Killer Mike: 'Rap Has Given Me Voice' The Atlanta rapper — and one half of rap group Run The Jewels — wants his songs to confront heavy everyday issues with empathy: "I think our regular lives are amazing, beautiful things."

Killer Mike: 'Rap Has Given Me Voice'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now the final course in a musical feast we've been having on the program this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AGAIN")

MICHAEL RENDER: My name is Michael Render. Professionally, I'm known as Killer Mike. I've never killed anyone, but I've killed a few microphones according to what people say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AGAIN")

RENDER: Reminiscinin' on our time of innocence when we drank that Hennessy, ate on lamb and venison, [bleep] you in your kitchenette. [Bleep] you like we tusslin'. Do you [bleep] your husbaland? Like, do y'all be tusslin'?

SHAPIRO: And you might not be inclined to brag, but I will describe you as one of the biggest names in the hip-hop scene right now - certainly one of the biggest names in the Atlanta hip-hop scene. And your latest album is "Run The Jewels 2." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RENDER: Thank you. I am also one half of the rap group called Run The Jewels. And I am - I'm honored to be here today.

SHAPIRO: I've heard some music producers recently complain that too many songs are about dance floors and women.

RENDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And that is not what you rap about - at least not mostly, not entirely.

RENDER: Yeah, not mostly, not mostly. I think that there is a narrative that's been lost in American culture, but definitely in rap music. It's very consumer based. It's very narcissistic in a way. But I just want to talk about practical stuff about regular people, because I think that our regular lives are amazing, beautiful things. And I think that we have a lot to offer in conversation about it. I just do it over beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWN")

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to one of these tracks off your latest album "Run The Jewels 2." This is called "Crown."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWN")

RENDER: (Rapping) Down with the shame. Down with the shame.

Used to walk traps in the rain with cocaine. Used to write raps in the traps as I sat in the rain, and I prayed that God give me a lane. Give me a lane. Give me the fame. Give me the fame and I promise to change. Won’t be the same.

RENDER: When I said I won't be the same, I won't be the same kind of man that puts cocaine in this lady hand. Heard she was pregnant, I’m guilty, I reckon, 'cause I hear that good [bleep] can hurt baby’s brain. Heard he was normal 'til three and then he stopped talkin'. Since then, ain’t nothin been the same.

I said something in that verse that I had had in my heart for a very long time. I was a young father. I dropped out of college early. I made a lot of the wrong decisions. And then I sold drugs, you know?

And I sold drugs in the stereotypical trap way. I did the stereotypical glamorous things you do. But I walked away with a real sense of guilt about some of the destruction that I have participated in in my own life and the life of others. And there were these two women that were customers. And they both said to me like you're the only person that treats us like humans. You have a humanity.

And I didn't realize that after I'd stepped away from that life I'd still take them with me. They've been in memory with me forever. I needed to say I'm sorry. I needed to absolve myself of that guilt. And then it just poured out of me like, you know, my late grandma Bettie had prayed with her heavy and told her to tell me lay my burdens. Can't pick up no crown, holding what's holding you down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWN")

RENDER: (Rapping) Can't pick up no crown holding what's holding you down. Can't pick up no crown. Can't pick up no crown.

SHAPIRO: That line is so powerful to me.

RENDER: Absolutely, absolutely. And I give it to my grandmother. Like I said it, but she died two years ago. But her favorite Negro spiritual was "Lay My Burdens Down." And I wanted to say the stuff in the simplest way - can't pick up no crown, holding what's holding you down. So I almost tear up every time I hear or think about that record. I love it, and I'm glad the message connects with you.

SHAPIRO: "Crown" is a somewhat autobiographical song, as you explain. But I'll admit this is not a new idea. I was reading an interview with you in a magazine called The Bitter Southerner.

RENDER: Oh, yeah.

SHAPIRO: And it talks about how somebody like Johnny Cash can sing I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

RENDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And we all know that Johnny Cash is singing a character.

RENDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But if Killer Mike raps about shooting a man in the head, a listener may be more likely to assume that you shot a man in the head.

