Killer Mike and El-P, aka Run The Jewels, perform at the 2022 Adult Swim Festival in Philadelphia. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Growing up in the South, Killer Mike didn’t know much about Philadelphia, but he was hooked as soon as he played his first Philly show. That was 20 years ago, and he keeps coming back.

His latest visit happens this weekend, when he plays Eraserhood venue Underground Arts as part of the tour for his latest solo album, “Michael,” which incorporates themes of faith, Black empowerment, and self-empowerment. 

Born Michael Render, the Atlanta-based rapper  has been in the game for decades, both solo and as half of Run The Jewels. His debut album “Monster” dropped in 2003, which led to his first visit to Philly. 

It was a surprise. Growing up in the South, he and his peers thought “everything north of D.C. was New York,” Mike told Billy Penn.

“You get to a city like Philadelphia and when you’re younger, you think it’s just going to be New York Pt. 2, but it’s not. … People are very neighborly. People know one another. People speak to you,” Render said.

“What I really was impressed about Philadelphia — and I still am, and now other cities have kind of adapted it — these beautiful, huge murals that are up on the sides of buildings. To me, that’s such an inspiring thing to walk around as a child to see.”

His newest record hearkens back to that time. The album fuses soul influences with modern-day trap production, and a heavenly church choir echoing through the halls of chapels and the subwoofers of nightclubs. The focus, he said, was breaking down the persona he’s created, and instead concentrating on the person he wanted to be in his childhood.

“Killer Mike is the character, the badass, swaggering emcee that this 9-year-old kid on the [album] cover created,” Render said. “I got back to Michael. I got back to the morals and values my grandparents taught. You know, I can’t empower my people if I don’t empower myself. If I’m not getting my butt up every day, figuring out how to become the better me, I can’t be a better neighbor. I can’t be a better community member. I can’t be a leader at all. My goal is to make my grandparents proud, and that’s what this record was really about.”

He might not have known it back then, but Philadelphia played a big role in his upbringing — at least musically. Mike recalled his mother playing many Gamble and Huff records, filling his ears with the famous  Philly Sound via artists like The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, and Teddy Pendergrass.

The Mid-Atlantic city remains at the forefront of music, as far as Killer Mike is concerned. Meek Mill is “one of the rawest rappers going,” he said, also shouting out The Roots. 

When he was coming up, though, one group stood out to him the most: State Property.

“Much of the Roc-A-Fella sound that Jay-Z brought forth with his own style, to me, was furthered by the adaptation of that group from Philadelphia,” Mike said. “They really transformed hip-hop as a sound, so I have a huge amount of respect for Chris and Neef, huge amount of respect for Beans and Freeway, huge amount of respect for Peedi Crakk and what they were able to do because they helped further the sound of hip-hop.”

Then there’s Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert, whose just-released Pink Tape became the year’s first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Mike recalled meeting a young Uzi at Means Street Studios in Atlanta. Back then, Uzi was “a great kid” who wasn’t full of themself, but had “that emcee shit, that fine balance of humility and swagger.”

As it happens, the studio that brought Uzi and Mike together is operated by Generation Now, a record label started by two guys from Philadelphia: DJ Drama and Don Cannon.

“Cannon and I probably speak more frequently because I’m always trying to be next to the beats, you know what I mean? Cannon’s always cooking up something dope,” the rapper said.

The latest dope thing from Cannon ended up on Killer Mike’s new album as the track “Something For Junkies.” It’s a personal piece; Mike’s mother suffered from drug addiction, and he ended up struggling with vices of his own, including pills. 

“That song is very important to me because I want people who are addicts to understand that you got grace and you’re forgiven and you’re loved and you’re cared for,” Mike said. “And I wanted people who may be the children of addicts to forgive their parents. I want people who are addicts to give themselves and I would for the world to be a lot more forgiving and helpful for people that suffer from addiction.”

Within the Black community, he said, “we just have not done a good job at showing each other grace.”

You can catch a live performance of “Something For Junkies” and other tracks at Underground Arts on Friday at 8:30 p.m. What should fans in Philadelphia expect?

“A revival,” Mike said. “Get prepared to sing and dance, jump and shout, and to put your hands in the air.”

Cory Sharber is a general assignment reporter at WHYY. Prior to his stint in Philadelphia, he spent four years between WVXU in Cincinnati and WKMS in Murray, Kentucky. He’s picked up accolades at the...