Big K.R.I.T.'s Major Label Moment Almost Never Happened

Big K.R.I.T and Grillade perform at Buffalo Billiards for the Billboard Bungalow Showcase at SXSW 2011.

Ever since Big K.R.I.T. staked his claim on Southern rap with the 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, hip-hop fans have anxiously awaited the Mississippi native's proper debut. Though the wait for Live From the Underground, due June 5, has been almost exactly two years since the rapper signed to Def Jam in June 2010, the highly anticipated album might not have come at all.

In 2009, K.R.I.T. was still Justin Scott, a high school graduate from Meridian, Miss., who obsessed over crafting beats and moved to Atlanta to pursue a career on the microphone. But K.R.I.T. wasn't too successful. Evicted from his Atlanta residence and forced to move back home, the rapper says he came extremely close to calling it quits.

"I didn't have the bread to pay my bills or really even feed myself,'" the 25-year-old artist says. "I felt it might be time for me to focus on something a little more secure."

Fortunately, K.R.I.T. got a call from Jonny Shipes of New York-based Cinematic Music Group in late 2009 and received an offer to work with the independent label president for six months. In February 2010, a video for the K.R.I.T. Wuz Here single "Hometown Hero," which samples Adele's "Hometown Glory," was posted online. Since then, the clip has garnered 2.5 million YouTube views. In May 2010, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was released three years after the rapper began work on it, and the collection of country-fried anthems and rhapsodic takes on Mississippi life was hailed by Pitchfork and Spin. A month later, the ink dried on a deal with Def Jam.

So what took Live From the Underground so long to materialize? According to K.R.I.T., the past two years were dedicated "to building my fan base from the ground up, to make my music as organic as possible." K.R.I.T. released two more mixtapes, Return of 4Eva (2011) and 4Eva N a Day (March), which featured guest appearances by Ludacris, Bun B and fellow Mississippi hero David Banner. Because K.R.I.T. produces all of his music, the mixtapes took more than six months each to create, but were treated like proper albums when unveiled, with videos for tracks like "Dreamin'" and "Boobie Miles."

Def Jam, meanwhile, wasn't opposed to letting K.R.I.T. "incubate," according to senior director of urban marketing Roberto Caiaffa. Between the mixtapes, the rapper toured alongside J. Cole and Freddie Gibbs and produced T.I.'s single "I'm Flexin'" (142,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) last September. "A year ago, [we wanted to] come up with a strategic plan around his mixtape and his visuals, and then create a massive bridge between that and this upcoming album," Caiaffa says.

Big K.R.I.T. Releases '4Eva N A Day' Mixtape

Live From the Underground, which was preceded by the brash single "I Got This," is a collection of bass-rattling anthems that takes full advantage of K.R.I.T.'s relatable mic persona. And with K.R.I.T. continuing to unfold his persona, it's now Def Jam's duty to get fans to buy music from an artist who has been releasing free material for years. A month of promotion kicked off with K.R.I.T.'s debut TV performance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" on May 11. A North American tour begins in Detroit on July 11, and K.R.I.T. heads to Europe on Aug. 17 for select dates.

The rapper says that he's not accustomed to such extensive marketing rollouts. But K.R.I.T. is getting used to the big machine. "It was about learning more of the business versus just being radical," he says. "When you get to see how the anticipation builds up until the point when an album comes out, it makes sense."