In part one of a two-part conversation, the prolific rapper discusses Hip-Hop music’s ability to be used as a tool of protest, empowerment, and social change.
Rapper Michael Render, a.k.a. “Killer Mike” – Part 1
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with one of hip-hop’s most creative and influential voices. Michael Render, aka “Killer Mike”, the prolific rapper who’s one-half of the successful hip-hop duo, Run the Jewels, joins us to talk about music’s ability to not only entertain, but to empower, enlighten, and transform society.
We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Michael “Killer Mike” Render coming up right now.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Michael Render, aka “Killer Mike” to this program. The popular rapper is one-half of the hip-hop duo, Run the Jewels, whose critically acclaimed album appropriately titled “Run the Jewels 2” was named the 2014 hip-hop album of the year by Rolling Stone magazine.
Mike is known for his ability to use his music to not just entertain, but also as a tool of protest, to empower, for that matter. To convince you of what I mean, first a look at a music video for the politically charged song, “Reagan”, perhaps one of his most thought-provoking tracks. Take a look.
Tavis: Strong stuff and yet I know you offer no apology.
Michael Render: No. I have no apologies to give. No apologies to give for the truth. Now you might suffer for the truth, but ain’t no apologizing.
Tavis: Have you suffered for it?
Tavis: In what ways?
Render: I mean, I’m an artist that is from the south and we are known for making hits that are danceable, that are jive even. But, you know, everyone doesn’t go the route of pop in popular music. And for every pop sensation, you have to have a Nina Simone. You know, you have to have a Miles.
You have to have people whom are popular, but they’re popular because they took the stand to say I’m not going to do what’s popular. I want to do what registers with my soul and I’ve always tried to do that.
The greatest compliment that I got probably this year besides Happy Fathers Day was Ice Cube, who I’m a student of and who I’ve admired for over 20 years, when asked about hip-hop and what he loved about it. He mentioned me and said, “I love Mike”, and he has continually done this type of music. He’s unwavering, and that was the best compliment I’d ever got.
Tavis: That’s high cotton when it comes from him, though.
Render: Yeah. It was O’Shea Jackson said that. It means something, absolutely.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, absolutely. O’Shea Jack, that’s exactly right [laugh]. You said a couple things now. I see it’s going to be an interesting show and I’m so excited to finally have you on this program.
Render: I’m excited to be here. My wife was angry with you.
Tavis: For what?
Render: Yeah, you got a Black woman mad. My household went cool for two days.
Render: ‘Cause I been trying to get on this show for like two years.
Tavis: No, no, no, no.
Render: Now we’ve been fighting–and you told the truth. You said, “Hey, it’s not time yet.” And I don’t know if it came from you or in the office, but it came and I walked down that hallway and I looked at all the prestigious people.
I stopped when I saw Bill Withers up there and I thought about just how noble he is and how honest and truthful and how long it took him to be officially recognized. I said, boy, you need to humble yourself…[laugh]. I ain’t said it to my wife, though, but I really am glad to be here.
Tavis: Not at all. First of all, let me say to your wife–what’s your wife’s first name?
Tavis: Sha. Hey, baby, first of all–check it. Second of all, we fight like the devil around here to try to make this thing work and get everybody on that we want on. So it was not about–no hate on your baby. We just tried to find the right date, the right time, the right place, and I’m honored to have him on the program tonight. Am I out of hot water now?
Render: Yeah. Is she in the back [laugh]?
Tavis: Oh, she’s here? Oh, Lord, Jesus!
Render: Right. By the time I told her we got the show, she booked the plane ticket in 15 minutes.
Tavis: I love it. I look forward to getting a hug from Sha when the show’s over with.
Render: And she watches your show, so thank you.
Tavis: I appreciate it. No, I appreciate all that and I appreciate your work and your truth-telling.
Tavis: Let me go back to something you said a moment ago which is the invoking of the name Nina Simone. Just saw a piece in The New York Times the other day, front page piece in the Arts and Leisure section, that was trying to unpack what it means that Nina Simone is back.
I mean, decades after her apex, now everybody is talking about Nina Simone. Documentaries, movies, t-shirts and everything else. Everybody now is into Simone. What do you make of the fact that sometimes when you are that committed to telling the truth, that it ain’t even appreciated until after you’re dead?
