Larger than life — both literally and figuratively — Killer Mike might have taken a circuitous route to fame, but is now firmly established as hip-hop’s conscience in the "post-truth" Trump era. He first came to prominence at the turn of the millennium, guesting on cuts by his fellow Atlantans OutKast. And while his major-label debut was a critical success, his flirtation with the mainstream did not last. He returned in the mid-00s as an indie-rapper, which led to his creative zenith, a hard-hitting partnership with the leftfield rapper/producer, El-P. Their collaborative project, Run the Jewels, reinvented underground hip hop in the 2010s. Away from music, Killer Mike is also a barbershop owner, actor, political activist and civic leader.
Born and Bred in Atlanta
Michael Santiago Render was born in the predominantly African-American suburb of Adamsville in west Atlanta, Georgia on April 20, 1975. His parents — his dad was a policeman, his mom a florist — were still teenagers when he was born, so he was raised, in part, by his grandparents in Collier Heights, a proud African-American neighborhood drenched in political history. It was here that Mike began his political education under the guidance of his grandmother. “I’ve been involved with political activity since I was probably seven or eight years old," he told the online magazine The Root in February 2017. "My grandmother had me out helping to campaign for local politicians.”
Render's other schooling came in the form of hip hop. As a teenager in the late 1980s and early 90s, his view of how the art form should sound was shaped by the incendiary rhymes of Schoolly D, Public Enemy and N.W.A. He began performing in rap battles and it was then that he received his provocative stage name. “I didn’t name myself,” he explained to the Late Show host Stephen Colbert in January 2016. “It wasn’t like some kid was standing in front of a mirror and decided he looked like a killer… I rapped against a kid, and I rapped against him really well… and a guy stood on a desk and said, ‘That kid’s a killer.'" From then on, the name stuck.
In 1994, he briefly attended the liberal Atlanta school Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he dropped out after a year, it was here that he met Big Boi, one half of Atlanta’s foremost hip-hop duo, OutKast. The colourful twosome proved to be a towering influence. They gave him his recording debut — on "Snappin’ & Trappin,’" from OutKast’s global breakthrough album, Stankonia, in 2000. Further guest spots followed on OutKast's Grammy-winning single "The Whole World: in 2001, and Jay Z’s "Poppin’ Tags" (on The Blueprint 2 album) in 2002 — after which Mike signed as a solo artist to Columbia. He was ready to strike out on his own.
In 2003, Killer Mike dropped his debut album, Monster. One of its highlights was the instant classic, "ADIDAS.." But after his second album, Ghetto Extraordinary, was shelved indefinitely (he eventually gave it away free online in 2008), he decided to follow an independent path. By the time his next official album, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, was released on his own Grind Time Official imprint in 2006, his preacher/teacher persona was fully formed. His lyrics managed to be erudite, brash, witty, profane and emotional, often all at once — as on the Sinatra-sampling "That's Life," on which he berates celebrities and the middle-classes for ignoring the poor in one breath, and The White House's inept response to Hurricane Katrina in the next.
In 2008 came a follow-up, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, which featured guest spots by Ice Cube and Chamillionaire. On the third instalment in the triptych, PL3DGE, in 2011, his lyrics were as smart and excoriating as ever. He even voiced concerns about Obama's intellectual aloofness with the line "We appreciate the way you delegate for Henry Gates/But what about your people slaving in the fields every day?" The influential website Allmusic declared Mike to be the "heir apparent to Chuck D" (of Public Enemy).
Run the Jewels with EI-P
His fifth album, R.A.P. Music (on Williams Street Records in 2012) proved to be a pivotal release. It was the first time he had worked with Jaime Meline, aka El-P, the man behind Company Flow and Definitive Jux Records. El-P’s willowy production chimed perfectly with Mike’s abrasive yet cerebral drawl.
The duo began a new project — an alternative hip-hop supergroup of sorts — the following year. The self-titled Run the Jewels album came out as a free download in June 2013. A taut affair — clocking in at a lean 33 minutes — the album was a fusillade of subterranean beats and rapid-fire vocals. The chemistry between the pair extended to a well-received sequel, Run the Jewels 2, in 2014. A cat-sampling remix album, Meow the Jewels, caused much amusement in 2015. Run the Jewels 3 dropped on Christmas Eve 2016. Guests included the rapper Danny Brown, Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio.
Outspoken Political and Social Activist
Whatever endeavour Killer Mike pursues, social activism is never far from the surface. He has proved to be an eloquent spokesperson for the African-American community, as demonstrated by his emotional response to police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri (the Michael Brown shooting in 2014) — "Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all," he wrote in Billboard. He called Baltimore riots of 2015 (after the death of Freddie Gray) "the language of the unheard."
Mike campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries, even releasing a series of filmed interviews with the Vermont senator. Reflecting on the criticisms he received for his vocal support of Sanders, and his subsequent refusal to endorse Hillary Clinton, Mike told The Guardian: “I’m not the goddamn ‘marathon for peace’ celebrity. I’m the ‘work out your shit, fix your shit, be a whole community and keep on pushing’ celebrity.”
In 2011, he realized a long-held dream when he opened his own barbershop in Atlanta. Graffitis SWAG (Shave Wash and Groom) has welcomed Big Boi and members of the Wu-Tang Clan through its doors. According to its owner, the shop keeps him connected to the zeitgeist on the streets. But it’s also about harnessing black economic power. “If we were as faithful to other black businesses as we are to black barbershops and black beauty shops," he has said, "we’d be unstoppable."
(Profile photo of Killer Mike by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)
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