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Killer Mike: Memoirs of a Rap Maverick

The emcee/activist unveils his superhero origin story.

by Ben Boddez

Design By Alex Kidd

Killer Mike isn’t one to half-ass anything he does. Ever since introducing himself to hip-hop fans with a show-stealing verse on Outkast’s 2001 anthem “The Whole World,” Mike has mentioned that his no-holds-barred approach in both his spirited mic presence and the passion with which he speaks has prompted some of his fellow rappers to suggest he should have been a preacher instead.

He’s used that same energy to become an outspoken political advocate, mostly known for being a major supporter of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, legalized marijuana, and fighting for Black ownership while often taking time out of a busy touring schedule to fly back to his Atlanta hometown and make his voice heard at city council. He even parties hard – Mike joins this interview from his bed the morning after his wife Shana’s birthday, still clearly hungover but no less eloquent.



Although he had already turned his Dungeon Family fame into five solo albums – culminating in 2012’s widely acclaimed R.A.P. Music – Mike has spent the last decade as one half of Run the Jewels with NYC rapper and producer El-P. When the pandemic struck and El-P’s commitments started to build – doing production work with Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and scoring 2020’s Capone movie – Mike took the opportunity to craft his definitive life story. Titled Michael, the album details his life growing up poor in Atlanta, the lessons he learned from his family, and how he spun those lessons into opportunity, making him the successful rapper and businessman that he is today.

“RTJ is the Uncanny X-Men, and this is the origin story of one of the characters,” he says. “Killer Mike is a badass motherfucking superhero who never takes losses and who was created out of the imagination of the nine-year-old kid that’s on the cover of Michael. This is Logan to Wolverine.”

“Killer Mike is a badass motherfucking superhero who never takes losses.”

Executive produced by the legendary No ID, Mike tells the story about showing up on his doorstep with a mixtape’s worth of material to finally realize years of conversations about the two working together, locking down week after week into the early hours of the morning to craft what Mike hoped would be the “greatest solo album [he’d] ever done.”

“COVID gave us the backdrop to treat it like a job. We went in every day at 10 p.m. and stayed until four or five in the morning. The weekends got taken off to spend time with the kids, and after two years we had a classic rap album. I think it’s the generational statement right now. My life has been one of a Black child who grew up empowered. I went to Frederick Douglass High School, and I walked in every day and saw a portrait of him that read ‘without struggle, there is no progress.’ You have no excuse for failure. So many people have invested in me as a child and as an adult, that I would have been remiss not to make this type of album in these times.”

“My life has been one of a Black child who grew up empowered.”

Those people building Mike into the man he is today play a major role in the project’s narrative – mostly the two women whose portraits he’s been carrying around daily in a piece of jewelry as of late: his mother Denise, and his grandmother Betty. The recording sessions for the standout track “Motherless,” according to Mike, was the first time he’d ever admitted out loud that his mother, who passed away in 2017, was really gone. While he mostly credits his mother for his fighting spirit and go-getter ethos, his highly spiritual grandmother is more responsible for the album’s sound – soul, gospel and funk, the sounds Mike grew up with in the church.

“They had diametrically opposed views on a lot of shit. You got this little kid who tells his mom in the third grade he wants to be a rapper, and his mother is smoking a joint and says ‘Yeah, fuck it! That’s what you’re gonna do!’ and his grandmother’s like ‘That’s the devil speak!’,” he says. “My mom was the first person who introduced me to Kurtis Blow, to Whodini, Grandmaster Flash. She wasn’t one of those mom-agers, she was like ‘You’ve got to figure all this shit out by yourself, but you’ve got a lot of talent. I like it.’ She let me go to concerts. She encouraged me.”

In step with his musical success, Mike has also been building up a business empire. He owns the prominent Atlanta barbershop The SWAG Shop, as well as the financial technology company Greenwood Bank, a platform directed at people of colour. Now that he’s reached the summit, a lot of the messaging in the album’s stories of his later life has to do with fair wages and responsible ownership. It’s another life lesson that was instilled by a family member of sorts while checking in with a younger Mike who was building his fortune as a dealer at the time.

“The crack era allowed us to treat a segment of our community like indentured servants, with cheap and free labour. If you’re using people with addictions as employees, I’m compelling people on the song ‘Something for Junkies’ to pay them a fair wage, not to treat them historically how we’ve been treated,” he says, mentioning it’s a practice that he now exercises with his own businesses.

“The crack era allowed us to treat a segment of our community like indentured servants, with cheap and free labour.”