Render: It drives you, though. ‘Cause it’s a fire that’s in you that like, man, Nina could have made 100 different types of records that had instantly given her. I seen Janelle Monae do the exact same thing. I seen Janelle tell her truth the way she sees it and unrelenting, and I’m proud of her for that.
I as an artist have chosen that high road, but what if we hadn’t? You know, what if we would have did something else, the world would have missed an opportunity to rediscover.
So as an artist, you like money, you like fame, you like travel, you like those things. But what you really have to understand is that there’s something that’s in an artist that has to come out. Now everybody has talent. There’s some people who are talented in singing. They can sing, but that don’t make them an artist.
There are other people that have a fire inside of them that they must get out. The only way–you can’t put it out, you can’t stuff it, you can’t close it, you can’t suffocate it. It has to come out. So truth crushing earth’s gonna rise again. So with Nina’s music, whatever got forgotten now, I mean, back then, is rediscovered now. The fact that she’s gone is not the truth because her music is eternal.
Children are going to rediscover her. My seven-year-old runs around the house while Nina Simone plays in the morning. So for me, I say that I hate that a lot of artists, including myself, were overlooked for a lot of times. But when the world is ready, it is best that the music is there. It is best that the pain instilled is best, that it’s there, you know.
Van Gogh never received a dollar and he’s one of the most celebrated artists ever. And I’m glad that Nina felt some of the love while she was here and I’m even more happy now that her family understands what her legacy means to the world.
Tavis: See, that’s a beautiful example. I think about that Van Gogh scenario all the time. Van Gogh never received a dollar and now his stuff is selling for hundreds of millions dollars all these years later.
Tavis: What is the source? I can’t ask Nina Simone this question ’cause she ain’t here, but I can ask it of you, Mike. What is the source for you of that courage, that conviction, that commitment, that character, to tell these kinds of unwavering truths?
Render: I don’t know. Maybe if I knew, I could stop [laugh].
Tavis: What do you make of it? Give me your best guess where that comes from.
Render: Old people raised me. My grandfather was born in 1922. My grandmother was born in 1932. They were 54 and 44 when I was born. They didn’t have time to play or B.S. us. They just came to us for real. They came to us straight.
So that’s kind of the way I learned. Like my grandmother didn’t say, “Oh, you got bad grades. You’re struggling.” She said, “You’re dumb.” And if you didn’t want to get called dumb, “Well, Mom, you hurt my feelings. You called me dumb.” “Well, you brought in dumb people grades.”
You know, my grandfather, when I would ask him, “Well, Granddad, I’m tired. Why we got to get up and pick bait?” “Cause you got to fish.” “Well, why do we have to fish?” “Cause you got to eat.” Why we have the fish to eat?” “Cause I’m not buying meat this week.” [laugh]
So I learned the world from a very practical and real standpoint. So when I write music, I just try to write from an honest worker class perspective. Honestly, I see dignity and nobility in the Black working class and I have always tried to express that in ways in my music.
Now my music ain’t perfect. I talk about liquor. I talk about all the stuff bluesmen talk about. I was a kid raised in church. I was infatuated with the streets. So just like bluesmen grew up singing gospel and found the blues, yeah, but there’s a dignity in my music. And it’s going to be unrelenting until I stop making music because I see the value and particularly in Black people and Black men.
Tavis: Hip-hop has a number of–how might I put this. There are variations and iterations and gradations and flavors of hip-hop. You got your east coast flavor and you got your west coast flavor. There’s a different flavor coming from down south. You mentioned your grandparents. Situate for me growing up in the south vis-à-vis your music.
Render: Well, southern hip-hop has a morality. Well, hip-hop is the culture. Let me say, hip-hop is–there’s a movie coming out called “Rebel Kings”. Everyone, go see “Rebel Kings”. Why? Because you get to learn about these kids in the Bronx who organize for peace when they whipped gangs and eventually that peace led to hip-hop. So check that out. I don’t have anything to do with the movie except I like it.
But hip-hop is a culture in which kids used. Breakdancing, graffiti, rapping, entrepreneurship, and I’m forgetting one. But they use that to house the culture and they said we’re gonna have rap music be a part of that.
We’re gonna have our dance be a part of that, our deejay and our graffiti be a part of that, our business, and we’re gonna take that culture worldwide. So rap is what I do. It’s the part of the culture I do ’cause I was too chubby to breakdance [laugh].
Tavis: Although I’d love to see that.
Render: Yeah. I couldn’t do it.
