Brash, opinionated and often roll-on-the-ground hilarious, Killer Mike has never been one to bite his tongue.
“If you know me or are a friend of mine or are an acquaintance or even have ever been around me, you know I am what you see. And I have thoughts and opinions about the world,” the MC and one-half of rap duo Run the Jewels with El-P says when calling from New York one recent evening. “Being a creative, you can say this stuff to people, but if they can’t see it and only hear it, you just sound like a fucking madman screaming in the middle of the street. But once you can show them and give them an example, then there’s a possibility to create something that’s a real progression.”
It’s why the 43-year old rapper and longtime political activist and community organizer in his native Atlanta says he felt compelled to create his new Netflix show, Trigger Warning With Killer Mike. Debuting last week, each of the six episodes that comprise the first season find the man born Michael Render confronting urgent and oft-divisive sociopolitical issues that face him, the African-American community and our country at large. These are including but not limited to poverty, gang violence and systemic racial oppression.
“I’ve wanted to do this for 10 years,” Mike says of the show — created with his longtime friend and former Adult Swim producer Daniel Weidenfeld — which threads the needle between entertainment and education. “You entertain and also give people some food for thought,” he explains of what he sees as the show’s modus operandi. “Or at least allowing others to start to understand the world from other perspectives.”
What the show makes plainly clear — and as anyone who has spent time with Mike can surely attest — is that the colorful chatterbox of a man is practically a walking history book ready to unleash a poignant, fact-based argument at a moment’s notice. Still, Mike — who stumped for Bernie Sanders in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election — admits he’s long felt hampered by his day job as a rapper whenever he enters these sorts of arenas. “I love rapping. I’m a nerd about this shit,” he says. “But there’s been times definitely in the past where my job got in the way of me being taken seriously.” He references his plight as similar to a pair of exotic dancers he follows on social media who he calls “two of the most intelligent people out there.” Like them, whose opinions he believes are dismissed simply because of their chosen profession, he too sees rappers being discriminated against or at least not being respected in an intellectual capacity.
“I didn’t want to be a rapper doing a shtick by having a show,” he explains of Trigger Warning. “I wanted to be an interesting human being who happens to have a job of rapping. That’s my job, but my perspective is one of my own as an individual. And it was really cool to be engaged as such. Even within the conversations I was having [on the show], the people I talked to would first see Killer Mike and then it dissipated and they really got to Michael. And I’m really talking to the person. I didn’t want to be Killer Mike. I wanted to be Michael Render.”
If there’s a central conceit to Trigger Warning, it’s namely that we as a society are by-and-large firmly entrenched in our preconceptions. To put it bluntly, we need to be awakened to new realities. Trigger Warning then, Mike says, is perfectly suited for the highly polarized times in which we live. “We need to stop yelling at one another,” he says of the divisive political climate. He says he’s long strived to escape any self-imposed echo chamber of a belief system and instead reach his hand across the proverbial aisle. His method? “Trying to learn and listen and gather and listen from those who are qualified to teach from every sphere I can.”
As he recently learned, however, this open-minded attitude, and the way in which he almost never filters his thoughts, can sometimes get you in hot water. Last year, Mike, a longtime gun-rights advocate, came under fire and was widely vilified for an interview he gave on the National Rifle Association’s online platform, NRATV. Airing the same day as the student-activist-led March for Our Lives rallies demanding gun control and reform in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Mike appeared to scrutinize the march.
“I told my kids on the school walkout, ‘I love you, [but] if you walk out that school, walk out my house,’” the rapper said in the interview, referring to student walkouts protesting gun violence. “We are a gun-owning family, we are a family that my sister farms, we are a family where we’ll fish and hunt, but we are not a family that jumps on every single thing that an ally of ours does because some stuff we just don’t agree with.”
In the days that followed the interview airing and the subsequent backlash on social media, Mike apologized via a pair of videos he released on Twitter. “I’m sorry that an interview I did about a minority — black people in this country — and gun rights was used as a weapon against you guys,” he said addressing the student activists. “That was unfair to you and it was wrong, and it disparaged some very noble work you’re doing.”
Now, when asked to reflect on that interview and its fallout, Mike is hardly so apologetic.
“I had a conversation with a black man on a format that neither of us own, but we talked about the black community,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets about that. If you don’t like the format, that’s fine. What I know is African-Americans in this country are only 55 years into freedom. And there is no group of people that are 55 years out of apartheid and when it’s currently said that you have a tyrannical leader of that nation, that would be willing to disarm themselves. I’m not willing to give up my freedom yet. If you don’t like where I said that, fine. If you say, ‘Fuck the NRA!,’ fine. I’ll co-sign you on that.”
And did Mike learn anything from the experience? “I simply learned that my community doesn’t rock with [the NRA],” he says. “That’s fine. I rock with my community. But I also learned which people were dogs that had masters and attacked me. I’m glad they showed themselves to me early so now I can only organize and only mobilize with the people who are really doing the work and are not just talking heads.”
While his admitted attention at least for now is on Trigger Warning, Mike says Run The Jewels fans should be pleased to know that he and El-P are getting in the studio any day to begin work on their fourth album, RTJ4. “I was talking to EL-P about the studio when you called me, Mike says. “So hopefully while I’m up here [in New York] we’ll try to get in there but otherwise I’m trying to convince him to come down to Atlanta.”