This Was the Year Killer Mike Came Home

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To close out the year, GQ is revisiting the most fascinating ideas, trends, people, and projects of 2023. For all of our year-end coverage, click here.

Killer Mike is putting his money where his mouth is. When he calls in for this interview, he's in his native Atlanta, calling from a lot where some of his music-and-touring money is helping foot the bill for a new affordable housing development. He’s paying forward and promoting the same kind of financial freedom, Black self-sustainability and community-embracing that he’s been kicking on and off wax for the last decade now. Musically, most of that was with Run the Jewels, the hard-hitting rap duo he formed with rapper/producer El-P in 2013, whose four studio albums took Mike from being your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper to the mainstream stage. But 2023 has seen an even sweeter success: over the summer, Mike released his first solo album in 11 years, Michael. It’s now nominated for three Grammy awards, it’s widely regarded as one of the year’s best releases, and has further solidified his status as one of rap’s leading veterans.

Michael, crafted in collaboration with the legendary producer No I.D., is structured to play like a biopic, with Mike digging deep into his own mythology and psyche to unearth new revelations he wasn’t yet equipped to on his previous solo projects, and wouldn’t have felt right on the Run the Jewels records. If that all sounds heady, the most important thing is the majority of the album hits, from smooth coming-of-age tracks like “Slummer” to heaters like “Talk’n Shit.” It also boasts what very well may be the last Andre 3000 rap verse, at least for the foreseeable future.

Mike hopped on with GQ to reflect back on finally delivering an album a decade in the making, unpack why he lashed out at some of its critics over the summer, and weigh in on whether we will truly never hear 3 Stacks rap again.

GQ: So this is you really living out your raps, huh?

Killer Mike: This is really what I do. I realized probably about 10 or 11 years ago that if I wanted to stay truly radical and revolutionary, I'd better figure out a way to do what my great-grandparents, and my grandparents have done, and that was feed myself and take care of myself. And I'm proud of me and my wife for what we've managed to do in terms of taking the lessons of my grandparents and her grandmother, and on focusing on being small businesspeople.

When did you think you really started practicing and executing that in earnest?

When I left Purple Ribbon Records and set off on my own under the Grind Time Rap Gang flag. Seventeen years ago, I dropped my first I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind album, and it really was a declaration that I wasn't going to succumb to self-doubt. I wasn't going to succumb to what the market thought of me. I wasn't going to succumb to the fact that I had been overlooked or misunderstood, I was going to push through. I became determined. Now, there are things I did from an entrepreneurial standpoint that I wish I had known better, but overall, man, it's been a hell of a journey and I've learned so much. I value every day of it. All the trials, all the triumphs, all the tribulations. I've loved and learned it all.

So, obviously you’ve been doing your thing with Run The Jewels for a decade, but with regards to those self-reliant values we just talked about, how does it feel looking back on a year like this, where—with all due respect to El-P—you did it by yourself?

Big due respect to El-P, because the past decade of Run the Jewels has given me a musical focus and a discipline that I didn't understand how to access at will a decade ago. You look at a song like “Ric Flair”—that is a perfect record. PL3DGE could have been a perfect record, but I didn't know how to properly oversee a mix and a master. I didn't know how to relentlessly dig for what you wanted until you find it. And these habits are habits I picked up in Run the Jewels and I refined them on Michael. So getting with No I.D., who's been my friend for two decades—I could have been working with him, but I came to him now with the discipline that it took to see it through.

So I don't think you get Michael, had you not gotten the past decade of Michael. The past decade of success has prepared me to be even more successful. It has prepared me to let my own competition with oneself be the finest competition. I made, in rap’s 50th year, the best representation of hip-hop as an album. And I say that with no shame. I say that with no disrespect or shade. I say that because I did that, and I did that because I'm a proud student of this art form. I did that because I’m one half of arguably one of the greatest rap groups that have ever done it, and I picked up a lot of good habits. I did that because I went into making this album as a student seeking to master and now as someone who feels as though he's mastered.

All of it has meant the world to me in a time where I think there are people that want hip-hop to be taken for granted and it's being attacked from all sides.

What are some of the attacks that you see hip-hop facing specifically this year? It feels like there's been a conversation about what the genre's standing is this year amidst the broader musical landscape, and where the art form’s going.

