Killer Mike is in vigorous spirits, having recently released his latest solo album, R.A.P. Music, to almost unanimous critical goodwill. The project was top-to-toe produced by EL-P, and as Mike tells it, that decision was in part inspired by Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which saw Cube ditching N.W.A to hook up with Public Enemy’s Long Island sonic architects the Bomb Squad. But if R.A.P. Music benefits from a tight union of conspirators, not least with El’s booming and authoritative beats matching Mike’s weighty vocals, its glory is in the breadth of Mike’s content: Over a sensibly scant 12 tracks, he raps and rants about police brutality, Reagan-era politics, and the idea of hip-hop as religion, while just as readily throwing in raucous references to iconic Atlanta strip clubs, J.J. Fad songs, and kicking a yarn that, as he puts it, “… is a wonderful amoral hip-hop story.”
So with R.A.P. Music brimming with points of opinion and prompts for further discussion, Hive simply asked Killer Mike to go deep on some of the songs and the inspiration behind them. Happily, he obliged.
The song “Reagan” seems to have really caught on. Are you surprised people have gravitated towards that one?
Yeah, that’s the biggest surprise I’ve had with the album. I was surprised it stuck like it does with so many different demographics. I knew that my core audience would love it, but I had no idea it would stick to people who I thought had no interest in concepts like that.
What do you remember about growing up during the Reagan era?
Everything changing. I remember adults who had pretty decent jobs all of a sudden talking about their jobs being threatened, like steel plants — my family worked in steel plants and they started closing and going overseas. Cocaine just flooded our communities out of nowhere. One day it was kids skipping in the street and hula-hooping and in a process of months there was cocaine everywhere. At first no one knew the connections with Iran-Contra, but when it came out later we got a chance to see we had been used. Used as consumers of a product that will destroy our community. It was a secret war. I remember adults in my family and my teachers being very distrustful of [Reagan]. I remember my grandfather’s disdain for him. I remember arts and music programs leaving our schools. Reagan affected our lives in so many ways. It wasn’t just Reagan the man, but Reagan as an ideology, like protecting the rich and only caring about oneself. With that, America just became a different country. Everyone took a bit of him. Certainly the drug dealers became narcissistic and damn near evil: all these young drug dealers that had been in my community before became very much like neo-cons and very much like Reagan and the Republican party now. Reagan affected all of us.
At the time, did you hear rumors about theories about where the cocaine suddenly came from?
No, I got hipped as soon as the Oliver North stuff fell out. My mom and her friends did a pretty good job of explaining the connection to me, and then Maxine Waters brought to light the connection between Iran-Contra and the C.I.A. and illegal cocaine distribution. It wasn’t only cocaine, it was fire arms too. They flooded our community from California, like guns coming out unmarked. There was a lot of death and violence in that era. We knew that as a community we had been had.
Was it hard to stay optimistic during the Reagan years?
It was very hard to stay optimistic. I remember how brutal the police were. I got two brilliant ass whoppings from the cops — it was some fuckin’ Pulp Fiction shit they would do to us and we was kids, like literally children. I can only say that no other country would have allowed children to be treated in such a way. We were beaten, our clothes were pulled off in public, dogs were allowed to be used against us. The amazing thing was, it was all under the guise of, “We’re protecting the community from the evil drug dealers.” But on the flip side it was the C.I.A. allowing this shit to come in on military planes to our country! They were flooding us and then punishing us! It was a very brutal time for police enforcement. A young black male under Reagan really became the arch nemesis of all that was the American good. We had that ugly characterization of us.
There’s a theory that the problems of those years inspired better rap music to be made. Do you agree with that?
I think music was better then ’cause people were focused on being creative. Now you can buy your fly. Rap is almost a Republican by-product now: With wealth I can be more than you and selfishly hold it. But then, everyone was in the same village and the whole village was being oppressed, so people were more focused on being fly, which was a pair of $40 sneakers and a fly jogging suit. I had no idea what Versace was and what Yves Saint Laurent was; we had no idea what that shit was. I think that’s the difference now. Then your fly was something that exuded from your energy, not something you could go and purchase off rap.
