While I think I’ve already said it somewhere before, it bears repeating and repeating time and again: I’m not one to speak at length about hip hop as a genre. Yes, I’ve got some personal touchstones within its boundaries, but I’m woefully undereducated when it comes to the overarching community and culture behind it. Which is why it’s good to have friends who can pick up my proverbial slack on A Scene In Retrospect episodes such as this one, where I’m once again glad to refer you to our resident hip hop heads David and Dan for a thoughtful discussion of Killer Mike‘s R.A.P. Music.
‘This album was created entirely by Jaime and Mike’
This spoken word intro to “JoJo’s Chillin” by Killer Mike just about says it all when referring to his last solo album, R.A.P. Music, produced entirely by Jaime ‘El-P’ Meline and laying the groundwork for their colossally successful duo collab of Run the Jewels. Well, actually, if I were to really encompass this album into a bar or two, it would probably be ‘I don’t make dance music, this is R-A-P/Opposite of that sucka shit they play on TV’.
Predating El-P’s also-last solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, by a week, which houses a Killer Mike feature on “Tougher Colder Killer”, R.A.P Music is indeed the first released pairing of Mike and El, and what a first meeting it is. Gun to my head, I’d say this is probably my favorite rap album ever, definitely of the last decade, and now it’s nearly ten years old! Yes, it’s been that long. No, I am not okay, thanks for asking.
I remember the first time hearing Killer Mike (well, outside of his feature on “Bust” from OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below double LP). It was late at night, [adult swim] ruled after-dark TV for non-X-rated entertainment, especially in my age group (early 20s), and I hear a song unlike the stuff they used for their commercial bumps/interludes between shows. You know the ones – all-black background and bold white text that’s soothing in your dark room, sardonic wit that often addresses the audience directly.
This particular bump was plugging R.A.P. Music. After all, it was released on Williams Street Records, an indie label based in Atlanta (where Killa Kill is from) and the music wing of Williams Street Productions, which is managed by Cartoon Network, which in turn hosts the [adult swim] block. The music I was hearing? “Southern Fried” said the pasty [adult swim] text. I ended up looking up the album and, while I can’t remember specifics beyond all this, I remember getting my dick blown the fuck off by it.
I was years into an ongoing discovery tour of hip-hop, new and old, getting a feel for its regions, getting into underground artists, the whole thing. I was engrossed in it. I was into extreme music as well, exploring metal and other harsh genres the world over thanks to friends who had gigabytes upon gigabytes of music to share. But for hip-hop? It was a smaller affair with my friends sharing stuff they liked, uplifting artists like Das Racist, Le1f, Lakutis, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire (now known as Mvthabrain), and other Greedhead Music affiliates. All of this musical spelunking and I still found R.A.P. Music to be one of the hardest, most incendiary albums I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre.
I mean this with every fiber of my being: every song on this motherfucker goes ignorantly hard. They all have an expressed purpose and they’re all quotable to varying, though consistently high degrees. And it all starts with one of the best album openers I’ve ever heard in my life, “Big Beast”. It’s not too often you see an album open with a posse cut – yet another way Mike was on some shit with this album – but that’s what you get here, enlisting Bun B (yeah), Trouble (all right), and T.I. (eh) to lay some ground rules of keeping shit real in ATL. Everyone but Bun B is from Atlanta, but he obviously fits in with his Houston flair and veteran status (RIP Pimp C while we’re at it). It’s all gangster, yes, but Killer Mike takes things to a whole new level with his aggression that smacks of his recent Run the Jewels work:
‘Lurkin’ in the club on tourist motherfuckers
Welcome to Atlanta, up your jewelry, motherfucker
These monkey ni**as looking for some Luda and Jermaine
And all that ni**a found was a Ruger and some pain
Pow, motherfucker, pow – come up off the chain
Pow, motherfucker, pow – one off in the brain
We some money hungry wolves and we down to eat the rich
Your bodyguard ain’t shit, we strip him like a stripper bitch’
This is all over one of the most wild beats El-P’s ever produced up to this point, or even since to some degree. Built around samples of LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” and Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s “Blow Your Head”, this is some explosive production. It calls to mind some late ‘80s Bomb Squad shit (who also sampled “Blow Your Head” for a Public Enemy song) with huge drums and bum-rush speed. Everyone does their thing – yes, even T.I., who I detest a person – but Killer Mike isn’t one to be undone with another verse at the end, and it’s here that another thesis for R.A.P. Music shows itself: ‘We the readers of the books and the leaders of the crooks’. It’s even on the album cover.
