Big K.R.I.T. on the Power of Collaboration, Nipsey Hussle and Why Life Is 'Like a Vinyl Record'

Big K.R.I.T.
Jenny Regan 

Big K.R.I.T.

"I know you got some more champagne." 

Every time Big K.R.I.T. comes through the Billboard offices, a celebratory toast is made to honor his latest album. In 2017, a bottle of Belaire greeted his acclaimed third album 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time. Our conversation then was a weighty one. We transversed through the muddy topics of alcoholism, a black man's plight against depression and more.

This time around, the drink of choice is a bottle of Louis Roederer, and K.R.I.T. is quipping about his on-going dominance on the latest version of NBA 2K. "Nobody can beat me," he says with a sly grin. "You know what I do."

K.R.I.T.'s competitive enthusiasm is what gives the Mississippi-bred MC his edge. He's always had a chip on his shoulder, vowing to prove everyone wrong. But today, K.R.I.T. isn't moved by the idea of competition. It's the art of collaboration that stimulates his spirit and fuels his new album K.R.I.T. Iz Here. With features from notable vets like J. Cole and Lil Wayne to buzzing new acts such as Yella Beezy and Saweetie, K.R.I.T. wants to share the spotlight. 

"It was important that I do something that people didn't expect from me," K.R.I.T. explains. "Like working with artists that people didn't expect me to work with, changing the cadences, creating a different kind of soundboard so that people can see me in that same arena because I've always been there. I been hitting home runs."

Keeping in the spirit of collaboration, K.R.I.T. makes the bold decision to step away from the production side on this album, in order to focus solely on the writing process. The decision proves to be golden, as K.R.I.T. performs lyrical gymnastics on the sample-laden "Make It Easy," rapping: "Let's be honest, I'm better/ I did it without the vouchers and feathers they tethered to keep you together." He also speaks on black excellence on "Believe," stating the importance of having a "Wakanda in Mississippi." For someone who used to crave admiration from his fellow MCs, K.R.I.T. is now in a place of comfort, relishing his status as one of hip-hop's most appreciated bar-spitters. 

"As far as lyricism, I think my peers, most definitely my OGs, have always not only been rooting me on, but they understand that I've been going," he says between swigs of Roederer. "There's just certain elements, and my role is going to be more difficult. It's a road less traveled, but I got faith."

Billboard caught up with Big K.R.I.T. to speak on his new album K.R.I.T. Iz Here, being open to collaborations, his relationship with Nipsey Hussle, why Rico Love is an underrated producer and his mental health. 

On K.R.I.T. Iz Here, you rap: "I play for the team I own." This album is your second independent release since leaving Def Jam in 2016. How does it feel to be running point for your own squad?

I'm definitely a point-forward with this, man. It's on some LeBron small-forward, but I'm coming up with the ball kind of thing, on my Magic [Johnson] shit. But I have a team around me. Shout out to my manager Dutch, shout out to marketing, the homie Steve-O from GFC. It was one of those things where with this one, it was definitely a collective effort.

I had the opportunity to work with Rico Love. Him and my manager Dutch executive produced this album together and I was just getting it in with other producers, man. I got out of my comfort zone. I only produced one record on this album -- "Blue Flame Ballet"  -- everything else is produced by amazing producers like the homie DJ Camper; the OGs Danja, Wallis Lane, Musik Major X; Wolfe De Mchls produced three records on this album; Don Corleon; Tariq Beats; Khalil produced on the record, as well. And they were giving me production that I wouldn't have made for myself.

It opened me up and gave me the freedom to like be more creative with the writing. If everybody's like, "Oh, the verse is cool, maybe you should come with something else," I had the energy to do it and wasn't fatigued from making the beat. It became this thing where we were knocking records out and I ended up with 80 songs. We listened to that and cut it to 50. Then, we had a whole little pow-wow and got down to 18 records and settled on the 15 that you hear now.

Was it a struggle to let go of the production side?

Definitely. It was a battle, man. Shout out to my manager Dutch 'cause we argued a lot. He said we should keep getting it in with people, and that we should keep working. I started to see over time when I wouldn't even open my laptop to make some beats no more. I was like, "Man, look. Who are we getting it in with today?" He was like, "Man, we got Camper coming down." Then, Camper gon' play me some crazy shit and I'm like, "Yes! This is perfect."