Well hip-hop is low-hanging fruit. It's very easy to criticize. So when I say attack, I mean it's being underappreciated, even by those who are my age who were there as it grew. We take it for granted. We don't hold it in its highest regard. We talk down on it instead of understanding it's going to grow, maybe, into something we don't recognize. I think hip-hop is low-hanging fruit for people who hold or aspire towards some type of leadership position because it's much easier to try to hold a rapper accountable for the soils of society than to say our educational school system is broken, but we don't know how to fix it.

It's easier to blame a rapper than it's to say that our religious organizations are irrevocably broken and we don't know how to fix it. It's easier to do that than it is to really put pressure on the government to free Mumia Abu Jamal—not just the fringe components, the people who we know would do it, our uncle, our cousin with dreads that's always at a protest. I mean, the everyday practical citizen, like during apartheid, when they said if Coca-Cola doesn't pull out South Africa, then we won't be drinking Coca-Cola.

As a society, we aren't making those grand gestures or changes. And yet, we can point at artists and athletes and say, Hey, what aren't you doing. As we represent 40 million people in this country as African-Americans that are here—I'm talking about pre-immigration, that are here as leftovers from the American slave trade. If there are 40 million of us here, 1 million of us, and that's less than 5% of 40 million—1 million of us should at least be able to organize $10 a month apiece to have a $10 million slush fund that would take care of political prisoners, that would set up encampments in places like the South Birmingham, where Charles Blow was talking about power in the South, that type of stuff. Yet we aren't doing it en masse.

And yet, somehow we expect rappers to operate as leaders. So they're being attacked that way. Another way we're being attacked is, our music is being co-opted by those who aren't necessarily from the culture community. They're doing similar music and sounds and it's being put ahead of us, and we're being petted on the head like it's going to be okay. So what I'm really trying to say is, hip-hop is underappreciated. It's being underappreciated as the innovator it is, and please clarify that—I'm not saying attacked, I'm saying underappreciated. It's being underappreciated by people who were alive at a time when Tupac and OutKast and Goodie Mob and Wu-Tang inspired all of us, and I think that my album [helped] return hip-hop to the artistic mantle it deserves. I think I've been underappreciated. And in that underappreciation I've developed a resilience, much like hip-hop has, to be seen and to be heard, and to be raw, and to be unflinchingly honest, and to be truthful, and to be dope, and jam and make you want to move your ass, and not just move your mind.

Do you feel like you had something to prove when you set out to make Michael?

Absolutely. And I proved it. I made the best hip-hop album this year. Abso-fucking-lutely. And I'm one half of one of the best rap groups ever. I wanted to prove, like Serena Williams, I'm good in doubles or singles. I came for the fucking trophy. You're goddamn right I did.

Did you feel that way in June? Or do you just feel free and clear to say that now in December, now that the year's done?

I felt that way in January of last year. I felt that way in June when it dropped. And I'll feel that way January 1 of next year. And win, lose, or draw, I'll feel that way the day after the Grammys, because I did. Man, listen, I love this shit. Sometimes hip-hop artists can take themselves so seriously as being artists. They want everybody else to take them seriously: I'm an artist. You have to see me as an artist. I do see you as an artist. They don't respect your art. They see you as an artist—they just see you as low-level. They see you as drawing on the sidewalk outside the train station. They don't understand.

I feel like you're in between, as a veteran and an ATLien, two interesting debates that have been happening on opposite ends of the age spectrum within the genre this year. Because on one hand, you have a younger dude like Lil Yachty—

I love Yachty— Miles. Shout out to his father, who is a hero of mine. His dad's out of the same arts program in high school that I was.

He's been catching fire for saying that some of his peers aren't holding up the game to the standard. What were your thoughts on that?

My thought is I hope Miles hears my album really soon, and I know his dad's playing it. And the reason I say that is because—he's talking about his age demographic and that's fine, but J.I.D is rapping his ass off. Kenny Mason is rapping his motherfuckin ass off, and they're right here from Atlanta. So I would say instead of critiquing abstract opposition of sorts by saying step your game up, congratulate the people who are right here from your city that have stepped the game way the fuck up already.

