Killer Mike: Diamond in the rough

Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, half of Run the Jewels, has become a prominent voice in US race issues

“I’ve always seen rappers as liberators.” Killer Mike (right) with collaborator MC El-P.

“I’ve always seen rappers as liberators.” Killer Mike (right) with collaborator MC El-P.

 

If you are looking for a hip-hop act to step up and take a good, hard look at American society, it looks increasingly as if Killer Mike is your man. Over the last few months the Atlanta rapper has been front and centre when it comes to commenting about such issues as the fallout from the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.

The rapper born Michael Render has decided it’s time to speak up. Of late there have been appearances on CNN and Fox News, op-ed pieces in various publications (including one in USA Today about the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials) and emotional speeches during shows about what is happening on the streets of Ferguson and other American cities.

“We’re just rappers, but I’m also a black man in America and that comes with a certain set of situations,” he says.

“I’m also the son of a policeman and that brings situations which might cause some conflict for me as a rapper. What the cops do is a very difficult job, but you have to challenge what’s going on out there and why it’s happening and you’ll hear us do it in a non-preachy way. I hope I do a good job of representing myself and my community.”

Away from this activism and commentary, Render has many creative and commercial irons in the fire, from his own solo work to his Swag barbershop business in Atlanta.

Then there’s Run the Jewels, a collaboration with New York producer and MC El-P. The duo have just released their second album, Run the Jewels 2, to another round of loud and sustained applause. Talking about this project is taking up a lot of Render’s time and effort.

Killer Mike’s story began when he appeared on OutKast’s Stankonia album in 2000. His peformance on Snappin’ & Trappin’ won him a Grammy, earned more guest spots and led to a solo album Monster in 2003. But it’s his alliance with Jaime “El-P” Meline that has really ratcheted things up a couple of notches.

Meline made merry as an underground hip-hop luminary with the fabled Company Flow and Def Jux label in the late 1990s.

He worked with Render on the latter’s R.A.P. Music solo album in 2012 and the pair reconvened for El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure album. After touring together, the pair formed Run the Jewels and the combo hit the ground fully formed.

“It was a vibe more than a sound,” says Render. “Individually we’re good but together, man, we have something else and we push each other in ways we’ve never experienced before. We’re friends and we balance one another.”

Until lately, Render’s career featured many releases which failed to make a connection with a wider audience.

R.A.P. Music changed everything for me. I realised I didn’t want to be just an underground rapper. I wanted to be recognised as one of the best rappers out there. But it hadn’t worked like that and I was ready to quit because I was tired of hitting my head against the wall and getting nowhere,” he says.

That recent run of albums has put Render up where he rightly belongs and he’s savouring what this brings. It means, for a start, that there’s a much bigger audience to listen to his thoughts and ruminations on American society today, he says.

“I’ve always seen rappers as liberators who push the limits because rap often represents the most downtrodden people in American society. Rap provides an economy for many blacks who would be unemployed otherwise.”

Why does he reckon only a smallish number of rappers are willing to get involved in activism and protests?

“Because they just want to escape. Musicians who’ve escaped poverty want to buy their mother a house or a Bentley and diamonds rather than rap about social issues. They’re trying to get the hell out of the ghetto themselves. They don’t want to hear about it any more. They want the fantasy.

“Me, I’m an organiser through and through. People have seen so much of me at this point, they know it’s not bullshit. They see that this is my lifestyle. It’s who I am but I can name 99 rappers who are not. They’re trying to make it out of their own personal hell.

“But, that said, I expect more out of them. I don’t do this because they’re rappers: I do this because they’re black men and they owe something to the community that they came from. Shit’s got to change.”

Run the Jewels 2 is out now. Run the Jewels play the Opium Rooms in Dublin on December 21st

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