The walls at Graffiti's Swag Shop, a modest storefront tucked into a Southside strip mall, are immediately engaging. Splashes of bright color, a smattering of vivid portraiture, and the printed visage of a well-known local civil rights hero animate the room and give it a distinct if fragmentary identity — a lively place amid nondescript neighbors. When the owner arrives in a white Expedition he is cool and robust and carrying a bag of tasty-looking take-out provisions, a move that elicits a hearty cheer from his employees.
Rapper Mike Render — better known as Killer Mike — purchased the former Red Oak Barber Shop with his wife and started the new business last November, the main intent being to offer a haven "where men can just be men." (As he intones later with a poetic gleam, "Everybody's Al Capone in a barber's chair.") But for a man who has spent a career espousing the virtues of black self-determination, the shop is a money-where-his-mouth-is gesticulation, a solidification of the sincerity you always suspected.
Mike maintains that sincerity, often despite piercing feedback. A recent wave of controversy over his response to Jesse Jackson's call, post-Trayvon Martin, for a ban on assault rifles — black people, he asserted, should join the NRA and literally arm themselves against the "subtle terrorism" of racial inequity — seems to have had had no chilling effect. "Why am I gonna listen to [Rev. Jackson], who's lived in Chicago the last 50 years, about how relevant gun ownership is to me?" he remarks.
"I think the black community extracts itself from the American experience to its own fault," he laments, perched in an unmanned barber's chair. "People say the NRA supports voter suppression, but they [also] support your right to carry firearms. Use the organization you perceive as oppressing you as a tool. Use them to your advantage." In person, Mike is a thoughtful and erudite dude who tends to lose himself to tirade, a quality of character that leads some to paint him as belligerent and hubristic but that ultimately underscores the zeal and commitment with which he lives. Every move he makes, including the space in which we currently sit, seems designed as a statement.
The new album is an exclamation. R.A.P. (Rebellious African Peoples') Music, out this week via local imprint Williams Street Records, explodes with unchecked passion. A collaborative affair with onetime Company Flow member and Def Jux founder El-P, it is the culmination, in a way, of a decade of missed opportunity. "I've been waiting 10 years to make this record," Mike explains. "Like, Gucci [Mane] is supposed to make records with Zaytoven, I'm supposed to be making records with El."
Mike became a household name toward the end of the Dungeon Family's Atlanta reign, even winning a Grammy in 2003 for his spot on OutKast's "The Whole World." (A framed picture hanging near the shop's entrance shows Mike holding the trophy alongside his late grandmother, a beaming woman wearing a white tee emblazoned with the words I LIKE RAP MUSIC.) Still, his solo albums, while laced with Mike's trademark veracity, were missing a sonic spark. Enter El-P, whose funk-blasted, retro-futuristic production style is a perfect vehicle for Mike's impassioned lyrical delivery. Mike himself has compared the union to another famed meeting of minds: the partnership between West Coast MC Ice Cube and East Coast production group Bomb Squad that yielded the hood classic AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. He's also called R.A.P. Music his "finest work to date." He's accurate on both accounts. From the unadulterated power of opener "Big Beast" to the pointed socioeconomic critique that is "Anywhere But Here," the album's 46 minutes unfold like a long-expected manifesto, a materialization of what Mike has strived his whole career to express.
But is it too late? R.A.P. Music lives largely in the past; its affinity for the culturally explosive music of its creators' formative years is nearly dogmatic. ("Reagan" features a sample of the titular baddie as heard denying an Iran-Contra cover-up.) And Mike himself admits to the unlikelihood of such a politically minded missive having the same kind of impact as cultural lynchpins like AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted in a society that by most accounts is less civically engaged. "If people get angry enough," he begins to hypothesize, then falters. "If [there are] 15 Trayvon [Martins] in one week, maybe. We're so passive now, probably not. But it's my job to do it, to say it. I'm just commenting on conditions that I see, because I know the product of those conditions is often explosions and violence."
The lyrical bombs that blast throughout R.A.P. Music are often concerned with police. "Don't Die" is a particularly angry salvo against "dirty pigs" that ends with a potent invocation of a certain N.W.A. mantra. The focus, Mike explains, stems from a long history of personal experience with corrupt, badge-flaunting renegades littered throughout what he maintains is a respectable line of work. The rapper whose father was a police officer laments the pervasive taint these "bad cops" have on the profession. "I know a bad cop when I see one," he says. "[But] I'd be a fool not to want black cops in the community. I want cops in the community that come from that community, that understand it, so we can have real community policing."
Community is the theme to which we return throughout our conversation. Atlanta remains the only home Mike has ever had and will ever want. "Atlanta is black men owning businesses," he explains, "black families having big homes. The Atlanta I grew up in, [there are] blacks of every class living next to [other] people — some black, some not." For all his fury at the system that has disenfranchised thousands like him — and his occasional frustration with the folks that lead the struggle to right the wrongs — Mike is still enamored with his surroundings. "Atlanta [is] the post-civil rights city that worked. I think that's the real legacy. All this foolishness we be doin' as rappers is just something for the old guys to laugh at," he says with a conciliatory chuckle. "They did this on Simpson [Road] 50 years ago."
Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music is available in stores and on iTunes on Tues., May 15.
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