Instead of wasting time saying what isn't there, let's highlight what is there and give it the attention it needs. You ever realize when you see the girl you really like walk in the room, all of a sudden you don't really give a fuck no more about them other girls. Man, I remember the first time I saw my wife man with those freckles and that fucking red hair and those tits. I was like, oh shit. All the other girls in the room disappeared.

Find something you love and promote it as hard as you promote the shit that you hate.

On the other end of the age spectrum: For the last 15 years, getting an Andre 3000 verse has been like a mythical trophy. You got one of those gems on Michael. And then a few months later, Andre drops a flute album and he's talking about not being interested in rapping at all anymore, which makes the verse he gave you feel even more rarefied. How did you feel when you heard him say that that rap just isn't sparking his creativity anymore?

You heard me and him rapping on that song. Did it seem like any one of us was bored with rap?

Y'all went in.

I went crazy, and we got something else. I don't know how to comment about how another man feels, especially when that man is an absolute lyrical genius. I was stoned the other night and listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Coltrane's Love Supreme. My wife and I were just vibing, and we had vibed off the fact she had played the New Blue Sun album. So we just got in the instrumentals, then went down the rabbit hole. And I said, the funny thing is, Miles and Langston [Hughes] are absolute masters at the instruments they're playing. Dre is in the process of mastering an instrument, but in terms of word and verbiage, he is absolutely a Miles and absolutely a Langston. And I am absolutely Theolonious Monk in a donk, like I said on that record. So for me, whatever he decides to, he will, and if he doesn't, he's given plenty. And with that said, I bust every motherfuckin barrier and ass possible, pause, on that record. I went crazy.

Did you record your verse after his?

Yeah, of course. He had given me that, but my whole shit was I wouldn't have give a fuck if I had never heard his verse— just the beat was challenging enough. The beat is done by four different folks, man. It was a big collaborative effort to do dope shit. So I'd just like to say, man, support my man Dre, get that Blue Sun record. But if you want that Andre 3000 verbiage and them bars? Only one place selling that dope—that's the trap house named Michael, baby.

One thing I really liked about your album was the collaborators you reached out to. On one hand it's not that surprising to see you go get Andre. But I loved seeing you incorporate Future. I especially loved seeing you with Young Nudy.

Yeah, man, I love Nudy.

Can you talk a little bit about your process of who you wanted to reach out to? Because it seemed very selective, very intentional.

Well, a big part of it was just people that I thought were dope, but a lot of the records were done or were already headed in a certain direction, so when I tried to work it out, it didn't work out. But when I let the universe just work it out, it worked out. 6lack just came in the studio and I said, "If you like something, you're welcome to jump on it." That's the record he picked to jump on. I didn't know it was going to be magic. I knew I loved 6lack. You know what I'm saying?

Blxst is someone I consider a partner at this point, he's a great dude. When I had Blxst come in, I say, "Yeah, man, this record's called ‘Exit 9.’ It's just about growing up. It's an all-black neighborhood, what Martin Luther King does." And he comes back with that hook. When I'm talking to Dre and we're doing the record, I said, man, I wish I could get Future. Next thing you know, Dre called and Future's like, I'm down. So all of it was just the universe. I can't take credit for this.

And ultimately, besides Cuz Lightyear and Dart Parker, God was definitely the third in the trifecta of A&R’ing this record, because I didn't have the budget to pay these motherfuckers. You know how much a Andre 3000 verse cost? I got the friends and family discount.

I saw you say somewhere that you knew Nudy's mom–

Yeah, from high school. Atlanta is a small town masquerading as a big city. And Atlanta, even if we aren't on records together, we’re very supportive of each other. I can't tell you how good it's done in my heart to just get calls from everybody from T.I. to Jeezy, just saying, "Hey man, I'm seeing the world finally open up to you and accept you and recognize you for the dope artist you are. Don't let your foot off the gas. Don't stop, don't pause, don't worry about coming to this party. We'll see you when you get back on the road." Just the veterans who've seen me be in a market that wasn't as watched on national television finally see me get to a team that's playing national and with a chance at the ring. That means as much to me as the young cats that are like, Shit, shawty, you're doing your thing.

Me, Tip, Jacquees and JID on an album is such an Atlanta album. You can't just go, "So I think I want to throw an R&B artist on this." Jacquees understands the importance of the record. I'm overwhelmed because so much good energy has gone into it all.

