Big K.R.I.T. Talks Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Influence On Music, Conscious Rap In The Modern Era
Big K.R.I.T. chops it up about the influence Martin Luther King, Jr. had on his music and his approach to sampling records.
In an era when a single's strength is measured in weeks and artists release a lifetime's worth of music in one year, Big K.R.I.T. stand alone. Armed with politically relevant lyrics and peanut butter-smooth production, the Meridian, Mississippi emcee/producer hearkens back to a time in Hip Hop when social commentary and souped-up slabs weren't mutually exclusive topics to be heard on a single song. After six years of perfecting his craft, K.R.I.T. struck it big, inking a deal with Def Jam, headlining tours with Method Man and earning universal critical acclaim for his stellar mixtape Return of 4Eva. And despite the fact that we're only three weeks into 2012, this year is looking like it'll be even bigger for K.R.I.T.; not only is his highly anticipated Def Jam debut Live From the Underground set to drop this June, but he's already got a brand new mixtape 4evaNaDay set to drop this February 20.
Regardless of all the accolades he's received in the past twelve months, Krizzle's not likely to let on that he's in line to become of of Hip Hop's next big acts. Even though the 25-year-old rapper has lent his talents to heavyweights like T.I. and The Roots and even placed ahead of rock god Mick Jagger on Rolling Stone's "Top 50 Albums of 2011," he sounds more concerned with the unifying powers of music and standing up for his beliefs.
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, HipHopDX caught up with Big K.R.I.T. to talk about the Civil Rights Movement's impact in Mississippi, Dr. King's legacy in his music and what fans can expect from
Martin Luther King, Jr. And The Civil Rights Movement's Impact
HipHopDX: With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day being Monday, I wanted to talk to you about Dr. King's efforts and how they've carried into today. Being that Mississippi played such a big part in the Civil Right Movement in the 1950s and '60s, what ways did you see Hip Hop and issues of racial equality interact while growing up in Mississippi?
Big K.R.I.T: I mean definitely overall [I saw the effects of the Civil Rights Movement] with people being a little bit more accepting of where you come from and how you were raised. Even me, growing up in Mississippi, I've been around a lot of different cultures, and even knowing when somebody didn't really like black people. Being raised around those kinds of people and then growing up and seeing the kids kind of [saying], "You know what? This is not what I was taught…this is not what I thought," and really seeing how music is able to bring people together for the most part, it's crazy. Now, with a lot of people there's a big stereotype as far as where I'm from [Mississippi] and how the racism is, and it's just like, yeah, it is like that and it still is out there, but the thing about Mississippi is if somebody doesn't like you for your race, they don't hide it. It's not a hidden thing, it's very obvious, and I feel like I can deal with that more than somebody pretending like they like me and they don't.
But I feel like music has definitely bridged the gaps between generations, opened a lot of people's eyes, gave a lot of different people voices and gave me the opportunity to explain why I was raised like this but I don't even feel that way. It just just brings a lot of depth [to human interaction]; music is a big influence in actually being able to go back and look at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and a lot of people that were like, "We need to change." A lot of artists go back and listen to their speeches and a lot of their writings and interviews and get motivated like, "I need to do more than just rap for myself and whatever city I'm from; I need to be rapping for everybody and trying to make music that's overall special."
DX: It's interesting you talk about how open Meridian, Mississippi really is, because back in 2010 when DX spoke with you for DXNext, you said, "Coming from [Meridian], there is no specific sound." Did that kind of musical openness also affected the way you approached discussing these issues of race in Hip Hop?
Big K.R.I.T: Oh extremely. At the end of the day, the radio station didn't really discriminate; they played music from everywhere. We're talking about [music from] up North, down South, West Coast, Snoop Dogg, [The Notorious B.I.G.] - whatever your top ten record was, it was playing, and we were able to hear the different genres of music, from blues to rock, and it definitely played a big part in the music I make because I understood that, "Aight, I just don't have to be in this box. There's so many different ways to make music that I could take advantage of." It's definitely an influence of being where I was from because it wasn't just a, "This is our sound and we've got to stick to this [type of thing]." It was like, "Naw, we've got to create our own sound" because we had been exposed to so much other music and cultures.
DX: A number of your songs really speak to the issue of racial identity in America. In what way did the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King's teachings play a part of your own viewpoint or outlook as an emcee?