RENDER: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: How do you deal with that double standard?

RENDER: I'm a black male in America. And we have been used as characters for villainy and monsters well before I was here. And so I deal with it in a very mature way. I'm not going to stop being who I am. I'm not going to restrict myself as an artist. And my simple argument is this - if you're not intelligent enough to understand that this is a character within a record - the same way Bob Marley didn't shoot a sheriff, the same way Johnny Cash didn't shoot a man in Reno to watch him die - then you're not intelligent enough to communicate and discourse with me. I don't want to get pulled into defending the black male image because of the art I make. But I understand that comes with it. Because really they're not afraid of the rapper. What they're really saying is I believe this about black men.

SHAPIRO: You're at a different phase in your life than a lot of successful rappers. You're 39. You're married with four kids.

RENDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that changes your music? Are there tracks on this album that you don't think you could've written in your 20s?

RENDER: There're definitely tracks I could not have written in my 20s.

SHAPIRO: There is one song in particular on this album that I do not think a man in his 20s would've been able to write. And that's "Early."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY")

RENDER: (Rapping) It be feelin' like the life that I’m livin' man, I don't control. Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul. Could it be that my medicine’s the evidence for pigs to stop and frisk me when they rollin' round on patrol and ask why you’re here? I just tell 'em 'cause it is what it is. I live here and that’s what it is. He chimed you got a dime? I said man, I’m tryin' to smoke and chill. Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids and in front of my wife.

SHAPIRO: What really hits me about this song is that you're rapping not just as a victim but as a husband and a father confronting the police in front of his wife and his kids.

RENDER: Yeah, yeah, actually, what's crazy it's in my mind that - because I was a young father. In my mind, that young man is in his 20s. And he's just getting off work. He has a dime of weed on him. He gets stopped by the police. He's just, hey, man, I'm a decent guy. The cop says but you have a dime. He says, man, but please don't lock me up. I'm just trying to smoke and chill. It turns into a scene where he's put in a truck. His wife says something to interrupt the police. The police yell at her, pull a gun on the wife and accidentally kill the wife as the child is running toward her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY")

RENDER: (Rapping) Witness with the camera phone on saw the copper pull a gun and put it on my gorgeous queen. As I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk and hear my little boy as he screamed as he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma, 'cause he had her face down on the ground. And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen, but my life changed with that sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

RENDER: And I did that because it's almost hurtful and shameful to say in my country they're used to black men being killed by police - and even black children. But to remove a mother from a family crushes a family in a much different way. And I needed people to understand the severity and the dire, dire consequence of bad policing in our community.

So even though I wrote it - definitely couldn't have wrote it in my 20s, because my 20s I was just angry. It probably would've just been an F-the-police song. But having a retrospective look at it now, understanding life from a policeman's standpoint, from a young father's standpoint, from a husband's standpoint, I just wanted to add a sense of empathy to it.

SHAPIRO: You've spoken a lot about police violence. And you occupy a really unique perspective, because your father was a police officer.

RENDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You own a barbershop where a lot of your customers are in the police force.

RENDER: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: And yet you have real concerns about the way police operate in America today.

RENDER: I do. I do have - and I'm a son of a policeman. It's my responsibility to be a voice of reason of some type. You know, I have to have empathy, because I've to understand that these people have a job that's although considered deplorable by the general public sometimes it's necessary to keep people safe. But with that said, you have the responsibility and accountability of doing your job in an honorable way. Or you should be punished even more harshly than people who aren't. Because if I trust you with the power of human life, your standard has to be much higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY")

RENDER: (Rapping) Feeling this, feeling this too early.

SHAPIRO: We recorded that interview with Killer Mike before this week's events in Ferguson, Missouri. He happened to be playing a show in St. Louis Monday night when the grand jury decision was announced. A YouTube video of his emotional comments there went viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

RENDER: You kicked me on my ass today because I have a 20-year-old son, and I have a 12-year-old son. And I'm so afraid for them.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Render, who performs under the name Killer Mike. His new album is "Run The Jewels 2."

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