One of my favorite lines on the album is when you say, "Love El-P, but these are my n-gga flows."

Yeah, "I know you love me running the jewels, but these my n-gga flows," is what I say.

I feel like you're in a unique position where, especially through Run the Jewels, you do have a lot of white fans, but you're telling a very Black story. How do you square that? Is it something you're conscious of when you go out and perform, or when you're writing these songs?

Well, hip-hop has always had a lot of white fans. So what hip-hop has lost is some of the nuance of white fans to understand I'm being a part of a culture that's not necessarily native to me. I'm a guest here. And these days it seems as though sometimes there's an entitlement that says, I'm as much a contributor, or I am as much an owner of the culture, as I want to be. And that's just not necessarily the truth. The truth is the first “n-gga” I say in “Down By Law” is N-E-G-U-S, negus. Because at first I'm saying to Black people, I'm speaking to you because you're royal. And then I go into “n-gga,” because that is our current condition. And then toward the end of the record, I'm not saying “n-gga” again at all, because I'm just saying, my wife is a Coretta, she is a Winnie Mandela. She is a Betty Shabazz. So by then, you're seeing a revolutionary birth out of the nigga that was originally a negus.

But white kids, 30 years [ago], with PE and NWA, they understood they were learning. They didn't think they knew your culture better than you. I had a review by a white reviewer who totally didn't understand why the fuck it was significant for a black southern man to be a landowner. So therefore I know this stupid cocksucker can't understand reparations because he doesn't understand we never received our motherfucking 40-acres and a mule.

I'm glad you brought that up because I wanted to talk about—

Hold on. Let me finish this thought, though. So when I say, "I know you love me running the jewels, but these my n-gga flows," it's acknowledging I have a worker class white fan base and I honor them. And in my African-American experience, they find more commonality with me than not. They just understand that they're voyeurs peeking into the life of a nine-year-old black boy in an all-Black enclave in an all-Black city. So they're witnessing a story much like August Wilson's Fences, much like Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Color Purple. You are watching a vignette of a black experience.

Now the beautiful thing about that vignette is by watching it, you start to understand that worker class people aren't radically different. I swear to God, a white man came up to me after a show in the Carolinas, and he says, “Mike, I'm just a poor white boy who's wearing a Braves cap from the Appalachian Mountains and I'm here to tell you I identify with everything you were rapping about,” because he's a member of the worker class. And it doesn't matter when it gets to the core, our skin color—we all have had to participate in an abortion and felt the shame that that girl had to endure then. We all have lost our mother or grandmother. We all have felt out of place and out of home because we couldn't afford to pay the bills that we knew we were supposed to be able to pay because the job hadn't given us our full 40 hours.

So that's what the Run the Jewels fans who lined up by the three and four hundreds who were white and Black and Polynesian, they were all bonded in that they all were men and women who were salt to the earth and worker class and understood.

So in telling my story, what I understand now is I was telling a bigger story, and I am telling a bigger story. So that bar was a hot-ass bar. I knew it was dope when I said it, but I knew it was qualifying to my non-Black people that you are a voyeur. I'm allowing you to see the world from our perspective, but that does not mean I need to collect criticism or critique from you, because you have no expertise in this field. I don't have any comments on the customs of Italians after I watch The Godfather.

I remember this summer watching the rollout unfold and seeing you get into it with a couple critics in reaction reviews, and during some interviews. Looking back on those instances now, do you think you reacted so strongly to those criticisms because the record is so personal?

I felt that way because they were fucking wrong, and at the end of the year, if you look at the tweets, the audience says they're fucking wrong. If you listen to the reviews that were mostly based on my personality and what they agree with or didn't agree with, and had nothing to do with the music, they were fucking wrong. That's it. It's nothing else.

It's the same reason I got mad when [the Grammys] didn't acknowledge Nas' first album and his second album. It's the same reason I got mad when Hov's first album went gold—this motherfucker's supposed to be multi-platinum. I got mad because I'm a real fucking hip-hop head. I got mad because I'm really Black and really Southern, and you don't know that unless you know the plight of 8Ball & MJG, you know the plight of early OutKast, you know the plight of UGK. You don't know that unless you know Brad Jordan's plight, who is probably the absolute greatest rapper of all time, has never dropped a wack album, has influenced every great rapper you can close your eyes and name and gets unaccredited every day we don't accredit him with being thirty-three years of phenomenal.