Getting it in with any of the producers, all of the beats was just ridiculous. To me, the hardest part was being, "Aight, bet. I ain't rappin' no more right now. We got that. We good." 'cause I would have kept going. [Laughs.] They were like, "Bruh, we good." The last two records that ended up being on the album, I actually went and did it in Miami with DJ Camper: "K.R.I.T. Here" and "Make It Easy." 'Cause I still was missing a song that was like, "I'm playing my flag." To get it in with Camper and come out with "K.R.I.T. Here" and "Make It Easy," those were the only two records that we did down there. We were really in the studio fucking around and talking about basketball from that point on. 

You mention Rico Love executive producing the album. A lot of people may only know of him as a talented R&B songwriter.

Man, the OG is a genius. You get in the room with him and it's like, "I'm stuck, OG. I got the verses, I got the vibes. How you feel as far as hook go?" He'll be like, "Play it for me." He'll listen to that shit about 15 minutes and he'll be like, "Aight. Cue me up." And he'll go in the motherfucking booth and whatever he comes out with, instantly is what you need from him.

The way his mind works, it's always about starting the conversation musically. But for me, I want to champion the people I know been behind a gang of artists, a gang of huge records, that people don't normally see. I'm telling everybody's name if I can and trying to remember so people can know these producers, work with them and champion these people when they're in with them because it is a collective effort to get to this final point with the music. Lord knows, I've been in my comfort zone. I produced Live From the Underground, pretty much all of Cadillactica, but this time, it was great to be in there and people are saying, "Man, you can go harder than that, K.R.I.T." Like, you know what? You're right. I can. They only say that because they believe in me. So, yeah, we gotta champion these people. Rico is a fucking genius. He done wrote massive hits for everybody.

You've always been a lone wolf. On this album, there's a love for collaboration. Did this change come before or after you teamed up with Dreamville for their rap camp?

It came before that. I was collabing with OGs, though because it was like me fulfilling this dream I had as a fan like, "Man, I wanna work with all the people that got me through high school, got me through those dark days when I was grinding as an underground artist and nobody knew who the fuck I was." I wanted to work with them. So I was making my rounds. And being able to do a song with B.B. King -- I had my own bucket list.

I think it was important that I do something that people didn't expect from me. Like working with artists that people didn't expect me to work with, changing the cadences, creating a different kind of soundboard so that people can see me in that same arena because I've always been there. I been hitting home runs. We do the tours and my catalog is ridiculous, but people haven't seen me do records with other individuals besides my OGs. So this is the opportunity to be like, "Saweetie? She's popping. Let's do it. She jamming." [Lil] Wayne, Yella Beezy, Baby Rose and then we finally get to the homie J. Cole. I think people needed it and wanted to hear me on other people's beats and team up with the other artists that they're rocking with.

As you mentioned, you've worked with the OGs like a Bun B, Ludacris, and T.I. Why did you feel compelled to tap into a younger demographic?

I love music. So I can hear a voice and be like, "Man, that voice would be amazing on this album." Yella Beezy represents Texas and I love Texas. With his country twang, how he talk and what he's bringing to the table is totally different than what I did, but it still fits together when we're on a record and it worked. It makes sense to me as a producer and as an artist to work with the youth, too. I can say the youth now because I first signed in 2010 and my first project came 2005.

You were there during the blog days.

Yeah, I was before social media. So I'm looking at their grind and what they doing and I'm listening to their music like, "That shit jamming." So I said, "Lemme reach out and see if they wanna work." Hip-hop is really like a competitive thing, but if you look at jazz and blues, soul, rock, that's what you do -- you reach back out and create together. I'm glad I was able to do that on this album and I'm glad I got out my comfort zone. 


The energy was good yesterday ----

A post shared by Big K.R.I.T. (@bigkrit) on

Hearing that reminds me of J. Cole and how he's been getting out of his comfort zone and doing more features. Was that a conversation y'all had? 

You know, Cole told me in 2012 I needed to get in with other producers, because I played Live From the Underground for him.

But he was still on that bullshit, producing his own beats, up until recently. 

