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Talking Squarely About Black Businesses in America with Killer Mike
Season 1, Episode 4
A little bit about this episode on Black entrepreneurship…
In this special-edition episode of Talking Squarely, we talk with rapper and business owner Michael Render, more commonly known as Killer Mike, about how to encourage Black economic inclusion and entrepreneurship during a time of increased racial tension in the United States. And we discuss what it means to be a community leader, and his own journey of entrepreneurship.
“Well, I’m a working class kid. I grew up in the Collier Heights but I grew up on the edges. What’s the Collier Heights? the Collier Heights is an area that Blacks gentrified,” says Killer Mike as he describes his journey from elementary school to high school in an area that saw a spectrum of diverse incomes.
This, he says, was instrumental in being able to imagine endless possibilities for himself. “Had it not been for the economic prosperity of that community, even though I’m a working class kid and essentially we just serve as a buffer between that community and the rougher communities, housing projects. I got to reap the benefits because the people who lived there were socially responsible enough to live in community. They were responsible enough to make sure they invested in the education of kids that weren’t their own even because they were looking 20 years ahead.”
In establishing a legacy for his own children, Killer Mike says it’s crucial to have support for local and federal governments to make this happen.
“You got to understand when you’re talking about Black entrepreneurship, many times you’re only talking about first or second generation and it’s not like when you look at a successful company like Gucci.” he says. “So when I look at these companies, I look at myself, Michael Render is the first in line of entrepreneurship for this generation within my family and my job is to hopefully set up a entrepreneurial foundation in which Michael Render, my daughter will take the reins of that and grow it.”
Talking Squarely, a Podcast by Square
There isn’t one playbook for running a business and the decisions business owners face are rarely straightforward. Every other week, we’ll bring together independent business owners to have frank discussions and share their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues impacting their lives—from the changing rules of commerce to work-life balance.
Full transcript below:
When watching my grandparents, when watching local politicians and watching the state versus the city sometimes I got an understanding of the importance of entrepreneurship and money in my community. And how my community was strong entrepreneurially that it provided jobs for my community and provided greater stability and resources for the wider community.
Nelson Murray (host):
Hi, I’m Nelson Murray and this is Talking Squarely. In this series we bring together independent business owners to have frank discussions and share their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues impacting their lives and livelihoods. Today, we have the privilege of sitting down with Michael Render, more commonly known by his stage name, Killer Mike, to discuss a topic that he’s dedicated much of his life advocating Black entrepreneurship and empowerment. We’ll discuss the ways the Black economy has evolved the challenges it faces and the strategies that governments, communities, and individuals can use to push things forward even in the face of a health and social crisis. Michael, thank you so much for being with us today.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
Nelson Murray (host):
Absolutely. Let’s just dive right in here. We have so many different topics that we love to get your thoughts on. But first I think even though there’s probably a very small chance that our audience is not familiar with you, I’d love for you to just introduce yourself. If you would tell us a little bit about who you are and how you describe yourself.
I’m Shana’s husband, and one half of the group Run the Jewels. I’m a dad of four amazing human beings. Malik, Aniyah, Mikey who’s a 13 year old girl and Ponyboy, who’s an 18 year old young man. And I was raised a working class Black kid in a strong Black community in Atlanta. I’ve grown to be in an activist an organizer in my life. And my dream was to be a rapper, I got it. And then a lot of cool responsibility came with it too. I’m a business owner and I try my best to be someone where my name is said in my city the response will be one of respect.
Nelson Murray (host):
Well, we certainly want to touch on both the city and the business aspect of your life today. We use the word at Square, we use the word entrepreneur quite often. And I’m curious, given the number of things that you were involved in artistically and professionally, does that word apply to you? How do you sort of self identify professionally?
Yeah, I’m an entrepreneur. I am a product in that I make music, you know what I’m saying? So Killer Mike, the musician, has been the cornerstone or the bedrock for Killer Mike the entrepreneur. But I was in entrepreneurial before music. I was a kid that cut grass. In college, I was a kid that sold grass, you know what I mean? But what I knew was there, there’s an old adage that Bill Gates said, if you want to get something done easily or effectively ask the laziest person in the room because they’re going to figure out the easiest way to do it.
