The crowned prince of Southern hip-hop is a 25-year-old Meridian, Miss. native named Justin Scott. He was knighted last year by rap critics nationwide after his two 2011 free-to-download "mixtapes" went toe to toe with that year's blockbuster rap releases. Scott is Big K.R.I.T., whose mixtapes are misnomers — they're full albums, with impeccable self-produced beats, live instrumentation (and careful sampling) and K.R.I.T.'s signature flow, a laser-focused, Mississippi-accented voice carrying political and social weight.
This weekend, he's one of the headliners at the inaugural Buku Music + Art Project, a two-day event with electronic and hip-hop artists including K.R.I.T., chart-topping MC Wiz Khalifa, Grammy Award-winning dubstep musician Skrillex and manic producer/globetrotter Diplo.
K.R.I.T.'s acclaim followed the 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which grabbed the attention of not only his now kindred spirit New Orleans MC Curren$y, but also Def Jam, the venerable rap label that signed K.R.I.T. that year. But he didn't jump on the hype.
"From that point on, I was like, OK, I can't just treat this like I'm going to do some freestyles over other peoples' beats and just drop it," he says. "I want to do whole songs. I want it to be conceptual. I want to try and compete with a major label album with my mixtapes. ... There's so much I want to say, and there's so much you can do with 3:20 of a song."
Or 43 of them — his acclaimed 2011 mixtapes Return of 4Eva and Last King 2 (God's Machine) feature more than 20 songs, all released for free, without major label support, and both landed on several "best of" lists. This week, K.R.I.T. releases 4evaNaDay. In June, he makes his Def Jam debut with Live From the Underground, his first "album" album.
Meridian is one of Mississippi's largest cities — but, "compared to other metropolitan cities, it's not crazy big," K.R.I.T. says. "It gave me the opportunity to be in a city atmosphere, but be raised around a lot of my family. Where I'm from it takes a village to raise a child — your neighbor, all y'all grew up together. They're watching out for you."
K.R.I.T.'s home was full of his grandmother's music — soul, gospel and rhythm and blues. But he also was exposed to rap radio, from '90s kings Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac to Southern rap royalty Scarface, UGK and 8Ball. "Just being able to get a wide variety of music growing up is what really helped me create my sound," he says. "Even drum samples, sampling and understanding (drum machine Roland TR-808) kick drums, and tempos."
There was no "Mississippi scene" to shape K.R.I.T.'s sound — dense with the clap-happy snare hits of Southern bangers but dotted with live funk-bass, horns and his signature flow, which swims from an internal monologue to a prayer to a party. His boasts aren't cutthroat, but sly. On his coming-of-age tale "Dreamin'," K.R.I.T. raps "Don't be alarmed if you don't make it. It's just part of the game. Besides, I don't rap about dope nor do I sell it. I guess the story of a country boy ain't compelling."
"Everybody raps about where they're from," he says. "A lot of people that lost their lives or are still traumatized about the situations they grew up with within the civil rights movement, and before that. I don't think we should forget, nor stop talking about it in music. It's the newest generation now that needs to know how hard people worked."
On Return of 4Eva closer "The Vent," he raps over a stark bass pulse, "Most people stop for signs but I've driven through it. If it don't touch my soul, then I can't listen to it. The radio don't play the shit I used to love, but maybe I'm just growing up."
"(I was) part of a golden era, especially of hip-hop, where it was mad political," he says. "It became single-minded and monetary at some point. (I thought), 'All right, I'm just gonna go back and listen to (Outkast's) Aquemini all day.' We know what that does for us. But there's a lot of new generations that can't. ... I want to put them on, 'Hey, listen to this soul music, listen to this old school music, and understand the roots of what you came from.'"
At Buku, K.R.I.T. joins another headliner, rapper Yelawolf — both were named two of XXL magazine's "top freshmen" of 2011. (Khalifa made the class in 2010.) Those artists are celebrated for their production — and they join a roster of up-and-coming electronic musicians (like Toronto's Holy F—k and Sweden's Avicii) who perform far outside the world of hip-hop. The festival, produced by Winter Circle Productions, aims to blur those lines.
"I've always been open, as far as blending and working with other genres," says K.R.I.T., who puts both Bobby Womack and Bon Iver on his dream collaboration list. "I love all music. Soul music, bluegrass, trip hop — if I get the opportunity to work with artists that aren't in my genre, ain't no telling what kind of song we might make."