2016: The Year In Music

Killer Mike Talks Race Relations, Calls For More Minority-Owned Labels at MIT Lecture

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Killer Mike of Run the Jewels performs at the Lands End Stage during day 1 of the 2014 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park on Aug. 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California. 

About a dozen journalists, college and professional alike in awe of Run The Jewels as per their conversations in the hallway, shuffled in and pulled up chairs still warm from Friday (April 24) classes. Killer Mike was seated, waiting for his pupils by a wall of chalkboards tagged with stray equations, slowly picking at a plate of fresh fruit on his desk.

"You'll have to speak up." A smile clean across his beard, Mike apologized for being hard of hearing. "My ears are shot. I'm a musician."

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The first question from a student, about the "slave and slave master construct" of the music industry, cut directly to the topic of the visit: race relations in the United States. In turn Mike skipped any small talk, right away setting the tone for his installment of the ongoing MIT Hip Hop Speaker Series. For two-and-a-half hours, in class with the reporters then nearby on a leather couch in an unusually intimate lecture hall, no punches would be pulled or words whispered.

"We have been used and abused and we know that." Mike equated the major label system to "sharecropping," which he said differs from outright slavery only in that there is a carrot to chase. The MC also called for more minority-owned labels -- "We need more Rocafellas, we need more Bad Boys" -- and for overall rap liberation, propping his accomplice in RTJ on that front.

"What El-P said 20 years ago was right--be independent as f---." Responding to approving grins, Mike turned up the rhetorical dial. "If you want to pull out of that construct, you have to start your own farm. If you're an abolitionist, you're not going to get money from the federal government, so you have to get it on your own."

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A graduate of Morehouse College, the 40-year-old Mike's academic and activist stripes are as impressive as his rap credentials, and of late he's leveraged RTJ's enormous popularity to amplify progressive messages-- lecturing and writing op-eds, attending tonight's White House Correspondents' Dinner, challenging media outside of the hip-hop paradigm.

He grew up the son of a cop in Atlanta church culture, and was trained as a community organizer by civil rights icons; with the current heated climate around issues of police misconduct, he seemed a fitting choice of guest. Not everyone thought so though, and so after finishing his interview with journalists in class, Mike began his larger lecture by addressing a faceless student blogger who protested his appearance ahead of time.

"They asked me not to mention this," Mike told the crowd, adding that "colleges get scared when people write mean shit about the people they bring." Nevertheless, he raised his middle finger for the hater, blasted, "No one gives a damn about your blog," and explained, "I'm here because I'm qualified to be here." As for his purpose in accepting the school's invite: "I'm not here to get you to buy a CD ... I believe in smart people ... The intelligence in this room is the only thing that can save this country."

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Prompted by Ian Condry, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT, what followed was an almost dizzying intellectual volley. As audience members chimed in, Mike learnedly waxed about everything from public education ("No Child Left Behind left a lot of kids behind"), to corporations ("They are users and abusers of us all, but you have to make them work for you"), to hip-hop being taught in schools (the curriculum should move from the old school onward, and not the other way around), to great white hypes and cultural appropriation ("I give a f--- if your shit is dope; Everlast is dope, Vanilla Ice wasn't").

On vapid acts wearing political masks, Mike was clear: "Dumb rappers should just shut the f--- up and make dumb music that I hear on the radio in the middle of the day."

Whereas many radical MCs tend to be light on specific criticisms, Mike proactively incorporated current events as examples, at one point noting how Atlanta teachers who were recently found guilty of manipulating standardized exams were "put in an environment in which kids are taught to take the test." Building on his own experience as well, he expressed a unique sort of pessimistic hope, saying, "I don't believe the current powers that be are going to change anything."

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Mike also passed on an opportunity to level a wholesale attack on Washington, instead reasoning, "I'm not concerned with fixing politicians -- I'm concerned about the proletariat. To say there is a bogeyman means we don't have to change the lightbulb."

There were lighter moments, too. Asked by an audience member why the only female guest on Run the Jewels 2, Gangsta Boo, was asked to rap about "f---ing," Mike explained that, "Gangsta Boo talks about f---ing better than Barack Obama talks about politics," and assured people that if anything, Boo holds a position of power over he and El-P on the track.

More nods followed as the rapper compared the early days of hip-hop to those of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in how communities tapped into electrical poles and took over the commons. "Hip-hop has taken chances," Mike said. "It has really put its balls out there."

The wealth of technical knowledge in the room notwithstanding, on topics like community policing Mike, who is in a class all his own for rappers who steer clear of cliches, touched topics that few celebrities of his status would dare to broach. Namely, in addressing cop violence he called for the better screening  and training of soldiers, fresh back from occupying third world countries, before they're given firearms and dispatched to protect America's most vulnerable residents.

Bold but not the preacher type, Mike's missives, like his revolutionary musical output, went down smoothly. In not baselessly berating corporate entertainment, at MIT he offered more convincing insight into big label depravity than is typically aired by deliberate industry adversaries; likewise, without blatantly attacking contemporaries, he rendered his own message immeasurably valuable. Even among some of America's leading young technologists, Mike's answer on one of the few tech-specific questions of the evening proved enlightening enough to stir vocal approval.

Asked what kind of innovation he would like to see the MIT minds among him work toward, the MC asked for advancements that "put people in the same room." Short of that "proverbial campfire," he would at least appreciate something to help everyone retire early so they can enjoy life.

"Really," said Mike, "I need someone to invent a F--k-A-Job machine."