So peep this, right? You think about producing. Me and him both understood publishing. We knew that off the rip. You sign to a major label, right? The rapper in you is going to get it on tour, but we're talking about the album and the percentages that get split across the board. If you can produce, you're going to receive more. And if nobody is complaining and that's how people heard you...like I produced everything until I got to Def Jam. Why would I switch it the fuck up? I'm going to produce my album. 

That's like Russ. He's a one-man band. 

Right. So peep it. The problem with what I had going on is, I'm making music and when I signed to Def Jam, it was a different president at the time. He left. A gang of other people left that believed in me and I had a new wave of people that might  have been familiar. So I got my push, my buzz. I'm ready. And then, it's like the energy changed about me putting my music out. It might have been a gap because people might have not been familiar with me, knew what I was doing, etc. But yelling country shit is dying and I'm in New York. At that time, it might have not been a popular thing to do, you know what I'm saying?

So it was a learning lesson, but the upside to it is I figured out that my worth is in the fact that I put out quality and I'm always going to challenge myself. So I'm going to be good, as long as I'm always pushing forward and I'm servicing the people that support me and they're going to be my street team because a street team doesn't exist anymore. They're going to be out there and in the barbershop and riding because they know it's bigger than me. 

Going back to Cole, I loved how he paid homage to you on "Prove It." That reminded me of Kendrick on "Control," when he shouted you out, though people took it from a different angle.

Yeah, because [with Kendrick] that was a little bit different. [Laughs.

From a competitive standpoint, yeah, but that was him acknowledging you as an MC he respects.

We understood that in the hip-hop community, but it was looked at differently. 

I say that because you used to be competitive. So when you see a Cole shouting you out and you're getting that recognition from the top MCs that are from your class, do you feel you've finally earned that respect as an MC from your peers?

Nah, I feel like I already have it. 

I remember back in the day you used to be like, "Dudes ain't giving me my respect."

I did. Geography is a bitch. Geography [is] lottery, bro. Had I been from a metropolitan city, or a place people look at like a vacation destination, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now. It's because of where I'm from and what that means and how that resonates to a certain degree. Then, people will be like, "Man, where you from?" You'll be like, "Man, I'm from Mississippi," and the conversation might stop. [Laughs.]

It's not like it'll be like, "Man, I was just down there the other day and I went to this restaurant that was right by boom, boom, boom." That's not going to be the conversation. It's going to be, "Well, how is it now? How do they treat you? Do y'all have buildings and shit?" I mean, as far as lyricism, I think my peers, most definitely my OGs, have always not only been rooting me on, but they understand that I've been going. There's just certain elements and my role is going to be more difficult. It's a road less traveled, but I got faith. I gotta look at my predecessors: UGK, Scarface, 8Ball & MJG. It takes time, man, but as long as I keep chipping away and doing what I need to do [I'll be fine]. B.B. King told me best: "Stay on the road. Keep touring. It don't matter. You'll be good." 

One of my favorite records on the album is "Everytime" and how you use sports into your verse. "I'm Michael Jordan with the tears when he got the chip." What was that moment for you?

It's crazy, man. I'd say I realized things were different when I was at Tabernacle in Atlanta to perform there. I walked out and we sold it out.

That's a legendary spot.

Oh my God, man. I just remember how excited how everybody was and how much love was in the building. Normally, the record is playing and I'm on my rapping shit. I finna go in my mode. 

You felt the tears coming. 

I just stopped and I couldn't help myself. I started laughing because I felt it coming. Man, that shit was fucking crazy. Then, we did the show and shout to my lawyer, because she was there and she gave me a big hug. Me and her were like embracing and crying. She was like, "This is what I want for you." And I was like, this is what it feels like, to finally let go of all of the bitterness, the frustration and just being in the moment to celebrate with everyone around me. That shit was amazing, man. Then, we went out the next night and did it all over again!

On "Make It Easy" you rapped, "I made it without a hit." Because you've grappled with hits versus artistry, what's the best advice you'd give to new artists struggling with that same issue. 

