Rapper Michael Render, a.k.a. “Killer Mike” – Part 2

Part two of our conversation with the influential rap artist about how Hip-Hop music can be used as a tool for political and social change.

MIchael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, made his music debut appearing on the OutKast track "Snappin' & Trappin'" from their 2000 album Stankonia, and later appeared on their 2001 single “The Whole World”, which won the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. After signing to Columbia Records, his first single, "A.D.I.D.A.S.," made waves on the music charts in 2003, and the subsequent album, Monster, cemented his place among Hip-Hop's most prolific voices. Three years later, he released the first volume of his mixtape series I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, which he would follow up with two other acclaimed installments. His 2012 effortR.A.P. Music was produced exclusively by producer El-P, with whom he would partner up to create the rap duo, Run the Jewels. They would release their first album as a duo in 2013, and their 2014 followup, Run the Jewels 2, was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as the best Hip-Hop album of the year.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, part two of our conversation with Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike. One of the most influential voices in the current generation of hip-hop artists, Mike has had quite the unique ability throughout his career to use his music as a tool of enlightenment and social change.

As you could tell by our conversation last night, he is not short of opinions nor is he afraid to share them. So I felt that the only way to do rich justice to our conversation was to bring him back for one more night.

So we’re glad you have joined us. Part two of our conversation with Killer Mike, Michael Render, coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: And so as promised last night, we continue tonight with part two of our conversation with Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, one-half of the hip-hop duo, Run the Jewels. Mike is one of rap’s most creative and empowering voices. His 2014 album, Run the Jewels 2, was named by Rolling Stone magazine as the best hip-hop album of the entire year.

And last night, a half hour just wasn’t enough time to get to all the stuff we wanted to talk about, so before we get to continuing this conversation, first a look at a video from his latest album for a track called “Early”.


Tavis: The track is called “Early”. Tell me about that track.

Michael Render: Oh, man, features my man, Boots, who’s an incredible writer. Wrote on Beyoncé’s album and a producer. Me and my rhyme partner, El-P., who’s the other half of Run the Jewels, the record came to me like three in the morning.

We were up in upstate New York recording. “The life that I’m living, man, feels like life that I’m living, man, on patrol every day. I’m in a fight for my soul” starts and tells the story of a young working father who gets pulled over by the police in the process of a weekend starting. And he’s caught with a dime bag of marijuana and he begs the police not to arrest him in front of his wife and children.

And it ruined his life essentially because if he catches the felony, he loses his job. The cop locks him up anyway. The mother starts to scream and yell as any impassioned wife would do and she ends up being accidentally shot by the cop and killed in front of the children.

It’s called “Early”. It’s too early for that to happen in a child’s life. Too early, you know, for a young man to lose a wife. And then my rhyme partner goes on to rap just how two blocks away, a young man is just going to the store and hears it, but doesn’t think of it, goes to sleep, wakes up the next day and there’s this apathy.

The irony is my partner’s wife–I’m Black, of course, so I’m hypersensitive to these things. Sometimes it’s not that he’s not a sensitive, but it’s another world not happening every day that someone looks like you.

So it’s a very honest record in telling the perils of being a person who’s targeted and the peril of being a person who is just so sunk in apathy that, if you can’t stop it or control it, sometimes you just put your hands over your ears and try not to hear at all.

Tavis: You do this all the time to me, Mike. You said three things now I want to go back and have you unpack. I don’t even know which of the three I want to start with. I think I’m going to start with this right quick ’cause I want to get back to where we left this conversation last night.

Render: Yeah, forgiveness [laugh].

Tavis: Trust me. Forgiveness. The power of it or the lack of power found in it. We’ll come back to this notion of forgiveness in light of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. You and I had a back and forth last night about whether or not forgiveness really is pregnant with the kind of power that I think it is. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

But you said a moment ago that your rhyme partner is white. For anybody who saw the show last night and didn’t know that, they might find that a bit of a surprise, given how tough you were on the white man last night, to my phrase, not yours.

Render: Yeah. Not tough on the white man. Tough on the people who are in positions of power. The people that run this globe, that run these economies, that run these lands that they call countries that separate you. For the most part, they look alike. For the most part, they’re the same origin.

And if you look like them, that doesn’t matter. They don’t care. We are all a part of the worker class. We are all suffering under this oppression and we’ve taken the bait of racism, which is another form of classism masked with color to infight and not see the real enemy.

