Why Killer Mike’s Grammy wins matter

Before he claimed the top Grammy prizes for his new album, the rapper thought about quitting
Killer Mike accepts the award for best rap album for "Michael" during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Killer Mike accepts the award for best rap album for "Michael" during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Roughly 10 years ago, before winning the Grammy for best rap album, Killer Mike once told me the story about how he almost quit rapping for good.

After the release of his breakthrough bars on 2001′s Grammy-winning OutKast song, “The Whole World,” the Adamsville native thought he’d made it as a rapper. He was on a song with idols Andre 3000 and Big Boi who also signed him to their joint label, Aquemini Records.

06/12/23 - Decatur -One half of the legendary rap group OutKast, Big Boi was in attendance for Killer Mike's listening party for his new solo album “MICHAEL.” Mike talked about how Big Boi was the person that gave him a chance in music. A packed room was filled with friends, family and fans Monday night, as one half of the group Run the Jewels shared the entire album. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

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Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

At that same time, the upstart emcee was trying find footing in an industry with record labels prescribing his rap person for him.

“At the time, the companies had been Elektra and Columbia, and essentially it was like, ‘Big black guy, let’s figure out how to make him a Biggie-esque type figure.’ Although I could rap my ass off and had clever lines, that wasn’t the totality of me,” he told me in a 2015 interview for the website Pigeons and Planes.

At the time of the interview — one of dozens we’ve shard since 2011 — Killer Mike was enjoying newfound success as one-half of the alt rap duo, Run the Jewels. The group was two records in, and Killer Mike, along with partner-in-rhyme El-P, were enjoying career resurgences.

He was taking time to reflect on the starts and stops that followed Andre 3000 leaving Aquemini, Big Boi starting his own record label, Purple Ribbon, and the lack of control Killer Mike had over his own career decisions.

Big Boi saw Killer Mike’s future potential, despite a lack of larger industry support. So Killer Mike went independent, self-releasing projects and selling mixtapes from the trunk of his car. He was his own boss, but wasn’t happy.

“I know I wanted to stop. A couple of times my homies wouldn’t let me. Sometimes my wife wouldn’t let me. Sometimes I wouldn’t let myself, and I didn’t stop. I know if you don’t stop, something going to happen,” he said.

In the time since that quote, a lot has happened for Killer Mike. At 48 years old, he won the aforementioned best rap album award for “Michael,” his first solo release in over a decade. He also took home awards for best rap song and best rap performance for the single, “Scientists & Engineers.” As far the major rap categories at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, it was a clean sweep.

There was one caveat: the announcement, Killer Mike’s acceptance speeches and the gravity of the moment weren’t televised.

Immediately after winning, Killer Mike found himself in handcuffs. According to LAPD, he was detained after a physical altercation and booked on a misdemeanor battery charge. While detained, he told me via text message that “Over zealous security” was to blame for the incident. When asked again what happened, the Adamsville native kept it unsurprisingly mum.

“Man, ain’t nobody talking about all that mess. I walked on with three Grammys. I took beautiful pictures, man. I got the job done and it was a beautiful time. I swept an entire category yesterday. That’s what I got to say about it,” he said.

At home, Killer Mike’s tussle with security was secondary to the feeling that his win, years in the making, felt like a W for all of Atlanta. “Michael” resonated with every resident that proudly wears an “A” hat, suffers through sports heartbreak, celebrates the city’s history, and debates its present with positive hopes for the future.

Michael Render, aka Killer Mike, is a rapper, songwriter, actor, and activist. Speaking to the recent nationwide protests, he says, “Now’s time to plot, plan, strategize, mobilize.” Photo: Steve West

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“He was raised on MLK to Civil Rights Movement. All the things we love about this city, us as natives, Mike speaks to in the album,” says longtime Atlanta music industry veteran Nick Love.

Love has guided several Atlanta artists, and says Killer Mike has always been one of the city’s most “loveable underdogs.” Others that fall into this category, Love says, include late rappers Trouble, Bankroll Fresh and DopeBoy Ra. The latter was managed by Love and collaborated with Killer Mike on the song, “Frustrated Young Man.”

Drake and other artists took to social media before, during and after the show to question its relevance to hip-hop and rap music. Despite the primetime audience not being able to bask in Killer Mike’s glory, the Grammy win matters, Love says. Regardless of whether you agree with the artist’s outspoken political views, Killer Mike claiming a title not held by an Atlanta rapper since Ludacris’ “Release Therapy” in 2007 is a big deal.

“Mike is a pillar in the community,” Love said. " I know people differ on this, but for me personally, if someone’s going to speak on behalf of Atlanta from a hip hop perspective, Mike is the one I want to talk on our behalf. Mike is never going to embarrass us.”

Rapper Killer Mike speaks Friday night during a news conference with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

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The morning after his big wins, Killer Mike’s mind was back home. He’d claimed music’s top spot, and looked good doing it in an ensemble styled by Dedrick Thomas of the Atlanta bespoke clothier Hideoki. However, the highlight of his wild 24 hours came via a phone call the next morning.

“What sticks out to me the most has nothing to do with last night,” he said. “I woke up to a phone call that my son, who’s been waiting on a kidney for the last two and a half years, is on way to his hospital right now to get surgery, to get the kidney.”

Killer Mike was still in Los Angeles, heading to the airport to get back for his youngest son’s — 21-year-old Pony Boy Render — surgery, when he spoke exclusively with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The feeling of finding out about his son’s good health news trumps all three of his Grammy wins, he said.

Monica Pearson speaks with Killer Mike during the AJC show, filmed, Friday, December 15, 2023, in Atlanta. Her celebrity interview show on the AJC will be similar to her WSB-TV’s “Monica Close Ups.” Pearson brings five decades of experience to new talk show. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Still, how does the guy who wanted to quit rapping feel about bringing his “Super Bowl” trophy home?

“They’re going to see how much this means to Atlanta because ‘Michael,’ as an album, wasn’t just about me,” he said. “It was about me and this city, this beautiful, wonderful city nestled in the south that creates opportunities and makes winners.”

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