Inside ‘Ozark’s’ Love of Hip-Hop and Killer Mike’s Season 4 Cameo

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[This story contains spoilers for season four of Ozark.]

Ozark’s Ruth Langmore has become one of television’s most unlikely onscreen hip-hop ambassadors, frequently listening to ’90s-era rappers. In season four’s episode “The Cousin of Death,” her taste goes meta: as Ruth (Julia Garner) listens to Nas’ debut LP Illmatic in her headphones, she has a run-in with genre legend Killer Mike. “I really love your shit,” she tells the Run the Jewels member, part of a surprise cameo that has fans buzzing.

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“When I got the call, I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m down,’” Mike, sitting in his kitchen, told The Hollywood Reporter with his signature grin. “Finding out I’d be playing Killer Mike, and talking to Ruth, excited me. I was honored to be asked.”

Mike, an Atlanta native, has just returned from highly touted back-to-back stints at Coachella, performing alongside his Jewels partner EI-P, (he spent the time in between the weekends celebrating his 4/20 birthday with a big party in Los Angeles). Watching Ozark is a favorite downtime activity; he and his wife have been loyal followers since season one, and relate most to lead characters Wendy (Laura Linney) and Marty (Jason Bateman) Byrde staying together even through the most dire of circumstances.

“Marriages survive a lot of shit,” he says. “[Wendy and Marty] survive affairs, drug cartel hits, friends becoming enemies. That’s on television, but in real life, marriage is not always easy. It takes a lot of what the Byrdes do: conversation. There’s a lot of, ‘I might curse you out in the morning, and I’ll be nursing you back to health in the evening.'”

Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, made his debut to the masses when his mentors, Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast, asked him to appear on their 2000 album Stankonia, which was a multiplatinum culture-shifter. The grammar slinger has since won Grammys with Outkast and solidified himself as a rap icon with critically acclaimed solo works (including official albums and underground mixtapes) as well as the highly lauded Run the Jewels discography. He’s also one of hip-hop’s most insightful and outspoken voices when it comes to social and political issues. He’s a highly involved activist who always answers the call to hit the front lines and galvanize people (his 2019 documentary series Trigger Warning explored topics like the educational system and what he calls white-gang privilege).

Mike’s catalog is a favorite of both Ozark showrunner Chris Mundy, and the series’ music supervisor Gabe Hilfer, and his solo and group efforts have been featured on the show’s soundtrack multiple times throughout its five-year run — most notably, the Run the Jewels track “Oh La La” closing out season three’s high-octane finale. (It played through the credits that rolled seconds after Navarro Cartel lawyer Helen Pierce met her shocking demise, receiving a bullet to the head from her own boss). Season four’s eighth episode, in which Killer Mike is featured, has a similarly violent arc — in the aftermath of her cousin Wyatt’s murder, Ruth sets out on a pilgrimage from the Ozarks to Chicago on a quest for revenge (listening to the bone-chilling, cinematic song “New York State of Mind” by Nas) and meets Mike during a break at a restaurant. The rapper sits at a table with his entourage, and the two opine about Nas after he asks what she’s listening to.

“There’s a wink at the end of the scene,” Mundy explains in an interview from the writers room of a top-secret new project. He’s referring to a subtle salute to one of Nas’ most famous rap lines. In the scene, Killer Mike asks Ruth why she doesn’t sleep, and she simply replies, “You know.”

“Because ‘[sleep] is the cousin of death,’” Mundy elaborates. “That’s also the title of the episode — she’s lost her cousin, but it’s also [referencing] the Nas lyric. I wanted it to be a moment of playfulness, where if you know the record, then you like it.” Hilfer points out that the wink is similar to the appearance of Killer Mike himself: They don’t call out his name in the scene. “She doesn’t say, ‘I love you, Killer Mike,’” he adds. “If you know, you know. She knows who it is, and she’s not trying to blow up his spot. She just acknowledges that she’s a fan.”

The rapper was a hit off-camera as well. “Everybody loved him,” Mundy gushes. “Laura Linney went to set even though she wasn’t acting in that scene. He sent flowers to Garner and to the director, Amanda Marsalis, afterward. He’s just the most incredible class act.”

“Amanda was amazing, and Julia is an amazing actress,” Mike beams. “She gave me pointers. But really, my first connection [to Ozark] is Laura Linney. I met her on a plane. My wife used to watch The Big C, and I remember just conversing with her about how much her show impacted my wife. And we kept in contact.”

Killer Mike as self, Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in Ozark. - Credit: Courtesy of TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX
Killer Mike as self, Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore in Ozark. - Credit: Courtesy of TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

Courtesy of TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX

Although Mike is the only rapper ever to be featured in an acting role on Ozark, hip-hop has been an endearing staple of the series’ musical backdrop, especially when it comes to Ruth’s playlists. Early on in the show, there are moments when Ruth tries to turn Tuck away from Bob Seger and onto old-school hip-hop, and later she shows up to the Blue Cat in a Tupac T-shirt. Her fandom came out of discussions between Mundy and Hilfer, two self-proclaimed music geeks. Mundy moved to New York in 1988, began writing for Rolling Stone shortly after he arrived, and stayed on for over a decade, covering the front lines of emerging hip-hop. Hilfer is a native of the Big Apple and fondly recalls growing up and listening to the city’s stars like Gang Starr, Big L and Wu-Tang Clan (De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was the first album he ever bought).

Hilfer adds that Ruth often uses hip-hop music from the ’80s and ’90s as her “safe space.” Like a multitude of esteemed music journalists and fans alike, he also cites Illmatic as the greatest rap album not just from that time frame, but of all time. “The Cousin of Death” episode is a nod to Nas and his infinitely influential, game-changing body of work. And the final song Ruth ever played, before she’s shot and killed by Camila Navarro, the new head of the Cartel, was Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s 1992 soul-touching gem “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You).” That record was inspired by a tragedy — the death of producer Pete Rock’s close friend — yet rose to become one of rap’s most celebratory anthems, fueled by Rock’s triumphant horn samples and drum kicks and C.L.’s captivating storytelling.

“We all have people we lost,” Rock says while sitting inside his studio surrounded by vinyl albums. “To me, it’s the most important record in hip-hop when it comes to that. Death had affected me so much, I think it’s the reason why God was in the room when I was making that song. It’s dear to my heart, and when I hear people who have lost others telling me what that song did for their life, it’s moving.”

Mundy explains that once he decided Ruth would die in the show, “T.R.O.Y.” would be her perfect send-off: “It was kind of always that song. I just kept coming back to it. It’s a great moment in her life at that point; she’s happy, she doesn’t know what’s coming. The music needed to be upbeat, sentimental but not corny, talking about family and the past. She’s moving past losing Wyatt and into whatever her future is going to be — those two things needed to fuse together and be as joyful as they possibly could for her last song.”

The final episodes of Ozark are streaming now on Netflix.

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