young people posing running for office. So yeah, I want more people involved cause we need some new and fresh ideas. We need some alternative ideas.
Do you think you're going to run for office?
When I'm done rapping and having a successful rap career, why not? I'd be bored. I'd need something to do to contribute something positive to humanity and society. But no, not right now, not while I'm picking up a check. And I'd never run for anything over city office.
Yeah, so you think there is an expiration date in terms of rapping? You said when you're done rapping.
Yeah, I mean I'm not like saying: "I'm done. I would never rap again." I just mean like I'd like to go eight, nine hard years. Like I want to go a full 20 with RTJ. I want us to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What I will do in the meantime is I'll find politicians I think that they're better for the community and I'll support them in name and money.
Zach Goldbaum is the host of 'NOISEY' on VICELAND. Follow him on Twitter.