This is what you’re getting when diving into Mike’s world. Like Rage Against the Machine before him, there’s a radically learned quality to his rawness. His music is profoundly street smart, carrying immense generational trauma, and doing all he can to claw his way out the bucket of crabs threatening to hold him back with brains and brawn. Throughout the album, he likens himself to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X (among others) in the sense that him speaking up and being as real as real can get about systemic issues could have dire consequences. Remember – and Mike’ll remind you as well – those men and other revolutionary-minded individuals of the civil rights era and beyond were often assassinated for doing what they did.
This is a weight that’s carried throughout the entirety of R.A.P. Music, represented best on “Reagan”, the song that Mike’s best known for as a solo artist. The beat could be on any Def Jux album – it’s morose and eerie. Synth hums create paranoia like a drone stalking from behind. Drums throb like a headache, and spoken word samples ground it all in reality, but a nightmarish one. Using former US president/current gender neutral bathroom Ronald Reagan and his shit policies as connecting thematic tissue, Killer Mike lyrically lights a blunt, takes a puff, and flicks it onto a kerosene-soaked US flag as he challenges issues within his own communities, the war on drugs, and government establishment in general. It’s full of hard truths for some, and straight facts for the rest – seeing anything Mike says with authority here as anything but says more about you than it does him.
‘The end of the Reagan era, I’m like ‘leven, twelve or
Old enough to understand that shit’d changed forever
They declared a war on drugs, like a war on terror
But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly Black boys, but they would call us ni**ers
And lay us on our belly while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and money as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policin’ for some profit
But thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits
‘Cause free labor’s the cornerstone of US economics
‘Cause slavery was abolished unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshittin’, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they givin’ drug offenders time in double digits’
By this time, I was well into my college career as a criminal justice major, learning all about civil asset forfeiture, three-strike laws, stop-and-frisk laws, the war on drugs, systemic oppression, and so much more than Mike either directly talks about or references. What was a bleak, but ultimately safe study for me in my urban commuter university was a stark reality for Mike growing up along with tons of his peers and family, especially growing up with a father who was a cop. Which brings me to the next song I wanna talk about…
“Don’t Die” is the power fantasy of the album, though one that’s not any sort of ideal superhero situation. It sees Mike flex his storytelling muscles, detailing an encounter with racist, overstepping cops who break into his home without a warrant looking for someone on the run. He proceeds to beat the brakes off of them in self-defense, one cop shooting another in the scuffle, Mike shooting one, but ultimately escaping – a fantasy in and of itself for a Black man, regardless of guilt, to escape corrupt killer cops, even if you have no desire to bring harm to them yourself.
‘Second cop shot, but the bullet hit his partner
Shot him in the leg and he hit a main artery
Now the dirty cop’s looking at me
Talking ’bout he kill a ni**a if I try to flee
Shit, I’m about to lose it, so he gon’ have to prove it
All because the government hate rap music
I’ve been labeled outlaw, renegade, villain
So was Martin King, so the system had to kill him
A ni**a with an attitude, the world gotta feel him
Educated villain, intent on livin’
If I gotta kill a copper just to make it out a building
That motherfucker gettin’ left dead, no feelings’
El-P’s production is ridiculously dystopian here – right up his alley. Deep, cold, mechanical synth(?) strikes punctuate the adrenal violence of the track. This is contrasted with futuristic synth whines and moans under the second verse. More traditional, knocking drums lay a foundation and keep a rhythm, but almost seem inconsequential compared to those anxious, haunting elements that pervade.