Well, the first time my mom gave me 20 bucks to cut grass, I found the younger kid who thought it was exciting to get 10 bucks. I loaned him my lawnmower, he cut my mom’s grass so good I booked us another four yards. I didn’t have to cut any grass. I made about 60 bucks. So I guess I’ve been entrepreneurial in my efforts because my mother was. My mother was an artist by nature. She was a florist. So every day, your job is to make rooms beautiful with live or artificial flowers and to make people happy. But rather than just being an artist, she owned her own business first with a white woman named Jean. They had a floral company called True Jean. So I saw my mother be very entrepreneurial throughout her whole life.
And I saw my grandfather do extra stuff, like my grandfather was formerly educated until third grade. He drove dump trucks and worked at a brick yard. But he did other stuff like for the black man who owned two, three dump trucks up the street, he drove for him on the weekends. He also would bring liquor or moonshine back from his hometown and sell that at a premium cost to his friends here. So I learned that you always should do something extra and I knew that I didn’t want to work very hard.
And lastly, my friend Robert Hicks, who played for the Buffalo Bills, we’ve been friends since kindergarten. He said “Kill, I tell people, even when you was younger, you was going to have to figure out opening your own business because you just never liked listening to people.” He said, “We had a job,” and we did, we worked at Chuck E. Cheese together. He said, “They asked us to do something, your first response was why.” So I pretty much figured out very young that I’m going to have to be an entrepreneur because I don’t take orders very well and I’m lazy and I like money. So that’s an interesting mix.
Nelson Murray (host):
A lot of what you are talking about has to do with the city of Atlanta and I want to touch before we even move into you being a business owner and how you got started professionally. Can you talk to me about the significance of Atlanta? What does Atlanta mean to you and your life and professionally?
Let me qualify that. I did an interview with Bloomberg magazine about a week or two ago and I called back after the interview because I realized I’m talking to financial people, bankers, capitalists, people, stock market, people financiers. I said, “I need you guys to understand what I’ve learned from Atlanta is when black communities and white communities set aside prejudice and bigotry, and they’re focused on being as strong as economic communities they can be.” So the Atlanta community has been a successful black community, in successive perspective, because Atlanta has the number three Fortune 500 companies of any city in the country and Georgia as a state.
Atlanta has had a long prosperous black middle class and black working class. And with that said, we have the largest wealth gap, much like America. We mirror America in a lot of ways, right? Except we’re chocolate. It’s a black city. There was a riot in the early 1900’s in Atlanta and I think four to six black men were killed ad at that time, just had a deal had to be struck between black and white Atlanta. Essentially blacks got the living and business districts of what is Auburn Avenue and Edgewood. My wife and I own one of our shops in Edgewood Avenue. I’m very proud to be in that district because it had long since been forgotten but it was once a black dominator and powerhouse, people like Alonzo Harden who had the largest black insurance company, Atlanta Life Insurance, who started with the barbershop. He was there. John Wesley Dobbs, who was a business and financial genius and the unofficial mayor of black Atlanta was there. He also was the grandfather of Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor.
So Maynard not only being a politician, but having had a grandfather that was a businessman understood the importance for our community, the importance of a mastery of both. Maynard understood caring in that I have to put the greater good above bigotry and self-interest. He went into the mayorship and he demanded at 29 to 30 percent of city contracts be black and minority development. So he made sure that they were able to participate in the economic prosperity that was coming in. That went directly into the community. Well, how does that affect you Mike? You grew up working class. Well, I’m a working class kid. I grew up in the Collier Heights, but I grew up on the edges. What’s the Collier Heights? The Collier Heights is an area that blacks gentrified. Who stayed there? Billy McKinney, Cynthia McKinney, the King family moved there, the King parents. Herman Russell himself lived there. And because of that diverse, and even middle-class up income that was in the end bed of my community, our schools were better.
