Killer Mike: “Hip-Hop Is Supposed To Shock & Surprise”
Throughout his 10-plus years in the music industry, Killer Mike has established himself as one of hip-hop's strongest and most uncompromising voices. From his 2003 debut Monster to last year's collaborative effort with El-P, R.A.P. Music, the Atlanta veteran has continually delivered a fully rounded view into his world, complete with political diatribes, gangsta braggadocio and strip club-ready symphonies. Now, XXL chops it up with "The Elegant Elephant" about connecting with El-P over hip-hop fandom, his early beginnings with the Slumlordz and why Atlanta's next crop of musical acts is one that will flip the script on modern hip-hop.
XXL: I was reading an interview you and El-P did with the Village Voice last year, I guess it was right before R.A.P. Music came out, you said something about the two of you coming together and being from such different regions and sectors of music, and it was kind of like an implosion of the underground rap scene. Would you say that’s an accurate description of the album?
Killer Mike: People were surprised that we got together. They were actually shocked and awestruck. But El-P and I are around the same age, we grew up in the same era of hip-hop. When we get together, it’s just two sixteen-year-old kids. That’s the most honest depiction I can give. If your parents shipped your ass off to summer camp, you’re in summer camp in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere and you find this one other kid that’s on the hype that you’re on. So for us, it’s as natural as putting my foot in a pair of Nikes in the morning. For us, it’s that easy. The fact that other people were marveled by this stuff, it’s dope, but me and El are friends. We’re friends because we’re similar and we’re also friends because we’re so different. Our differences really balance one another. So within three days of recording together, we knew it was magic—you know? It doesn’t shock me, but I can definitely understand the surprise that people had and I’m happy that it’s been received so well.
That description of it as an implosion of the underground scene — isn’t that what rap is supposed to be?
That’s what’s supposed to happen. Hip-hop is supposed to shock and surprise and cause awe and amazement. Ex-fuckin-xactly. What would hip-hop have been if Ice Cube hadn’t gotten on that plane to New York and recorded with the Bomb Squad. What would’ve happened if Scarface decided not to do the Def Jam album with Kanye. What would’ve happened if Jay-Z hadn’t decided to go down south and do the remix for Juvenile. How far would hip hop not have gone if those things happened? Outkast wouldn’tve been on the New Jersey Drive soundtrack. This stuff is supposed to happen. It’s supposed to shock, it’s supposed to do things that you don’t expect, and on the other side of that shock is supposed to be some dope ass shit, and I think El and I accomplished that.
Do you think that surprise that a lot of critics felt was partly a result of the kinds of constructs that people have with what's supposed to be hip-hop?
Absolutely. Not just by critics, but by regular people. Look at the average Twitter: ‘#Team-this,’ ‘#team-hair-natural’, ‘#teambraids’—fuck a team, find a friend. Everyones like, ‘Yo—I’m on the team! I’m underground with El!’ I don’t want you on my team, I just want you to like dope shit. Have your own team. Me and El are dope and we do dope shit together and that’s good enough. I don’t understand why people who listen to he and I wouldn’t think that we would think alike. We rap about a lot of the same shit in very different ways. We rap about a lot of the same shit in a very different way. It’s the marriage of a pessimist and an optimist, it’s the marriage of a white guy and a black guy, it’s the marriage of a Northerner and a Southerner. There are a lot of differences, but those differences make for a great fucking recipe. Right now we’re working on an album together, we’ll talk more about that in a few months.
Going back to that, that you and El came together and shocked so many people, you both have pretty deep connections to underground hip-hop. El had Company Flow and Rawkus, and you worked with the Slumlordz before.
Oh shit, you do your fucking homework. We’re gonna reissue that original Slumlordz demo. That demo was - I’ve been arguing with part of my management team about guns all day. I took a picture of a South African multiple round shotgun that was made to shoot black people. I took a picture of one of those that my homie owned and a Mac 11, and I went in with the pictures to a copy center at the bottom of the United Way building and I typed it out and made it right there, pressed up our own CDs with a CD burner that I had bought and put them together and we got those bitches out during Freaknik.
So this is '96-'97.
Big [Boi] saw me three years prior to signing me, just like, ‘I like what you’re doing, I’m gonna get a record company to get you a deal.” I grinded my ass off the next few years just staying out of jail and maneuvering through the streets. But yeah — that Slumlordz shit was hard. We sampled ‘Teen Spirit’ on that shit, made some shit called, “Bust Ya Gats” — that shit was ill as fuck. We had a joint called “Murder City” on there. It was like an EP, just three or four joints, but it was hard as steel.
Do you have a date for the re-release?
Here’s the thing, I’ve become a professional musician, I have all these fuckin’ insecurities about the sound and the mixes and shit, and I finally decided to just say ‘fuck it.’ We’re just trying to find a way to do it that’s creative and dope, and to be honest, my guy Will, who’s another member of the management team, is like, ‘we need to beef up the number of people hitting KillerMike.com, so that when we do it, it doesn’t just sit on the shelves.’ We’re gonna do it.
I tried looking for it online, obviously I couldn’t find it. What was the sound like? I know that with Devin the Dude solo and the Odd Squad have totally different sounds.
What I’ve been attempting to do my whole career is find the sound that I found with El, and when you listen to the Slumlordz record, which you’re gonna say is what R.A.P. Music became, Mike had been searching for that. Like I said, we sampled Metallica, we sampled Nirvana, we sampled [Black] Sabbath. That’s what we were sampling because the grooves were heavy and the drums were. When you sample Led Zeppelin, you’re really getting a Black rhythm section almost, because the drums are on some damn near soul shit they’re so funky and dope. We sampled that and it was heavy and it was hard and it was dark and it was in your face. It was the seedlings for what I became on R.A.P. Music. Put it like this—you’re gonna like it. We were rapping our motherfuckin’ - we were sellin’ dope, shooting at people and rapping. Not on record, before we made the records, and then we'd rap about it. Like no bullshit, we’d sell dope all weekend, Zach and them would rob people and then we’d go to the studio and just make music about it.
Who else was in the group at the time?
It was me, my man Big Zack, and my man Taye. Taye is the uncle of two of my children, he’s up in Missouri now, he’s a demo assistant. Big Zack actually runs Grind Time Studios out of his place. We’re gonna get a bigger place. Zach and I are thinking about opening up a chicken wing or burger place together, I still think he’s one of the most incredible lyricists I’ve ever heard. I still don’t think I rap as good as him, but those are the breaks—I somehow managed to get on. I rep that Slumlord shit ‘til the day I die, as I said.
Are there any plans to reunite?
I’m gonna do some shows that are just like nostalgia shows for people who supported--. Think about it: if it wasn’t for kids like you, the Pl3dge series wouldn’t have gotten the attention it got. When I drop Pl3dge 4, I’m gonna do a concert where I only play records that are given to me--. I ask people on Twitter sometimes, ‘What records do you want to see me do?’ So I’m gonna have my fans put a list of Pl3dge records that they want to see me do, and we’re gonna shoot a video for “That’s Life” and some other cool shit, and I’m gonna do that concert and I’ll probably have Zack come up and we’ll do “Murder City” or something.