I don’t think some people really understood how much of an oddball pairing Killer Mike and El-P initially were. While Run the Jewels has odder moments, especially on their first two albums, R.A.P. Music was definitely the prototype. That’s not to say it’s undercooked or not fully realized here – El does just about everything in his power to tap into more traditional rap conventions for someone like Mike to slay – but you can physically hear this album as the bridge between El’s solo production, which is way weirder, and what would become RTJ’s still strange stylistic melding for El’s experimental abstraction based in urban decay and Mike’s hard-bodied, unapologetic Southern flair.
I must also shout out “Ghetto Gospel”, which has one of my favorite verses in all of hip-hop. El-P chills the beat down a bit, night and day compared to the previous two tracks, for Mike to reflect on the reality of jail or death being the endgame for so much of the Black community regardless of path taken, and how a safer, better way is often not feasible.
‘I pray the Lord hear me, but really Lord is ya listenin’
Prayin’ when I’m in trouble, I’m speakin’ with forked tongue
I say I’m out the game, but I’m flinchin’ like George Jung
I must be in the clutches of Satan, it’s all warm
My mama took me to the root lady to read my palm
She puts beads on my neck, say they protectin’ me from harm
But fuck this old witch, I went and got a gun’
That last line in particular hits so hard, showing that to the mortal street hustler, the protection of God and spiritual-based magic are fallible. You can’t count on a miracle or spell to stop a bullet coming at you in the streets, or the cops catching and sending you to jail indefinitely, forcing you to take matters into your own hands. You can argue it portrays the cycle of violence specific to gang and drug life in hoods the world over, sure, but to me it’s a display of desperation to stay one step ahead of those who want you gone by any means and doing what you believe is best for you with the resources you (don’t) have.
And that was just the first verse. The second verse shows the bigger picture implied by the micro, personal view of the first:
‘And my tour bus is a moving indictment
This must be how Huey felt when the revolution failed
And in Oakland, ni**a turned him on to a sack of yayo
You know this feeling false but it feels like yeah
I may have lost my cause but not a reason to rebel
Revolutionary or drug dealer I’m in jail
And the COs call me ‘ni**a’ either way when I’m there
Just like they did Pac, just like they do Mumia
Just like they doing to Mutulu or Assata if they see her
And ain’t no justice if it’s just us in court’
Killer Mike’s reflections on Black life and its incompatibility with American politics, racist institutions that value white life above it (though property and money above all else), and greater capitalist society are poignant without feeling preachy or hamfisted. Mike’s one of the realest deliverers of this sort of mentality – one true to the full name of this album: Rebellious African People Music – using expert wordplay, deft references for the hip-hop head and activist alike, and he’s someone with his own story to tell.
“William Burke Sherwood”, named after Mike’s grandfather, is the most personal cut on the album, going through his life, meeting his wife Shay Bigga, becoming a father, losing friends to the streets, linking it all to the importance of strong father figures and the men who become them. It’s absurdly touching, showing that behind the Southern confidence, braggadocio, and kill-or-be-killed attitude you have to adopt to survive, Mike’s got heart. He’s got compassion. He highly values his family who raised him to be the person he is (I recall the line from RTJ’s “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”: ‘Product of a teenage love, my arrogance derives from the pride and the job my parents did’) and seeks to be the same for his kids.
R.A.P. Music is a keen showing of a well-rounded character, but Mike’s not acting – he’s truly about this life. He is a reader of the books and a leader of the crooks, down to put his life on the line to be a truth teller, but never forgetting the real purpose he has: family. It’s a dichotomy that plagues plenty of people in marginalized communities, where one has to weigh the desire to contribute positively to others and with each other while not eschewing personal responsibilities to teach your own how to be better than the ones before, all while keeping your own head above the waters of sanity. Easier said than done I’m sure, but something Mike seems to navigate well through his music and relate to many others going through the same thing.