Therefore, I went to Collier Heights Elementary, which was a great school. I went to Frederick Douglas High School, which was like going to a black college, eight through 12th grade and then I went on to Morehouse. Had it not been for the economic prosperity of that community, even though I’m a working class kid, and essentially we just serve as a buffer between that community and a rougher communities, housing projects, I got to reap the benefits because the people who lived there was socially responsible enough to live in community, they were responsible enough to make sure they invested in the education of kids that weren’t their own even because they were looking 20 years ahead. When Maynard did that, that mandate for Atlanta, he wasn’t thinking about 1973, he was thinking about 1993. So by the time you got to 1993, when I’m graduating high school, you have a radically different Atlanta.
The Herman Russell Company has, by now, built the skyscraper. I don’t think there’s a cap on my imagination because I’m seeing blacks move in from all over the country in the world, come here and start successful businesses. Everything from a Face Records to Noontime Records to Alex Gidewon being the party promoter. All of that from the music side, blossoms out of Maynard’s thinking, and the marriage of not only black politics and business, but black social money because juke joints, nightclubs, strip clubs, all of this connected Atlanta in a way that was radically different. So we’ve seen even more economic opportunity has followed us through every mayor. Now the black community definitely got enriched, got jobs. There’s a true black working-class and middle-class. But subsequently, it wasn’t just like the special favor helped our community, it made the greater market better because if I wanted the best barbecue or what I thought was the best barbecue, I wasn’t limited to North Fulton.
I had other barbecue restaurants I could drive to the South Fulton that brought money and tax money to that base, which enriched that community. So the wider community got better because the dollar in the black community became stronger. So if I wanted to open 10 restaurants, I can open my 10 restaurants. But the people I provide some of my supplies from would be farmers out of West Georgia, would also be the white owned baking companies. So all of these businesses are benefiting.
So for me, what Atlanta showed me is that cooperation and individual responsibility and economics and group economics can help me as an individual, can help my community, but also help the wider community. So these are just lessons that I picked up when watching my grandparents, when watching local politicians and watching the state versus the city sometimes, I got an understanding of the importance of entrepreneurship and money in my community and how if my community was strong entrepreneurially, that did it provided jobs for my community and provided greater stability and resources for the wider community. Because if I’m a plumber and I charge you $100 less just because I look like you, you don’t care. At the point you got to get your toilet fixed, your prejudice and bigotry kind of goes out the window and you’re like, “Shit, this is a better deal. It’s 250 bucks just to call my plumber. I’d love to only pay 150.”
Nelson Murray (host):
And a lot of what we want to talk about today is the significance of entrepreneurship in the black community. And you’re talking right now about the significance and value of keeping dollars in that community. Can you talk a little bit more about that idea and maybe how Atlanta in particular has managed to do that well, or maybe not, and how other parts of the country are approaching that differently?
I think that we’ve gotten away from some of the things that we used to do. Atlanta’s a black city. I can go to black restaurants, I can go to black clubs, I can go to a black car dealership and buy a car. My house is mortgaged through a black bank and with that said, I don’t have the luxuries that my grandparents had. Now that’s an odd statement because my grandparents were born in 1922 and 1932. So my grandfather would have been 98 right now but he grew up at a time where segregation or what is honestly apartheid, forced the black community to deal and to depend on one another. So when he got to Atlanta, you have black doctors, black dentists, black grocery stores, you have everything in America, there is a black version of because the black community insulated itself from outside forces that would have been hostile, forcing their dollar to turn.
My grandfather often said one of the worst things that happened was integration. He didn’t say desegregation, but he said when we integrated, we integrated our dollar right out of our community, right? Now, desegregation, you get the same social rights that you deserve, and rightfully deserve, all Americans deserve, but you still would’ve kept your dollar in your community. And other dollars would’ve come into your community because you’re allowed to be a fair competitor in capitalism at that point. So if you’re a black builder, your chances of getting a contractor are increased, because now you have to be considered fairly, which is why you have an airport in Atlanta with over 50 percent of the vendors are black or people of color of some type. And that is a significant thing. For me, the importance of it, or the importance of turning that black dollar is if our dollar stays in our community, as long as Asian, white and Jewish dollars, which is I think is about 28, 22 days, 20 days amongst social respective groups, then our community stronger because that dollar gets to enrich and empower as it moves around.