So, you know, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I have white friends. I brought white people here today. Part of my management is white. My wife ain’t white, though [laugh]. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let me be clear [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah. Shay is all sister [laugh]. The other thing you said I want to go back to in describing the lyrical content of the song, “Early”, that we just heard, there’s a line in there that said every day I’m in a fight for my soul. Do you feel that way? That every day in this country, you are in a fight for your soul?

Render: How could you not? We could leave here as two prestigious Black men who have the utmost respect for one another. The people around us in this room have respect for us. We’re respected by the general society and, when those blue lights go off in the back of your car, you become terrified for your life.

I become terrified for my life. Dick Gregory, who’s over 83 years old, becomes terrified for his life. And it’s not that you don’t want to have faith in the tax money that you’re paying that the civil servants are doing the right thing.

It’s just that you know it can go bad and you know it’s went bad for hundreds of years and you know that your skin devalues you in the eyes of people who are paid to protect you or in eyes of people who are paid to uphold the law in the case of the courts and even the politicians who you often vote for.

And that’s a reality that you have to accept. And not like, oh, I accept that it’s a burden that’s bad ’cause we accept it and we succeed in spite of. But I think that, when the world is faced to look at that mirror and see that, it’s something that they want to turn away from.

It’s too ugly for me to see. Well, maybe how it is to live. I saw an interesting quote on Instagram one day. Someone said, “If you get tired of me complaining about the perils of being Black, imagine how tired I am of having to go through this.”

Tavis: Another phrase you just offered, what do you make of the fact–and, again, what happened in South Carolina, Charleston, is another example of this–that Black people have learned–to the extent that we love this country, whatever that means–that we have learned to love this country in spite of and not because of?

Render: I love America. It’s an important thing for me to say ’cause, unlike a lot of other people in this country, Black or white, I travel the world. I ain’t just traveled a couple of states. I went into states with my grandparents on vacation, but I’ve traveled the world and there is no other country with the type of opportunity for minorities that you have in this country anywhere in the world.

There’s no more opportunity in any other place, but with that opportunity comes a lot of B.S. and we understand that. But it comes with responsibility. We are responsible to do better as Black people in this country and I don’t care how white people look at you. I don’t care how you think the government looks.

I don’t care about–I care that we have a $1 trillion dollar spending base and, if you want to see change, then you have to start to focus on economically how can we change our communities? How can we self-segregate our dollar?  How can we get one million Black people in one weekend to take $100 and move it to one Black bank? That’s what I’m interested in seeing.

I’m not interested in saying, oh, America’s so down on me. Oh, I don’t want to–that’s why I’m a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights. I don’t understand how any Black person, any Black person, can tell me that they are not pro gun. And I don’t mean I need 80 guns, the government is coming, I need to protect myself.

I mean we’re only 51 years into real freedom. There’s no other group of people that have been oppressed in any other place, from the Sudan to the Palestinians, to the Jews of Nazi Germany, that have given the option to stay armed, know how to shoot, and would. My grandfather shot all his life ’cause he came up in Eden, Georgia. My grandmother knew how to shoot. She grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Now just ’cause we moved to the cities and poverty has caused us to infight is no reason to shut down gun laws, but we don’t understand the uniqueness of this opportunity to even engage in having armed citizens because we never been anywhere outside the world. So, for me, I think there’s much opportunity in this country as Black people we’re not taking care of.

So before we go the gun route, I want to just say Black people, take $100. Pick one Black bank or credit union. Organize 10 of your friends, organize 10 of their friends and organize 100 people, and put that money in that bank at the same day.

If you want to go bigger, one of these leaders, one of these organizers, organize one million people. Get your big famous rap stars you always call, have them come out the same way they asked you to come out when they want you to buy some product.

Have them to take one million Black people to take $100, put it one Black bank and watch what that money does and watch how differently you start being treated that Monday after that Friday. And that’s what we need to start doing. We need to attack economically in places we haven’t been.

Tavis: Let me go back to the gun issue. I’m all for Second Amendment rights. I’ve said any number of times to friends and probably in the media somewhere that, if you really want to solve the gun crisis in America, give every Negro a gun.

Render: Our laws have changed overnight possibly.

Tavis: That’s my point. You want to stop this mess? Give every Negro in the country a gun [laugh]. This stuff would stop quicker than right now and sooner than at once if every Negro had a gun. Having said that, and I believe that with my heart, I still don’t believe that arming the general public is the answer.

Render: Why not?

Tavis: Those two things are not mutually exclusive, though.

Render: Why not? It worked for this country.

