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This or That? Big Mike vs. Killer Mike (a.k.a. Mike Bigga)

For the latest ‘This or That?’ we travel South for a debate that might have helped open eyes in the mid-2000′s, when hip-hop at large seemed to think Lil’ Jon and D4L were the only Southern artists worth talking about (and s–ting on).

Michael Santiago Render, or Killer Mike, pulled a ‘Live At The BBQ’ in 2001 when he caught the beat running on OutKast’s ‘The Whole World,’ quickly making a name for himself. That song came together after an early collaboration, ‘Funkanella,’ put ‘Kast and Mike together on a slamming cut from DJ Clue that helped initiate Killer Mike into Dre and Big Boi’s angry new Stankonian sound. Add ‘Land Of A Million Drums’ and it becomes clear – few words describe Killer Mike better than ‘angry.’

The first words on Mike’s debut album, ‘Monster,’ clue you in to his state of mind – “Peace will never tame the hatred in me / I’m too restricted / Separated from your species.” He’s another breed of outcast, a flammable mix of the thoughtful and the extroverted, strapped with guns instead of a pimp cane – “swerving semi-conscious with a half a blunt and an automatic.” He’s been driven to identify as a ‘Monster,’ so if he seems a little rattled, you have to excuse him. Mike sounds pissed like when someone screams in your face and saliva involuntarily flies out of their lip’s ledge – he didn’t mean it, but he doesn’t give a f–k either. He dealt with the role society handed him by turning into a superhero rapper, chest bulged and fitted on tight. You could tell he had something to prove when he freestyled about stickers in the Booth. 

That tangible emotion made ‘Monster’ an excellent album, even while more cotton candy cuts like ‘A.D.I.D.A.S.’ got him on the radio. Most remember ‘Monster’ for the rage on songs like ‘Rap Is Dead’ and ‘AKshon (yeah!)’ where Mike perfected the turn-of-the-century, pre-trap aggression that ‘Stankonia’ captured so well. He was unbridled and unapologetic, and that willingness to scare a pu–y rap fan translated into a career where political criticism would often take center stage, such as on his sophomore album, ‘I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind,’ and his latest work with El-P as Run The Jewels. 

Big Mike had a different career trajectory, though many might argue that his was more canonical. He began as one half of The Convicts, an early Rap-A-Lot act with Mr. 3-2 that may have provided the impetus for Suge Knight to create a record label in the image of death row. Their self-titled debut album from 1991 was so good, it made J. Prince’s buddy Suge bring Big Mike west, where he roomed with Snoop Dogg. Dr. Dre was supposedly a fan of the Convicts, and there’s been much documented overlap between Death Row and Rap-A-Lot (including freestylesdemos and adlibs), but nothing came of Big Mike’s move, so when Willie D left the Geto Boys, Mike jumped at the opportunity to be on the group’s ’93 album, ‘Til Death Do Us Part.’

That alone would have been a solid resume, but he surpassed expectations the very next year with his debut solo album, ‘Somethin’ Serious,’ reaching number four on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Propelled by the fat single ‘World Of Mind,’ Big Mike’s first LP had beats most rappers dream of – two Pimp C joints, including the flawless swamp funk of ‘Havin’ Thangs,’ the grin-inducing ‘Creepin – Rollin’ by Mike Dean, and help from producers like N.O. Joe, John Bido, and Troy ‘Pee Wee’ Clark. ‘Monster’ boasted modern talent behind the boards like Mr. DJ, Swiffman, and Cool & Dre, but ‘Somethin’ Serious’ had a more acoustic, traditionally ‘country’ sound. In the continuum of Southern rap, both Mikes are necessary – without earlier, well-established styles, groundbreaking Dungeon Family releases like ‘Stankonia’ and ‘Monster’ might have never been born. Those albums took a ghostly old spirit that still lingered and brought it back to life in new musical bodies.

Big Mike doesn’t sound like he could muster the vitriol that Killer Mike radiates, so they don’t quite serve the same listening purposes. If it’s raining and you got just enough weed for a blunt to the head, Big Mike does the trick without offending your laziness. If you just got fired, your girl won’t get off your back, and the police keep hounding you, Killer Mike might be a better soundtrack for the s–tstorm of feelings you’ve got going on. One will relax you; the other will keep you pissed off.

Ultimately, it looks like Killer Mike is having the better overall career. A decade after his debut album, he’s continuing to explore sonic horizons with the apocalyptic, earth-cracking rap that he’s been making alongside El-P. Big Mike’s sophomore album was his most successful one, but it didn’t quite depart from the first album as much as build on it, so it’s more of a continuation than a progression. It’s still funky, but when you see Killer Mike develop his persona, explore different subject matter, and still maintain a high quality of music, it makes you wonder why your favorite rappers can’t do the same.

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