For Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, it has never been just about hip-hop. It has never been about preaching rhetoric over a beat. But his sharp-tongued lyrics and booming baritone carry enough ferocity to scare your social consciousness wide awake. It's a style that's both refreshingly informed and effortlessly gangsta.
Considering the his large profile boost in the past year–thanks to immaculate skills and invaluable co-signs from fellow A-Town rappers including T.I. and Big Boi–most of that proletariat anger should have subsided a bit. But the rapper born Michael Render says the struggle to keep his life simple is constantly being threatened by the Powers That Be.
“I just want to be free to smoke weed, go to strip clubs with my wife, not have to double pay on business taxes, and have low property taxes,” the 38-year-old says. “My wants and needs are basic, but there are things every day, [and] I feel the assault–the assault on my personal freedom, the assault on my ability to make commerce in a capitalistic system–and I use rap to rant about that.”
There is no better example of this merging of his activist attitude and vivid flows than his sixth full-length album, 2012's R.A.P. Music, especially its lead track, “Untitled”: “You are witnessing elegance in the form of a black elephant/smoking white rhino on terraces/Will I die slain like my king by a terrorist?/Will my woman be Coretta/take my name and cherish it?”
The passion and frustration tied to his roots as a longtime community activist drives him to put his message on record. “Some artists rap about the stuff that makes them feel good, and the stuff that doesn't, they ignore. I rap about the stuff that pisses me off, and with politics, on a daily basis, there's something that pisses me off,” he says, laughing.
Since he was 9 years old, Render has been rapping in some capacity. He grew up with a high-quality civics education in the classroom and a musical education courtesy of such early gangsta-rap forefathers as Scarface, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. At 15, he started working as a community organizer in his native Atlanta, and he continues that work now.
Render is motivated to keep speaking about race and society through his music because, he says, he sees hip-hop becoming more and more subservient to the will of corporations who own a stake in what artists say and do. And that's not exactly something his pedigree will allow. “My grandmother was an organizer and marched with Dr. King,” he says. “For me, being an activist is what I . . . am supposed to be doing. I am called to a duty that's before and higher than rap, and that's to represent my community.”
After a decade in hip-hop, he believes there's more to be accomplished and newer creative heights to reach.
“If you climb one mountain, and you're standing at the peak of that mountain, and you're looking out, you're going to see one of two things,” he says. “You're going to see a valley to go back and rest in, or you're going to see another mountain you want to climb, and I'm not ready to rest yet.”
Killer Mike performs with Big Boi at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $25. All ages.
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