Big K.R.I.T: For one, if you believe in something, you fight for it. I mean, definitely just...my grandma and a lot of my uncles and relatives were around the time that Martin Luther King was out there marching and talking about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the March on Washington and things like that, so when they were talking to me, they were coming from a different place than maybe a lot of other people where it was like, "You need to vote, you need to be on your act because there's so many people that died for the opportunity for you to do such." I think it played a big part as far as how I feel as my music [and] my morals. My grandmother is very active in the community, and there was a certain point time where she couldn't drink out of certain fountains, she had to go to a certain high school and she had to be home at a certain time of night, just her really kinda being like, "Be appreciative of what you have and what you're going through now because there was a point where none of these opportunities existed."
I'm really keen about being strong, about my faith and about what I believe in and standing up for yourself, and at the same time, I'm extremely open to other peoples' opinions because I have a lot friends of different creeds, and I'm open to opinions and what they've been through in they're lives and I feel like, man, I'm from Mississippi and I've been raised around a lot of different people so racism to me is a very ignorant situation. I don't hold no grudge with anybody because people are raised how they were raised and taught how they were taught and you can just pray that you really can figure it out for yourself and understand, "Aight, that isn't right. I need to change my ways and do better."
DX: How do you think Hip Hop would be different today had Dr. King not been assassinated?
Big K.R.I.T: I mean, I can't say, brother. At the end of the day, I think either there's the kind of people that are so [influential], especially in dealing with heroes and are very looked up to and are very instrumental in the community, it is very rare that they live past a certain age because it just happens like that. A lot of times, we're talking about wars or we're talking about assassinations and things like that, but thank God their their voice[s] still carry on and reach people just from their teachings and their recordings, but I really can't say, man. I definitely would have to say that certain things that go on now [in Hip Hop] that a King or a Malcolm X would be like, "Wow, we need to do better," because I know a lot of elders around me, a lot of my uncles feel like, "Man, we're missing out or we're losing what the ideal goal was," but poverty plays a big part. Everybody wants to escape poverty; being poor is not easy, so there's different outlets and people maybe do things that they shouldn't do, but it's hard when your down and out.
Race And Political Consciousness In The Modern Hip Hop Era
DX: You've always really been able to paint a picture of what the African American communities across America face in terms of economic neglect and racial prejudice. What I thought was real interesting was how you relate the issues of the past generations to the present on "As Small As a Giant" off K.R.I.T. Wuz Here with the opening lines, "Sell them dreams of change and things / As if they were never kings and queens before." What has looking at the past generations and the issues they dealt with during the Civil Rights Movement taught you about the current generation and the problems they face?
Big K.R.I.T.: I mean…seeing the strength of the Occupy Wall Street [protests] is an inspiration and dope, because people are becoming frustrated to the point that they're willing to stand up for something, and not even in a violent way, [but] non-violent like protesting and, "We're talking about a situation to a degree we're really frustrated with this and we want to change it." If you think about back in the day, people were very vocal about, "I don't like this." We're talking about Rosa Parks, "I'm not finna get up off this bus," just people really standing up for what they believe in, and I think now, more than ever, people of our generation are really kind of learning the history of where we came from and not being so blocked off from politics. Even me, I don't get into politics when we talk about music because it's an opinion, you know what I'm saying? And when you're dealing with opinion, everybody has their own opinion about it, so when it comes to me and voting, I'm voting for whoever I think is the best candidate and I leave it at that.
But for the most part, I feel like it's very important in our generation to look back [to past generations]; I try to put it in my music and I try to talk about it. There's a lot of other artists that do the same, and for the most part, you just pray that people can pick it up and you pray that as far schools, they're really showcasing their teaching and kinda making a point to explain to people what the Civil Rights Movement was and what it was all about and all the things that happened.
DX: Definitely, but you also say in that song, "Slaves - give them freedom or give them dope / Takes away their leaders 'cause that gives them hope." Do you think people lack that sort of direct leadership today, and if so, is Hip Hop going to be or continue to be the force that provides that symbol of leadership?
Big K.R.I.T.: Let's say music. I think music in general provides some kind of outlet for people. When we we say music, it's all genres. Hip Hop isn't solely the only genre that speaks on political issues, so we say music is the universal language which everybody speaks and everybody can really relate to. I think music definitely took a stand and is in the forefront as far as teaching people about political issues and learning people about things they may not know about. A lot people don't really watch CNN or don't really watch any C-SPAN or things like that, so they might get a lot of vital information from their favorite song or from MTV or BET or something like that. They might not watch one of these political television shows. I think for the most part, it's a great thing that they can still pick up some kinda knowledge from that.
Music has definitely played an important part. Just as human beings, it's important that we take a stand and remove the music and use our voices on a political stand. I think it would be just as effective. There doesn't have to be a beat behind the voice; you can do something a cappella, you can just talk to some people and trust me, they'll listen. They believe in you anyway.