So the $20 I was paid, I paid another kid $10. We provided a service for five more yards. You know what I mean? That moved $100 around and it enriched these kids. I then took some of that money, I went to the black teen club and had fun. I spent money with what I thought was a black company, Jordan, but also spent money with Patrick Ewing too, on his shoes. So it enabled me to have all the fun I wanted without being a burden on my mother. It enabled my mother to teach me work ethic. If that dollar or the opportunity to make it wasn’t there, I don’t learn the basic economics. My grandparents still opened me a bank account, but I never get in the habit of feeding my bank account. I believe if we learn how to turn our dollar in our community for weeks and months versus just six hours, I think that there’s an argument that we can strengthen our economic independence, which helps the wider economic community as well.
Nelson Murray (host):
Can an individual who wants to start their own business, quote unquote, pick themselves up by their bootstraps, or do they need support from local or federal governments in order to make that happen?
Not only need, but deserve. I think there has to be talk before then and after, of a federal funding. The feds fund every other business. They saved the shit out of our banks a few years ago. They saved American car companies. So I think that on a small and local business and medium-sized business level, absolutely. Absolutely we deserve, and I think that it’s not welfare because when you give something to entrepreneurs. Ruth’s Chris didn’t get $20 million doing COVID because it was welfare, they got it because they wanted to make sure they could furlough workers, handle operations, restructure themselves and come back and be a bad-ass steak restaurant. Well, my home girl Ruth and her boyfriend, Chris, want to do the same thing with their steak restaurant. If they’re a medium business, they deserve those considerations as well because another steak restaurant is better for the customers in the marketplace because it means there’s more competition.
You got to understand when you’re talking about black entrepreneurship, many times, you’re only talking about first or second generation. You look at a successful company like Gucci. Gucci is a billion dollar company and they’re acquired by a bigger house. It’s a global brand. Gucci started off as a father and a family making fine leather goods to sell to tourists. Louis Vuitton started off as a trunk maker where it was considered crass and not classy to put LV on trunks and they started that wave. So when I look at these companies, I look at myself, Michael Render is the first in line of entrepreneurship for this generation within my family. And my job is to hopefully set up a entrepreneurial foundation in which Michael Render, my daughter, will take the reins of that and grow it.
So absolutely we deserve some help because 250 years, and then finally saying, “Okay guys, now you guys are free and you get seven years of freedom and then there’s about 80, 90 years of apartheid called Jim Crow.” All of that has held us back from fairly participating in the entrepreneurial marketplace. Now, and people may hear that and say, “Well, I didn’t do that.” Yeah, you didn’t do that, but you benefited from it. If your parents were able to leave you a piece of property based on your grandparents serving in World War I or II and whatever GI bills benefited them, black soldiers were denied that. That’s one of the biggest transferals of wealth that happens within every family. Yet many black people have been denied that opportunity. So I believe that just like the federal agents had to come into the South to make sure that we can vote and to make sure our communities weren’t burned down, which later happened in places like Tulsa, I think that there are and should be, especially if we do ever seriously talk about reparations in this country.
Nelson Murray (host):
One of the things that comes to mind, especially because of the centuries of systemic oppression that you’re talking about with regard to black America, a lot of folks just have doubts about starting a business in general, because it’s hard. You are in a position to know. It’s hard to be your own boss.
Hard is an understatement. I can remember my wife telling our kids we work incredibly hard not to work and what they weren’t understanding at the time is that, I think the two younger ones understand more, we do 80, 90, 100 hour weeks. At times, we could pay other people too just because we want the knowledge of how to do it.
