While a lot of fans probably know Killer Mike as a rapper and half of the hip-hop supergroup Run The Jewels with El-P, Mike doesn’t identify solely as an artist — in fact, he doesn’t identify as anything at all beyond the term creator.
“My job is singing and dancing, and I have a very good job,” he explained during a recent interview with Patreon after his appearance at Patreon Assembly. “That job, I don’t threaten, or I don’t interfere with for ideas. I keep my band first. Run The Jewels is the absolute first thing in my life besides my family because that is what generates the platform to create other things.”
But let’s back up to before he began moving past music. Mike initially got his start working with Atlanta superstars Outkast, appearing on their fourth studio album Stankonia in 2000, and later on their greatest hits album Big Boi and Dre Present...Outkast in 2001. From there, he began his own career as a solo rapper, dabbling in the major label world and eventually leaving to be an independent artist. Paired up with El-P for what was supposed to be one session, the two found a creative partnership so strong they’ve released three albums together as Run The Jewels, and created an independent empire in the process.
Their unheralded success is part of what has allowed Mike to progress so far beyond his day job — rapping and singing — to become a creative force who is changing the world one barbershop and at a time. As his passion and creativity expanded beyond hip-hop, activism, and entrepreneurial ventures like Swag Shop and his Netflix documentary, Trigger Warning, it became clear that limiting his skillset or field of expertise wan’t in Mike’s best interests.
“I think when you start to identify yourself you start to give people ammunition to decide what you are,” he said. “So I don’t. I don’t know what I am, but I know if I’m sitting long enough and there’s a piece of paper and a pen, I’m going to doodle some ideas.” And, he’s also honest enough to admit that a whole host of his ideas have gone belly up or ended up duds. His advice? Just keep trying shit, eventually, something will stick or the timing will line up.
“I think when you start to identify yourself you start to give people ammunition to decide what you are. So I don’t.”
Given his intersecting roles as a rapper, entrepreneur, and activist Mike is mindful that for Black business owners, capitalism is a system that’s directly tied to the lineage of slavery. This historical context helps inform his own view on capitalism, and he’s adopted an approach that’s slightly different from many other entrepreneurs: “compassionate capitalism.” Sharing memories of fishing or harvesting vegetables with his family as a kid, and bringing the extra food around to elderly or impoverished families in the neighborhood, Mike is interested in working within an economic system that turns a profit, but also offers additional community support.
“I practice what I call compassionate capitalism.”
“I might start a company where the profit isn’t about me, the profit is about the greater community,” he explained. “Which means the profit goes to the greater community. I practice what I call compassionate capitalism, and for me, I don’t think I’m particularly smarter than anyone else, but I work with what I’m given, and what I’ve been given is capitalism.”
Discussing a recent conversation with Black billionaire, Mike Roberts — who noted that Mike would’ve found a way to thrive in communism or socialism if he’d been born into that — the rapper drew a direct line from how the bodies of slaves were used to guarantee wealth to the way independent Black entrepreneurs must now fearlessly guarantee their own wealth.
For Black families in America, the accumulation of wealth was initially forbidden, then systematically obstructed, and finally completely demonized. In many ways, Mike sees his entrepreneurship as a family legacy he’s building upon, and drawing inspiration from his ancestors come naturally.
“As a working-class kid from Atlanta, my grandparents were farm laborers,” he said. “So it’s my duty, for my family, to level up. My great-grandmother, who was alive until I was ten and took part in raising me, her mother was a slave. Very rarely do my ideas conflict with a capitalistic society, because capitalism brought us here. Literally, the stock market was built off the bodies of slaves.”
For creators who are pursuing non-traditional paths, Mike has two pieces of advice: Hold off on starting a family until you’re settled in your career path, and try to start working in the field you’re interested in creating something new in. “Get a job at or in close proximity to what you want to do or things you want to learn about,” he offered. “That way, you start to network and infiltrate where you want to be, and you start to see the truths behind the imagination of what you think it is.”
”Get a job at or in close proximity to what you want to do or things you want to learn about.”
But perhaps the most important thing that Mike stresses is to keep working on your dream until it’s manifested.
”You stay true to your ideas, but if an idea is not working, don’t be afraid to adjust.”
Sometimes, things take so much longer than it seems they will. For instance, Mike had ideas for the sound behind Run The Jewels for a decade before he met the producer who helped him make it a reality. “I was ten years into being an overnight success when me and El-P met,” he said. “The overnight success came after ten years of attempting to find the sound that he already had. You stay true to your ideas, but if an idea is not working, don’t be afraid to adjust. Run The Jewels is Run The Jewels because we are our own masters.”