Killer Mike Is Living Out His Dreams

Killer Mike interview with Northern Transmissions: The artist Remains Committed To Change On His First Solo Track In 10 Years, and Fulfilling
Killer Mike photo by Jonathan Mannion

“I believe that artists represent a freedom that scares the shit out of the oligarchy in the United States of America.” It’s been 10 years since the release of R.A.P. Music and not much has changed. Killer Mike and El-P are still crafting hits, the economic consequences of Ronald Reagan’s presidency are as indelible as ever, and Black art continues to be denied the privilege of artistic freedom before the law. What has changed is the Atlanta rapper’s platform to speak on these issues. As we connect to discuss the release of “RUN,” Mike’s first solo material and video since his iconic 2012 album, he’s in the midst of one of the most hyped up tours in recent memory, opening as half of Run The Jewels for the reunited Rage Against The Machine. Days before a performance at Ottawa Bluesfest, we spoke about protecting Black art, his various forms of activism, and the legacy of rap and rock mashup tours.

Killer Mike Remains Committed To Change On His First Solo Track In 10 Years, All While Fulfilling Childhood Dreams On Tour

Released on this year’s 4th of July, “RUN” is Mike’s attempt at reframing America’s past to include Black history. The video opens with a monologue from Dave Chappelle comparing the Black experience in America to storming the beach of Normandy. Portrait shots of essential Black figures like Shirley Chisholm follow, cutting in and out of scenes of soldiers mounting offensives against a Nazi-esque enemy. Young Thug’s verse and its lyrical themes of freedom are tragically timely given his recent arrest and the manner in which the courts have weaponized his own artistic expression against him. Mike wants to push back on that, emphasizing the need for artists to be able to express themselves freely in all forms. “The artist has been the consummate waiver of the flag of freedom in my country and beyond, and I push for us to continue to do that. I don’t give a damn if it’s the latest album of P-Funk or Picasso’s painting in protest of the Spanish Civil War, I just want to let young artists know your voice is needed.”

As an advocate, Mike has a vision. Between his outspoken support of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 elections and his initiative to take on racial inequality in banking, Mike advocates for progressive economic solutions while countering a lack of Black financial self-determination with matter-of-fact pragmatism. As his activism extends into the creative, Killer Mike is strong in his support of the YSL labelmates currently seeing their lyrics scrutinized in conjunction with the recent arrests. “I camped out with Thug for two weeks. Gunna was in and around there, 21 Savage was in and around there—a lot of dope people. Unfoonk, [Young Thug’s] little brother, had just gotten out and was making some classic music. What I saw in Thug and Gunna were two leaders who had provided a bunch of opportunity for people to do music, to be in front of and behind the camera. I saw leadership in that room, and I got a dope verse with him and was involved in a lot of creativity. But our relationship goes back further. When I first started the Black banking challenge as a pushback against how Blacks were systematically being treated by agents of the state, Young Thug was one of the first people to jump on the Black banking challenge for me.”

The significance of Thug’s verse runs deeper. “When Thug says in his lyrics ‘thinking the same, but not banking the same,’ that’s a nod to that. He encouraged Black people to use their coin to circulate their dollars. When he says in his rap that we’re going to escape the trenches, we’re gonna escape on a yacht boat, I envisioned this abstract concept of Black people just loading up on luxury liners, you know, going back to Africa, to their homeland. He did some abstract surrealism in that verse that was amazingly dope to me, so I want to acknowledge that in his verse he said something. I wanna thank him for the two weeks he spent with me, I wanna thank him for the verse, and I wanna say free him, free Gunna, free [YFN] Lucci, free Ralo, and give these people an opportunity to be back on the street leading as they deserve to be.” Beyond their impact, Mike is defending free expression within hip hop. “If you’re going to convict them, it’s gonna have to be a fair conviction, not one where you use their art. So I’m definitely pro-protect black art, and I would like to see the four brothers and the many more I named free.”

Many of the issues Mike speaks on find him among familiar faces, which brings us back to the tour at hand. “I have a particular friendship with Zach [de la Rocha] and Tom [Morello] and what they do in terms of advocacy. Tom and I find ourselves oftentimes in the same rooms on the same issues.” The political kinship between the groups is well established, as is El-P granting Zach unofficial third member status in Run The Jewels following a spree of collaborations. It’s as intuitive of a pairing as you could imagine, and one which holds even more history for Mike as someone who’s experienced rap and rock packaged together for the big stage first-hand. ”I’m used to seeing hip hop and rock and roll in huge audiences and arenas.” Whether it was Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith or crossover festivals like Lollapalooza, these moments began to cement the spectacle of the arena in his mind. “You know, rap started to lend itself to clubs a lot. And clubs are cool. Clubs are great. But once I started doing amphitheaters and arenas, that’s how I started seeing rap and rock and roll. And I’m honored that the imagination of 12-year-old Michael is getting fulfilled.”

As the tour kicks off and “RUN” makes the rounds, he’ll continue to stay the course. Killer Mike moves through his activism and music with the same joy and passion a young Michael Render had for sold out shows. It’s good to know that success doesn’t dull the wonder of fulfilling your childhood tour dreams. “That 12-year-old Michael is on stage with me the same way I saw Rage, the same way I saw the Beastie Boys, the same way I saw Deftones, you know, the same way I saw Run-D.M.C.”

Killer Mike 2022 Live Dates

July 15 – Ottawa – Bluesfest

July 19 – Hamilton – FirstOntario Centre

July 21 and 23 – Toronto – Scotiabank Arena