After ditching the majors, Big K.R.I.T. is calling the creative shots in more ways than one. His own label, touring and new music are priorities, but so is his human side.
Interview: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Short for King Remembered in Time, Big K.R.I.T.’s rap moniker is a reference to legacy, but the 35-year-old is just as focused on the present. Since releasing his debut mixtape, See Me On Top, in 2005, the rapper, born Justin Lewis Scott, has released 23 solo projects and built a loyal, cult fan base while establishing himself as one of the most dynamic artists the South has to offer.
Born and raised in Mississippi, K.R.I.T. began getting serious attention from fans and critics alike with the release of his 2010 mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. He signed a deal with Def Jam Recordings that same year. After releasing multiple critically acclaimed projects on Def Jam, K.R.I.T., citing changing relationships at the label, chose the independent route and departed in 2016.
Now, he’s got his own label, Multi Alumni. Years removed from feeling the pressure to make stream-friendly records and commercial singles, K.R.I.T.’s leaned into his status as a stalwart of the underground, a status he reaffirmed with Digital Roses Don’t Die, a “love story” album he dropped this past February. Coated in 1970’s-esque funk and soul, as well as his own nimble songwriting, the project is just the latest sign of his evolution as a rapper, singer and producer.
This year, he’s focused on touring and expanding his label and roster he has brought on board. He has also been collaborating with a lot more artists. K.R.I.T. has plenty of ideas and concepts in the vault, but he’s taking his time when it comes to his next project.
Connecting with XXL on a chilly February evening, just one week ahead of the release date for his Digital Roses Don’t Die album, K.R.I.T. discusses Southern rap, his respect for André 3000, life as the head of a record label, the makings of a great lyricist and the human being within.
XXL: What have you been up to over the last six months aside from putting together this album?
Big K.R.I.T.: Oh, man. Just life. I think everybody’s been going through a lot. Even going from 2021 to 2022 was just an adjustment, right? It’s like normally back in the day before COVID, new year, new things I’m going to do, boom, boom, boom. It was kinda like, You know what? I’m still in the house. You’re still just trying to figure things out here and there. But it’s just dialing in, starting to concentrate more on finalizing the album. What that feels like. What a tour looks like.
At this point in my career, [it's about] what performing looks like, and really what kind of message am I trying to send to people. Because we all been through a lot in the last few years, man. And so, for me, it was just thinking about all that along with the rollout and stuff, too. Just trying to be as authentic in myself as I possibly can.
That sounds very wholesome.
How would you describe your place in hip-hop right now? Is it different from the place where you wanted to be when you were starting out?
It’s hard to explain, man, because it was a lot of me trying to prove myself because of where
I was from. I’m from Mississippi. So, I had to do a lot of traveling, a lot of interacting with people in order to prove my capacity to do music, not only on a production level, but on a rapping level, and be very stern in that not only can I produce, but I am a lyricist and a top-tier lyricist and I’m from Mississippi. So, it was that. I had to push and it became a lot of aggression, a lot of frustration at times because of the geography lottery.
The music industry tailors itself more to vacation destinations and not necessarily towards places. It might be a small town that people are unaware of. So, that created this narrative for me to always feel like I needed to prove myself. And it didn’t matter what room I was in. It didn’t matter how much music I put out or how creative I got. It was just to prove myself. And I found myself at this moment, I think it was probably after Cadillactica going into 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, where I didn’t really care about proving myself anymore because I had done so much music. We toured and we had seen the love and we had the experience of being with a label and not being with a label and everything being independent. And I’m just doing what I love to do. That was enough.
André 3000 is known for telling everyone that, “the South got something to say.” Do you think Southern hip-hop is really getting the respect it deserves?
I think it’s appreciated. I think it’s still a narrative of the South having to prove itself on a lyrical basis sometimes, just based off of the conversation when they talk about top-tier lyricists or artists. I think Bun B is probably in my top five lyricists, and people don’t notice that. André 3000 might be one of the greatest lyricists ever and people don’t really put [him] in that category. And I think about what artists from the South normally have to do to even be put in that category.
Because CeeLo and André 3000 are amazing singers, too. And they are amazing lyricists that’ll probably body you. But you have to become that to even be noticed in a sense. And David Banner was one of the first people that I saw he had to do so much to be noticed. He produced his own beats. He rapped and he would travel and he’s making these amazing sounding records and he’s going from city to city. And he is really one of the first people that I saw like, “I got to do both. I can’t just be a rapper. I got to produce a rap in order for people to listen to me. And if they don’t like my rapping, they going to like my beat. If they don’t like my beat, they going to like my rapping. It’ll get me in the room with people.” So, sometimes I feel like the amount that you have to do, especially if you’re from the deep South, in order to make noise in the hip-hop industry is a lot.