DX: I also wanted to talk about "Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism" off Return of 4Eva , because it's a very powerful song and one that speaks to a lot of truth about the socioeconomic situations that many African Americans face. On one level, the last verse in particular really seems to speak to some of the negative images associated with certain members of mainstream Hip Hop. Do you think the big business of mainstream music has hurt the way Hip Hop and of music artists are portrayed and the effectiveness of their messages?
Big K.R.I.T.: To say "big business," I know a lot of artists that have given back to the community and still give back to the community and they have been able to give charity. Music, for the most part, has kept a lot of people out of the streets, so I won't say that big business hurt it, but I will say that when you think about the record, when I wrote the song, I never really categorized that I was talking about the African American community. I was talking about just overall, the word ["nigger"] itself is just a very ignorant word. You don't have to be black to be called that word. It's one of those things that I wanted to touch on. From the very first verse, [it's about] somebody that's in it all for themselves, even with women and family. In the second verse, we're talking about somebody that utilizes the youth to get what they want - manipulation. The third verse is somebody that forgets where they're from - and that could be any race, that doesn't have to be just African American. And I tried to sum up the word and twist the word around like, if you use it, the person that would use that word in a derogatory fashion - that's what they would be considered, somebody that glorifies this kind of behavior.
For the most part, you never know how people are gonna take it [or] how they'll feel about it, but I felt it was really important, especially being where I'm from, to really touch on that kind of a topic. There's a lot of other topics that as artists we should definitely touch on because they're not gone, they haven't disappeared.
DX: To kind of go along with that, the issue of white emcees using the n-word in a non-racial context has become a topic of discussion over the past couple of years. Not to speak on anyone specifically, but how do you feel about the use of that word in kind of context?
Big K.R.I.T.: It's really something that doesn't happen, you know what I'm saying? I have a lot of white friends and they're my partners, I consider them my brothers, but they feel uncomfortable for the most part saying it. Yelawolf is my brother, and much respect to him in his craft and me knowing he's a real person, and he would never use that [word], and that's somebody that I feel 100% comfortable around. That's just one of those situations where we're from, it's still so tense and there's so much tension, there's still a lot of damage when it comes to that word when it comes what happened with people and racism. It's still one of those things where it's like, "Uh, let's not become comfortable with that." For the most part, I respect everybody, I pray for people. I'm not really into saying [stuff] about how anybody was raised. I've got a lot of different people from different areas and different hoods and you never know how somebody was raised. It is what it is.
DX: It's interesting that you mention Yelawolf with that, because it seems like a lot of the most highly anticipated new artists - yourself, Yela, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, among others - you're really challenging the common perception of what is a mainstream rapper and what he talks about. Do you feel that this new generation's openess about political and social issues is a factor of what America has experienced as a result of the recession and the political climate?
Big K.R.I.T.: Yeah, and I would say that we're just a product of our lives [and] our environments. All of these artists you're talking about rap about where they're from, what they've been through and if meet them, they're the same people. I think when it came to Hip Hop, and now, a lot of artists are taking you to their homes and their backyards and their families and the street they grew up on and what they believe in, which is extremely important because you get to know them not only on video, but through their music and it just make it better. It's not really an egotistical thing, 'cause all these people I work with and they're my partners and we can chop it up, not even on a music level but a "How're you doing?" kind of a situation because they're being real people.
I think for the most part this "super human" aspect of music is kind of going away because people know that we're all human at the end of the day and they can see that sometimes this situation may affect you or this may not have went your way 'cus everything is documented and artists don't mind rapping a situation they went through - a break-up, or something spiritual or business-wise.
DX: Do you think your generation of rappers is pushing older generations of rappers to be more reflective or at least open in their music and some of the issues they talk about?
Big K.R.I.T.: Really, as far as the legends and O.G.s that I know, I'm taking a part from them 'cus a lot of them went against the grain. You know that I'ma rap about what I wanna rap about, and it's gonna be fun. Me being that I'm influenced by Outkast, UGK, Scarface, Goodie Mob, the Dungeon Family - these artists rapped about where they were from. If you've never been to Port Arthur [in Houston, Texas] before, you listen to UGK's music and they take you to Port Arthur. Like, talking about rapping about what [emcees are] going through, we're talking about the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks On Me" and things like that, you can't make me say like a label told them "Rap about this." That was them being themselves and doing music that reflected the way they felt.
I just think that at some point, and this goes back to just wanting to make a living and escape poverty, at some point, music became about a single. I don't blame an artist for making a record that would take to radio and take off in order to feed his family and his kids and become financially free because that's ultimately a goal within everybody's life that works - to become financially free. But for the most part, a lot of the old school artists understood that they had a voice, too, and they were very particular with what they said on records and understood about what they said on records. I just want to be on one those artists [and make sure] that I really stand strong with what I believe in, rap about what I know and my morals and I learn from other OGs, [that] I collab and I do music [that] ultimately touches people and becomes timeless. A record like [Outkast's] "Liberation" off Aquemini to me will never go away.
