Killer Mike is unimpressed with the recent trend of rappers name-dropping painters to signify wealth and status. The 38-year-old Atlanta rapper was an "art student nerd" in high school, so hearing Jean-Michel Basquiat's name turn into a rap cliche grates him a bit.
"I'm not mad that people are getting exposed to art," said Killer Mike, who performs with El-P as Run the Jewels at 9:30 Club on Saturday. "But real artists, from Michelangelo to Picasso, hated rich people. They hated their benefactors."
He hopes the hip-hop community will dig deeper into the art world because it could open new trains of thought. But to Killer Mike, it's important not to spoon-feed fans.
"That's how you inspire people to love art — by challenging them to use their minds," he said.
Since first appearing on Outkast's 2000 album "Stankonia," the rapper born Michael Render has bulldozed beats with a thick Southern accent and a fervent, unrelenting flow. He has also earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of both major political parties, socioeconomic issues and American culture as a whole.
The combination of Killer Mike's undeniable rapping and his thoughtful-and-confident lyrics has made him a darling to critics (a trend that continued when he and El-P released the self-titled Run the Jewels album online in late June). His record sales have never matched the acclaim, which frustrated Killer Mike until he signed with the forward-thinking independent label Williams Street Records for 2012's "R.A.P. Music." Without a major label to answer to, Killer Mike can make the music he wants and tour 200 days per year, which is all he ever wanted.
"It's very liberating to finally be in an independent situation," he said. "To have the ability to tour strong, I can live with what I get."
While other rappers dream of making the Forbes list, Killer Mike is studying outsider artists who have steadily built loyal fan bases over time.
"Every other rapper's intention is to be a Jay Z," Killer Mike said. "I'm studying the business acumen of Insane Clown Posse, Kottonmouth Kings and Tech Nine."
Like those artists, Killer Mike knows the money is to be made on the road, which explains why he and El-P booked a 31-date North American tour in support of an album they gave away for free online. The 10-song collaboration introduced hip-hop fans to a formidable rap duo with grand ambitions. Killer Mike says he wants Run the Jewels to be considered "one of the best rap groups in history." He and El-P, who also produced the entire album, hope to convince listeners through the sheer power of their spirited verses.
"Our mindset was, 'I'm rapping with a partner. I have to rap as dope as I possibly can,'" Killer Mike said. "It's very what a rap group should be. It's inspiration through competition. It's the thought, 'We're going to decimate other duos.'"
Like the best rap groups, Run the Jewels was possible because Killer Mike and El-P clicked on levels beyond beats and raps. Their friendship will guide them to more projects, including another Run the Jewels album, Killer Mike said. When asked about the key to their partnership, Killer Mike had trouble finding the words to explain it — a rare occurrence for the boisterous rapper.
"If I could answer that I would have figured it out 10 years earlier," he said. "The most honest answer I can give you is its our spiritual connection and friendship. Everything just feels right and I don't question that feeling."
If you go
Killer Mike performs with El-P as Run the Jewels on Saturday at 9:30 Club, 815 V. St., N.W. Washington D.C. Kool A.D. will also perform. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 877-987-6487 or go to 930.com.