Art Papers  

more from the
Jan/Feb 2014 issue:

Letter from
the Guest Editor

Fahamu Pecou

Eye Candy Is Dandy: Rashaad Newsome's Hip-Hop Heraldry & the New Black Swag
by Katie Cercone

Render, R.A.P. Music, and "Reagan":
Killer Mike & the Hip-Hop Imagination

Text / Joycelyn A. Wilson

R.A.P. Music, the sixth studio album by Mike "Killer Mike" Render is Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted meets UGK's Dirty Money. Lyrically rebellious, visually radical, and sonically resonant, R.A.P. Music is indigenous to the blurred lines between hip-hop culture and visual art. Render describes the 12-song collection as "Souls of Black Folk mixed with Donald Goines shit" ("Untitled," Track 2). "This is John Gotti painting pictures like Dali/This is Basquiat with a passion like Pac/In a body like Biggie. Telling stories like Ricky ...." Said differently, the album, whose acronym masks the full title, Rebellious African People Music, samples the Black literary tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois, the urban fiction influences of Iceberg Slim, and the gangsta of Gotti. The surrealism of Salvador Dali, and the aesthetic courage of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tupac Shakur. The husky hoodisms of Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls), and the masterful storytelling of Slick Rick to remix the narrative of an African American man born of the post-civil rights/hip-hop generation, raised and schooled in the southwest communities of Atlanta and who has traveled the world as a professional hip-hop MC.

For the purposes of understanding the intersections of hip-hop and art in Render's work, let's frame R.A.P. Music, the album, and rap music proper as both performative pathways for accessing what I refer to in my research as the hip-hop imagination. Informed by the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills, the hip-hop imagination is a lens; a set of "hip-hop glasses" made from a range of hip-hop–based aesthetics. Wearing them requires considerations of the individual(s) telling the story, the characters in the story, the story medium, and these tools' relationships to the social context wherein values are learned, negotiated, and expressed. Situated in the Black experience, these glasses provide intersecting perspectives about culture, politics, lifestyle, and art. When worn properly they help make better sense of our communities, institutions, and environments. Render's R.A.P. Music is, essentially, that proverbial lens. It harnesses the existential capacity to interrogate the world through the racialized consciousness and class-based nuances that gave birth to the art form in the mid-to-late 70s.

Mike "Killer Mike" Render

"Reagan" is perhaps Render's most controversial and most celebrated song. Following its release, Bob Beckel, co-host for Fox News' The Five, called Render "a fat black dude" and told him to "go on a diet" before defining hip-hop culture as "the worst genre of music there ever was." (First, hip-hop is a culture, not a genre. And Beckel could stand to lose a few pounds, too.) Touré, of MSNBC's The Cycle, showed the song major love by tweeting it as a rap version of an article he published in The Washington Post, lamenting the failure of both Reagan and hip-hop on behalf of Black America. On a chilly November 2013 afternoon in Atlanta, the day after the city re-elected mayor Kasim Reed, I met Killer Mike in the boardroom of J. Walter Thompson Atlanta (JWT), and we complicated the reasons that Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, continues to pervade hip-hop–based art.

Dr. Joyce: Why is hip-hop still referencing Reagan?

Killer Mike: Because there is an active marketing campaign to lionize Ronald Reagan and I'm here to say that it is a lie. That's all. He was filth. He was slime. And there was nothing good about him other than him giving us the King Holiday. People say, "But he ended the Cold War." Yeah, but the cold war didn't end against poor people. The cold war didn't end for policemen being able to brutalize children. I was beaten during the "war on drugs." And my dad was a cop. You hear what I'm saying? When I ain't never been to jail for any drugs. Any felonious things. So if I can be beaten, imagine the brother who might've been guilty, but assumed innocent until proven guilty; imagine the trial and jury he had when the [Atlanta Police Department's disbanded] Red Dog Unit was on the street. Thank God for Maxine Waters. Thank God for the books that were written that connected the CIA and Oliver North with basically a triangle trade of death where arms had to get to the Middle East, drugs had to come out of Central America and up into California to be disseminated throughout the nation. It destroyed my community.

DJ: It did.