Tavis: I’d pay for that [laugh].
Render: I tried to.
Tavis: Pay-per-view, Killer Mike is breakdancing [laugh].
Render: The best I could give you was a wave. But I ended up listening to a lot of rap from all over. And what has particularly–what has stuck out like a sore thumb to me is that, you know, we’re raised in the church in the south.
We’re raised by our grandparents. We’re raised in big families, so we’re raised with a sense of morale and morality that a lot of other hip-hop doesn’t. I ain’t saying it isn’t good ’cause our intellectualism is right out of New York.
You get it, you know, God’s earth, nation of Islam influences, but in the south, you have gangster rappers that talk about God and Jesus and it’s almost Shakespearean in the tragedy that they talk about crime. You get your good juke joint record stuff like that. But for me, it was the morality in the music from the Dungeon Family, from the Geto Boys.
You know what I mean? It was the provocative with sensibilities of the Luke and the 2 Live Crew. And later, even crews that you never heard of like the guys, Ghetto Mafia, who were from Atlanta. So for me, man, I always wanted to be a part of that legacy. I rap good, I make dope records, but my records have a sense of morality that you might not find in other hip-hop.
Tavis: To Bill O’Reilly and others who would say that it is oxymoronic to put morality and hip-hop music in the same sentence, you say what?
Render: I’ve never hit my wife. And it’s funny how Mr. O’Reilly castigates an art form because he understands it. And he understands that what he’s saying is a lie and he knows that that’s not the truth. He knows because he’s had conversations with Ice-T.
If you had a conversation with Ice-T from 1992 forward when he first started doing interviews, you have to walk away saying, “This is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met. He made his points concise and truthful. He was all the way open and honest and forthcoming with me. He’ll tell you there’s some good, there’s some bad. He’ll give you the pros and the cons, but it’s from an honest place.”
And if you can, after you talk to him, still say you don’t see the validity in hip-hop and the good it can do, then you’re a liar. And then when you propagate that rap causes violence and then we catch you doing something violent, your child catches you and it comes out, then you at least should have the shame to say I’m sorry and I understand that real violence comes from a different place.
And all of us men are capable of making that mistake and capable of doing something stupid. but to blame it on a culture that children created to have peace in their community is something that’s almost evil and maniacal.
And it’s the real reason why I really have a problem with Mr. O’Reilly because I don’t think he believes these things. And I think he sells that fear to white America and that fear becomes something compounded, evil and allows people to turn their head while children are murdered in the streets.
Tavis: Juxtapose for me the fact that most hip-hop music is bought overwhelmingly by white kids and yet, in the broader culture, it is oftentimes under attack by people like Bill O’Reilly and others.
Render: Well, I think what you’re seeing is a generational disagreement in the White House and the Black kids in the yard keep getting blamed for it. It happened with jazz, happened with rock and roll, happened with funk, happened with soul music. So we expected it to happen. It’s what’s gonna happen.
But you can’t argue that hip-hop rots away the moral character of kids, will rot their brains and still see middle class white kids going to college listening to hip-hop or going on to become healthy adults listening to hip-hop. You have to ask yourself what are these Black kids missing?
What are we not giving them by way of services, by way of school? What are we not giving their parents by way of equal pay? What are we taking away from them, you know, when we take services from them? So for me, I think that white kids listen to hip-hop because they love the truth in it or they love the fact that it’s jamming or they’re rebelling like some kids do against their parents.
But they see a value in the culture and I think, in the next 20 or 30 years, you’re gonna see hip-hop handled a dramatically different way because these children have grown up and they know that relatively it’s harmless. They’ve been to the clubs, they’ve been to the parties. They understand what’s real and what’s fantasy, and they have a greater capacity to think.
I think old people, unfortunately, are just sold a culture of fear via the television. And I think that if more people turn the television off and get out and congregate amongst people, we wouldn’t have these disagreements and misunderstandings.
Tavis: I mention hip-hop. You mention the White House. No secret here that the man who occupies the Oval Office is a fan of hip-hop, or at least certain parts of it. He’s bragged about the fact that he has it on his iPod. You know, he shouted out Jay-Z and others. Has this hip-hop president done right by the hip-hop community?
Render: I don’t think any United States President has done right by poor and working class people yet. And that doesn’t mean forever. That means in the 40 years I been on earth. I have not seen it done right. I did not see Ronald Reagan do it right.
