Over the past decade, fairly or unfairly, Southern rap has become known as carefree party music, content to ignore social issues while shooting Patron and dancing the "Stanky Legg" and the "Laffy Taffy." But Atlanta MC Killer Mike is an anomaly, a righteously furious spitter who rails against politicians and wields the fire-and-brimstone message of a preacher — though he thinks preachers are corrupt, too.
Best known as a member of the Dungeon Family (the Atlanta-based crew that also features OutKast and Goodie Mob), Mike has soldiered on as those groups have ground to a halt. Expectations were once sky-high for the rapper, whose given name is Michael Render: he won a 2003 Grammy for his appearance on OutKast's "The Whole World," but his career has not subsequently taken off the way he and his fans hoped. He seeks to change that with his latest album, PL3DGE, out May 17, which is radio-friendly and chock-full of bold-name guest stars. But in the meantime he is working on an artsy, defiantly noncommercial project with noncommercial project with venerated New York producer El-P, the former head of erstwhile label Definitive Jux. And so he finds himself straddling the mainstream and underground worlds. "This takes me totally out of the box," he says.
Then again, Killer Mike has long delighted in confounding people's expectations — or even pissing them off. "They won't give them autoworkers jobs in Detroit. ... Don't blame that on Bush, nigga, put that on Clinton's men/Sometimes the devil come, it's your friend with a stupid grin," he rapped on 2008 track "The Devil Is a Lie." The rotund rapper is gregarious in person but can be absolutely punishing on the mike. Thematically, he often takes to task those he feels are responsible for ills in the black community. PL3DGE — the third in his revered I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series — does not skimp on these issues, particularly on "Burn." "I suggest that you get yourself a shotgun/So when they come to evict you can make 'em run," he rhymes. "The banks got bailed out, but we still sufferin'/So I got a gun, 'cause I done had enough of them."
Elsewhere on the album, it's a different story. Many of Mike's collaborators are big, chart-dominating names who aren't identified with conscious rap — like Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and T.I. — and some of the tracks are downright danceable. "You can't revolt every day," he says in an interview. "What do most people do to get their [frustration] out? They go dancing. They go out on the town, they get drunk. I had to learn that, like Bob Marley, you must talk about the struggle ... and you must have something that's for people to party and release."
Indeed, the new album contains some of Killer Mike's most infectious music yet, and seems likely to broaden his fan base. But at the same time, underground fans are anxiously awaiting his next project, tentatively due out later this year and called R.A.P. (Rebellious African People) Music. Funded by cable cartoon network Adult Swim, R.A.P. pairs Mike with El-P. Early snippets of R.A.P. suggest it will be flooded with the driving, post-apocalyptic sounds El-P is known for. Combined with Mike's bombastic down-South flow, the work aims to break down preconceived notions of what Southern rap can be. After all, hip-hop in recent years has become a highly divisive culture that often pits regional sounds and artists against each other. "It's a chance to flatten out and obscure those lines that separate" rap subgenres, says El-P, describing the music as "street shit meets progressive beat shit."
Make no mistake: R.A.P. won't likely be a lucrative collaboration. In fact, Mike says his lady was incredulous when she heard about his small advance. But the indie project could offer him great rewards — specifically, the long-term loyalties of a passionate fan base. The East Coast–focused, racially diverse group of backpacker kids who came up on Definitive Jux music in the '00s have been lamenting El-P's decision to shutter the label last year, and remain firmly devoted to its aesthetic. Killer Mike was someone they most likely didn't have on their iPods — if only because Southern rap is stereotyped as music backpack fans abhor. You get the feeling, however, that once they get wise to Killer Mike's fierce, message-heavy style, they will become permanent members of his congregation.