My Block
More than 20 years into his rap career, Killer Mike continues to make acclaimed albums and new connections in his community. Criticism may come his way, but at least the Atlanta rapper is trying to make a difference.
Interview: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Years into his career as an international rap star, Killer Mike’s most considerable flex is being local. Since debuting on OutKast’s Stankonia cut, “Snappin & Trappin’” in 2000, the 48-year-old Atlanta native has balanced acrobatic raps with community advocacy. He’s worked to invest in Black ownership and area education while forging a reputation as one of the most ferocious spitters in hip-hop. It’s a dual legacy decades in the making.

Born Michael Render, the MC released his debut album, Monster, in 2003. Filled with percussive flows and dexterous rhymes, the project positioned him as an emerging force from the Peach State. He’s only leveled up since by refining his songwriting while becoming increasingly political with LPs like 2011’s Pledge and 2012’s R.A.P. Music. In 2013, he fortified his blend of speaker-rattling anthems and incisive political commentary when he joined forces with El-P to form Run The Jewels. They have since become one of the most critically acclaimed duos in hip-hop.

Over time, Killer Mike’s political side—as well as his entrepreneurial spirit—spilled out of rap. Since 2011, he’s co-owned and operated SWAG Shop barbershops alongside his wife, Shana. Currently, Mike and T.I. are putting the finishing touches on plans to revive Atlanta’s famed Bankhead Seafood restaurant. In 2015, Mike attempted to run as a write-in candidate to be the 55th District’s rep for the Georgia House of Representatives. That same year, he helped campaign for Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Focusing on his community, the MC engages with area politicians like former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and current Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. Killer Mike’s politics haven’t come without controversy, though.

A proud gun owner, Mike was on the wrong end of a Twitter trending topic when he appeared alongside gun rights activist Colion Noir on NRATV in 2018. Mike faced more criticism after his 2020 meeting with Governor Kemp, who’s been accused of encouraging the suppression of the Black vote. Although their meeting was purportedly about small businesses and the importance of trade schools, the skepticism never evaporated. Mike’s pro-gun stance and willingness to reach across party lines have made him an increasingly divisive figure among rap heads, but he doesn’t plan on offering any apologies. He’d rather deliver bars.

This past June, Killer Mike did just that with Michael, his first solo release in over 11 years. The album is perhaps his best yet and is filled with bluesy beats, Black church aesthetics and lucid recollections from a complicated past. Fans from all over are hailing it the album of the year. Mike owns businesses, raps his ass off, engages in politics and he swirls it all together with a blue-collar charm. “I feel like a working-class Jay-Z, baby,” he shares.

Speaking with XXL through a Zoom call on a crisp fall afternoon, Killer Mike discusses arguably having the album of the year, Black Capitalism, generational schisms, his favorite new rappers and more.

XXL: How does it feel to see your Michael album get received the way it has? A lot of people are calling it the album of the year.

Killer Mike: I just left Chicago two days ago, and there was a line of about 400 people. Went for about two-and-a-half, three city blocks who all came to get this record signed. They came to the Run The Jewels show, sold out four straight shows, sold out in Atlanta. And I’m doing signings while I’m here, too, at DBS Sounds and other places and the physical copies. No. 1 rap album and No. 1 R&B album [both in September]. So, it’s not a “was.” It’s an “is.” The album is still being discovered, still being received, and it is still album of the year, not just rap album of the year.

This album humanizes Black masculinity. It humanizes Black Atlanta, humanizes Black Southernism. It validates what André 3000 said with the “South has something to say.” It is a generational statement and testimony to all those people who grew up on the N.W.As, the Tupacs, the Biggies, that says, “Well, what happened to rap?” This happened to rap. It matured. It grew up. I’ve had people from as young as 16 years old, as old as 66 years old all say that this record was transformative, especially by way of Black working-class men, working-class men and the women that love them.

With regard to political and economic issues, what would you say is the biggest philosophical difference between millennials and your generation?

