Like many others I’m sure, I first became aware of Killer Mike through OutKast’s 2001 single ‘The Whole World’. The song’s video was played a lot on music television that year, but that didn’t stop me coming home from school and flipping through channels until I found it. I had no idea who Killer Mike was back then, but just sharing the screen with OutKast made him a total hero in my thirteen year-old eyes and ears.
Fast forward a decade and Mike’s own career has gone from strength to strength, culminating in 2011’s Pl3DGE album which for me is one of last year’s real unsung treasures. In 2012 he’s teamed up with El-P, another artist who can do little wrong in my eyes, but even knowing that couldn’t prepare me for the brilliance of their collaboration on new record R.A.P. Music.
Before I garble on too much about that, though, I caught up with Killer Mike to discuss the album, followed here by a brief round-up of the last two months in mixtapes.
“I’m here to make sure rap still makes social statements. Not politicised necessarily, not tied to a particular ideology, other than as a person living in the confines of hip hop at this time right now.” I’m talking to Killer Mike about R.A.P. Music, his new El-P-produced record which he tells me is his best work to date. That’s a claim that comes straight out of the interview text book and one I’d usually take with a pinch of salt, except R.A.P. Music is an absolute knockout.
We’re talking about the song ‘Don’t Die’ which lies in the middle of the album, telling the story of an African American male targeted and bullied by the police, ending in a violent scene with a policeman shot dead. El-P’s beat sounds like a dystopian nightmare; eerie, frenzied and with a thumping final section which perfectly mirrors the climax of Mike’s angry tale. But while it might sound like the soundtrack to a science fiction movie, the issue of police harassment is real and a subject that the Atlanta rapper, son of a cop, is in a better position than most to discuss.
“My dad was a cop and I love him very much. Some of his friends and comrades, too, are some of the best people in my life,” he begins, with an obvious passion for the subject. “I don’t have any problem with cops individually, but I have extreme problems with police who pick on African Americans in particular, and black males globally seem to be the victims of harassment, murder and arrest by police officers.”
“On my seventeenth birthday I’ll never forget, I thought my dad was gonna give me a car, and he brought me into a room and I got a lecture on how I’m now at the age I can be treated as an adult by the law and these are the things I have to look out for. My seventeen year-old white friends didn’t have those problems, their parents didn’t have to tell them to fear cops! No other race in the world right now has that fear, with the exception of Arabs since post 9-11. The race problem is real, it’s out there and it’s not right.”
On another song, ‘Reagan’, he holds hip hop to account for being irresponsible as an art form. Mike himself is no stranger to making political rap music, but you would never describe him as a purely political rapper. You’re just as likely to find him writing about going out drinking with Young Jeezy as you are to find him weighing up the pros and cons of the Obama administration; it’s one of those rarest of skills that he manages to balance both styles with conviction. Even so, I ask him if he feels that those with the privilege of a platform in hip hop should be using it more to speak out about societal issues.
“Y’know, to say more, implies that some speaking is happening already,” He laughs, almost out of bemusement at the question itself, before elaborating: “To speak more means you’re doing something, rappers aren’t doing shit. Rap was not created in that energy. People are either taking this musical dope where they’re acting like nothing’s happening, or they’ve just given up on rap music and are listening to I don’t know what the fuck, gospel or whatever.”
Killer Mike’s enthusiasm since we started talking about politics has noticeably spiked, and although always courteous, it’s very clear when he is engaged in a subject. Similarly, there’s an energy to the music he’s made with El-P that he doesn’t find with every producer he’s worked with. He describes collaborating with the Brooklyn indie-rap vet as having “found my kindred spirit”, and one of the things that shines through the record is how much fun they had making it.
At the beginning of album track ‘JoJo’s Chillin’, Mike goofily declares “This album was created entirely by Jamie and Mike,” sounding like the introduction to the musical project of two school friends. Not as dumb as it might sound given that Mike and El were born within a month of one another, and although not meeting until recently, Mike cites growing up in the same era of hip hop as one of the main factors behind the success of their working relationship. He recalls seeing the video for Company Flow’s ‘End To End Burners’ for the first time and thinking it would take over the world, and admits just catching up with El-Ps solo stuff recently and falling in love all over again.
Speaking on reference points for R.A.P. Music though, Mike compares his own experience of making the album in New York to that of Ice Cube’s in 1990:
“The closest I can think of is when Ice Cube left Los Angeles and went to New York to record AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted with The Bomb Squad. I feel like Cube, being out of his element of typical California/Los Angeles music at the time created a whole new element that’s still the shit today. I feel like that’s what I did, y’know.”
It’s rare that a rapper writes his best album over a decade into his career, but Killer Mike’s position in music is a unique one. If anything, Mike’s recorded output is only getting stronger with age, which promises exciting things ahead as he confirms his creative reunion with Big Boi to work on a new full length record. Whatever the future holds for Killer Mike, though, you can be sure he’ll still be making the considered choices of a guy who’s still just a rap fan at heart:
“Well, I’ve sought to have a career more like Scarface, Ice Cube, and Bun B,” he says, the names springing to his mind instantaneously. “There’s three artists right there who I feel like have kept their records all par and above par. I sought to have a career more like that and less like your rappers that, as fans, sell you out and start making bullshit. I jus’ wanna twenty year career of being dope like Brad Jordan.”
