The delayed major-label debut has spawned two schools of thought. One argues that the perfect marketing storm must be orchestrated for a new artist to strike the masses; a fresh video, both street and radio singles, a gauntlet of ten-minute press phoners, high-profile cameos (preferably from your label-mates), and name-brand beats must all be in place. The other states that too much anticipation can quiet the buzz, stall momentum, and lose the attention of everyone except the artist's most diehard fans. It's easy to rhyme off rappers born of the internet age who failed to drop a proper CD at the height of their hype, only to see their buzz fizzle: Charles Hamilton, Cory Gunz, the Cool Kids, Nipsey Hussle, Donnis, Cyhi Da Prince...
He may only be 25 years old, but Meridian, MS's Justin Scott was running that risk. Thankfully, after much postponement, several international tours and at least three stellar mixtapes, rapper-producer Big K.R.I.T. sees his Def Jam debut, Live from the Underground, on shelves. What you say, Hammer? Proper.
Live from the Underground saw a few delays. If it were up to you, when would the album have come out?
It worked out. I was able to get all the features that I needed to get, all the sample clearances that I needed to get. It's kind of perfect timing. I've learned a lot about how long it takes to clear samples. If I had to drop my album [as originally announced] in September of last year, I wouldn't have had the B.B. King feature or the Ludacris feature, and there's other records I added after the fact that wouldn't have existed.
Which records came late?
I was able to finish the "Hydroplaning." The "What U Mean" record featuring Ludacris was added late as well. "Cool 2 Be Southern" was added late. I was able to finish the outro the way I wanted… a large chunk of the album.
What happened to songs from earlier versions of the LP?
There were definitely earlier versions. We had probably 16 songs done, and then after doing the Smoker's Club tour and 4eva n A Day dropped, I felt we had to go back in the studio and record some new songs only because I was in a different space in my life. I felt differently. And then sonically I wanted some of the records to sound bigger. With a record like "Cool 2 Be Southern," [the delay] gave me the opportunity to add live horns instead of it just being a gritty organ and a bass line. All these things are necessary as far as me giving my all musically and for you to hear the growth in my production.
Did performing and collaborating with the Roots affect your views on live music?
Oh, definitely. That would be one influence ― just seeing how they create, performing with them on Jimmy Fallon, and being able to work with them on Undun. But also just me wanting to be the kind of artist that other people want to sample. Because I sample now, I understand how much work those [older] artists put into their music; it was warmer, there was so much more soul in the music. And I think that's because of the live instrumentation. I want to accomplish the same kind of feel with my music. It takes effort to have a live bass play my idea instead of sampling one, or actually get a violinist to come in and play. To me, it adds more character to the record. It becomes more my idea.
Do you ever talk to any of the original artists that you want to sample?
To be honest with you, a lot of the original artists aren't alive. So you deal with publishers. I would like to talk to the artists; that would be super dope. But usually it goes through the record labels. With so many people working on the record back then, there's a lot to sort out. The artist who wrote the hook might not be the one who made the track and vice versa.
The B.B. King feature sticks out. How did that become a reality?
I came up with the record "Praying Man" months ago. I wanted to make something super impactful, a record that touches on something that doesn't get talked about too much: slavery. It's real soulful, almost dark. And when it comes to the hook, it sounds like a sample, but it's something I wrote. I was riding around listening to [the demo] with my partner and said, "Yo, what if we put B.B. King on this?" We all laughed about it, because it seemed unrealistic. But, thank God, my lawyer reached out and got in contact with someone close to B.B. and let him hear the record. He loved the concept and the song. I caught a flight to Las Vegas, caught up with him, and he sung the hook and played guitar on the song.
Why tackle a topic like slavery in 2012?
Being from Mississippi and having a different view on it, and being raised by my grandmother and her telling me things that she went through as far as racism and the civil rights movement. A lot of people lost their lives for me to do the things that I freely do now. Slavery might not exist in terms of African-Americans being enslaved, but there's still slavery going on. The song is three different stories. I'm rapping from the point of view of someone actually hanging in a tree and somebody who jumped off the slave ship and somebody who's running from the lynch mob, and tying this all into the hook. I'm excited for people to hear this record. It's definitely one I'm super proud of making. And I had an opportunity to work with a legend.
What made you write from other perspectives?
Hip-hop is the art of storytelling. That's a strong practice in hip-hop; it's a trait you must have if you want to consider yourself a lyricist. You're talking about Biggie Smalls and Tupac being able to put themselves in the mindset of somebody else and rap from that particular position. Even Nas, Jay-Z, Scarface, UGK ― growing up listening to their music, I realized it didn't always have to be about me. For me to write a song in a way that someone who wasn't raised like me can get something from it is extremely important. I didn't go through slavery, so I had to talk to my grandmother, and her grandmother worked in the field. So we talked about what she learned from that, what she passed down to me so that I could put it in my music. I've always wanted to say something important, and I have that opportunity now to put a positive message out, to take advantage and put out something that people need to hear.
What's the most important life lesson your grandmother taught you?
Be myself. Treat people how you want to be treated is another one. Especially venturing into this game and people telling me about the shark aspect of the music industry, I knew to surround myself with people who are genuine and who knew me before this [notoriety]. And pray. Pray. Understand that you didn't do this all by yourself. Knowing that made it easier when I felt like I couldn't continue going on making music ― understanding that I'm not alone allowed me to push forward.
Were there times you got frustrated that you didn't have a proper LP out?
All the time. That's me just being creative, of going to a situation where I always gave my music away for free, to keep the buzz going, to build confidence for an album. But the business aspect is more organized. I had to learn to separate the creative from the business and learn that certain things must be monetized. There's must be a proper rollout and plan and goal at the end of the day. It's a learning process for me, and I'm willing to admit that.
Your mixtapes have an album quality to them already ― original beats and verses, conceptual songs. So what's the difference between them and the LP?
One: I couldn't go crazy with the samples. That's an extreme difference. I had to create records that sound like samples but aren't. Two: There's a whole helluva lot more singing going on this than in any of my previous projects. More background vocals, lot more live instrumentation. Also, I'm gearing my songs towards performance and shows now. Making the kind of music that translates well to a crowd and can be performed with a band. I learned from being out on the road. There's still some slick talk. I've just experienced so much more now that a lot of my verses are straight to the point. I'm more focused on the content than just a barrage of punch lines. I'm making cohesive songs that fit all together, and doing it within 16 records instead of having free range to do 22 songs. I'm drawing inspiration from my life. Even the features are set differently than they usually are. I'm excited for people to hear the growth. It sounds bigger and warmer than my usual projects. And, hell, my mixtapes weren't mastered. My album is mastered, so it'll be loud enough in every car. That's a big difference.
What's one of the best things that happened to you on tour?
Being on the J. Cole tour, I had the opportunity to meet two young ladies, and they were blind. Yet they were so positive and such fans of the music. It was one of those things I can draw from. Sometimes I feel like the business is overwhelming me or I feel a lot of pressure, but that reminds me of what I actually have and that my music is reaching people. That was kind of a life-changing experience, to be honest with you. To receive that positive energy from people when I tour is exciting, and it's overwhelming sometimes.
What's next challenge now that the album is finally mastered?
Promoting it. Hitting the road. Doing more beats, production. I think people are starting to find out that I do my own beats and they really dig the sound, so I need to balance the two. I'm working with Smoke DZA and Big Sant on their projects as well and continuing to do what I do.
Read a review of Live from the Underground here.