It's all about foundation building, man. That room that you're in, it might have 32 people in it in the beginning of your career, right? Nobody really there. Those 32 people are probably going to be there when it's 100 people, and then they're going to be there when it's 1,000 or when it's 5,000. It's about just making sure that you're building these relationships and you remember that when you first started, they were on the ground floor. They were aware of your growth, they saw your hiccups and you messing up flows here and there. Maybe your songs weren't mixed that good. Your hooks were only you singing on it and you was out of key, but it's about building a true foundation, musically, being true to who you are as an artist when you're doing these songs and these shows and interacting. You're going to see a big difference.

It might not be the first year, second year, or third year. It might not be in the tenth year, but at some point, if it's for you and people are rocking with you, you're going to walk on stage and have that same chip. It just takes time. R.I.P. to the homie Nip. It's a marathon, man.

Man, that one hit hard.

All of us. I fell back on social media. I was good on everything. 

Where were you the day he passed? 

I was in my house. I was just like, "Man, I'm good. I don't really wanna talk to nobody." I want nothing. I'm gonna chill out for a little while. It was one of those situations. 

Do you have a special memory of you and Nip?

Me and Nip were signed to Cinematic at the same time. Me and him had a show one night. I forgot the spot it was at. I remember just talking to him because, me, I was like a deer in headlights with it. This was all crazy for me. The homie was like, "Man, it's not going to be easy, but bro, what you're doing is positive." We all had an independent kind of mindframe back then, but he's a ridiculous businessman in understanding his worth and staying true to his goals and what he wanted to do.

So the last time I seen him, we were in Atlanta at an open mic thing that was popping and just kind of chopped it up with him. I was like, "Man, I got so much information that I wanna tell you," because he had figured out how to be independent and streaming and marketing. I was like, "Yeah, man. I got a record that I wanna get you on," which was the "Believe" record that's on the album. We sent it. Got confirmation that homie was gonna do it. I'm listening to the song, I'm playing it back for somebody that morning and then that happened.

The morning of? 

I was excited that I got the Wayne verse back. I was like, "Man. Nip is gonna jump on this." When that happened, I was good. I couldn't figure out anybody else for the song, so I just finished it myself. 

You bring up your days at Cinematic and I remember reaching out to the label's founder Jonny Shipes to do a Nipsey tribute post and he struggled to get it done because it was so hard for him emotionally.

As brothers, we all called each other like, "What's up, Shipes? What's up, Smoke [DZA]?" My manager Dutch called Steve-O because before that, R.I.P. Cousin Ty. There was a moment when a lot of us were around each other and we're young. Man, life is real. So I'm really on my give people their flowers while they're still here and I believe in the energy that you put out in this world.

It's just amazing to see how the impact that my homie [Nip] had. You see it everywhere in the world. You see people reposting the interviews. The love is there. We're in the gym and we're getting it in and it reminds you that if you're being positive and you're being straightforward and you're giving people the best advice and pushing humanity forward in a positive light, it's going to shine after you're gone. All that will live om. So I'd tell every artist that if you don't feel like talking about a social topic right now, or maybe you feel like it don't got nothing to do with you, be aware that once you're not here, that everything you say is going to be left here and what's that going to mean to people. Put that medicine in that good food, man. Get people right. 

Mental health was a huge talking point and conversation for us on the last album. Where are you at today?

Still working. I mean, it's a work in progress, man. Some days you wake up and shit ain't all good, and some days you do. For me, it's just about being honest with people in the moment, right? Like, "Man, I'm in the studio, ain't nothing really coming to me. I don't really have any ideas." I have to think to myself about why I don't have any ideas. "Well, this happened today and I had this kind of conversation." So now I'm like, "You know what? I'm just gonna pack it up, go home and call it a day," instead of trying to write through it because I might really need to go decompress, or talk to my dad or talk to my therapist.

It's about talking through these emotions and these feelings, because it's like a vinyl record. They get warped sometimes. They got scratches. The song is good. It's great, you love listening to it, but then you here that "boop." Every time it hits that point, then you start to figure out a way where it doesn't affect you every time. You recognize it. You understand it. So when you know that skip is happening in a song, it doesn't stop you from dancing to hit and enjoying it. That's really what life is, just being aware of your triggers, your skips, your warps, being honest about it and being comfortable with what happens by breathing through it.