Rapper Big K.R.I.T. titled his debut album "Live From the Underground" -- even though that's not really a place he inhabits anymore.
The album, which dropped in early June, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and also topped both the Rap and R&B charts -- definitely a statement that Big K.R.I.T. has arrived in the mainstream. But the truth of the matter is he made that move well before "Live From the Underground" surfaced, thanks to nine previous mixtapes of his own and a slew of production and guest appearances with artists such as T.I., B.o.B., Ludacris, the Roots, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, Detroit's Big Sean and others.
"The underground is where I came from," explains K.R.I.T., 25, who was born Justin Scott in Meridian, Miss., and is now based in Atlanta. "But it's not like there's an underground at all anymore. With social media and millions of people out there blasting their music, it's easier than ever for people to find music they like.
"So the whole idea of my album was that thought of being an underground artist and achieving more of a worldwide appeal in...my own way, and more on my own terms."
K.R.I.T. says he came to music "like a lot of other artists, freestyling on the corner, gaining notoriety in the beginning from that." But his musical background is strong; his grandmother made sure he attended church, where he wound up in the choir. She was also a blues fan who indoctrinated K.R.I.T. to that music, while his father introduced him to hip-hop artists such as the Geto Boys, LL Cool J and MC Hammer. K.R.I.T. also found groups such as Three-Six Mafia and Goodie Mobb on his own.
He started making music as a teenager and learned production skills by necessity. "I couldn't afford to pay for beats back then," K.R.I.T. explains. "I'd go to my pops, 'Buy this instrumental for me?' 'What are you talking about?! We're not spending money on that!' So I started picking up how to do it myself, making beats on Playstation." Hanging out with a local sound mixing engineer also gave K.R.I.T. -- who played both tuba and baseball in high school -- exposure to ProTools, compressors, pre-amps and other recording devices.
"That became my comfort zone," he recalls. "I'd spend hours on one verse or one hook and one beat, mixing to make sure they were all the way right. Even know I know I'm gonna spend countless hours on recording, making sure everything is right."
K.R.I.T. began putting out CDs when he was in the 11th grade, with early titles such as "Comin' Out Hard" and "Dirty Thirty." He kept the independent releases coming after graduation, but it was 2010's "K.R.I.T. Wuz Here," a wide-ranging 20-track mixtape, that caught on nationally and also caught the ear of Def Jam executive Sha Money XL, who signed him to the label. The march to "Live From the Underground" including more mixtapes, a pair of EPs and the assortment of guest features and production hires for other artists.
K.R.I.T. notes that keeping all the music straight "gets a little difficult. Me as a rapper, I want to rap over everything. Sometimes I have to remember, 'No, it's for this other person' and make it to where the other artist can get their own vibe from it as well." He cites Kanye West, David Banner, Timbaland and the late J. Dilla as influences in that pursuit; "Looking at them taught me that what I needed to do was bide my time and do all that work and learn from it to make my (music) better.
"I think it definitely helped with my album, working with a lot of people and a lot of different styles. I'm definitely trying to make timeless music, music that years from now when you go back and listen still makes you feel a certain way. I did samples so much from the beginning, but now I understand how to use live instrumentation and give it more warmth and body. That's important when it comes to me creating."
That certainly helped K.R.I.T. in casting "Live From the Underground, whose guest list includes Ludacris, Anthony Hamilton, 2 Chainz, Melanie Fiona and Devin the Dude. "I wasn't trying to force a record with a Ludacris or a 2 Chainz or anybody," he says. "I just went with music that felt right and tried to give everyone something they'd feel good on." The unquestioned highlight, however, is "Praying Man," which features a "dream come true" collaboration with blues legend B.B. King.
"That was amazing," K.R.I.T. remembers. "He was sitting on a stool in the corner, chillin', drinking Diet Coke. I never imagined I would have an opportunity just to be in a studio with B.B. King, let alone work with him. He told me about his tour life, staying true to myself and my music, really making music that reflects who I am and my life experiences. I was speechless, right?
"Then, after he sang on the hook, he was like, 'Do you want me to play Lucille (his guitar). That was his idea; I wasn't going to ask him. So he played Lucille on the record, and it became so much more to me...just tying our two generations together."
K.R.I.T. has more music-making on his mind, including a long-awaited project with Alabama rapper Yelawolf. But his focus now is on pushing "Live From the Underground" and also his first national headlining tour, which kicks off this week in Detroit.
"It'll definitely be high energy," K.R.I.T. promises. "I'll have the opportunity to put in a lot of songs I haven't performed before. Performing has always been extremely important to me; the studio is one thing, but you have to bring the music to life on stage and...give it everything you got.
"Everything is just really different for me now, man. The album is still selling, people are excited about it, they're excited for the tour. I'm just going with it and trying to be ready for whatever else may come my way. There's a lot of hard work that's going to go into everything, but I'm ready for it."
Big K.R.I.T., Casey Veggies and Big Sant perform Wednesday, July 11, at Saint Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $16. Call (313) 961-8137 or visit www.livenation.com.
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