You mentioned police brutality. Your father was a policeman, right?
My dad was a police officer in Atlanta.
“The first time I went to Magic City I couldn’t get in, but my mom used to date a guy that was a hustler and knew the 2 Live Crew and they were playing a show. I went and they took me in the back lot of Magic City and I got to see Luke going in the back door. But my first trip in Magic City was when I was a little older and running off like a hustler and trying to pick up girls and what not. It was really expensive at the time so for my trap tastes a couple of the cheaper five dollar strip clubs were for me.”
Your song “Don’t Die” deals with police brutality and references N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police.” Did you ever have conversations about that with your dad?
Yeah, we talked often [about things like that] in my life. My dad told me he was a 19-year-old kid with a child on the way and he needed a job, so it was, “They’ll give me a badge and a gun? I’m with it!” Then when he got the job of course he saw some corruption and he saw some dirty cop shit. He let me know. He was an upstanding dude. A lot of the older dudes retiring now speak highly of him. He let me know when interacting with police officers you have to humble yourself and get through the interaction and come out the other side alive. He taught me the simple stuff, like say “Yes sir, no sir,” ’cause there’s no possible way to be disrespectful when you say that. I remember for my 17th birthday he pulled me to the side and I thought he was going to give me a car for my birthday but what he gave me was a lecture about how I could now be charged as an adult.
Subsequently, I was in the street knocking around, slanging whatever, and I never caught an arrest or did time. Not because I didn’t deserve to — I did get caught red-handed a bunch of times — but I maintained the level for authority that one should have and I dealt with the cops as human beings and I managed to slip out of it. He taught me how to interact with cops.
What makes a cop turn dirty?
If you’re a young man, first of all, some are ex-soldiers coming out of a place where they were military and they’re used to telling people what to do and they do it. That doesn’t necessarily bring about the dirty in terms of being criminal, but it can definitely bring out a sort of brutality ’cause these people are used to dealing with people that are being occupied by force. That’s not the American way; that’s not how you create citizens. With other cops, there’s just an amazing amount of power and greed in being a police officer that some people can’t resist. Some people, morally, their compass is not of a good nature and those people slip through the screening cracks and sometimes they become cops and that greed and that lust for more overtakes them. I don’t know the entire psychology of dirty cops, but I do know if you give anyone a badge and a gun and authority over other people then the potential is there and unless the community is actively engaging with the police force, that corruption just grows and festers like a cancer.
On a happier subject, on the opening track “Big Beast” you mention the strip club Magic City in the very first couple of lines. Can you remember the first time you went there?
The first time I went to Magic City I couldn’t get in, but my mom used to date a guy that was a hustler and knew the 2 Live Crew and they were playing a show. I went and they took me in the back lot of Magic City and I got to see Luke going in the back door. But my first trip in Magic City was when I was a little older and running off like a hustler and trying to pick up girls and what not. It was really expensive at the time so for my trap tastes a couple of the cheaper five dollar strip clubs were for me. But I definitely have enjoyed years of supporting that club — it’s one of the best strip clubs in the country.
Magic City has been mentioned in a lot of rap songs from Atlanta. Is it a big part of the scene?
Yeah, it represents our name on some street shit. When you can go to Magic City it means you got a couple of workers working for you. Being able to go to Magic City was where the kingpins went, where the rich black businessmen went, where the athletes went, like the Atlanta Falcons, the Hawks — the Braves not so much though, because they had to go club at The Cheetah — but if you were in the creme de la creme of the black community in Atlanta you would go there.
What were the five dollar strip clubs like?