I did not see George Bush 1 do it right. Clinton is often given overdue credit, I mean, credit that’s unwarranted based on the fact that nonviolent drug offense numbers soared in terms of the brothers that got taken off the street.
You know, I think our current president is par for course. Now that isn’t to take our president down. That isn’t to say he’s a shining beacon of hope for Black men in particular, because he is. He shows you that there is no ceiling.
If you conduct yourself in a way, if you put education first, trade and skill, you can maneuver your way through corporate society. We’re smart enough as individuals and collective to overcome racism. I truly believe that. But with that said, I want to see the day where someone who truly loves poor and working class people hold the Oval Office.
I wish to see the day that the salt of the earth human being is the person that’s first thought about in state houses and in the Oval Office. So for me, it’s less about has he been a friendly hip-hop culture, and it’s more about do we live in a country that is a friend to poor and working class people. Because essentially when we say hip-hop culture, that’s what we’re saying.
Tavis: As long as Washington–assuming that you agree with my assessment. I think you agree. I’ll find out. But as long as Washington is bought and bossed by big money and big business, is it possible that a friend of poor and working class people could ever be in the Oval Office?
Render: Absolutely not. You got to get money out of politics. You got to get that corporate money out. It just has to stop. It has to stop, you know. The money–the person who I think should lead Atlanta next…
Tavis: Killer Mike. Run for mayor, man. Killer Mike for Mayor! Kasim’s term is just about up. Killer Mike for mayor! I’ll come down and campaign for that. Put your name in the hat. I’ll be down there. I’ll go down there.
Render: I might one day. We need to get the concerts finished first. They hit me and they asked me for money for Hillary’s campaign. And I love him. If he was asking for money for his campaign, I’d send the check before the text came through, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Tavis: You say by him, you mean Bill?
Render: No, no, by the person, the politician I’m talking about.
Tavis: Oh, I got you, okay.
Render: He was doing a job. He was asking for money to bring her through it. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I know how much money’s going to her campaign. That money’s better served with a local politician. That money’s better served doing something for an after-school program. It’s better served in the community guard. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Tavis: Let me ask you a question. Could you not bring yourself to do it just because you know she and Bill are gonna back up a Brinks truck here in a few weeks and start unloading money everywhere, or could you not do it because of her public policy positions?
Render: I don’t like her positions, all right? I don’t like her positions.
Tavis: All right.
Render: And I haven’t been fond of the claims in the way my community has basically because of the unwavering support of drug laws in the 90s. Like I didn’t forget that. I didn’t forget that there are men that are just coming home that were given unfair sentences. I’m unable to turn away from that and say everything’s okay, because it’s not.
Tavis: We should unpack that for those who are watching who are trying to figure out what he means by this. When Clinton was president, he signed into law that crime bill where you had to get caught with 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to get the same sentence.
We all know that crack is used in the streets and cocaine is used in the suites. So you know who went to jail and that’s Mike’s point. So I just wanted to unpack that for those who can’t figure out why you bashing Clinton on the drug…
Render: Well, not bashing, not bashing. I’m just saying this is my point of contention.
Tavis: That’s fair enough, fair enough.
Render: Yeah. I don’t bash politics as a whole.
Tavis: I didn’t mean you were bashing. I’m sorry.
Render: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that’s y’all Black president, number one. But I just am not a–my memory’s long and I don’t forgive easily. That’s just something I haven’t been able to do.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. One of the best things about Black people, I think, is that we are such a forgiving people. Witness what happened in Charleston the other day and white folk are still trying to figure out.
Even some Black people are trying to figure out how those Negroes could be so forgiving of a killer who has, at this moment at least, not even repented publicly for what he did. So one of the best things about us is that we are a forgiving people.
Render: I don’t [laugh].
Tavis: I want to hear your take on this. My point is, I think that cuts both ways, though, ’cause I think we also have short memories and I think that that is damaging for us sometimes when our memories are so short. Now unpack what I just said.
Render: I’m not, you know…
Tavis: You don’t think we’re forgiving, or you think…
Render: No, I know we are too forgiving. You know, I know we are.
Tavis: Too forgiving?
Render: Yeah. Dr. John Henry Clarke said the African don’t owe anybody anything but an [bleep] whipping, you know. He said the African has no friends. You know, everyone we have dealt with on a nation’s time, since antiquity forward, has at the end of the day, the sword has ended up in your back and it’s only because we’re so forgiving and so all-encompassing and so trusting.