“It came out of a real conversation with one of my mother’s friends who I looked at and called an aunt. She was addicted, and I remember when I thought I was Scarface – you sell a thousand dollars and you think ‘I could rule the world.’ She said ‘Your dope ain’t no different. You know why we shop with you? Because you treat us like we’re human beings.’ I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to stay in that type of game because I never detached my humanity. So, when I got my first eight thousand, I could have bought a muscle car, but I spent it on music equipment. That’s what put me on the path to creating the music that got me a deal. I appreciate my aunt to this day for that.”

Killer Mike’s work with Run the Jewels and his association with the Sanders campaign has attracted a lot of politically progressive fans, and over the years he’s received some sizable pushback for some of his capitalist tendencies – most notably in the form of imploring rioters at the BLM protests to go home when they risked damaging his businesses.

When you sit down to listen to his words on an album like Michael, however, it becomes clearer that Mike’s true dream is to create the most fair and equal system under the conditions he’s been given in America. He believes that it’s unrealistic to expect either widespread change from those at the top or a fully anarchic revolution from the bottom. His most impassioned plea during our thirty minutes together was to conduct a Google search of Lucy Parsons, the daughter of an enslaved woman who advocated for violent rebellion.

“The working class could wake up tomorrow and do a Lucy Parsons. She said you should literally lie in wait with a knife and kill every single one of them. So, you have the option as humanity to topple the system. But every day as humans we choose not to. And that’s not blaming, that’s not shaming, that’s saying if you choose to go to work, you’re participating in capitalism,” he says. “I’ve seen people desperate, downtrodden and done dirty. I’ve also seen the same people prevail. They made a way out of no way. I’m not telling poor people that the way you’re treated is not wrong, but if we’re not going to start the revolution overnight, then we’re going to have to figure out a way within the guardrails we have.”

Mike draws reference to the notion of slaves being able to buy their own freedom, a concept that initially confused him as a youth until he learned that slaves often had Sundays off, a day that some took advantage of to work for poor farmers who owned smaller farms, who could only afford to hire workers on one day of the week. He recounts another story from his childhood taking initiative to mow lawns and receiving less than he thought he deserved.

“I don’t have the option of waiting for a saviour. So let me participate in the system in a more compassionate way.”

“My mother gave me a lawnmower and said, ‘You want those Nikes? Go get yourself 30 bucks.’ I had to knock on people’s doors; ‘Can I cut your lawn for 20 bucks?’ I only got 12. But fuck it, give me that 12, I’m only 18 away.’ That is the story of Black America,” he says. “I have to believe that there’s a way. I cannot let hopelessness set in. Fifty-four per cent of African-Americans live in the South. There is no way that they shouldn’t have more land ownership in Birmingham, Tampa, Charlotte, Savannah, Atlanta. I don’t have the option of waiting for a saviour. So let me participate in the system in a more compassionate way. Let me engage in a way that’s not robbing people of their self-respect, and empowers my community.”

Growing up in what he calls a “Black enclave,” Mike says that the discrimination he felt the most often wasn’t that of race, but of class. Another familial lesson, this time from his grandfather, encouraged him to build bridges with other communities and be able to engage in discourse with just about anyone, trying to understand their perspective – it’s why he often sits down with individuals on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum like Georgia governor Brian Kemp, another move that’s drawn criticism.

“My grandfather helped me understand Fred Hampton’s concept of the rainbow coalition, that is in every group there is a working class subjugated to a lower level, and the people who are higher don’t give a fuck what colour you are,” he says. “So, I find kinship in that if we fight that as proletariat together, it unifies us more and helps us see past the religious, ethnic and cultural differences. I wish to be a unifier among the common man.”

Despite the concept of the song revolving around Black liberation, the music video for “RUN,” the lead single off of Michael strategically released on Independence Day, depicts more of a battle of the just against the unjust than anything else. Individuals of all races are depicted in a warlike scenario, fighting against individuals in uniforms resembling Confederate armies – and they have individuals like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass on their side. Like his family members who have been striving to give him the opportunities that made him, Mike is continuing to run forwards, creating opportunities for his community.

“My grandparents have been the greatest examples for me in how to deal with being Black in this god-awful country at times. At its best this could be an amazingly opportunistic place, but at its worst it is a brutal and unfair place to try to keep your hope alive. I’m thankful that two people who were born in 1922 and 1932, Willie and Betty, have guided me. And even though they’re gone, and I miss the shit out of them every day, I hear them in my head, and I remain faithful that human beings can figure this shit out, before God comes back and smites us all.”

Killer Mike performs at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 29, 2024

Queen Elizabeth Theatre | 7:30PM | TICKETS & INFO