Killer Mike: Atlanta’s proud, Grammy-winning Grady baby

AJC contributor Sonia Murray looks back at rapper’s road to victory
Killer Mike speaks with Monica Pearson (not pictured) 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

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Killer Mike speaks with Monica Pearson (not pictured) 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)

It is as much about the construction of a new edifice in this city as it is a reflection of what’s been built in this city. And it arrived in the unassuming form of a Grady hospital commercial with a Killer Mike voiceover.

There, in as short as 15 seconds, we can marvel at how much hip-hop in Atlanta has grown in the culture’s half-century of celebrated existence.

“Born in Atlanta, that means something here...”

As the widely accepted story goes, the global phenomenon known as hip-hop began Aug.11, 1973, in the recreation room of a back-to-school fundraiser in the Bronx, New York, with DJ Kool Herc on the turntables.

Two years later and some 800 miles south, Michael Santiago Render was born in Adamsville. And in the 48 years since, seemingly everything influential, important and impactful about Atlanta’s hip-hop scene has informed Render’s ascension into rap’s highest circles as Killer Mike.

Killer Mike of Run The Jewels performs at the Bunbury Music Festival on Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Cincinnati. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

icon to expand image

He is an artist, activist, actor, journalist and businessman, all while projecting and being Atlanta. His musical achievements, critical plaudits, memorable TV and film appearances, political sway and community investment are proof.

By the time he was 17 and nearing adulthood, his city’s music scene was in an infancy of sorts.

1992 was the year TLC’s album “Ooooooohhh . . . On The TLC Tip” was released on LaFace Records, the recording label launched here in 1989 by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.

LaFace Records artists Usher (left) and TLC pose with label head L.A. Reid in the Atlanta office in 1995.
(Courtesy of Sheri Riley)

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

That same year, Chris Kelly and Chris Smith introduced themselves as Atlanta rap duo Kris Kross, releasing their first single, “Jump.” It held the No. 1 spot for eight weeks and made Jermaine Dupri, the College Park teen who discovered the group in Greenbriar Mall, a sought-after producer and millionaire.

Jan. 10: Singer Rod Stewart, 67; actor William Sanderson, 64; singer Pat Benatar, 59; singer Shawn Colvin, 56; singer Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies, 48; actress Trini Alvarado, 45; singer Brent Smith of Shinedown, 34; and rapper Chris Smith of Kris Kross, 33 (pictured, left).

Credit: AP

icon to expand image

Credit: AP

Also in 1992, Dupri’s record executive father Michael Mauldin was instrumental in the launch of Atlanta hip-hop ensemble Arrested Development. The next year the group won Grammy awards for best new artist and best rap performance by a duo or group.

Atlanta in the early ‘90s was home to several established R&B acts, like Peabo Bryson, Cameo and The S.O.S. Band. There were also rappers, such as Raheem The Dream, Kilo Ali and MC Shy D, who were locally known and loved.

But unlike Bryson, Cameo or Kilo Ali, the triple threat of TLC, Kris Kross and Arrested Development signaled to the country that new and exciting artists were originating in Atlanta — not just moving to the metro area after they’d made money and realized they could get a bigger mansion for their buck here, as opposed to New York City or Los Angeles.

At 25, Render made his debut on OutKast’s “Stankonia” album (also on LaFace Records), on the single “Snappin’ & Trappin’”. And in 2002, just a year later, he received the music industry’s highest honor: a  Grammy Award for his buoyant contribution to the OutKast single “The Whole World.”

Killer Mike @ Big Boi and Friends Big Night Out

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

icon to expand image

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

In 2006 Render appeared again with OutKast’s Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “Dre” Benjamin, in their film debut, “Idlewild.” He followed that appearance the same year with a cameo in fellow Atlanta rapper and friend T.I.’s theatrical debut, “ATL.”

Interestingly enough, it was when he teamed up with the arguably lesser-known Brooklyn rapper and producer El-P to form Run The Jewels — and becoming aligned with the Atlanta-based cable television programming block Adult Swim — that Render began garnering a commercial and live audience of his own.

RUN THE JEWELS

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

icon to expand image

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Killer Mike was no longer a featured act or a guest star.

The 2016 presidental campaign saw Mike as a visible, aggressive surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, with whom he shares a huggable agitator persona. Keep in mind that, as a as native what is widely regarded as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, Mike earned his social bonafides early, with community organizers like Rev. James Orange as neighbors and mentors.

Hip Hop artist Killer Mike, left, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center, and Atlanta mayoral candidate Vincent Fort sit together during a campaign rally at Saint Phillip AME Church, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

icon to expand image

But it was May 29, 2020, that was Mike’s breakthrough moment, at least thus far. Crowds were gathering outside downtown Atlanta’s CNN Center in protest of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some destroyed property in Buckhead and further south.

Rapper Killer Mike spoke out against the killing of George Floyd and against rioters in the city of Atlanta.

icon to expand image

“It is the responsibility of us to make this better right now,” Mike implored, his voice cracking as tears fell, during a press conference called by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms with police officials and T.I.

“I don’t have any good advice, but what I can tell you is that if you sit in your home tonight instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan strategize and organize and mobilize in an effective way.”

Atlanta native and rap entrepreneur Mike Bender, better known as Killer Mike, has become a new member of the High Museum of Art's board of directors. CONTRIBUTED: HIGH MUSEUM OF ART

icon to expand image

Killer Mike pleading with his city to not destroy his city — while at the same time seeming to understand why some would want to see such destruction — galvanized movements, media pundits and more, across the world. (And serial entrepreneur that he is, he has the t-shirt, hoodie and other merchandise to capitalize on it.)

Chuck D opened his four-part 2023 PBS documentary, “Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World,” with Mike’s exhortation on the night Atlanta felt like it was going to be set aflame, again.

And it is that same heft and resonance that imbues the new Correll Pavilion at Grady commercial.

Which when you really step back and look at it, that it exists at all is notable in its own right.

One of the knocks critics had of hip-hop, early on, is that its catalogs and artists were disposable indulgences of the moment. It was believed these artists would never be around long around to be used in commercials, as if they weren’t capable of evoking the kind of warm, harmless nostalgia that has long been marketed through the use of rock and pop music figures.

Now here we are, with one-time gangster rapper Snoop Dogg selling security systems. We see Atlanta rapper Ludacris playfully mumble-mouthing through a Jif peanut butter commercial.

And Adamsville’s own Michael Santiago Render, who records under the name Killer Mike, is the literal spokesperson for a place that’s in the business of saving lives.

File photo.  (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for KROQ)

Credit: Emma McIntyre

icon to expand image

Credit: Emma McIntyre

To borrow from the latter commercial’s tagline, hip-hop is also a voice for Atlanta born, now raised, and duly celebrated.

About the Author