Nearly ten years on from his debut solo album Monster, Killer Mike is just about half way there.
Featured Mixtape: Action Bronson x Party Supplies – Blue Chips
Rap music has always been a sum of its characters, and in Action Bronson the genre has found its ginger-bearded, overweight Albanian American chef with a nostalgic, New York flow. Since breaking on to the scene last summer with his impressive debut Dr Lectar, Bronson has been both prolific and consistent, sweeping aside early criticisms of his unfortunate vocal similarity to Ghostface Killah. It’s down to his substantial talent and sheer hard work that this is no longer an issue, and Bronson has become a guy that everybody wants to support.
Blue Chips, then, sees Bronsonlinho team up with Fools Gold’s Party Supplies on a retro, 80s inspired mixtape. Just as we found with Killer Mike, Bronson’s decision to work on one rapper / one producer projects seem to bring out the best in him. There’s a certain energy created by this collaborative way of working, and as if afraid of losing that, Blue Chips is written on the spot with samples straight from YouTube and vocal slip-ups left in for all to see. This approach serves the mixtape well; so when Bronson botches the very first bar on the tape’s opening track, or muddles his words three times on ‘9-24-11’, it feels intimate, like we’re all in the room watching him goof off at work. Elsewhere Bronson is on his usual humorous form, squeezing in ample food references and even managing to squeeze in a Ruud Van Nistlerooy rhyme. I can always go for more Dutch football punchlines in my rap music, and Blue Chips delivers that and much, much more.
Stalley - Savage Journey to the American Dream
I’d hardly be the first to mention that Stalley is an unlikely fit for Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group, but it’s an important point. The Ohio emcee’s articulate, everyman hip hop is a far cry from the label’s last outing, Ross’ ode to wealth; Rich Forever. Nevertheless, Stalley is keen to assure fans that he hasn’t been led astray by the Maybach machine, declaring on the tape’s superb second track ‘Petrin Hill Peonies’: “Really I just want the pain to go / Money I ain’t aiming for / I just wanna lay low.” While Stalley’s smooth flow remains unchanged, his concepts do suffer slightly under the weight of expectation. Having said that, perhaps it’s important for Stalley to make his intentions clear while at mixtape stage, and it’s still a joy to hear him glide over these impressive, mostly Block Beattaz productions.
Zilla – Zilla Shit 2
Speaking of Block Beattaz, it’s been a busy month for the now 10-strong production stable, who also crafted all but one of the beats on the new Zilla mixtape. A year on from his breakthrough release Zilla Shit, the Huntsville, Alabama rapper is back with a sequel which manages to both consolidate and push on from its predecessor. Zilla slips between hardened street raps (‘Fuck U Mean’), woozy rhymes (‘Drank in My Cup’) and his difficult relationship with his father (‘Song Cry’), but the reliable as ever Block Beataz make these transitions appear almost seamless. With two accomplished tapes now in the bag, this guy will be worth keeping an eye on.
Boldy James - Consignment
Boldy James is another rapper returning after making an impressive debut last year, and Consignment: Favor For a Favor, the Redi-Rock Mixtape, to give the tape its full name, is another fully realised gem. James doesn’t do things by halves, and there are 26 tracks here spanning well over an hour which leaves plenty to get your head around. Thankfully the monotone Detroit rapper has plenty to say, and Consignment is not short on drug-selling stories to fill the space. His pragmatic descriptions of coke-dealing on the tape’s title track give the subject matter an almost routine familiarity, as he raps: “It’s enticing, just try it, everybody’s doing it I promise you I like it / Don’t fight it, hurry up and buy it, I went and threw it in the bag I knot it up and tie it”. It’s the stone cold realism with which James delivers lines like this that makes him such a magnetic character, leaving little to the imagination, but giving about as close a depiction of street life as rap music can possibly offer.
Capital STEEZ – AmeriKKKan Korruption
While the names Capital STEEZ and Joey Bada$$ meant absolutely nothing to me the other side of Christmas, a song like ‘Survival Tactics’ is one hell of a way to demand attention. Although one breakout track isn’t a lot to go on in rap terms, it hasn’t stopped keen eyes becoming locked on these two and placing high hopes on their Pro Era collective. STEEZ’s AmeriKKKan Korruption is their first release since the video dropped and it shows promise, while also doing a lot to place the group’s feet back safely on solid ground. Relying mostly on a collection of well-known indie-rap beats (Madvillain, MF DOOM, Atmosphere) it’s hardly the most adventurous mixtape by 2012’s standards, but through strong (if a little obvious) beat selection we get a clearer picture of what STEEZ is all about. The nature of this tape means there is no repeat of the headline grabbing ‘Survival Tactics’, but if AmeriKKKan Korruption tells us anything it’s that STEEZ’s mature, classy flow is by no means a one-off. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be watching this space very closely.
Kyle's hologram is on Twitter here, sippin' on gin in his virtual cadillac with Snoop and Dre.