Most importantly though, R.A.P. Music shows the ability for music to be that helping hand or that tool of relation and education. The final song on the album, the title track, exemplifies this in the best possible way, likening rap music to religion for Mike and how it can save and change lives, and himself to a preacher of that religion:
‘What I say might save a life, what I speak might save the street
I ain’t got no instruments, but I got my hands and feet
Hands gon’ clap and feet gon’ tap, El-P beats to make that snap
And I ride ’em with my raps, and they all tight as my naps
And my naps is all I got, and this beautiful ebony skin
And the music in my heart, and the words put in the wind
And the words put in the wind comin’ back like a boomerang
When I take this microphone, point it at the crowd, they start to sing’
It turns music into the beautiful thing it is, and it’s something I can relate to a bit. I’ve never been religious or spiritual in any way and I aim to keep it that way – no gods, no masters after all. But I feel something with music that I don’t feel anywhere else, something that’s hard to explain. It’s a freedom of sorts; a feeling of weightlessness, where it can connect with my consciousness freely and without inhibition, stimulating my mind and providing a number of boons depending on what I’m listening to. Music can make me feel strong, emotionally fulfilled, validated, happy, hopeful. It can also cradle me in times of needs when I’m sad, angry, and lost. It’s an empathetic, knowing voice in your head, even if there are no voices at all. That’s the beauty of it all, and it’s why I love discovering more of it, listening to it, and it’s why I love writing about it. Maybe it’s how I choose to feel spiritual after all.
To this end, the hook of “R.A.P. Music” says it all:
‘This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel
This is sanctified sex; this is player Pentecostal
This is church; front pew, amen, pulpit
What my people need and the opposite of bullshit’
For every diehard music fan, there’s a list of albums that stay eternally in your rotation. No matter the time of year, or however long ago it was released, there’s always a small list of go-tos that never lose their shine. I was fortunate to write about one of those albums last time I jumped on an ASIR, and was ecstatic to share my thoughts on another one on that list.
This album is important to me for a few reasons. One being I’m a devout jewel runner. I try not to be zealous with my fandom, but there’s not much denying that can be done when you purchase the Run The Jewels HAZMAT suit shamelessly (shout out to those action figures on the way). But contradictions are very much part of the human condition, aren’t they? Killa Kill had mentioned through interviews a few times about working on this album that he was looking for a partner he could sync up with (much like his Dungeon Family counterparts and ultimate rap duo OutKast). In one interview Mike mentioned trying to emulate the connection DJ Paul and Juicy J have in Three Six Mafia. He seemed destined to find a creative partner to build something with. It was an interesting perspective, and fortunately he found it in his eternal brother, the one and only El Producto.
This is how I got re-introduced to Mike. His verse on “The Whole World” stayed in my head above all when it was released in 2001, but afterwards my focus was solely on Def Jux affairs, and absorbing the domination releases of its roster throughout the early 2000s. When I had heard El-P was the sole producer on a single album, I knew something was up. Who the fuck could forget his standout production on Cannibal Ox’s Cold Vein? Shit, that album stands out as an example of how production can outshine rappers, and is coveted by rap nerds worldwide.
Fortunately, that’s not the case for R.A.P. Music. What we get on this album is a perfect pair of weirdo rap industry outcasts turning about face to the music industry and collectively giving the entire rap scene (but not the genre) a giant and timely FUCK YOU. Mike wastes no breath on this album. From “Big Beast” to the eponymous album closer “R.A.P. Music”, Mike effortlessly flows off some funky ass ATL by way of NYC production El-P throws at him. It seems contentious at times, but always equal, and enthralling. There’s nothing that can be said about it except how brilliant it is.