Tavis: Well, it worked for this country and one could argue that it did work for the country, but…

Render: It did. We have a country because of rebellion.

Tavis: That’s true. That is true.

Render: And I’m not advocating armed rebellion against our country. I’m simply saying that a Mexican standoff is a Mexican standoff for a reason. It’s a Mexican standoff because everybody in the room got a gun.

If you look at that rancher that was just out west who was armed, had other armed men come out there, when those marshals and those federal agents got there, everybody pointed at each other and said, “We need to discuss this before bullets start running out.”

If you look at that biker gang that was arrested a weekend after those kids in those pools were drugged, were drugged like animals, a week after that, they arrested a biker gang with utmost civility because they knew that these are people that are gonna fight back.

Now I’m not suggesting you go get a gun and you challenge the police. But what I am saying is, as an American and as a Black person in America, embrace the rights fully. We should love the Constitution fully.

We should love the Bill of Rights fully because, even though you didn’t come here on fair grounds, you have them now. And I tell people all the time, it’s only two groups of people in this country that can’t leave. The people that came here on those debt boats from Britain and the people that came here enslaved from Africa.

We’re all we have. We act like we don’t like each other. We play like we’re each other’s enemy, but we both don’t have a homeland to return to. We both don’t have anywhere else to go, so we may as well finally come to our senses and do the right thing for this country.

Tavis: Let me contradict my own point for the sake of argument. I said a moment ago you want to solve the gun crisis, give every Negro a gun, problem solved. I believe that. Now for the sake of argument, I contradict myself.

That philosophy only works to the extent that one believes that mutual deterrence would work and I’m not so sure, with the kooks and crazies, that mutual deterrence works even now in this country, much less broadly when we start talking nukes. I’m not sure mutual deterrence is going to work.

Render: Yeah, I understand that. People always say, well, what are you gonna do? The government has bigger tanks. They have bigger guns. Well, you know, if you drop a nuclear bomb in the continental United States, it’s gonna affect more people than anything it’s dropped on. And most governments are not gonna do that.

But with that said, a lot of governments have nukes or a lot of governments are seeking having nukes simply because they know if I have one, people are less likely to attack me. Now I’m from the south. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, but I was raised by people from Eden, Georgia and Tuskegee, Alabama.

I asked my grandmother one time, “Why weren’t you afraid of the Klan?” She said, “You see that driveway? That’s an eighth of a mile. If any white man want to come down that driveway at eighth of a mile, he gonna come back up with pellets in his [bleep].” [laugh]

And that’s just the truth of it all. So I’m not saying that, hey, be armed and be paranoid, but there’s nothing wrong with being armed. We have young men in the streets that want to be fighters, want to be warriors, want to be soldiers.

A lot of them just need to be in something like the Cub Scouts, in something like the Junior NRA, learning to shoot a rifle. A lot of them need to be fishing and hunting and foraging. But we have lost our roots. We do not farm anymore. We do not grow food. We do not hunt. Now I do these things, but people think I’m a crazy rapper, you know.

But we have to embrace who we were. We are not all Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Compton, Watts. There’s a bigger diaspora of Black people. There’s Black people in Oklahoma, Black people in Little Rock, Arkansas, Black people in the rural Georgia that could show us differently and we need to embrace these other things.

Tavis: But if we take your argument to its logical conclusion or logical extension, or just extension, period, that means that the folk in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church should have been armed going to church?

Render: Well, I’m not gonna say they should have been armed. They’re stupid because that’s wrong, that’s evil, and I’ve heard that said. I say it publicly on Twitter I wish they had been armed. I wished it in the way that a child wishes Christmas had come early.

I said I wish it in a way that I wished there would have been some deterrent or I wished the Angel Gabriel would have really been in front of that door to stop that man.

I can’t tell you that I want them to be armed in church, but I can tell you the nation of Islam frisks everyone that walks in the door. So if you’re not gonna arm the parishioners of the church and you don’t want that, because I’m not saying every parishioner or everyone in a church should be armed.

But I certainly would not be against–especially in that church, the church that’s the home of [inaudible], I definitely would love to see an armed guard that frisks or that waves a wand because, when that guy came in that church, he looked different. He looked like you don’t belong here.

And it’s time that we just say someone should have been able to be there professionally to say, “Hold on, brother. Are you in the right place? Okay, well, it’s fine that you come in. Do you mind if I search your jacket or search your clothes before you come in?” I met with Mr. Farrakhan a few weeks ago and he knows me. He know who I am. He called and asked me to come.