They’re amazing. I call them the Triple A league that leads to Magic City! All the girls that work in Magic City started at Queens City, the Blue Flame, Pin-Ups. Those clubs feed Magic City. By the time a girl gets to Magic City she’s a pro. But her formative years are in the five dollar clubs. That’s why I like to support young talent!
You mentioned the 2 Live Crew. Were they a big influence on you?
A huge influence. I admire Luther Campbell. Like him, Tony Draper and J Prince was just from a business aspect who I looked to in terms of how to do the business and have longevity. The 2 Live was inspiring. Those first two albums in particular, they were rapping their ass off and the concepts were amazing. I remember being on a sixth grade field trip and the teachers got off the bus and we started singing a 2 Live Crew song and this girl told on us and we got in trouble in an amazing way. [Starts rapping “One On One.”] “One one one, we’re having some fun in the bedroom/ All day and all of the night…”
Did you ever get in trouble for playing 2 Live Crew at home?
Well, nah, my mom had me when she was 16-years-old. Mom would play songs to engage me in conversation. Like if someone rapped about a 69, she’d be like, “What’s 69?” “I don’t know, it just sounds good!” My mom was like my music soundboard. I never forget listening to N.W.A when Dr. Dre said, “I’ll slap you upside your head with nine inches of limp dick!” My mom started laughing and said, “Shit, I want to see that!” I remember years later realizing what the fuck he was talking about! My mom was an artist, a florist by trade, and she did those beautiful arrangements for athletes and pregnant mothers, and so she always encouraged me to engage in art and was always lenient. Unlike other kids, I could listen to anything I wanted to, and look at anything. My mom found out I snuck into my dad’s porn stash and got his Vanessa Williams Penthouse magazine. She didn’t get pissed off, she just talked to me about it, like what was artistic about the pictures and how they weren’t just pornography. Because of that I don’t just rap, I also do photographs, paint.
So, were those Vanessa Williams pictures just pornography…
No, the pictures were of Vanessa Williams naked posing in these incredible poses with this white model. I tell people to this day, I think that’s why I like bisexual women ’cause the pictures just looked so beautiful, they were black and white and soft. Literally on my phone screensaver is a picture of Vanessa Williams and the model holding each other. It was beautiful for me. I could tell there was something different about these pictures. These were what I saw when my mom let me go to the museum, so more like posed nude pictures that an artist would paint. I think they’re some of the most well shot beautiful nudes I ever seen.
The title track to your album says that rap music is your religion. What was the song that first made you want to rap yourself?
I was a kid and my uncle played be [Ice-T's] “Six ‘N The Mornin’.” [Starts to rap] “Six in the morning police at my door/ Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor/ Out my back window I make my escape/ Didn’t even get a chance to grab my old school tape…” When I heard Ice-T say that, it was over. Before that, rap was hippy-hop, but when I heard Ice-T rap that … I was looking around and I was seeing the products of the Reagan era, I was seeing people lose jobs, 17-year-old kids becoming billionaires, my dad was a cop, his other brother was in the streets, so I was looking at all this and that record bought it to life in a different way. It made me want to record what I seen.
On “Six ‘N The Mornin’” Ice-T tells a story. You have “Jo Jo’s Chillin’” on your album, but why don’t more modern rappers write story-telling raps?
I think rappers are telling a lot of stories — they’re just lying and saying it’s their real life. I don’t know why rappers don’t tell stories for entertainment’s sake any more. I think in our striving for being real and having audiences perceiving us as real, that we forgot that what was real was the morality of the story and the message, not necessarily if I did or did not shoot someone. I think “Jo Jo’s Chillin’” is a wonderful amoral hip-hop story. I didn’t want Jo Jo to change his life or get caught – I wanted one where Jo Jo gets away! I wanted it to be a piece of fiction. I did it before with “Deuces Wild” and “Scared Straight” from my other albums, and now I think in my next two or three album you’ll hear an entire album that’s 15 songs and each is a story like a chapter in a book.
R.A.P. Music is out now on Williams Street Records.