Social change doesn’t come easy, and Killer Mike understands that. The Atlanta MC and one-half of the group Run the Jewels has also never been one to shy away from uncomfortable conversations or conspiracy theories. And it’s not just tough talk. Outside of his own music, Mike's been part of a mayoral transition team, and recently joined 21 Savage and Meek Meek Mill in filing a legal brief with the Supreme Court over rap lyrics being used in court.
There’s probably never been a better peek into Mike’s free-thinking, revolutionary mind than with his docuseries, Trigger Warning. Since its release on Netflix in January, the six-episode show has been a revelation for the streaming giant. Like a hip-hop Michael Moore, our host challenges viewers to question the very notion of schools, gang culture, race, religion, class, sovereignty, and using porn as an educational tool. It’s fun, provocative, and maybe even a little ridiculous—a rap supergroup featuring a white nationalist, anyone?—but it works and people are responding.
“I’ve talked to U.S. senators and congress people that’ve seen it and think it’s a radical, progressive idea,” Mike says. “What really impresses me though is I’ll be in the middle of Times Square and get stopped 15-20 times by people from all over the world who saw the show and thought it was amazing.”
Between press runs for the show and recording new music, Mike spoke with us about how he’d bring the Trigger Warning approach to the music industry, and his future television and film aspirations.
If you did a Trigger Warning about aspects of the music industry you want to explore, what might be some topics to cover?
Is there a conspiracy to wipe out black middle level management? Whether it was Luther Campbell, Master P, Little Jay, Puff, Suge—when they were the filtration system that the artists had to go through to deal with the bigger companies it felt as though the bigger companies were more in check. But as soon as the bigger companies figured out how to circumvent and get directly to the artists, the rise of the 360 deal happened.
Normally what happens is when your business gets bought out like say with the cocoa butter guy, Joan B. Johnson, somebody bought his business but then they brought him on to run it because he’s the expert in how to sell fucking cocoa butter. The same thing with Bevel. Bevel got bought out, but they kept the founder of Bevel because he knows how to sell black shaving products to black people. It seems like what the labels did was circumvent that, so then you don’t see the people who are more than qualified who built that the juggernaut that is hip-hop and R&B music. You don’t see them employed in the same way. You don’t see the Jason Geters, the Shaka Zulus, the Jermaine Dupris, the Michael “Blue” Williamses—the people who should be visibly the face of hip-hop music and executives. So, you’ve got to ask yourself why. I would do a Trigger Warning on that. Where is the vanishing black middle management or the black executives? Period.
Is there a conspiracy to wipe out black middle level management? as soon as the bigger companies figured out how to circumvent and get directly to the artists, the rise of the 360 deal happened.
Atlanta controls the music world right now. If Forbes says the largest cultural export out of America is hip-hop and R&B music then arguably, the sound of Atlanta dominates the world. But you can’t sign one record deal in Atlanta. You can sign a publishing deal with Hitco, you could maybe do one or two other things, but none of the power players are here.
Georgia is one of the largest developing film and television content producers in the world, yet you don’t have, except for Tyler Perry, you don’t have... well not “except.” Thank God for Tyler Perry that we have dominant black studio, but idealistically, Revolt TV should be based out of here. There should be 10 or 12 labels that are headed by the people I just named. Shit, we should be the most dominant media market, if for nothing else, for black culture and music, which is American culture and music. You’ve got to start asking yourself, “Why not?!” At a certain point, when all of the talent is coming from here. NFL draft scouts come to the Southeastern Conference to find their next star. The Southeastern Conference doesn’t have to run out to California or New York for them. They fly they ass down here. The question becomes why isn’t that happening in music and film?
So would you say these are then two different topics: one exploring disappearing black middle management hip-hop, and the other is this question of why isn’t there more business in Atlanta, the current black music capital?
Not even “more” business, it’s why isn’t the business here? The business should be out of Atlanta, not the other way around. It’s just an hour-and-a-half flight either way from New York to Atlanta and Atlanta to New York. To me, all urban music should be headquartered out of Atlanta. Atlanta has the third-most Fortune 500 companies of in city in the United States of America, so we’re more than acclimated to host companies of large and small scale, you know what I’m saying? Porsche wants to be here, so why doesn’t major labels and content producers that benefit from the Atlanta sound and black music? Period. Why aren’t they here? That becomes my question.
I remember one topic we spoke about a while back was that folks thought it was “radical” for artists like Run the Jewels to follow a free album model. Do you see any major shifts happening with that model?
In terms of the whole scope, different strokes work for different folks. For some people it’s streams, for some people it’s YouTube hits. For us, it just happens to work for us like that. I look at Run the Jewels like we’re an anomaly. What works for us works for us, I can’t promise that’ll work for everyone else.
I can’t tell you how to get a billion streams—Drake can. If I needed a billion streams and I was here for that I’m going to pivot towards Drake, who I respect the fucking shit out of. Migos, they can tell you how to get a billion streams. I can’t do that. What I can do is tell you how to put out music for free, tour that music, develop a strong following, sell merch and build a relationship with your audience. I know how to do that because that’s what we’ve done.
Are there any artists that don’t have the resources of a Drake or Migos that you feel are delivering their music in unique ways?
I think Drake and the Migos both came up in interesting ways. I remember when Drake was working on his first mixtape. His whole style was not what the industry wanted or was expecting and he dominates with it and that’s why he’s one of my favorite guys. I remember when the Migos came out everybody thought they were going to be one-hit wonders because Atlanta has had a lot of one-hit wonders. Those guys made sure you heard them not once, but twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times, and that’s why I love them.
Atlanta controls the music world right now. If Forbes says the largest cultural export out of America is hip-hop and R&B music then arguably, the sound of Atlanta dominates the world. But you can’t sign one record deal in Atlanta.
It’s the same reason I love Rae Sremmurd. People tried to write them off. For me, it’s just about the determination of the artists and connecting with your audience and pushing forward. And you know a little bit of luck is always involved. Sometimes you’re prepared for it and when the luck happens you keep it going. With art, there is no formula for how to do it. The formula is just to keep doing it until you figure it out for you.
How does this apply to you as a solo artist?
I don’t even think in terms of solo artistry anymore. I’m one-half of Run the Jewels, you know what I mean? For the solo artists that are out there I would say get with one or two producers who you know and trust, develop and build a sound. I would say get a handle of your social media, start building a connection with your audience. And I would almost say get a publicist before you get a manager. Get a publicist to help you blow your shit up. As a solo artist I define who I am, develop a style with a producer and hire someone to help me get the word out on myself. I’d start to build the hype that brings the qualified people you’re looking for, whether it be management people or opportunities to expand yourself from an independent perspective.
So coming back to Trigger Warning, what does the future of the show look like? Does the show have a future?
[Laughs] I’m just like any other black person, man. I’m waiting on the white folk to call me and to tell me what they want to do. I’ve had a great time pushing and promoting the show. People are still discovering it. Netflix has been great to me, so we’ll see. What I can promise you is that you’re going to see more of me on television.
Did anyone reach out or react to the show in a way that you weren’t expecting?
I got two calls while I was in LA in the same day. I started the day with a call from Puff, and I ended the day with a call from Jay-Z. I ended up hanging out with both of those guys and was just talking and hearing plans and goals from them, and talking plans and goals of my own. It helped me really understand that there is no limit. The only limits are the ones you put on yourself. You’ve got to give your ideas a shot and try. So, I appreciate both of those guys just reaching out to me, and their encouragement and mentorship. They both blessed me with some great conversations.
I talk to Puff, interestingly enough, quite often. He’s a very encouraging dude. In time, I’ve talked to Jay more often. His mind, his creativity is through the roof in terms of other stuff besides music and the business of being a business mogul. From a creative standpoint he has great artistic taste, and a wonderful imagination. It’s been cool talking to those guys and getting some insight on what the show helped push them to think about.
What did your boy Bernie Sanders think of it?
He liked the show, or so he told me. [Laughs] I don’t know if he’s seen the whole series yet, but he did like the show. He’s in the middle of trying to be president so I don’t know if he’ll watch all six episodes but whichever one he thought he liked he congratulated me on.
One controversial person on Trigger Warning that had a lot of folks talking was Mario. Was he plant? What’s the deal with that dude?
No—Mario is 100 percent Mario. Mario was only supposed to be on for like an episode or two, but he just popped back up. The people that are yelling and screaming at each other on Twitter are real. My show just gives people an opportunity to get the people who are of some extremes together in a room and see what happens. But no, Mario is 100 percent Mario.
Is there anything you tried or life changes you tested on the show that you’ve incorporated into your actual life?
Well I bought a bike. [Laughs]
There it is!
Yeah I do have a bike. Now that’s warming up and my shoulders healed from rotator cuff surgery I’ll be riding it. Maybe you’ll see me out there with Dope Pedalers or something.
So when you say you can guarantee we’ll see you on TV more, are we talking more doc-style series, rapper-turned actor or are you trying to go full-on media mogul?
I like the documentary style. I’m a fan of that style, but we’ll see. I have other subjects that I didn’t touch on because it was just a six-episode season. I just know finally I get to be more creative than was expected to be. As a rapper your job is creativity but for some reason they box you in to only being a rapper. My idol is Ice Cube and not just in terms of hardcore rap, but in terms of being able to bring things that are also out of the community to the big screen. I would like to follow a path like that. I would like to bring some thoughts and other ideas to the small and big screen, and that’s what I’m in the process of doing.