Killer Mike is a contrarian, the kind of man most satisfied when he's unpredictable. A conscious rapper who praises drug dealers and a black empowerment advocate who criticizes President Obama, he's opinionated, loud and passionate every hour he's awake; getting in a word edgewise is out of the question.
Many folks know him as the highly touted OutKast protégé who won a Grammy with the group in 2003 but never quite achieved the solo commercial success expected of him. Just as he appeared to be settling in for a long career as an outspoken MC with a passionate underground following, however, he released PL3DGE, a new album on which he dares to court the mainstream with, by his rough estimation, nine singles fit for radio.
He expects to acquire hordes of new fans drawn to poppy collaborations with Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy and T.I., not to mention a remix with his long-estranged mentor, Big Boi. But he then plans to promptly alienate them by way of a mainstream-inaccessible work with esoteric New York producer El-P, titled R.A.P. (Rebellious African People) Music, due out later this year. "It's a project that says, 'Ha, you liked [PL3DGE]?'" says Mike. "'Fuck you.'"
Mike discusses both albums while smoking a joint in El-P's living room, a couple of months before the release of PL3DGE — the third installment in his venerated I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series. An oversized, generous man who is focused and sharp when he's sober and enthusiastic and prone to rambling when he's high, he makes the case that he "wasn't ready" for mainstream stardom in the past, and contends he's not bitter that he's not a household name. "Bitterness is like an IV, not like a faucet," he says, meaning that it flows constantly and you can't turn it off. "How can I be mad at this? I rap. I can make $50,000 a year rapping. I can sustain the audience I have."
He's quick to add, however, that he's now ready for more, and believes PL3DGE (which came out on May 17) to be his best shot at the title. While the work contains his trademark vitriol and political jabs — particularly on early single "Burn" and "That's Life II," which calls out Bill Cosby, Oprah and various conservative pundits — it has more than its share of mindless party fare, including "Animal" with Gucci and "Go Out On the Town" with Jeezy. Mike says that Bob Marley's example taught him "you can't revolt every day," and that party music, by offering a release, is as important as message music.
But he's absolutely serious about matters concerning his record label, Grind Time Official, which put out PL3DGE as a joint venture with Grand Hustle. In fact, his struggles with running it in recent years convinced him to reconcile with Big Boi — with whom he'd split five years ago due to the fallout after Mike left Big's Purple Ribbon label. The beef apparently got physical at one point, and Mike says both parties were forced to roll "15, 20 people deep" when they went out. But he adds that he no longer blames Big for the unraveling of their partnership because he now knows how difficult it is to run a record company. "It's hard to be responsible for people," he says. "When you got to sell off two of your rental properties to keep your label going like I did, you goddamn right it's hard. That's when I said, 'I get it.'"
The pair's reunion is going so well, in fact, that they're planning an album together, along with Grind Time affiliate Pill (who recently signed to Rick Ross's Maybach Music label).
"I was there," says El-P. "I was sitting in Stankonia with [the trio], and I saw them call a meeting and decide to do a super group. I definitely felt like a fan."
But for a certain segment of the hip-hop community — the one that adores both the Dirty South and the golden era — it is the collaboration between Mike and El-P that is the most tantalizing. Because, as good as PL3DGE is (and it's one of the best rap albums of the year so far), the pair's joint LP together has the chance to be something unprecedented — a progressive, gothic rap masterpiece.
New York City is overrun with El-P fanboys, the twenty- and thirtysomething kids who grew up on the backpacker hip-hop of his label Definitive Jux, which shuttered last year. And so, he makes this reporter swear on his copy of The Cold Vein that he won't give away any hints about the location of his Gotham apartment.
Its interior, however, looks exactly like the space you'd expect to house this crafter of epic, dystopian opuses — a repurposed warehouse space with multicolored walls and records stacked nearly to the ceiling. There's a sense of controlled chaos: As Mike smokes and scribbles lyrics, El works in the studio and his cat sleeps calmly on the couch in the midst of it all.
"We have a skeleton," Mike says of R.A.P. Music, the news of which shocked and delighted the rap blogosphere when it was announced at the end of last year. The project came together through their mutual friend Jason DeMarco, a Turner employee who suggested the pair collaborate on a project for Adult Swim. Though initially the plan was to pair Mike with a number of different producers, he fell for El's work immediately. "It felt like the closest thing I'd heard to Bomb Squad beats," he says, referring to the crew (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler) that created Public Enemy's riotous soundscapes. "I'd always wanted to rap over beats like that, that felt changing and driving, and you couldn't predict what was next."
The pair bonded during an Atlanta session in December, and apparently even more so in New York. (Shortly after Mike's arrival the two got shit-faced and play-fought. Mike kicked him in the chest, but El warned him, "You'll kick my ass, but if we fight you'll walk away changed. You'll never be the same again.") In any case, they plan to make a whole album's worth of tracks together, provided that El — in the midst of work on his own record — can find time for a full-length. The handful of songs they've finished are flush with El's signature dark, industrial layers, and Mike's overconfident baritone fills the space like few of El's associates can. It's a dream pairing of sorts, and it works because of the contrasts — the rap mecca and the current rap capital, the art world and the street corner, the experimental and the polished.
Having reappeared from his studio with a Yankees cap on his head and a cigarette between his lips, El says his goal with this collaboration is to take Mike away from the Southern sound. "Because, you are Southern," he recalls saying during their game-plan conversation. "Anything you do is going to be Southern, so you don't have to make the same record as everyone else, sonically. ... You're expanding what the South is."
Mike has taken to favorably comparing El with rap production royalty Kanye West, and their work together has been so fulfilling that Mike's small financial remuneration for it doesn't bother him. Although, the same can't be said of his wife. "Me and my girl have laid there and talked about that. She's like, 'They paid you what? I can't even buy a car with that.'"
For Mike, the collaboration is about his continuing evolution as an artist, even if that means briefly putting on hold his evolution as a businessman. As long as it involves defying expectations, he remains satisfied.
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