And it isn’t to say that you can’t like other people. It isn’t to say that you can’t accept someone if they ask for you to beg their pardon. But wait for the ask. I can’t forgive that quickly.
Tavis: If you don’t and if we as a people don’t historically forgive, then how do we live?
Render: You live with better negotiated things than we have. What has forgiveness got you? Less farmland? Unstable neighborhoods? Poor jobs? No economic support in terms of entrepreneurship?
Tavis: But forgiveness can’t just be about commerce, though.
Render: It has to be. Why?
Tavis: But it can’t be.
Render: It has to be.
Tavis: If it’s born of a Christology, it can’t be.
Render: Yeah, but I’m not a Christian.
Tavis: Okay, that’s you, though. I got that [laugh].
Render: And all Black people aren’t Christians.
Tavis: I got your point. I get it.
Render: Someone asks me, “Well, what are you?” I say, “I’m whatever Black people was the day before an invader came…[laugh]. Whatever doll they worship…
Tavis: That’s what your down with?
Render: That’s me. I’m with that. So what I mean is, to forgive or to ask reconciliation has to come with something. Like, “Mama, I’m sorry I didn’t rake the yard.” I got a whupping! I asked for forgiveness. I still had to rake the yard. You get what I’m saying? So if I forgive you, take the flag.
Tavis: But by that…
Render: If I forgive you, take the flag.
Tavis: I got you, I got you.
Render: If I forgive you, well, this flag doesn’t lead to hatred. He had a flag in every picture with a gun.
Tavis: I get you.
Render: As a token of good will, take the flag down.
Tavis: And I agree with you on that. And my assessment is that it shouldn’t have taken all of this for the flag conversation to come down in the first place.
Render: Hey, I’m just saying…
Tavis: I’m with you.
Render: Now that we at the forgiveness table, what you got? When I ask my wife to forgive me, I got to go to Louis Vuitton, I got to spend $3,000. I got to come home, hope she forgives me that day.
Tavis: I imagine Sha…
Render: Yeah! So why in the world do we…
Tavis: But let me take a next step, though. If our brothers and sisters in South Africa after apartheid had taken your attitude…
Render: They have a country…
Tavis: If they had taken the attitude of John Henry Clarke and not have put in place that truth and reconciliation commission, Mandela’s point even was the country would have fallen apart.
Render: Everybody who was a part of the truth–my mentor was Alice Johnson. Alice Johnson was head of the Atlanta/Fulton Commission on Children and Youth, and her mentor was James Orange. For y’all who watched “Selma”, he was the guy driving across…
Tavis: Love James Orange.
Render: Yeah, I know James Orange for real. Yeah, I don’t know James Orange’s character. Until he died, I called him. I talked to his kids. So what I’m saying is, with all that said, with all the truth [inaudible] hearing me say I’m sorry, they cried, they hugged, some people still went to jail.
And the problem with that, ’cause I loved it at the time when I was a younger man and they told me about it, I thought it was beautiful. I think we need to do something like that in America. But after we reconcile, why don’t I own any of the land? Why does the beer still dominate the diamond market?
Tavis: But why does it have to be either/or, Mike, and not both/and?
Render: What I’m saying is, we didn’t be the and. When we gonna get the both? When do both people get something out of the deal? We done the and for the last 51 years in this country. We’ve done the and. Look where we at now ’cause we both ain’t got nothing.
Like what do we own? What have you acquired in exchange for your blood, in exchange for your sacrifice, in exchange for accepting the I’m sorry? You get what I’m saying?
See, follow groups of successful people and see what they did post the forgiveness and the apology of the world. The world told the Jews of Germany we are sorry. We ignored you. They knew they were being slaughtered. They knew and afterwards, they said we’ll figure it out. We’ll get you a land. We’ll help you be a country.
The world saw the horror of Hiroshima in Japan. And after it was done, we gave them industry and look what they became. So all I’m saying as a Black man, if you ask me for forgiveness, be prepared to give me something or keep your forgiveness in your pocket or take it to your church.
Tavis: I’m out of time tonight. I’m gonna continue this with Killer Mike, so come back tomorrow for night two of this. The latest album is called “Run the Jewels 2”. Killer Mike is one-half of the duo behind this project. We’ll continue our conversation with him. I got a few more questions for this Negro and we’re gonna continue this tomorrow night. Until then, 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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