For rapper Killer Mike, independence is key. The Atlanta native born Michael Render launched his career with 2003's "Monster" (Columbia Records), but label issues delayed the highly anticipated follow-up. Three years later, in November 2006, his second album, "I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind," was released through his own Grind Time Official imprint.
For his sixth album, "R.A.P. Music," the 37-year-old took a different route. With four indie releases to his name, Killer Mike parlayed voice-over appearances on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block into a record deal with the company's Williams Street Records, which will release "R.A.P. Music" on May 15. The partnership proved unusual but fruitful: In addition to pairing Mike with a pitch-perfect producer in underground rap legend El-P (a relationship forged by Williams Street's Jason DeMarco, who handled A&R for the album), the label also gave him creative freedom.
"For me, independence is what has given me a 10-year career," Killer Mike says. " Ice Cube's success for a few years was going gold independently. For Odd Future, staying independent has worked. If a label wants to change your life and give you a million dollars, I'm not going to tell you, 'Don't do it.' But, for me, independence has worked."
Killer Mike's relationship with Adult Swim goes back five years, during which time he's performed voices for the show "Frisky Dingo" and provided the song "Blam Blam" to the soundtrack to "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters." The soundtrack experience led Mike to approach DeMarco about doing an entire album. With producers Flying Lotus and Clams Casino in mind for the project, DeMarco paired Mike with El-P eight months ago for a test run in Atlanta. The session yielded three demos and a "bromance" that led to a full-length collaborative effort.
According to DeMarco, the chemistry was immediate. "El's and Mike's aesthetics are so defined that the songs almost came into being fully formed," he says. Williams Street, which also has released albums by Cerebral Ballzy and Cheeseburger, plans to integrate tracks from "R.A.P. Music" into Adult Swim shows and hopes to work the album through the rest of the year. "When a record like this is really good," DeMarco says, "it has a longer life span than one with just a couple of great songs."
Killer Mike's manager Joe Baker explains that working with Williams Street opens opportunities to tour through the rest of the year and gain new fans from El-P's "backpacker" fan base. Baker says Mike and El-P will co-headline a tour this summer with opening acts Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and Despot.
Given his experience so far with Williams Street, Killer Mike hopes to release more solo albums in 2013, and intends to record all future solo sets with El-P. In addition, he confirms plans for a group album with Big Boi and Pill, references recent studio sessions with T.I. and Grand Hustle signee Iggy Azalea and is looking to compile a sequel to 2009's "Underground Atlanta." He and El-P have already begun picking beats for the successor to R.A.P. Music.
"I hope it does whatever they need it to do so they'll cut us a check to do another album," Killer Mike says. "I want this record to go gold, I want it to come out of nowhere and shock the shit out of everybody. Hopefully word-of-mouth and smart use of money will help that happen. I want Adult Swim to say, 'We've got to do this again.'"