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Killer Mike: Pain and Champagne

photographer Michael Schmelling

Returning to the roots of Southern rap, Killer Mike found his own extraordinary future.

Despite it’s mythology, Stankonia is actually just a big studio in a plain office building on a particularly non-descript stretch of Atlanta real estate. The Purple Ribbon complex nestled in the industrial park across the street makes even less of an impression from the outside, save for the Killer Mike “Coming Soon” promotional posters taped up and down the entire front-door glass. Inside, grape walls hold all manner of Outkast memorabilia—enormous blown-up photos, plaques from the ’90s when platinum records still came with a cassette, even an orange Nickelodeon blimp Kids Choice Award. All the decorations are engraved to Antwan Patton, save for a single gold record on the wall by the water fountain, celebrating 500,000 copies sold of Killer Mike’s debut, Monster. “That’s not RIAA certified,” Mike would later explain. “It’s for total worldwide sales; I still haven’t gone gold here.”

The lack of wall presence in the building Killer Mike now helps represent stands for a lot more than sales figures. Despite his relatively recent addition to the fold, Mike has always been tied more closely to Outkast than any other member of the Dungeon Family. While that has taken him around the globe, thrust him into an ever-widening spotlight and even won him a Grammy, it’s also hindered Mike from truly establishing himself as a solo artist in his own right. He’s always been the “outcast of Outkast” as he says. Yet with his second album, Ghetto Extraordinary, Killer Mike has a fresh start, another chance for the rest of the world to see him simply as Killer Mike—not as Big Boi and Andre 3000’s gangster little brother, but as an original rapper with something to say. He can only hope people will listen.

America’s first real exposure to “Killer” Michael Render came five years ago, on Outkast’s Stankonia album. With that record, Kast cemented their position as a critical and commercial powerhouse, primarily on the strength of “Ms. Jackson”’s timeless pop emotion and the rock-leaning guitar insanity of “Bombs Over Baghdad.” Both were massive crossover successes—think of all the people who will admit they don’t listen to any rap music “except for Outkast”—but wedged inbetween those two singles on the Stankonia tracklisting was “Snappin and Trappin.” That song was a Killer Mike showcase, and he used the opportunity to spit unrepentantly triumphant D Boy-isms (“I take raw coke, cook it crack, Saran Wrap it/ One muthafuckin’ verse, already it’s a classic”), threaten to punch you in the mouth and “duct tape your baby daughter”, and basically just come off hard as hell—even as Outkast was making some of their most widely accessible music to date.

Since then, Mike’s MO seemed to be serving as “the epitome of raw rhyme” while Big and Dre filmed Regis And Kelly segments, acting as street ambassador for Outkast by lending his larger-than-life, violent delivery to hits like Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared.” The only problem was that Mike’s solo record, Monster, didn’t hit at all. He was about half a year too early for the crunk explosion and hip-hop’s subsequent fascination with all things Southern—and without any extra push, Monster never quite left the ground. As a result, many people were left with a one-sided view of Killer Mike: the guy bellowing on other people’s records about sex, drugs, murder or some combination thereof. However, Killer Mike is far more complex and thoughtful than that. “I listened to 8Ball and MJG growing up, and came away with more than just a story about pimpin,” Mike explains. “I listened to Scarface and came away with more than just a drug story—there was a certain moral.” With his new record, Killer Mike wants to keep that classic mold of Southern rap alive, one where conscious thugging is not an oxymoron, but a way of life. Crime tales and floss can go hand in hand with underlying awareness. “Look at UGK’s Dirty Money—they were saying no matter what kind of money you got, legitimate or illegitimate, it’s all dirty, it’s all blood money. That’s a highly politicized statement—I just want to keep those values alive. It’s the only way I know how to make music, it’s the only way I’m gonna make music.”

With Ghetto Extraordinary, Killer Mike does exactly that, striking a balance between hyping people up with get-dragged-out-the-club crunk like the Three 6 Mafia-produced “Get Em Shawty”, and slipping them a message about police brutality on the same album. “Niggas Down South” might sound like a smoke-out, ride-out sort of track at first, but it’s really a call for unity below the Mason-Dixon. Even the ominously bumping “Bad Day Worst Day” dares enemies to try and test, while managing to criticize Fox News (Tell Bill O’Reilly, ‘fuck you, whitey’). “There’s a place for everything,” Mike insists. “I like all that street shit. But I know that if that’s all I give people, it’s not enough.”

One of the most interesting facets of Ghetto Extraordinary is the introduction of more upbeat “playa shit” to Killer Mike’s repertoire. Lead single “My Chrome” is a perfect example; over a stuttering, woozy track that sounds damn close to UK broken beat, Mike switches his style from amped-up barks to a much slower, laid back approach. “It made me shift gears and not attack a beat, but ride with it,” he admits. “One of the things I wanted to do with my album was get back to the roots of Southern music—I couldn’t see how ‘My Chrome’ was going to let me do that, but really, it’s some playa shit. It’s cool, it’s classic, and this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

The hook of “My Chrome”—You don’t have to go home/ We can stay right here/ Put one in the air/ While we bending corners on my chrome/ Same shit different year/ In this Southern hemisphere—encapsulates the aesthetic Killer Mike had in mind when he first envisioned Ghetto Extraordinary. “I wanted to show people the dignity in the playa shit. Gutter, ghetto, glamorous—the pain and the champagne in the same envelope.” Other tracks take a similar tact. The Andre 3000-produced “Gonna Go To Ghana” is sophisticated electro-disco that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Negroclash mix, and SA-RA’s “Doin It Well” provides Killer Mike with even more of a new, spaced-out dance sound. “It made me feel high,” Mike admits. “This how the fuck I feel at the club, this is how I like feeling. I had to return to that playa shit, I done killed enough niggas.”

By trying to go back to his roots, Killer Mike actually ended up expanding his sound, and becoming much more of a multifaceted artist. “There’s a way to make good music, and there’s a way to make music that’s good enough,” Mike says. “I want to make good music. I’ve already made music that’s good enough.” Ghetto Extraordinary succeeds on that level, but the question remains as to whether it can successfully establish Killer Mike as more than a sidekick. “My Chrome” sounds like nothing else on the radio—which is both good and bad, as far as being added to playlists is concerned. “I need one of these singles to do well so I can tour, expose myself to a bigger audience. All bullshit aside, I need a white audience,” he says. “I need the Montanas and the Kansases.”

Being part of the Outkast camp has let Mike see what making quality music and wanting to connect with people can do. “One hit song can change your life,” he says. “But having a string of hits can change other peoples lives.” Mike has a crew, Grind Time, that he wants to put on Purple Ribbon and establish as an entity in itself, a la the original State Property/Roc-A-Fella situation. But before any of that can happen, he still has to establish himself, and start filling up Purple Ribbon’s interior with trophies of his own. “When I get to do my shows for thousands of people, it’s going to be because of something I did, not just because I’m a spinoff of the TV show called Outkast,” Mike says. “Nobody remembers the Jeffersons came from Archie Bunker. Cause the Jeffersons were that fucking good.”

Killer Mike: Pain and Champagne