In the early 2000’s, Atlanta was the place to be for cutting-edge hip-hop. With pioneering artists like Outkast, Goodie Mob, Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri paving the way, the ATL was fertile soil for homegrown, emerging Southern talent. During this Hotlanta heyday, it seemed that every member of any Dirty South crew was getting a record deal based on mere association—which rarely ended up equating to long-term success. However, Outkast protégé Killer Mike has proven to be an exception to this trend.

Introduced to the world with a guest spot on Stankonia before eventually releasing his solo debut in 2003, the man born as Michael Render didn’t achieve the initial success of his peers. In fact, it took nine years of navigating through the murky waters of the hip-hop scene for Killer Mike to finally be appreciated for his own enormous individual talent and to be respected as more than just a “Whole World” sideman.

His sixth album, R.A.P. Music, dropped last year and cemented the 37-year-old’s status as one of the most intelligent lyricists in hip-hop, with a firestorm delivery and deep baritone snarl. Working with Brooklyn-based producer El-P, the record found Killer Mike mixing sharp political tirades with introspective personal lyrics, which won him both critical accolades and new fans across the globe.

Having just returned to Atlanta from a European tour with plans to finish a second album with El-P, the Guide caught up with the hardworking rapper via phone where he filled us in on why he loves working with his producer, why he doesn’t want to be called a political rapper and what Big Boi told him after the release of R.A.P. Music.

Although your debut album, Monster, was released in 2003, it seems many people were discovering you for the first time on R.A.P. Music. What was different about this album compared to your earlier material? 

Everything I’ve been doing has been trying to improve on what I’ve done before. Building off what I learned making my Pledge series [beginning with I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind in 2006], I went in with a set of rules based on what I did before to make a great record. I knew going in thatR.A.P. Music would only be 11 or 12 songs and under an hour. I knew I would have full advantage of having one producer’s attention, which gave me a focus I hadn’t had before.

When did you realize you wanted El-P to be the sole producer on the album? 

The process was easier once El and I were in the room together. We did a week in Atlanta and that’s when I realized I had to make the record with just him. I had to badger him a bit to do the entire record and over the badgering, we became friends. We’d smoke weed, talk about music and make a song every day and a half before starting the process again. Our relationship is less about guys having a great working relationship, but is more about us having a great friendship that’s strengthened through music. 

Did you find it easy to record these songs because of that unspoken musical chemistry?

It’s always easy now. We always accuse each other of being lazy and we’ll get that competitive spirit going and that’s what hip-hop is. It’s easy because I’m working with my friend who happens to be a producer.  

You were first noticed for your verse on Outkast’s “Snappin’ & Trappin’.” Did you find it difficult to carve out your own career without relying on the Outkast name?

That was one of my goals. Those guys were like big brothers to me and Big Boi is a mentor to this day. At first I was seen as a protégé or sidekick to Outkast. If it stayed like that, my career would have floundered. Some artists are seen putting their friends on [their songs] when their friends weren’t good enough to deserve the opportunities they got. So I got lumped in with a bunch of others and it was up to me to break that mold to make sure people knew me for me. When me and Big linked up last year, he said to me, “I’m just so glad that you showed the world what I was talking about.”

Do you see yourself as a political rapper?

I’m not a political rapper and don’t wake up with a politicized conscience. I don’t have an affiliation to an agenda or political party as much as I’m interested in the pursuit of happiness. Those aren’t the only records I make, though. I make some about hanging out with my wife, kickin’ it, how much I love my kids or how much I give a damn about rap music. I will always make records that are reflective of me as a whole human being instead of a politicized guy ranting about politics.  F

Heading to SXSW? Catch Killer Mike perform at FILTER on Rainey Street, at the Dr. Martens showcase at Bar 96 on Thursday March 14.

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