Big K.R.I.T. Talks Live From The Underground And The Production Process
DX: Live From the Underground is coming soon, and you also announced at the beginning of December that you'd have a new mixtape 4evaNaDay dropping before that. With both of these projects dropping so relatively close to each other, what was the difference in the way you approached them, if at all?
Big K.R.I.T.: Aw man, [the difference is that] I can use samples on 4evaNaDay. [Laughs] I can sample a whole hell of a lot for 4evaNaDay, but for Live From the Underground, not so much. 4evaNaDay is for free, I'm just giving that to the people, so when you're talking samples and publishing, I'm just making music and giving it away. But [with] retail, off Underground, it's not so much. If you sample, you definitely gotta reach out to the publisher [and] the label and make sure everything's okay and pray that they feel comfortable with how you sampled the record - things of that nature. But 4evaNaDay was like, "Aight, I like this song; I'm gonna sample it." We're just gonna put it out just to give it away for free.
Of course with my album, it's gonna be definitely more in-depth when you're talking about live instrumentation or the orchestrated aspect of the composition or the mixing, but I'ma do my best to make 4evaNaDay sound like an album as well. But I also have to focus on the mainstream album, too. It's a tug-and-pull kind of thing, but I'm excited for people to hear 4evaNaDay 'cus it's not just a mixtape…it's a concept project. I think people are really going to enjoy it.
DX: Right, and I remember in an interview a while back you said one way you were looking to get the same sound of using samples but without sampling was that you were looking to record with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I know you've produced using a live band, most recently with The Roots on "Make My" , but did this collaboration with Sharon Jones ever come about?
Big K.R.I.T.: Yeah, I mean The Roots, that was amazing. That was an amazing experience for one, but for two, I haven't had the opportunity to record with [Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings] yet. Lord willing, if I had the opportunity to, of course I would…so I have little bit more time to continue working on [the album], but I haven't had the opportunity to work with them just yet…if I don't get the opportunity to work with them on this album, Lord willing I will be [working with them] on the second.
DX: Well, I'm definitely hoping that happens. But to go back to your sampling, it's really crazy to hear how seamless the samples you use sound in your beats. For example, the sample of Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate" in "Sookie Now" is crazy, because it's a recognizable sample but it sounds completely natural in the song. How do you approach each individual sample and layering them in the final beat?
Big K.R.I.T.: Aw man, a lot of it has to do with tempo - especially [sampling] soul music, you might find them in 3/4 times, so instead of it being 1-2-3-4 [with 4/4 timing], it's like 1-2-3-2-2-3; it's like a different kind of groove, so when you chop it up, it's extremely important that you pay attention to tempo because if it's too fast, the tempo won't fit right, or if there'e vocals in the sample and they're overlapping [because] it's really difficult to rap over a vocal sample. If you speed it up, it's high pitched and it doesn't really work too well. It's really about blending and finding the proper samples where they gave you a little bit of [instrumental] to use and being able to chop it up like that and throwing it in with the hooks.
And you never want to stay traditional and just use their hook and their [verse] and their hook again. You kinda want to make a whole new song based off of what you sample, and to me, that's extremely important. I never like hearing clipping in my samples. I feel like you should never hear where the sample started over, or if you do, it sounded smooth like they played it like that, versus it was going and it's an abrupt stop and the sample started all over again.
DX: I also think it's crazy the array of samples you pull from. Obviously, there are some R&B and funk tacks that you'd kind of expect to be or have been used in a Hip Hop song in the past, but then there are other samples that you've used like Adele's "Hometown Glory" on "Hometown Hero" that are out of left field. Do you ever have any reservations about what samples you use, whether it's because they wouldn't fit in a Hip Hop song or because they're too obvious?
Big K.R.I.T.: Normally, you try to sample something that isn't so super obvious...super obvious as in you could never clear the sample, unless you could flip it to the point that people really don't recognize it. I mean, if you're talking about producers…like J Dilla, 9th Wonder, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, these kind of producers, they were very great at sampling stuff and you not really recognizing what it was. Even if with me, when I'm searching for samples, it doesn't matter, it could be a power ballad [like] Scorpion, Whitesnake or something like that, if there's an air, if there's a powerful sense to it - we're talking about an electric guitar, a wail…something I could really loop and make sound bigger than what it might have already sounded, then I'm gonna go for it.