You speak about lyricism a lot. What is it, to you, that makes a great lyricist?
Obviously being transparent. Writing it from the heart. And being able to understand cadence, similes, is very important. Metaphors. And how do you create a story in a way. And everything’s pretty much been talked about, but to really touch on topics in a way that people aren’t familiar with. To come up with something in a way where people are like, “Man, I never thought of it like that.” And then to do it on records that people don’t expect.
I go back to André 3000 about this because André 3000 would jump on a record that you know is a club bounce record and fuck off and say some shit. And you’re like, “Hold on. Damn. That was beautiful. I didn’t expect that.” On that wave. And not even so much be caught up sometimes in the lingo of what everybody else is saying, too. Obviously, it’s very easy to get caught up in certain keywords that actually play into what a hit record would be in the moment. But to kind of veer away from it and just try your own wordplay, your own cadence. I think E-40 is an amazing lyricist because he’ll just fuck off and make up words. You’ll be like, “Damn, man. Hold on. What does that mean?”
You’ve been on a major label and worked as an independent artist. Do you find it’s easier to make a profit being independent versus being on a major label? How do streaming and video plays play into that for you?
I would say first off, streaming is still a different thought process and idea for everybody. Streaming is still one of those things where you’re trying to figure it out. I’m blessed to tour. Touring is still a major part in what we do. And so, it’s still that hand-to-hand aspect, actually seeing people and everything’s still being tangible, immersing, stuff like that. But streaming is still this thing up and down where back in the day, a CD was a CD. It was a physical copy. And you know that they got the CD. Now we’re not in that world anymore.
So, I’m still learning a lot more about it. But what I do appreciate more now is the freedom to drop music whenever and however I want to. Whatever I put into it, I can see it in what comes back. Normally, with a label, it’s a tad bit different with the people you may work with. You might not have any real relationship with them. You might not know who they are. But they’re still a part of the process of your album coming out, whether they’re busy or there’s a lot of other people on the label.
I like to think of it as an airplane runway. I feel when you’re independent, it’s like you’re more on a private kind of facility where your plane takes off when you like, “All right, I’m ready to go.” But when you’re with a label, it’s like a major airport. It’s a lot of planes that might take off in front of you, or your plane might have to wait a little longer because this is about to take off.
You’ve got your own label, Multi Alumni. What’s it like to be in control of something and being able to help more people?
This is the first year where it’s really going to be the telltale of what it’s going to be in a sense when it comes to other artists. But I’m transparent. A lot of times when it comes to the music aspect, the only thing I would lend to an artist that would come to me, normally I would want them to already be creating their own music in a sense. What they see themselves as. The only thing I’d be doing is quality control. The idea of like, “Well, maybe let’s change this kick drum, this snare. Maybe the hook could be a little stronger.”
At this point, what do you want to be remembered for?
Oh, man. I mean, obviously being a king of what I do. Humble. Transparent. I mean, music for the most part is what people know me for. But the human side, right? Being the kind of person, especially when it came to interacting with people throughout my career, that I was authentically myself and that I actually help in a sense.
When it comes to mental health. When it comes to substance abuse and these things that us as artists don’t get the opportunity to talk about as much as how they might have affected us. I was definitely and still am, one of those people that I’m very much aware of how music has inspired people and how some of the songs that I’ve done in my past might have made people crunk, turn up. But, in those songs, there might have been some rhetoric that now I know I’ve had to change. That I’ve rapped about my own faults and flaws and my mental health and depression, anxiety and getting therapy.
So, it’s one of those things where being known as a King Remembered in Time, not only for music, but as a person that really advocated people getting help mentally and physically, and then knowing themselves and being aware of their triggers. And then voicing that in order to have a really healthy concept of themselves and actually find true happiness is the most important thing for me to be remembered in a sense. I am a part of the music industry, but I’m human, right?
Read the cover story with Playboi Carti and check out the other interviews in the magazine with Fivio Foreign, Latto, DaBaby, Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J, Joey Bada$$, Denzel Curry, Hit-Boy, RZA, Saba, Morray, Nardo Wick, Kali, Sleepy Hallow, SSGKobe, ATL Jacob, Pink Sweat$, Saucy Santana, Jason Lee, Angie Randisi and Colby Turner in the new issue of XXL magazine, which is on newsstands now and in XXL's online shop.