About 20 seconds into R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike punches you in the brain with a pulverizing “Pow, motherfucker! Pow!” It’s one of the many head-hammering charms of the 37-year-old rapper and activist’s sixth studio album, a record that’s gleefully loud, achingly personal and stridently political, never more so than on the Iran-Contra-citing centerpiece “Reagan.” Over production from New York underground hip-hop robo-wizard El-P, the MC, born Michael Render, is able to connect the dots between Reagan and the United States’ legacy of violence in an honest, unflinching manner that puts most pundits to shame.
I caught up with Mike on the phone the week of the Democratic National Convention, and he was eager to talk year-end lists, the similarities between Reagan and Jay-Z, and why his songs should inspire hope.
R.A.P. Music came out back in May, so you’ve had some time to think about its reception. Did anything surprise you about how the public reacted to it?
Surprised meaning I didn’t expect good things? No, I expected good things. I’ve just been surprised that things have been great. For the last couple records I was kind of accustomed to making the end-of-the-year lists, but it’s very refreshing to be towards the front of those lists and to be called and hailed as the rap album of the year. With this record I’ve had my name mentioned next to the likes of Nas and Big Boi, and coming from an independent guy who made a record with Adult Swim, a TV network, I think that’s pretty dope. It’s just a testament to the almost Don Quixote-like journey I’ve been on in trying to establish myself as an artist. The payoff feels good.
You’ve always been vocal about reading your own reviews. What do you think about the critical response this time?
I’ve been bothered by reviews in the past. In this country we’ve been taught to think in twos: I’m a Democrat or a Republican, I’m a conservative or I’m a liberal. We’re very polarized. I am a good person or I am a bad person. Everybody in America cheats on their taxes. [Laughs] Everybody in America likes to feel—even if it’s not through church or religion—that they’re a good person in some moral way. So what I’ve come to represent in my music is I pretty much give you my whole humanity, and my whole humanity consists of: I very much give a damn about my people, but I also very much give a damn about all people and the likes of all human beings. With that said, I like smoking weed with my woman and going to strip clubs and looking at insanely obnoxious shit. As a human being I don’t have a conflict with that, and I think that early on writers felt that I needed to be either Chuck D or Luke Skywalker, and I’m neither. I’m just Michael. And the public gets it cause I embrace my habits and contradictions. Shouts out to Schoolboy.
I was thinking about your song “Reagan” while watching the Republican National Convention because there were discussions about using a Ronald Reagan hologram at one point.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was amazing.
Why do you think Reagan remains such a fixation for Republicans and even Democrats?
Reagan is a fixation because Reagan was not a U.S. president. Reagan was a corporate salesperson and former actor. He was a celebrity. This country was insured to Reagan before he became president because they had watched him and swooned over him in B-movies from the black-and-white era. Once Sonny Bono got in politics everybody I’m sure wanted to go to his party ‘cause he was a musician—Jesse Ventura also. I’m not comparing their politics to Reagan as much as I’m saying celebrities that move into politics, people swoon over them because everyone likes famous people.
Reagan just happened to be the Jay-Z of that shit. [Laughs] No insult intended. That’s because in rap Jay-Z is the perfect pitch man. We love him. We adore him. Black people base their relationships on him and Beyoncé. So imagine if how we as a hip-hop community look at Jay-Z but for old, retired white people and people who have a lot of money—[Reagan] is their Jay-Z. He is this country’s Jay-Z essentially. And that’s not to say their politics are alike or they’re alike; it’s just to help people who are young and into hip-hop understand the significance of the celebrity of Reagan. He could do no wrong in the same way in our eyes people like Jay-Z and Beyoncé can do no wrong.
Back in May I read in an interview that you weren’t going to vote in the upcoming election. Do you still feel that same way?
No, I was just using that as a shock statement. Look, I always say that I may not vote. This time I chose to say it because I wanted people to pay attention to the guy behind Obama and apply that social pressure of saying, “Something’s wrong.” Whenever 98 percent of a constituency vote for a president or vote for any elected official, we all suffer. African-Americans in particular are suffering under President Obama. He could at the very least do something as simple as the decriminalization of marijuana. That would allow jobs to come into the community, that would allow alternatives to paper, that would allow medical marijuana to be in abundance for people who need it and cheaper, and it means young people won’t have to worry about getting arrested.
Personally I feel like, based on a multitude of other things, I should threaten, “Why should I go out and vote?” I definitely think we should threaten that. But for my people in particular, there’s a blood oath invoked. My people have literally died and put it all on the line, and I believe that I will and always should vote in every election based on that. That’s also true of the women’s suffrage movement and the more general American movement to be liberated from Britain. I think that as an American, it’s my duty and as an African-American, it’s my blood oath to always vote in an election.
While watching the DNC this week, have you been more excited about voting for Obama?
I didn’t say I was voting for Obama. [Laughs] I didn’t say who I was voting for. I’m watching the RNC, I’m watching the DNC, and it’s great political theater. I thought that Michelle Obama gave a stirring speech. I also loved Clint Eastwood’s speech, so I’m one for one so far.
In your songs you’ll talk about how both political parties are liars. Do you ever worry that that type of rhetoric can inspire cynicism about politics?
It shouldn’t inspire cynicism; it should inspire hope. As long as you’re part of the process, change can happen. I don’t tell people to disengage from the community—I tell people to engage it. So, yes, both sides are liars, which means you should engage liars and force them to tell the truth. If your mayor is a liar, don’t not show up at City Hall—show up with 100 people for it and pull the city in. I believe that you should be more active in the presence of liars and not less active.
This article originally appeared in the CMJ 2012 festival guide.