"See, this is a clear example that hardly anyone living in Atlanta is from Atlanta," says the Grammy Award-winning artist Killer Mike as he travels down a side street to avoid the stop-and-go traffic on Howell Mill Road. "I know exactly where that whole line of cars is trying to go. If they knew about this street I'm about to take, they'd have no problems."
The Atlanta native then smiles. "Good thing they don't, though."
In a day that includes stopping by SuperSounds Music at Greenbriar Mall, spitting a freestyle for DJ Jelly at Big Oomp Records on Campbellton Road, trying but failing to grab a quick ghetto burger at the notoriously slow Miss Ann's in Kirkwood, and getting a haircut at Quik's Barbershop off of Donald Lee Hollowell (better known as Bankhead), it's evident that the 33-year-old Grady baby – born Michael Render – knows the city like the back of his hand.
Perhaps that's why he and many of his hardcore fans are disappointed by how the city's rap scene and local culture is eroding as niche neighborhoods are increasingly replaced by corporate developments and condo communities.
Mike addresses such sentiments on "2 Sides," one of the singles from his new album that drops this week, I Pledge Allegiance To the Grind II, a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2006 release. On the song that borrows Bankhead representative Shawty Lo's now infamous line "... Say you from the Westside?/Well goddamn, it must be two sides," from his song "Dunn Dunn," Mike laces the track with hometown boasts that ring with pride in an era when it's typical to go to a Hawks game at Phillips Arena and see more fans cheering for the away team.
"The day a Starbucks and Target move in is the day some neighborhoods start losing their real face," Mike says as he sits at a corner table inside the Earl in East Atlanta Village. "I think our music is as safe as our environment. When Atlanta gives up the last of our working-class neighborhoods, that's when the music is going to suffer."
Atlanta's underground hip-hop scene has certainly undergone a gentrification of sorts in the past year, as a scene has emerged that has more in common with the cool movement coming out of Chicago, N.Y. and L.A. than the Southern rap tradition.
"There's two underground scenes developing," Mike says. "You've got a hipster scene, which is to me based more on fashion and less on music. And then you've got a true Atlanta underground scene, which is an extension of what I did in the '90s being part of the Green Light movement ... and what culturally the Dungeon Family helped to foster."
While Mike embraces many of the artists, whether transplants or natives, who are building steam in Atlanta's performance-driven hipster scene, he distinguishes himself and his Grind Time Rap Gang from the pack. "The [real] underground is less about who pops up and rocks the mic and more about who's rocking the mic, who's pressing up product, who's building true relationships with these independent stores. It's bigger than just, 'We're getting on stage and hoping we get a record deal.'"
Mike feels that Pledge II will re-establish authentic Atlanta street music, comparing it to Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the classic debut from OutKast – the group that introduced him to the world and gave him his first record deal. As a display of his natural ability to pen street narratives, express sociopolitical frustration and simply rap his ass off, Pledge II is probably Mike's most balanced attack to date. While he maintains an aggressive tone on tracks such as the lyrical slugfest "Bang" and the anti-oppression war cry "Pressure" featuring Ice Cube, he also experiments and delivers with songs such as the Isley Brothers-esque "Woke Up This Morning" and the spirit-rousing "God in the Building." As the owner of his Grind Time Official independent label, Mike inked a distribution deal with California's Bay Area-based SMC/Fontana (also home to Atlanta rapper Pastor Troy) and brought in some new West Coast-influenced production that allows him to float over loose autobiographical cuts such as "Can You Feel It" and "Grandma's House."
"Southernplayalistic was not a club album," Mike says, after mentioning how many local nightclubs don't include definitive Atlanta music in their playlists, aiding in the dilution of the sound. "Pledge II is Southernplayalistic on steroids. It's the first classic album out the Dungeon Family since [OutKast's] Aquemini."
Throughout the CD, Killer Mike name-drops people, streets and 'hoods that have been forgotten or probably won't exist in a year, creating an audio artifact with Pledge II that defines the Atlanta experience in real time.
It stands in stark contrast to the skewed images that are reshaping Atlanta hip-hop – whether it's the snap-and-roll sound cats like Soulja Boy made commercially viable or the trendsetting hipster-driven scene launching groups such as Hollyweerd.
Far from an old-school vet waving his finger in the face of progress, Mike fashions himself as a credible link to Atlanta's past and future. And he pays homage to others he believes are filling that gap, shouting out acts such as Fourth Ward's own Gripplyaz, the Labratz, members of Hollyweerd, and the Dixie Mafia clique.
But when Killer Mike hosted the big local show billed as "This is the A" that some of the same acts performed at a few months ago, he couldn't help but recognize the irony.
Despite the title, many of the groups on the bill had little in common with the hometown rap tradition he emerged from a decade ago. So he decided to school the crowd by dressing down for the trendy event. "I had on Polo jeans and some Filas, and I did that because that's what we were wearing in Atlanta in 1988. We weren't wearing the shit that kids are wearing now, thinking they're wearing '80s shit," he says. "Twenty years ago, we were jon'ing people who came down from New York dressed like that. We had our own style."