John Henry Clark said an amazing quote: "I only argue with my equals, and everyone else I teach." And that's how I felt in that moment. So what I should have done was just shut the fuck up and let them look stupid on Twitter six months later, now that everyone's saying this is the absolute rap album of the year. But I didn't and I got pulled into it, because it is personal, because it is my story. Because it is not for you to judge based on the fact you don't like I'm not cheering for your political candidate.

One thing that—

This is the story of a Black boy, growing up enduring the politics of the crack era, growing into a man who has sympathy and empathy and the ability to understand his rights and wrongs and how he's affected the world. And me allowing you to give that opinion would be like James Baldwin bowing to William Frank Buckley. It's just not going to happen, bitch.

What seemed to really agitate you was when certain things were positioned as contradictions, like you're rapping about owning land but also about chains and calling n-ggas broke—

Well, the n-ggas I called broke was three n-ggas. And those n-ggas were n-ggas I had given some money to to help my community. And if you n-ggas keep telling me that your way is the way and you n-ggas ain't got no money, then you broke n-ggas need to figure out a new way, because begging the same rappers you shit on ain't going to keep working. Because I was an organizer as long as I was a rapper. Now, look at this behind me. Maybe you can see it in front of me, because this is real time. This is what I'm doing right now. This ain't just some’n I'm rapping about.

[Mike walks outside and holds his phone up for me to see that he’s in the parking lot of a brand new housing development, where his wife and another man are in conversation.]

Can you see this? I'm going to walk you over here. So this is my wife. These are tiny homes. So these tiny homes were the idea of this Black man that I'm walking up on, his name is Booker T. He don't sing, this n-gga don't dance. He says he could play basketball, but I don't believe him, because he's short.

So this little n-gga said to himself that to solve the housing crisis in Atlanta, we can do tiny homes. He builds this one mile community of tiny homes in one of the most blighted streets, one of them streets you hear n-ggas rap about. Guess how he did that? He hired an architect from Morehouse, a Black boy. He raised money out of the Black entertainment community, including but not limited to people like me. He put this together and built this himself. He didn't have the city's help, and only after he did this did other municipalities say, We would like to do that. But the first time he had to do it himself. He had to beg, he had to crawl. He didn't ball. He made it happen.

The city that I'm from, this has been happening 120 years. Alonzo Herndon, who was a former slave, did it when he took barbershops, learned about insurance from his white clients and built the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Magic Johnson just bought the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. How did he hear about the Atlanta Life Insurance Company? He heard Killer Mike in an interview talking about it. So the shit that I'm rapping about, this is for real.

So how the fuck am I supposed to give a fuck about what a n-gga and a white boy on Twitter who never met me is saying? As much as I want to give a fuck, as much as I want to write a badass rap song about it, that rap song wasn't even about that n-gga and that white boy. It's about three other n-ggas. Nigga, I'm for real. That's all I'm really telling you. I'm for real. And it's not about me. My wife is meeting with that man now because there's a need for affordable homeownership in the neighborhoods I grew up in, and we have land in those neighborhoods. And we're going to make sure, just like T.I. just did. They like to criticize TI too. But while they was criticizing, T.I. built 143 affordable housing units.

I'm from Atlanta. You ain't never met a n-gga like me, because they only make these in Atlanta. That's all I'm saying. So I'm sorry I hurt some people's feelings and I stepped on some toes. But y’all not from Atlanta. If you've read Charles Blow's book, The Devil You Know, when you saw the new documentary he caved out, look how he talks about where I'm from.

So I just had to realize, Michael, you're special and you can't waste your time arguing with folks on Twitter. You have to be in the community. I love y'all, man. GQ is so cool. [Doing] this is so amazing. What's more amazing than this? The fact that we fixing to house 16 families. That ain't got nothing to do with me singing and dancing. The only thing singing did was get the money to invest, and look what I did. I didn't go buy no Rolls Royce. I ain't going to buy no Porsche until I'm 50. I don't own a Lamborghini. I drive a Ford truck. It's a hundred thousand dollar truck, but it's still a truck.