KM: And it helped project this ideal that Black men were dangerous evil predators. At the end of the day, as angry as I was at Reagan, if you listen to the record I still let you know it wasn't all his fault, because he's not the country's master. Because the same planners that work for the [United States'] previous two presidents are the same planners that are around even your current president. So, what I call into question is, "Who are those other eight men standing around your current president that were standing around the two former presidents?"

DJ: You illustrate that in the video. Just the creative force behind that particular song—Reagan's Iran-Contra speech is the hook. And I thought that was absolutely brilliant. Can we deconstruct some of those lyrics?

KM: [laughing] We can do whatever you like. You can go to and pull up the lyrics if you want. Shout out to

DJ: Okay, let's play it and I want you to engage from there.

Killer Mike, video stills from Reagan, animation, 4:10 minutes, directed by: Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman [courtesy of the artist and Williams Street Records/Adult Swim]

Entering "Reagan" is akin to stepping into a haunted house. Killer Mike and El-P, the album's producer, sonically and lyrically resurrect the ghosts of Ronald Reagan, re-creating the eeriness of the Reaganomics legacy. For the first 20 seconds of the song, El-P uses slow and heavy synth chords before blurring in a snippet from Reagan's November 13, 1986 address to the nation, in which the actor-turned-politician vehemently denies any trade of weapons for American hostages in what infamously became known as the Iran-Contra scandal: "Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands. That no concessions policy remains in force, in spite of the wildly speculative and false stories about arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments. We did not—repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we ...." The first verse of "Reagan" follows:

    The ballot or the bullet, some freedom or some bullshit
    Will we ever do it big, or keep just settling for little shit
    We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers
    We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres
    If none of us own acres, and none of us grow wheat
    Then who will feed our people when our people need to eat
    So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding
    Cause all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing
    And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions
    We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting
    Hand the children death and pretend that it's exciting
    We are advertisements for agony and pain
    We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang
    We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game
    Just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine
    In the 80s when the bricks came on military planes

Killer Mike, video stills from Reagan, animation, 4:10 minutes, directed by: Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman [courtesy of the artist and Williams Street Records/Adult Swim]

KM: So, the first verse isn't even about Reagan; it's about us—rappers—and our own people.

DJ: I like the computational thinking there: like, if you don't have this, and you don't have that, then how are you going to get this?

KM: You don't understand how happy I am just to have this interview, 'cause I was like, "God, man, why can't people at Fox be bright enough to see that the first verse is talking about the people they hate [laughing]?"

DJ: The first verse is just agency of the community—it's about the internal work that needs to be done.

KM: My grandmother says, "You got to clean your own house, babe. Clean your own house." The song says, "The ballot or the bullet. Some freedom or some bullshit."

DJ: That's Malcolm X.

KM: Exactly! Exactly. "Will we ever do it big, or just keep settling for little shit?" When [you] do it big, you control the commerce in your community. You control the education of your community. You influence the outside force that deals with your community, and not the other way around. Oh, he's the vice president of such-and-such records, and you thinking, it's a fucking record company; it's not a real business, you know? "This is our new marketing of such-and-such record company." That's not doing it big.

DJ: What's doing it big?

KM: Doing it big is being a controlling force in the building we are in. Like the young man I'm looking at (acknowledges JWT's young creative director), who look like I went to high school with him. That's doing it big because you get to influence other markets besides the one you're from, and you get to take knowledge and experience right back to where you're from. You get to grow because you know there are people who are good enough. He was hired by someone who knew he was good enough. Someone who look like him too. But it ain't about you look like me, I know you're good enough so I'm going to give you that shot. That's doing it big. Now doing it big outside of the structure is having your own shit. Doing it big is not having a Phantom. Doing it big is having five gas stations. Doing it big is owning the next McDonald's. Not doing a commercial for them. Doing it big is like controlling for real. Like all of the rappers that you look up to for having power for the most part have endorsements. They don't own this shit. They are paid to endorse it.

DJ: And if you do something wrong, the endorsement will get snatched.