I guess what I know is, all I know is my grandparents had it figured out, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And I guess, ultimately, what all of us should understand, no matter how you choose to separate us is, ain’t nobody going to give Black people s**t. Nobody. You got to fight the government to get what you deserve. We deserve reparations. Will we ever get them? I don’t know. But in lieu of not knowing, let’s work our ass off to do our best individually and collectively. Individually, if I’m strong and my neighbor is strong, then collectively, my neighborhood can be strong. I don’t have any separation for kids younger than me.

Every generation makes mistakes. Baby boomers were a little too enthusiastic about war. They thought war still was a noble thing, and we were fighting on behalf of good. In my age, we realized that our government is [as] evil as the ones we’re fighting. We just happened to be on the inside of this fort, not the outside. So, every generation [is] going to make mistakes. I don’t have a lot of judgment for kids that are younger than me. I’m just going to tell you it’s tough. It’s a rough course, but you can do it. You can do it. You can do it individually, and you can do it collectively once you become strong individuals.

But you got to do it because everywhere in the world I go, the people who look like us are on the bottom. That’s true in every country. And I’ve been around the world. And I’m telling you, the darker your ass is, the closer to the dirt you are. So, there is no system that’s perfect for you.

Manipulate and use whatever system you can to your betterment. Help your neighbor. Stay hyper-local in your thinking and politics, and do the best you can.

You’ve been kind of polarizing at different points of your career. You caught some flack for meeting with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who’s been accused of voter suppression.

So, as a kid, I was chubby. Look at this kid, man [puts Michael album cover vinyl in front of screen]. This is a little, chubby, buck-toothed kid. He didn’t have time to convince everybody to like him. He was liked because he didn’t give a s**t. He was nice to people. If you f**k with him, he’d fight like a muthaf**ka. I don’t think I’m always right. I’m willing to say I’m sorry when I’m wrong. But if I know I’m right, I’m right.

If you live in a state and you are a Black Southerner and you don’t talk to the person that runs your goddamn state, s**t. F**k around... Me living like your goddamn sharecropper because you didn’t say nothing, because you didn’t dare say, “I went to our governor. I said we need better opportunity around trades programs in this [state].”

He didn’t do anything in the immediate. But when it came time to restore the HOPE Scholarship, a scholarship that gives kids with C and B averages, B students get an opportunity to go to college for free. When it did that, he added trade schools as well. So, our girls are going to college. Our boys are not. What’s the organization? I support Georgia YouthBuild. Our boys are going to trade school. And now, if our boys go Bs all the way through high school, they can graduate high school. They go to Georgia Trade School for free. Why wouldn’t I want to support that?

Now to the opposite, I asked them, “Please don’t sign the gang enhancement law.” He gave me an audience with the state’s lawyers and his whole staff to say, “This is why we don’t support or you should support the gang enhancement law.” He still signed off on that law. And I said, “Respectfully, I appreciate you giving me your ear. I hate you don’t see it my way.” And I immediately went to the Georgia Public Defenders Fund, and I said, “Well, we got to go after the prosecutors now and say to the prosecutors, ‘Please don’t win your prosecutions. Use it.’”

It’s just politics. Some things you’re going to win. I won on trade schools. Some things you’re going to lose. I lost on [the] gang enhancement. But if I didn’t have a relationship with the governor, how could I have made any of those calls?

Getting back to the music: Who are some newer artists that you like these days?

Man, I like Kenny Mason. I like JID. That boy JID is raw. I like Young Nudy. He raw as a muthaf**ka. I think the world missed an opportunity to support DopeBoy Ra as he just passed. But his catalog is still out there. I think you all should support them. My son Pony introduced me to Rylo Rodriguez. Snypa is muthaf**kin’ amazing. I got who else?

I got it on the female side. My daughter introduced me to the beautiful ratchetness of Sexyy Red, and that s**t is fun and funky. I love it. Also, I’m a big Latto fan. I think she’s a beautiful girl. She spits her ass off, but I still don’t think she gets the credit she deserves in terms of spitting. She’s an amazing hybrid of T.I., Shawty Lo and Gucci Mane. Blxst. I don’t even consider Blxst new anymore. He is here to stay.

You know, it’s Hip-Hop 50. Do you think older artists are doing enough for young ones?