Tavis: And you still got frisked by the FOI going in that joint [laugh]

Render: Twice.

Tavis: I know you did [laugh]. I’ve had that experience many times. I love the brother minister.

Render: Absolutely.

Tavis: Does any of this mean that you don’t fundamentally believe in the goodness of people or in the capacity of people to do better?

Render: Absolutely, I do. Why wouldn’t I?

Tavis: ‘Cause you want us to be armed…

Render: Absolutely. I say why should I not enjoy every right the people on “Swamp People” enjoy? I wish to enjoy every American right possible. So do I wish to be armed? Absolutely. Do I wish to be armed because I fear other people are gonna come get me tomorrow? No. Mostly, I wish to be armed ’cause I like to kill what I eat. So it’s nothing wrong with that.

But if someone should ever come through the door of my wife when I’m not there, they will certainly be met with a shotgun blast to their chest and she will certainly not stop shooting until you are dead. And that’s just the truth of it all.

Because we live in a time where anything could happen, so be prepared for everything. And it gets you out of the house. Get out of the house. Go shooting. Go on a safari. Do something besides sit there and be fed fear all day.

So in a word, brother, I just think we ought to have the full American experience and we should stop sheltering ourselves in this victimization that we’re in that everyone is to hurt us and the only person that can protect us is federal government because that’s not the truth and they don’t do a very good job of it.

Tavis: Let me come back to this, to your artistic genius, and ask whether or not you believe–I’m not talking about your work. Clearly, your work is an example. You are an exemplar of this. But is it your belief, your sense, that music, particularly hip-hop music, is still–and I say still because I believe that–still pregnant with the kind of power that it once was to be the kind of protest voice that our society needs?

Render: Absolutely, it is. Look how many rappers jumped onboard for Trayvon Martin. Look how many rappers put their reputation on the line for Mike Brown. Look how many rappers are willing to stand up and speak. I was in a room full of rappers with Minister Farrakhan.

Now I don’t name names ’cause I know everybody might not be brave enough, but if you follow Instagrams, it’s gonna pop up. Now the brothers have been brave enough. Ludacris popped up, Big K.R.I.T. popped up, you know, 2 Chainz popped up.

My thing is, I love seeing those brothers there. I love seeing a young thug in the room. So for me, we have the courage that should be backed up. We have the courage that people should fortify, to stand in solidarity with. Do we have stuff to learn? Absolutely, we do.

And that’s why Andrew Young takes time to talk to me. Do we mess up sometimes? Absolutely. And that’s why I accept the advisement and chastisement from people like Dr. Cornel West, you know. But are we hopeless? Absolutely not. Are we hopeful? Absolutely, we are. Is there grains of truth in our music? Absolutely, there is.

Tavis: What do you see these days, Mike, as the intersection between hip-hop, the music, or hip-hop, the culture–your choice–and politics?

Render: Hip-hop has always represented the grassroots voice. It always has. It’s been reflective of the concerns of general society. Now every artist isn’t out making protest music, but it’ll give you a good read on where society is.

So if a hip-hop record is talking about I like bottles, I like models, and I like designer jeans, if you walk through your mall, you can walk in a mall that has no Black people in it and you’re gonna see a group of people who like bottles, like models and like designer jeans. If it’s preoccupied with materialism and wealth, it’s because general society is.

But there are voices just like in general society, voices of dissention like yours, like mine and like other peoples’ that are willing to say no, that’s not all I’m about. I’m about more. I’m about living life to its fullest. I’m about the intangible things, about love, forgiveness, concern for my other human beings, and that’s what I put in my music and that’s what others do.

Tavis: Now for those who didn’t see our show last night, if you didn’t, go to our website, pbs.org. You have to see the conversation that got this all started last night which led to night two of this conversation. When we left off last night, we were talking about forgiveness.

Render: Yeah.

Tavis: And whether or not, given what happened in South Carolina or, for that matter, what’s happened in other places of the country, whether or not forgiveness is the answer. You think not.

Render: No, I don’t think that forgiveness is not the answer. I think that forgiveness without dowry is empty and I don’t want it and you can keep it, you know. Forgiveness requires something.

Tavis: What does America owe its Black citizenry?

Render: What does it owe? It owes equal opportunity. It owes equal opportunity. The promise is there. Now we got a good opportunity, but we don’t have equal opportunity here and it’s time that we admit that and it’s time that we start making up for that. We live in a society where average white wealth is $111,000. Average Black wealth is about $9,000 to $11,000. Why is that?

