"Underground to me is the passion and hunger," says Big K.R.I.T. The Mississippi rapper and producer's debut album, Live From the Underground, is proving that it's possible to prosper in the modern commercial rap world while staying true to your core values. K.R.I.T.'s album follows up a series of acclaimed mixtapes, and his formula for both is rather simple: thoughtful and often introspective lyrics allied to earthy, soulful beats. This past weekend, K.R.I.T. was out in full hustle mode in his hometown of Meridian, Miss. and Atlanta, taking Underground directly to the people during a 48-hour promo blitz.
A few days before, Hive got him to open up about the Outkast song that saw him through his hardest days, the reason so many rappers name themselves "Big," and why he's a member of the Smoker's Club but has given up greenery for drink.
After the Q&A, be sure to check out the exclusive Instagram gallery below for behind-the-scenes shots from K.R.I.T.'s weekend.
The day Live From the Underground was released, it immediately shot to number one on the iTunes digital chart. What's the best response you've had from a fan about your music?
I wouldn't say best, but inspiring maybe: It's when people have told me I've helped them through a loss of a family member or that I got them through a crucial time in their relationship or that I got them through an abusive relationship or that I made them feel that they weren't alone in a relationship. Every time someone tells me my music moved them, it always inspires me to keep going.
Are there any songs by other artists that got you through hard situations yourself?
Definitely, [Outkast's] "Liberation" from Aquemini. That's one of those records I put on repeat. Then "High Life," UGK, that's a record I'd listen to on repeat, "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack, "Do What You Wanna Do" by the Dramatics.
What was it about Outkast's "Liberation" that moved you?
It's what they were saying about. Everybody on that record was saying it, for one -- I'm talking about Big Boi, Andre 3000, Cee-Lo Green, Erykah Badu -- and then to the live instrumentation to the poem by Big Rube at the end all about freeing your mind and freeing your soul. It spoke to me at a time when I was dealing with a lot of problems in my life and trying to be the best I could be and having to deal with having people want to put my music out and thinking that maybe music wasn't for me. But a song like that gets you through and thinks that maybe I can deal with not having money for one more day and that I can get through this.
What do you like most about Big Rube's style on "Liberation"?
Big Rube was one of the most influential people to me in as far as putting poetry in his music. Of course his voice is crazy, but it's the power of what he's saying; it was like the sentiment of the entire song but in poetry format. He summed that song up in a poem -- it just kinda topped the song.
You mentioned Bobby Womack and the Dramatics. Were they groups your parents would play when you were a kid?
I would say my parents played more Temptations, Luther Vandross, New Edition, things like that. My grandmother played more the blues, like B.B. King and Betty Davis, and I found what I liked in between all of that. I was just going to Good Vibration and F.Y.E. and standing in the soul section and standing in the blues section and picking up the Etta James and the Mahalia Jackson albums, and you could only listen to 30 seconds of it back then, and then going from Willie Hutch to listening to the Foxy Brown theme and seeing how much music he was behind.
B.B. King is also on your album. What was it like meeting him artist to artist?
Super surreal. It's like when you walk into the room and you see somebody and you turn around and it looks like nobody else sees it. I remember walking in and seeing him, he was just sitting there chilling, and then he started talking about the song ["Praying Man"] and told me stories about touring and Eric Clapton and performing at the Grammys and how I needed to stay true to myself. He seemed excited about the song, too, which meant a lot to me. It wasn't like I was trying to make a hip-hop song featuring B.B. King. I wanted to make a hip-hop song with that blues feel. And he offered to play guitar on the song, which I hadn't asked him. He just picked up the guitar and started playing in the key the song was in.
You said your parents played a lot of New Edition. Were you a fan of new jack swing?
Of course, just because my parents was playing it and being a young kid I was going to dance to it. But growing up, I don't really remember much about it. That might come from me and sampling, 'cause I don't sample so much now but there was a time when I found the music I did like to sample and it wasn't so synth heavy. It was more guitar based so I could chop up the grooves a little. But the synths was harder to chop up. And there wasn't so much air in those new jack swing songs. Back in the day the old school songs would let the music ride for two or three minutes after they finished singing.
You talked about Big Rube's influence on you, but why do so many rappers prefix their name with "Big"?
I think it's a traditional thing as far as southern hip-hop is concerned, 'cause you got Big, Slim, Young, and you got Lil'. To be honest with you, it was just something I grew up knowing about as far as just southern hip-hop and its traditions. That was a characteristic of me being a dude from the south.
"I went to sleep to stop being high and I woke up just as high as I when I went to sleep. After that, that was enough for me. After that I decided I was going to stick to the drinking."
So if you had to put together the ultimate "Big" rapper posse cut, who would be on it?
[Laughs.] That's crazy! Definitely me, of course! Mr. Bigg from Alabama, Big Daddy Kane, Biggie Smalls, damn, I'd get Big Rube to do the poem! I can say Big Boi 'cause he got two names, Big Daddy Fat Sax and Big Boi! Then Bun [B], 'cause Bun also calls himself Big Bun Beater, so I can say Bun. Of course Big Sant and the homie Big Sean. Damn, yeah, that's a real posse cut there!
What would the song be called?
Hold up … "Big in an Amazing Way!"
If the "Big" rappers had a battle against the ones called Lil' something, who would win?
Ah, I can't say that, man! I don't know, man! It'd be up in the air, man! I can't say that.
You're part of the Smoker's Club. What's that like?
It's love 'cause it's like being around my family too. Those are people I've always been around for a while. Everybody's mad humble. I'm more of a drinker than a smoker now, but I'm still an honorary member. You got Smoke DZA, who's real humble, and Joey Bada$$ who stays humble even though everyone's excited about him. It's like a family reunion when we get ready to go back on tour.
Which member of the Smoker's Club is the messiest on tour?
Jonny Shipes. I think Johnny and then Smoke DZA, yeah.
What made you give up smoking weed for drinking?
I got super high off some brownies some time and it was a bad trip. I just decided I was going to stick to the drinking 'cause I know exactly what it's going to do to me.
What did the bad trip involve?
I woke up high. Waking up high was a little different. My eyes were bloodshot red; I really couldn't feel my hands per se and my arms. So that was kinda like I was freaking out, 'cause that was my first time having a body high and I felt like it would never go away. I went to sleep to stop being high and I woke up just as high as I when I went to sleep. After that, that was enough for me. After that I decided I was going to stick to the drinking. So after that, if I did smoke, it would be half and half with drinking, so I'm just in that zone and not completely high. That's what they call hydroplaning.
So with your newfound drinking status, what would the Big K.R.I.T. signature drink be?
Henny, no ice, no chaser. But if you want to get a little bit fancy then you can throw some ginger ale in there. Or you can do the gin and lemonade - that's like an early morning kinda thing so you can stay awake.
Check out these exclusive behind-the-scenes Instagram photos from Big K.R.I.T.'s promotional stops in Meridian, Miss. and Atlanta.