We learned how to run a barbershop the hard way, by opening a barbershop without prior knowledge and it took us years of getting beat up and kicked around and say, “Why isn’t this working?” for us to find mentorship like Mr. Dudley’s who owns Dudley’s, who was the first person to tell us, “You’re not going to be able to do a real barbershop on booth rent. You’re going to have to switch to commission and here’s why.” He was the first person to tell us, “You’re going to need your own products. Barbershops are not just about cutting hair, look at the art of shaving. That is a product line masquerading as a shaving parlor.” ad I’m like, “Shit.” And it forced me to look at myself and the business we were building radically different. So rather than look at my neighborhood barbershop as the ideal, which it was fun to own a neighborhood barbershop, we made money every week. My wife had a cool little salary every month. It wasn’t worth the amount of stress exchange. When we started to operate as a retail shop functioning as a barbershop, everything changed. That’s when you start looking at thousands of dollars a week in retail. That’s when you start to say, “Well, this is our percentage off commission. This is how if our barbers have a hundred customer client base, this is our expectations to make them per year and make for us. This gives us the ability to advertise, not only via Facebook, but billboards.”
That’s where things radically changed, when I started looking at our shop and my wife has a much better business brain than me. She’s younger and from Savannah. Her grandma ran a liquor house, my grandma went to church. So she learned money a little earlier than me. She’s the one who really gets it and really got it. So for me, it was just a matter of having to focus my perspective and say, “Okay, I’m an artist. I’m going to focus on what the shops look like and the atmosphere and the vibe.” But from the money perspective, she got very serious about throwing events that make room for other.
Like if you are black coffee company, and this is a true story. So a black coffee company is looking for places to present their wares in the marketplace. My wife does a Juneteenth event that invites black vendors to come out and essentially sit on the sidewalks in front of our barbershops and peddle their wares. Now, we get this idea because when you own a barbershop in any working class community, and something falls off the back of a truck, they walk in the back of the barbershop and say, “Hey, we got socks today. Hey, we got lighters today.” What we did was cut that out, bring those products into our shop or in front of the shop and let you sell. This coffee company sold out that day.
I get a call a few days later from a black developer who’s building a super center of sorts in Southeast Atlanta saying, “Hey, Mike, we want to allow a coffee shop to come here.” Brother’s named Omar Lee, whose father is a brilliant businessman. And he says, “Do you know of any?” And I said, “I just happen to know of one.” Then I got stoned and I forgot to call him back. So he called me back the next day and he said, “You got that coffee shop?” I hooked him and that coffee shop up and that coffee shop is entering into that development and will be a black owned coffee shop and a black owned development servicing a mixed community. And again, I say you can be black owned, but serve the greater community and it could be a service to the larger community.
Nelson Murray (host):
You touched on this a little bit, especially when you mentioned the inflection point, when you figure it out, and you use the phrase crack the code, that’s kind of oversimplifying it, but with the barbershop, how to start making money out of it. But there had to be a point well before that where you took a leap of faith and chose to start. You made a choice to be your own boss. Tell me about that.
Yeah. I used to say my famous word was fire your boss, be a boss, when I had the Grind Time mixtape series. Well, after my mixtape era, I just celebrated the anniversary of one of them, I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, that record was me motivating myself out of depression and disbelief that I could do it. I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind III landed me a nod, a shout out for one of the 50 best songs in Rolling Stone. And that gave me the courage to say, “I’m going to keep doing music.” and I said to myself, if and when I get a chance to do music again, I’m not going to make the mistake I made as a young man. As a young man, when I was selling grass in college, I had an opportunity to leave college and do music, but I should have put myself through barber school.
That’s how long I wanted to own a barbershop. So when I got money to make rap music and I was making rap music and I started to make and compile my savings again, I discovered an opportunity via maybe Craigslist. A shop was going on sale for $6,000. Now had I been talking to the Michael of then, I would say to him, “Just let that shop go out of business, talk to the landlord, buy his lease and you don’t even have to pay the six grand. Just let them run out of business.” But I paid the six grand sight unseen over the phone. And I walked in the room and told my wife, “I just bought us a barbershop,” and my wife didn’t talk to me for two weeks and she later told me it’s because you bought me a shop. This is my burden and in my mind, it was like, “Oh, I get this a week per chair. This is how much we’ll make per month. We’ll just keep the bills low.” But there was a lot more that went into it. There was constructing, there was coding, there was these other things. But the leap of faith came from my very rudimentary former grass dealer calculations that I know I have enough money to pay the rent for a year, I know I can keep the power and costs this and I remember wanting to buy eight chairs at one time. And my wife was like, “You have two barbers. You’re buying two chairs at one time. And as we hire new barbers, we’ll let that chair pay for the next year.” And that was some of the wisest advice that she’d given me because I took it into, I’m not going to open a shop until the first shop pays for the second, until the second pays for the third. And it took a slower pace, but we’re now on our third shop and in the process of setting up a plan to open up 10 shops in the next 24 months, to provide proof of product, to talk to some capital venture folks and give some money and take this thing regional and national.