Well, I don’t know. This is what I do know. We’re approaching a time where I’m excited about where I think that rock and roll, you’re going to start hearing covers. So, Snoop Dogg’s a huge Slick Rick fan, and he covered Slick Rick, and I think that’s dope. I’m looking forward to the young artist or a group that covers A Tribe Called Quest, that covers BDP. That covers... I want to hear Black pop rethought. I want to hear “Left My Wallet in El Segundo” rethought. “Electric Relaxation” rethought.

I also am looking forward to seeing when we, as artists, are taking our legacy acts out as openers. The Rolling Stones went on tour and took Muddy Waters with them. I want to see the day where a huge southern artist who gets the packed rooms takes 8Ball & MJG out because that brings it all the way home and makes it a true experience. I’m looking forward to when I go see the Nas show, and I’m seeing Big Daddy Kane coming out to support. And I know those days are quickly coming.

Speaking of performances, you and El-P have been performing throughout the fall. When’s the new Run The Jewels album coming?

Oh, man. I don’t know. We’re having so much fun out here on the road. We got to get off the road to actually sit around and see what happens, hopefully. I don’t know. Until then, though, you can hear me bringing El-P on this album right here. You hear us on Michael, baby.

What have you been focused on outside of the music?

T.I. and I bought just down the street from the housing development that he built, that was the old Kmart in the center of our neighborhood. There was the 50-year-old restaurant owned by Ms. Helen Harden called Bankhead Seafood. T.I. and I bought the land, the building, the restaurant, the recipes. And the other thing is growing the SWAG Shops. My wife and I have owned the SWAG Shops for 11 years now. We’re going to expand to two more shops.

Killer Mike photo
Jonathan Mannion

It’s been 20 years since you dropped your debut album, Monster. How would you say that you’ve changed your approach as an artist, musician and organizer?

I understand that if I’m not meeting on a daily or weekly basis, I’m no longer an organizer as much as I’m a mobilizer. So, what I do is I commune with the organizers, and I mobilize around them, help get money to them, help get people in their faces so they can see the work that’s being done. That’s how I’ve matured over the last 20 years as an organizer. I’m realizing I got a job. My job is to rap. To sing and dance, to make people happy. To make people think about the deep ideas that I may have as an artist.

Eleven years ago, they say: “You made a classic album with R.A.P. Music. This is amazing. How could he do any better?” I pop up out of nowhere 11 years later and give you the album of the year this year, an absolute muthaf**kin’ 5 out of 5 or 10 out of 10, no matter how you rate. I just wake up every day trying to be the best version of Michael I can be and a better version of the Michael I was. That’s it. At the same time, I say, “Free Jamil Al-Amin,” and working on his behalf in Atlanta. At the same time, you hear [on Michael] on the first song of “Down by Law” when I say, “Free Mutulu.” [Political activist and former prisoner] Mutulu [Shakur] finally got free. And [I] got an opportunity to attend his funeral services, but this man got an opportunity to die with his family and not in a cold jail cell.

So, I’m still advocating, still using my platform to shout those things that needed to be shouted. Still using my platform to help mobilize around the organizers that are organizing, even the ones that they don’t like me, but they take my money, you know what I’m saying? So, what I’m doing is continuing on the platform I have to push the line. I push as an organizer and as an artist and musician. I’m breaking new ground because at this point, I’m 48 years old, and I just made the best work that I’ve made in my life, and I’ve made some great work every step of the way.

Killer Mike photo
Shane Smith

Read Killer Mike's interview in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on newsstands now. The new issue also includes the cover story with Latto and conversations with Flo Milli, DD OsamaMaiya The DonMonaleoMello BuckzzSexyy RedBigXThaPlug, plus more. Additionally, there's an exclusive interview with Fetty WapQuality Control Music's Coach K and P discuss 10 years into the label's growth, and in-depth stories on the popularity of sampling in hip-hop in 2023 and the state of hip-hop touring, and the best moments of hip-hop's year-long 50th anniversary celebration.

See Photos From Latto's XXL Magazine Winter 2023 Cover Story