The topic of the moment at Michael Render’s Southwest Atlanta barbershop, Graffiti Swag Shop, is the Hawks-Celtics NBA playoff series. One older cat says the Hawks will win. Another says they don’t have a chance. Render, 36, better known around these parts as Killer Mike, chimes in:

“I love the Hawks, but they don’t have a superstar to demand that they win.” The room falls silent.

Mike’s not hating on the Hawks’ Joe Johnson. The Atlanta native digs everything about his city—“I even painted my shop in Hawks colors,” he points out—but when it comes to spitting the truth, the man doesn’t have a filter. Never has. That’s why the three albums in his self-released I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series are all considered hood essentials—because of the unflinching candor Mike rhymes with on tracks like “That’s Life,” “God in the Building” and “Ric Flair.”

Most of the time, though, the in-your-grill MC you hear on wax is hardly like the guy in real life. The true Mike Bigga apologizes for his tardiness. He gives firm handshakes. He addresses his employees by name. He’s courteous and considerate. However, when a corner hustler peddling DVDs walks out the shop, the no-nonsense Killer again rears his head: “Remind me to start charging him booth rent.”


“I’m just rapping to a group of people who don’t always take they life as seriously as they could or should,” Mike says. “In a few years, some will get it, as some have. But those that don’t, you know, God bless ’em.”

Some listeners, certainly, are moved to action by his words. Last October, in fact, Mike and some supporters participated in an Occupy Atlanta event. But he knows too many others might nod their heads and pump their fists but miss the message in his music. Or worse, some people might not even be listening.

Among Mike’s rap peers, however, it’s been a different story. He knows they’re feeling what he’s dealing. “When the greats hear my shit, they pay attention,” says Mike, who got his start with OutKast back in 2000. “Jay-Z called Big Boi and said, ‘I want him on “Poppin’ Tags”’ [from 2002’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse]. Anybody can go do some hokey shit and try to figure out a spiel, but that’s not what I do. I make this shit you can play when you get up, through the day, when you go to bed. This shit lives and breathes, man, and I’m glad it’s in me.”

Mike’s first solo album, Monster, came out in 2003 on Columbia Records. In 2005, he connected with Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label and stole the show on the flagship single “Kryptonite (I’m on It).” The potential for bigger things was there. But so too were solo album delays, and one very public beef with his boss. So, he decided to start his own record label, Grind Time Official. He’s since dropped four albums, a few mixtapes, signed a distribution deal with T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records and introduced the world to hungry upstarts like Pill.

The independent move has been a good one for Mike. It has offered him the creative freedom to define himself and allowed his contingent of followers to grow organically, almost like a grassroots movement. His 2011 release, PL3DGE, has sold 16,000 copies without so much as a mention from most mainstream media outlets.

Mike knows that some MTV-approved upstarts might snicker at such modest numbers. He doesn’t sweat it. “Y’all don’t rap as good as me,” he says, addressing a hypothetical hater. “Whatever you perceive as money I’m to have and not have, I own a business. I ain’t worried. I pick up money every week, so I’m cool. I just need you to know that, in the fraternity of rap, I’m in a room you can’t go. I’m in the room with all the guys you admire and you want to be. That’s where I am.”