Because wealth is mainly transferred through property. Property is old houses that get left to you. It’s land that gets left to you. It’s buildings that get left to you. Blacks have been kept out of the real estate game for over half a century. How? Redlining, refusal to sell to Blacks.

I grew up in a neighborhood called Collier Heights, the first nationally historic Black neighborhood in the United States recognized as. That neighborhood was bought at a 30% higher mark-up rate in a deal brokered by Maynard Jackson’s grandfather to move Blacks to the west side of Atlanta. Now they had to pay 30% more to have their own community.

What about the poor Blacks that couldn’t, that got marginalized and subjugated to housing projects? And that became an endless cycle, generation after generation. So you haven’t even been allowed in the wealth game. So what I’m saying is, to say I’m sorry to me is a good start, but what are you gonna do to make sure that I get fair and equal housing?

And if the government is not gonna do it for you–and they’re not–we should figure out how to do it for self. And that goes back to where does your money go? How many times is your money flipping your community? I own a barbershop. I own a barbershop ’cause I wanted to hire Black people…

Tavis: You own a couple of them.

Render: We own two, yeah, my wife and I.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Render: I own them because I wanted to be able to hire people immediately like, yes, you have a job. I wanted to directly service the community and directly know what’s going on in our community. But me owning barbershops, I’m not gonna own a Chinese food restaurant, but there’s room for a Black guy to do it and he should do it.

Because my Chinese neighbors that have the restaurant next to me, they don’t put any of that money back in the community and that isn’t me talking against them. They take their money back to wherever they live. They don’t donate to the football team, they don’t donate to the baseball team, they don’t put their money in a Black bank.

So what I’m saying is you have to start to attack. You have to have an economic enemy of sorts. You have to decide that whoever’s on the other side of my dollar, they got to look like me.

They got to be about my community, or they got to be local. Even if they don’t look like me, they got to be doing things locally, or I’m not going to give my dollar to them. So, you know, Black people got to man up. No one is gonna give us anything except the opportunity that we have in America.

Tavis: What makes you hopeful about the future, given all that is happening, whether we’re talking Trayvon or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or the church in…

Render: Yeah.

Tavis: What makes you hopeful about our future?

Render: I asked my grandmother one time. I asked Betty [inaudible]. I said, “Beatrice…”–that’s what I called her. It was my nickname for her because Betty was too plain. I said, “Beatrice, you always telling me go to church. You always telling me about God. How you know there’s a God?”

And she looked at me and she said, “I’m here, fool. I’m here, ain’t I? As long as I’m here, you know there’s the Lord. Somebody took care of your self.”

And I thought about it like, “Oh, man, like you did. You did give up the rest of your life.” So even if I can say, oh, man, I don’t believe in any religion, I have to believe that something divine has purposed that woman to make my life what it is.

She did not put this into me for no reason. She didn’t–her and my grandfather didn’t sacrifice the second half of their lives to raise me and my little sisters for nothing, so what gives me hope is I’m here. I’m here, and as long as I’m here, it is my job to remain hopeful. It is my job to speak on the behalf of my community and be in my community and do the right thing.

So what gives me hope is when I turn on to see Tavis Smiley, is when I see people like Tef Poe protesting at Ferguson still. It’s when I see the resilience of those people and even the forgiveness. I won’t ever spit on that forgiveness that that woman gave that young man in that courtroom. That gives me hope.

Who we are gives me hope and not just post-slavery when we was brought here. I have hope ’cause I know who the original people on earth is. I know who colonized earth before any Greek or any European, Alexander the Great, ever rode across anything. I give me hope ’cause I know what I’m made of, so how could I be hopeless is my question.

Tavis: You know what gives me hope?

Render: What?

Tavis: You [laugh].

Render: Thank you very much.

Tavis: And I mean that, man. I have been delighted to have you here.

Render: Thank you.

Tavis: We’ve been trying for a while to make this happen and…

Render: I’m very happy you did.

Tavis: And I hope that your wife, Shay, will appreciate the fact that we did this not one, but two nights.

Render: I think she will.

Tavis: ‘Cause there’s so much to talk about. His name is Killer Mike. He is one-half of Run the Jewels. The latest project is Run the Jewels 2 and you’ll want to get that if you want to hear more of what this brother is all about. Killer Mike, I love you, man. Good to have you here.

Render: Love you very much, brother. Thank you.

Tavis: Back at you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: July 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm