Killer Mike wants to invite you to church on Wednesdays.
The invitation is for Killer Mike’s Midnight Revival, a private first listen of his next album Michael that serves as a “midnight mass” held at The Cathedral in Austin during SXSW on March 15. Inside, the refurnished 1930s church has hand fans on benches for cooling off. A program with a foreword reads: “Killer Mike gets recognized for many things – being an Outkast protégé, a member of powerhouse Run the Jewels, one of Atlanta’s biggest advocates, a Bernie Sanders whisperer, and perhaps most importantly, a voice of reason in an increasingly insane world.”
After a serenade of worship songs from his choir, Killer Mike steps up to the podium. His gold chain, with a large statue of St. Michael Slaying the Devil, stands out. His audience is music industry professionals, artists like Blxst and Scotty ATL, and his Loma Vista Records label reps. He’s an eloquent speaker filled with passion, inviting us into his place of worship.
“I am proud to be a Southerner,” Killer Mike says. “I’m proud that my grandparents raised me in the Southern tradition. I’m proud my grandfather made me highly skeptical of preachers. He also taught me if you catch 50 fish, you keep 25 for yourself and you separate the other 25 for your neighbors.”
“I’m proud that my grandmother…” he continues — before pausing to fight back tears, sparking encouragement from the audience to keep going. “I’m proud that she took me to these little churches every Sunday and on Wednesdays.”
In his speech, the rapper/activist talks about growing up in a neighborhood “started by Black people for Black people” and how they understood the power of community. He is proud of Collier Heights and proud of the teachers who believed in him. Most of all, he is proud of Atlanta.
“I’m proud that God has put me before you tonight to play what I’ve worked on for two years,” he continued. “It’s not to see if you like it or not or if it has a club jam, it is simply for us to commune together and celebrate 20 years of a relationship that I’ve had with many of you.”
Over the course of the evening, supporting characters make their cameos in his self-described “audio movie.” There’s narration by Rico Wade. Cee-Lo Green appears on “Down by Law.” Backed by church organs and pianos, Dave Chappelle intros “RUN,” featuring Young Thug. Chappelle arrives late to the church service but is embraced nonetheless.
The Dungeon Family homages continue with “Scientists & Engineers,” featuring André 3000 and Future. Curren$y, 2 Chainz and Kaash Paige put together a banging Cutlass anthem over an Honorable C.N.O.T.E. beat for “Spaceship Views”. Blxst puts you in the heart of Adamsville and right by Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd on “Exit 9.” Run the Jewels returns with thankugoodsir, the formal introduction of Virginia songwriter Harold Lilly Jr., on “Don’t Let the Devil.” Detroit songstress Eryn Allen Kane lends her angelic voice to “Motherless.”
Michael’s release date is this Friday (June 16), after it was initially planned for April 20 on Killer Mike’s birthday. It’s a few days after Mother’s Day when he speaks about the album again over Zoom. “I consider myself fortunate that I’ve stayed hungry,” Killer Mike says. “Being denied something lights a fire in you, and being denied a proper opportunity to be me in full on an album has been much of the driving force [for making Michael] — I just want it to be understood, and seen for who I really am.”
In 2023, Killer Mike is celebrating several career milestones to celebrate that speak to his longevity in the game. Earlier year, Killer Mike’s debut studio album Monster turned 20. Run the Jewels is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a fall tour. And 11 years after 2012’s R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike is getting deeply personal with Michael, and rolling out his first major solo trek with the High & Holy Tour starting in July. The memoir-like tracks are chapters in his life, exploring his beginnings as a nine-year-old boy growing up in the religious South and on the West side of Atlanta, his teenage love and the abortion that came after, being exposed to depression and addiction, leaving his dope boy life behind, and finally his transformation into the beloved rapper, political thinker, and activist that he is today.
Killer Mike talks about the inspiration for Michael comprehensively because it is autobiographical in nature. Nearly a half-century of life is a lot to compress in 14 tracks, so each detail is purposeful. He tells us the history of his family from Tuskegee, Alabama, and how they all raised him together, being proud of his lineage and where he comes from. His grandfather is Willie Burke Sherwood, who died in 2003; his grandmother, Bettie Clonts, died in 2012. His mother, known affectionately as “Mama Niecy,” passed in 2017. He speaks highly of all of them, including his family members less familiar to the public eye, like his father, his non-biological father, his uncles, and his sisters LaShunda and Lovie.
Reflecting on what church taught him after going to service with his grandmother, Killer Mike starts by examining the relationship between his grandmother and mother. “My mom was a beautiful spirit, but she was a wild child,” Killer Mike says. “Her mother was strictly adherent to Southern Pentecostalism and Southern Baptist. She spent years thinking that her daughter just did not accept it. But her daughter was a spiritual presence in so many people’s lives and carried in a different way, a campaign of helping people much like Jesus did, that my grandmother simply didn’t understand. And it took me years to reconcile that both women had made such an impact on me that I was in part a product of both.”
“I learned a lot in church. I learned a lot about the character of Jesus as a revolutionary in matters of how he loved. I always admired him, and I loved the music that came out of the Black Pentecostal church experience because it was so moving,” he continues. “It was literally I couldn’t sit there and be still. I couldn’t sit there and not shout. I couldn’t sit there and not be overwhelmed with emotion to cry. That’s the power of music and that’s what I wanted to do. I just had to understand how to fuse that with a hip-hop-like experience, and I mastered that on Michael.”
Killer Mike began working on Michael in 2021, starting as a collaborative mixtape between him and Cuz Lightyear — who was his mentee under the name SL Jones, and a part of the Grind Time Rap Gang. As they were working on the mixtape version of Michael, Lightyear had an idea one day while they were in No Face No Case Studios in Atlanta. “Cuz was like, ‘Aye man, I think you oughta work on your solo album,’” Mike recalls his collaborator saying. “‘You got these solo songs and stuff and this s–t is really good. I’m gonna put my career on pause and I’m gonna spend the next year, two years totally focused on helping you be what you need to be.’ When somebody sacrifices themselves for you, you owe them to do your very best.”
Determined to put his best effort forward, Killer Mike says he called his manager Will Bronson and star producer No I.D. to let them hear Michael. “Will had heard it and was loving it already,” he says. “He always wanted No I.D. to produce a project for me. No I.D. DJ Toomp, and El-P were three of the people [where] he loved hearing me on their beats. So, I called Dion, ‘Hey man, I’m not doing nothing, I got something that I want to let you hear. And I need your help making it great. It’s good, but I want to make it great.’”
No I.D. came on as a co-executive producer on Michael, suggesting Killer Mike “deal with professionals” — meaning bringing in top-tier talent like Harold Lilly Jr., who did work on eight songs; Dammo, who played bass throughout the album; and Eryn Allen Kane, who worked on five songs. Commitment to the same team of “pros,” as Killer Mike calls them, resulted in free-flowing creative sessions with little pressure, which made the sound cohesive and pushed him to be a better musician. Lilly Jr., who is credited as thankugoodsir as a token of gratitude to an MC he respects, called the rapper a bluesman after he heard Michael.
“There’s no age on blues singers,” Lilly Jr. says. “And they are not selling you on anything. They are just telling you what happened. So, when I’m listening to his music in the studio, I said, ‘Hey man, you’re Muddy Waters.’ He said, ‘What? What you mean?’ I said, ‘Hey bro, you are a blues singer.’ I said, ‘Blues singers, all they do is tell the truth.’”
At first, Killer Mike didn’t get the connection, but it inspired him to approach his future albums differently.
“What greater tradition to walk in than that of a blues singer?” Lilly Jr. says. “And these blues singers were children of slaves. They go north and then they have these careers. They go to Europe for the first time and when they step on the ground in Europe, they are treated like kings. The Rolling Stones, they just want to look at Muddy Waters. They just want to shake his hand. The Beatles, they just want to look at Louis Armstrong!
“Why do they have so much power?” Lilly Jr. continues. “They are summoning some power. They got their own clothes on, and they say their own words. They have their own opinions about things. And Killer Mike… man, listen. That’s why I told him that.”
On May 11, Killer Mike debuted a two-part short film tribute to his late mother, conveying a nostalgic homage to the parties she used to throw at her home in “Don’t Let the Devil,x” and a powerful video to cope with his loss on “Motherless.” Eryn Allen Kane’s presence is especially felt in “Motherless.” Her involvement in Michael came through a mutual friend, comedian Hannibal Buress, who suggested to Killer Mike that she sing the hook for “Motherless.”
After Buress called her to come to the studio, she said, “It was cool because I didn’t know anything before I got there. They told me once I arrived, ‘There’s this song that Mike is going back and forth on, do you think you could deliver? He wants this feeling of the song ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.’”
“Luckily I knew the song,” she continues. “I sang it when I went to high school. I was in a performing arts school, so we had to sing it in different competitions, singing Negro spirituals and whatnot. So I knew that reference. I started to do it and I was a little nervous. And he came into the room and explained to me, ‘This is about my mother, and I just need it to feel like I can feel her presence. I know you can’t relate to this, but channeling the feeling of losing someone near to you — maybe you can relate to that.’”
When it came time to shoot the video for “Motherless,” Eryn Allen Kane remembers things weren’t going right with the production, and she was starting to feel uncomfortable. But Killer Mike’s encouragement helped her flip a switch and pull off the performance on camera. “He came in and he was just like, ‘I started telling people when you come in the room, [it’s] like God is in the room. It makes me level up when God is in the room. Your voice, God is speaking through you,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Thank you, I really needed that, because I’m nervous!’”
Eryn Allen Kane feels a spiritual connection with Killer Mike, because they both learned about music through the Black church, despite coming from different parts of the country — Detroit and Atlanta, respectively. “When he mentions loss, I thought about those things myself, and the things I’ve been through,” she says. “I think the church connects us all… I think some of the greatest artists come up through the church.”
No I.D. says Killer Mike was holding something back when he played him “Motherless.” The reason it was the last song recorded for the album is that Killer Mike hadn’t uttered the words “my mama dead” since her passing. When asked why the record is so important to him, he tells vivid stories about vulnerability after death, threading together various memories of conversations he’s had with his family, and how he’s had to step up when they’re no longer with them. It dates back to his great-grandmother Truzella, carries on to his grandfather Willie, then to his grandmother Bettie, and finally, to his mother.
Killer Mike recalls the moment when he learned that his mother passed away, processing her death again in real time. After learning she was in the hospital for her kidney disease, he decided to finish business in Europe for Run the Jewel, before taking a flight trying to make it back home. She died while he was on the plane before he got to say goodbye. “I felt like I had chosen my wants and ambitions over my mother. I felt like I had accepted the role of her as big sister, when I truly in the moment of her dying understood that this is my mother,” he says.
He explains that as a child, you feel resentful for the decisions your parents make. His mother was only 16 years old when she was pregnant with him, having to let his grandparents raise him with his two sisters. “I had to realize that this is what my mother did for me and for us,” he says. “It turned out to be totally the right thing to do. My grandparents raised three wonderful children: me, my sister LaShunda, and my sister Lovie. But what that said, we never as children understood the sacrifice.”
Killer Mike begins to cry. He now understands what his grandmother was going through when she couldn’t accept that her mother and husband passed away.
“I miss my mama. I miss her so much,” he says. “I wish I could call her and tell her how much people love this record. I wish I could tell her having me listen to Curtis Mayfield influenced the first song on this record and the vibe of this record. I wish I could tell her how much her encouragement means to me. And I said all of this while she was alive. I told her she was dope. I told her, ‘Aw Ma, I love listening to Curtis Mayfield, The Isleys and Willie Nelson with you,’ but I didn’t understand how to let her know until she was gone the deep reverence I have for her. I revere her and I wish I had the opportunity to share that with her. She’s the only human being I hold that kind of reverence for. And that’s how that song makes me feel every time I hear it.”
Killer Mike regains his composure and smiles. He knows she’s proud of him. “I have no doubts of that. I don’t question it. I don’t have any regrets.”