So the moment for me was when I had compiled a savings that I knew I could float my business for one year, not for a quarter, not for just 90 days but for one year I said I have to be able to do this for a year and at the end of that year, we brought home profit. It was meager, but I was proud as shit. It was a lot of headaches and heartache that went into it, but I was very, very proud of what my wife and I accomplished.
Nelson Murray (host):
A lot of this makes me think about storytelling and the power, the potential power, of storytelling to inspire people. Thinking just about you, you have a Netflix series, you are developing documentaries in addition to your music. Do you think about that often? And if so, what power do you think? What capacity do you think that storytelling plays in, let’s say the black community, to inspire people to think beyond what they might have thought was possible for their life?
My prediction is Tyler Perry is going to become a billionaire. My prediction is, or my knowledge is, you don’t get to be what he has become without a political class that participates in helping him secure a studio in this city and all of that is built off storytelling. The creation of Medea has been a cornerstone of his ability to do those movies and others, which has provided the capital, the credit and the confidence from the public to make him, I think, the only owner of a black studio, or at least the largest in an all black city. So the power of my storytelling, what it’s done for me is, it has helped people understand that anything and everything is possible, that a lot of times black anger and rage, but because of systemic hardship is exercised through story.
If I had not heard F The Police, what would I have been? If I had not heard Too Short, a lot of people think of Too Short in particular as just a sexist and misogynist rapper who rapped about pimping. Never mind that it was Pulp Fiction essentially. We knew Short wasn’t actively pimping anything. We knew he was a rapper, rapping Donald Goines and Robert Beck like lyrics. But the significant thing about Too Short, if you were alive in those times, had less to do with that and more the fact that he always threatened to retire. He would say, “Tell Jive, unless they give me a million dollars, I’m retiring.” Now a million dollars sounded like a lot of money when I was 12 years old, well it is a lot of money. But I didn’t understand that if he’s asking for one, Jive probably owes him 10, or he deserves 10.
I don’t think a lot of times we understand the significance of storytellers, of athletes who run and jump. If this is wrong, we are the circus and just like there’s power in the Senate, and just like there’s power in Caesar, just like there’s power in the Roman army, there’s power in those who put on a spectacle for the public because we give the public the ability to suspend disbelief. Now, usually when we think of suspending disbelief, we think of I’m going into a movie, I’m going to watch The Godfather and Marlon Brando is going to become an Italian godfather, and Al Pacino becomes Michael Corleone. And before you know it, you’re 15 minutes in and this family is real because the emotions are real, right? The brotherly love, the anger, the ambition, all of it is real.
There’s another suspend disbelief and that suspension of disbelief is my daughter, who’s 13, her first president, the first person she recognized most powerful voice in the world was a black man. I never would have believed that in my lifetime. But her, the cap on her imagination is it never was there because her first president was Barack Obama, that she was cognizant of. I have to understand that the truest power of storytelling is to get the audience from a rap perspective to suspend the disbelief of limitation and to really push for everything, to really pushed for the full monty. That’s the power of an artist.
Nelson Murray (host):
Mr. Michael Render, Killer Mike, thank you so very much for spending some time with us today. We really appreciate it.
I appreciate you greatly.
Nelson Murray (host):
A very special thanks to Killer Mike for his time and thoughtful insight. You can learn more about his barbershop, The Swag Shop by visiting www.theswagshop.com.
You’ve been listening to Talking Squarely a Square production. This episode was produced by Mallory Russell, Cindy Lewis, Dushane Ramsay, Evan Grohl, John Scarpinato and Travis Gonzalez. Our music was composed by Jordain Wallace with sound recording by Sorrentino Media and Jamie Cohen. I’m Nelson Murray thanks for listening.