KM: That's what you do to a child. You get what I'm saying? So that's not doing it big. What was doing it big was when [Atlanta's] Auburn Avenue was totally Black-owned. That's what I'm about. And I feel that in that verse, I'm challenging rappers to get off the Republican shit. Like, rappers really be rapping some Republican-ass shit. "I got mine, I got mine, you got to get yours. You hate me because I ...." No, I don't hate you because you got rich. I hate you because you didn't buy the bodega and give me a job. You come out to shoot your video. I just want a job.

Killer Mike, video stills from Reagan, animation, 4:10 minutes, directed by: Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman [courtesy of the artist and Williams Street Records/Adult Swim]


    The end of the Reagan Era, I'm like 'leven, twelve, or
    Old enough to understand the shit had changed forever
    They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror
    But it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
    But mostly black boys, but they would call us "niggers"
    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 policing for some profit
    But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
    Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
    Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
    You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
    Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
    That's why they giving drug offenders time in double digits
    Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor
    Just an employee of the country's real masters
    Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama
    Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters
    If you don't believe the theory, then argue with this logic
    Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi
    We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil
    Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby
    Same as in Iraq, and Afghanistan
    And Ahmadinejad say they coming for Iran
    They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor
    If I say any more they might be at my door
    Who the fuck is that staring in my window
    Doing that surveillance on Mister Michael Render
    I'm dropping off the grid before they pump the lead
    I leave you with four words: I'm glad Reagan dead

Killer Mike, video stills from Reagan, animation, 4:10 minutes, directed by: Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman [courtesy of the artist and Williams Street Records/Adult Swim]

DJ: So, Reagan's dead but his ghost and his legacy are definitely here.

KM: It's called stop-and-frisk in New York! [Laughing] Yeah, you know no politicians are going to tell you the truth. It's here.

DJ: What are the lessons in this song?

KM: All of my stuff, I try to make primary, secondary, and tertiary. I'm rapping from the perspective of an African American man because that's what I am. That is what I have to rap because this is what I am. A young man was just telling me in advertising the key is empathy. How do you empathize with other people and figure out where they are coming from and angle it that way? What I know is that my experience as an African American man is usually the test treatment for you as an American. See, 'cause I'm telling you about the perils of slavery, but the same people that could be wicked enough to say you know, or logical enough, cause it ain't really wicked, it's logic. 'Cause you know if you can get away without doing no work and profiting from it, logically you're going to do that. But some instances go too far: "I need these idiots to move, so I'm going to put smallpox in their blankets." You know some instance is, "I need this test done so I'm going to take these people from poor White America, I'm going to use them, I'm going to abuse them ...." It's not color. It's not race. It's that this is what I am, so I kind of approach it from this perspective, but it's for everyone. What I am really telling Americans is, this is for you. Like the 13th Amendment ain't got nothing to do with me just because I'm Black. It's just that it is easier to lock me up because of police policy. But you think that policy doesn't apply to you until you are watching a viral video of a cop sexually assault a woman, and her begging a judge while her child plays next to that judge, saying, "That this man has assaulted me." Like, all of a sudden it's real then.

DJ: Or you fire warning shots to try and get your husband off of you and you get 20 years.

KM: Still, the average person that is going to hear that and think they're in contrast is going to be someone from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America [who] thinks this is a Black kid complaining again. But what I'm telling you is it's not. It ain't just the kid, it ain't just a woman shootin' in the air because this man is beating her. It's also a white single mother.

DJ: Exactly.

KM: In a courtroom. It's a college kid saying, "Don't tase me, bro!"

Killer Mike, video stills from Reagan, animation, 4:10 minutes, directed by: Daniel Garcia and Harry Teitelman [courtesy of the artist and Williams Street Records/Adult Swim]


DJ: When I checked on YouTube this morning, there were more than 800,000 views for your video Reagan. The video is dope. The animation is dope. The music is extremely haunting. The illustrations are subtle but direct symbols; the caricature of Reagan talking around the table of those eight people, and then just the ending of it. Can you talk through the creative process of making Reagan and how you brought the lyrics to life?