The only thing I did [wrong] was letting my ego get the best of me and my feelings got hurt because it was so deeply personal. But man, that don't matter. Long after I'm gone, 80 to 100 years from now, what my wife and I built is going to stand.

So with putting so much of yourself into the music, what was the actual hardest track to conceive and then finish?

Well, the album should be looked at as a movie. So the scene that was hardest to pull off was “Motherless.” Because I miss my mama and I miss my grandmama. I'm not like a lot of boys that's going to say that's all I had. I had two amazing dads. I've had amazing uncles and cousins and male influences in my life from mentors to friends. But man, those two women were the absolute coaches in my life. And I miss them terribly. If you've seen me performing [that song] on television, you know it's not easy. Sometimes I get all the way through the song, sometimes I don't.

Just slightly acknowledging the critics one more time. If the fact that I somehow figured out how to do business offends you more than “Motherless,” or “Something for Junkies,” or “Slummer,” or “Shed Tears,” or “NRICH” endears you, then you just don't want to like me. And that's okay. Because this record is an absolute manifesto of human emotion and growth and maturation. A lot of people did not expect me to do that in this year. This is hip-hop. This album is what hip-hop is supposed to grow into.

It's interesting to me that you position the album that way. No I.D was one of the executive producers on this project, and he was also the executive producer on another album that people say showcases the range of hip-hop’s maturity, Jay-Z’s 4:44.

Yeah, I think they're similar in theme, but I think mine is radically different when you look at records like “Slummer,” “Something For Junkies,” “Motherless.” I don't think those themes have ever been touched in that way. And I would add sonically, mine was a return to soulful gospel and Pentecostal music. This took you to church, them hot sweaty churches in the South, where the air conditioning in your car works better than the one in the church.

You got this album off that was, in a lot of ways, a decade in the making, and that’s a big deal. But I did see you say that December 1st you were going to get back in the studio. Has that happened?

Yeah, I did already start messing around. But this record still has a lot of life left. We got some cool remixes coming. I've done some guest verses, and there were records that I hadn't finished off this record, that I'm finishing. There were some new ideas that I'm getting down. So yeah, man, the work don't stop. My intention is to be as polished as Biggie with the work ethic like Pac.

I can't let you go before I ask you about one for the archives. As a big Jay fan, what do you remember about working on “Poppin' Tags?”

So, I'm on the back of the tour bus. By then we know Dre's not as excited by rapping anymore. Big [Boi] comes to the back of the bus. First of all, everybody in the Dungeon Family knows I'm a big East Coast hip-hop head. So Big comes in the back and says "Your boy just called. He wants you on the song." I'm like, "My boy who?" He said, "That boy, Hov." He told me the name of it and they were going to send it. I pulled out the Nextel, and I started writing the verse right then. Jay sends a car to get us, we're going to meet him in the studio. I think we were at Baseline. And he was super cool, played us the track. I went home, I did my verse and sent that motherfucker right back. I was like, well, [my verse is] right behind Jay’s. I got to show up and show out.

And I remember after that, being at MTV, and Jay walked in. The whole company was running around behind him and I was like, I'm not going to speak because I don't want to bother him. And he walked by and he saw me and he stopped me. He was like, "Yo, I just bought your album and you ain't even going to speak to me?" Man, I was just like, Oh, shit. And ever since then, he's just been one of the coolest human beings on earth. He gave me a lot of encouragement. He was the first person to hear the record. And he said to me, "This record is like me going to my cousin's house and watching a movie. You go to your aunt's house who lets you watch movies your mom won't.”

But Jay's always been good to me, man. Two years of making this record, they grew me up in so many ways. I'm very proud to be one half of Run The Jewels. I'm very proud to be Killer Mike and now known as Michael Render, who that kid is that created this badass swaggering MC. And I feel like this record is the start, not the end. This record is the start of the next 10 years for me. There were so many people that said, "Man, I just never gave Mike a chance. Damn, I've been asleep all these years." It was just amazing to understand that, yeah, I've been overlooked, but I'm not playing B-team ball no more. I'm on varsity. So no matter what you say, when you talk about hip-hop this year, you got to talk about me. You got to talk about that album. And you got to understand more is coming, not less.

Originally Appeared on GQ