The unexpectedness defines its importance even further. There was no reason why these two had to make this album other than to show everyone they could. Everyone enjoys a good comeback, and what R.A.P. Music became was part of an arc that molded into a pistol and fist.
Working like a reverse Speakerboxxx/The Love Below double album, both R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure album exhibit the strengths of each musician and defined a familial legacy of just sheer rap brutality that’s given us 6 fucking amazing albums. This shit is proto-RTJ shit, and Mike’s competitive edge amongst his counterparts was a slacker’s triumph. He had been kicked around by the industry and forced into boxes that did not fit him, but he gained a cult following anyway. In other interviews, Mike talks about how he was too determined to not achieve his goals, and R.A.P. Music was that defining statement, or as he put it ‘I got things to do before I meet glory in the sky’.
It’d be almost disrespectful not to mention the shining track on this album. This could be a topic of contentious debate given the amount of fucking rad shit Mike spits, like on “Go!” for example, when the Elegant Black Elephant toxically spews lines like ‘Shumalumadumalumashmalumaduma/Even when I ain’t saying shit/Got AK word play might put a pause in you life just like a comma bitch!’ That shit is fucking RAW and assaults the listeners like a fist to the face. Or the emotional confessional “Willie Burke Sherwood”, which showcases Mike’s history as he displays what’s on the line. This shit isn’t a game to him, he’s on defining a legacy for his fucking family. That shit is relatable, and immediately resonates with anyone with a pulse. Another contender for best track could be R.A.P. Music with it’s hip hop as gospel/rap as divine message. It’s a fantastic closer, and beautiful track, but it still doesn’t outshine the centerpiece and crown jewel that is “Reagan”.
On Season 2 of Open Mike Eagle’s podcast What Had Happened Was, El-P mentions in how Mike plays the role of truth speaker, and how difficult that is. So many folks with so many varying opinions that constantly clash muddy the waters of what is true. A lot of folks see it and don’t comment, some stay lost, and some just call it like they see it. This is what Mike did with “Reagan”. El-P graciously gives amazing production in downtuned piano drops with his dusty retro-futurist flares convulsing in bursts as a clip of Reagan lying on some traditional American presidency bullshit plays before Mike starts in. At mid-tempo Mike breaks down what the fuck so many Americans don’t understand: the system is fucking rigged, it’s been rigged from the fucking start, and much of the bullshit we’re facing today in our current struggles was all maximalized with Reagan’s policies – the crack epidemic, the war on drugs, the involuntary servitude, the hyper policing, and the double speak of it all. He’s calling out American capitalism in the most simplest of terms, with an angry brevity over smoldering mid-tempo dread. It’s literally the best track on this album, and easily one of the best hip hop tracks ever recorded, it’s just fucking brilliant.
After Mike dropped this album and El-P dropped his, Run The Jewels 1 came soon after. When “Get It” dropped, I was geeked. A tour was announced soon after, and I was fortunate enough to go. It was an amazing show, in which El-P performed C4C, Mike performed R.A.P. Music, and together they performed RTJ1. It was an amazing night that will be burned into my memory forever, specifically for one reason in particular. Mike closed his solo set with “Reagan”. Towards the end he cut the sound, got the entire venue quiet as he caught his breath. The spotlight was on him as he glistened in sweat in his infamous black t-shirt. After everyone quieted down, someone cried out ‘I Love you, Mike!‘, and he replied without skipping a beat ‘I love you, too!‘ It sounded sincere, and in that moment we all seemed connected. Afterwards, Mike rapped the last few verses of “Reagan” acapella. I’m very much part of the ‘fuck church’ crowd, but this shit felt religious. Everyone was floored and ecstatic. He soon got everyone organized in a call and response to close out his set. He would call ‘I leave you with four words‘ and everyone collectively would scream back ‘I’m glad Reagan’s dead‘, and that sums up my sentiments exactly.