KM: Harry Teitelman and Daniel Garcia were the illustrators, and I was introduced to them through Jason Demarco [at AdultSwim]. Jason said, "Just trust me." [He] is a SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] guy. He is a vice president over at Turner [Cartoon Network division] now, but it is really about the art for him. And that's why I did the record over there. Period. I trusted him, and he sent me back a clip in the beginning. It might have only been 12 seconds, and what I saw was when the globe was turning and you see them marching. And I remember that image. I grew up watching cartoons with my grandpa, so a lot of the ones I love were Looney Tunes and a lot of those were produced at or around the [time of the] Second World War, so these were like different variations of the Nazis taking the world over. It was interpretations of stuff that I had seen, but set to my music, and different. I was, like, amazed. The only comment I had was, "Make the paint more red," you know.

DJ: The color palette is dynamic.

KM: It was, absolutely. 'Cause you see it, and you get excited about it, and you want to see the whole thing. I knew it worked when I woke up the next day after it had premiered with Fox News talking about it, and insulting me, and MSNBC's Touré playing it and congratulating me. So I take both with a grain of salt. But I knew that visually it was stunning and captivating. I felt that the animation was most effective because you can get away with a lot of stuff. If I try to explain to you, um, "Reagan was so stupid that he didn't know ketchup was a fruit," you are going to get offended. But when you see it in animation—"Drink ketchup"—you say "What does that mean, drink ketchup?" Well, Reagan was so stupid that when asked about having vegetables in school lunch because they wanted to take it out, he was saying, well, you know, kids essentially have tomatoes and ketchup, and it's like, "Tomatoes are fruit, stupid." These people are pitchmen. I think the video perfectly showed that. When I said Reagan [was] "just like the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama," it was on the finger puppet—that's not me. And a lot of my people now don't like me to talk bad about Obama. But I'm not talking bad about Obama. I'm criticizing the president of the United States. I wouldn't care if he was polka dot. I wouldn't care if he was from Chicago and not mulatto. It don't matter to me. What matters to me is that the office of president has some policies that I don't think is right for my people, so I have to say something about it. I grew up in a city with a Black mayor, so I'm used to complaining against Black people. That don't mean I hate them. That Black people can't do a good job. I voted for him twice. But I had to let people know in that song it ain't just reserved for this old wrinkly White man, or the cool White man that played the saxophone and helped destroy a Black woman named Sister Souljah, or the White man who did cocaine that you forgave but you didn't like him that much. It ain't reserved for nobody. It is just the office of president. It's just not treating us in a way that's fair and it ain't us as Black people. That starts as us, as Americans. They got to get their shit together. The music on there demanded to move a certain type of animation. I didn't want to do anything goofy or silly. That animation was sharp and jarring.

DJ: It was very sharp. It was scary.

KM: That's what the 80s felt like. The 80s felt like if you sit down thinking you are going to see Looney Tunes and that cartoon came on instead. Like when Reagan's eyes start the prelude ... [re-creating the cartoon's movement]. I can remember walking down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive during the day from, like, a football drive and just seeing your grandmothers and your aunts—and, you know, Adamsville is a beautiful place, but I can remember when the street lights came on and how haunting it felt. How weird and strange, because you know when the burglar bars started going up in the neighborhood, people even stopped going out after a certain time. It was just like the creeps, the thieves, and I can remember that as a child. Having to walk home from the Hightower MARTA Station [now called the H.E. Holmes Station]—you know, I can remember that. I think that the music captured that, and I think Daniel and Harry did an amazing job. That's when I learned that musically if you have expressed what you are supposed to express, then that [other] artist is going to give you an interpretation that was wild or wacky or more wonderful than you even thought going in.

DJ: That statement represents exactly what hip-hop is. It is able to intersect with the music, the animation, and the illustration, the visual art, the lyrics. It's all a machine that's working together.

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and affiliate faculty in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technologies (ICAT). She is the founder of Her interests are digital pedagogies and hip-hop–based education in K-12 and post-secondary learning environments. She is part of the #HipHopEd collective, a contributor to The Root, and a Hiphop Archive Alumnus Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. She also co-produced the Emmy Award-winning documentary Walking With Guns, featuring rapper/actor Clifford "TI" Harris, Jr. Follow her on Twitter @drjoycedotnet and Instagram @styleandscholarship.

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