Justin Scott, famously known as Mississippi-born rap star Big K.R.I.T., has a microphone in hand. He’s onstage, but there’s no music; tonight isn’t a performance. Directly across from him is Shanti Das, a 28-year music industry veteran and the founder of mental health initiative Silence the Shame. Every eye in The Gathering Spot—a private Atlanta-based membership club—is upon them. No seat is empty throughout the event space, a cozy surrounding for an intimate interview.
“Around that time I was getting over a lot of depression about my… About my career,” K.R.I.T says, responding to a question about his alcoholism and the visceral deep cut “Drinking Sessions.” He continues candidly, explaining how uncertain he felt during the two and a half years he spent working on his 2017 double album, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, his first since parting ways with Def Jam in 2016. Did people still want to hear him rap? An honest fear. Would his ambitious, 20-track double-disc project translate with the new age of music streaming?
For the first time in years, K.R.I.T. was broke financially, and worried he'd become the latest industry rap cliché: earned the record deal, reached a point of respected notoriety, and then lost it all.
The night continued with honest revelations about having a therapist and music still being a form a therapy. He explained why the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed There Will Be Blood is one of his favorite movies and the reason he avoids reading comments online. Explanations and insight regarding songs like “Mixed Messages,” “The Vent,” “Soul Food,” and “Pick Yourself Up,” a standout track from his 2019 project TDT, were given. Clapping and shouts of commentary came from the onlooking crowd.
When Shanti Das completed her thoughtful questions on music, mental health, and motivation, the audience was able to ask the guest of honor whatever they liked. The first person chosen was a woman who introduced herself as “Justin’s ninth grade English teacher.” An eruption of applause full enough to fill the room followed her announcement. “I’ll take credit for some of his writing,” she joked. Laughter rose to the ceiling.
The moment was warm, a sweet scene fitting of a hip-hop Nick at Nite sitcom. For nearly 45 minutes, other attendees came forth with inquiring thoughts, grateful praise, and encouraging words like a proud family catching up with their country cousin. The exchanges between artists and fans couldn't happen like this on Instagram Live or Periscope; there are still things that must be experienced in the flesh.
The Pick Yourself Up and Silence the Shame conversation took place on December 6, one week after Big K.R.I.T. posted the Glorious Challenge to his Instagram. “Glorious” is the second track on Thrice X, a surprise, three-song EP released on November 16 that would later find a home on TDT. Across all music streaming services, K.R.I.T. made the self-produced instrumental available and encouraged fans to upload videos of their best verses in hopes of winning the competition.
The challenge didn’t have the chart-influencing virality of Future’s “Mask Off” or Drake’s “In My Feelings,” but within his ever-growing community of fans, the reception was telling of how eager they were to participate. “When I heard Isley Brothers and Too Short at the same time... Wooo! If you want to do a 'Pick Yourself Up' Challenge for the old heads, let that instrumental loose,” one man encouraged while K.R.I.T. was fielding questions from the audience. Creating a desire to participate in your fanbase changes the way those fans get involved with the music.
“I’m having fun right now,” he replied in reference to the new music. "Fun" is actually the best word to describe K.R.I.T.'s nine recently-released records. They aren't the best or most notable songs of his career, but there’s a jubilance to the production and easiness to the lyricism that's befitting an artist back in the gym, warming up, but not ready to stress his muscles just yet. By definition, loosies should be loose. Palette cleansers, bridging what came before with what is still yet to come.
Before concluding the interview, K.R.I.T. acknowledged how his return to independence meant freedom. He was free to do more shows, pop-ups, and put out music whenever he feels. This is the awareness of a man who plans to take advantage of being unbound.
There’s a rhythm to independence. Managing brand loyalty requires various forms of fan interaction paired with release regularity. Being conscious of your output and presence, and maximizing the two is crucial in maintaining a successful career without the machine. Curren$y, Tech N9ne, and Oddisee are three kings who built independent, underground kingdoms by being consistent both on and offline. All roads lead back to the studio, back on tour, and repeating these two crucial practices without taking their feet off the gas.
Mainstream commercial success isn’t the only gauge of value when it comes to artists and marketing methods. Resonating with your core base and making them feel seen is just as important, if not more significant than catching the eyes outside your audience. Communities, not cults, can be built by catering to those who cater to you.
After hitting the road last spring for his Heavy Is the Crown Tour, K.R.I.T. was relatively quiet. But once the calendar flipped to December, K.R.I.T. flipped a switch, engaging and catering to the community of his making: the Glorious Challenge, the intimate interview, the sold-out pop-up toy drive Christmas concert in Atlanta, the pop-up shops in Houston, Dallas, and East Mississippi, three EPs of new music released in-between all the events with all nine songs eventually compiled and re-released as TDT.
Navigating the middle space between social media connection and physical communion shows an awareness that the times have changed, but there's more than one way to adjust. Next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, the acclaimed breakout mixtape—premiered and hosted by DJBooth—that propelled his name across blogs and into label offices. After a decade in the recording industry, Big K.R.I.T. is still adapting to the new terrain, building upon the Rome he built, and finding the new groove necessary to keep his underground, independent kingdom thriving.
By Yoh, aka Y..H. Wuz Here, aka @Yoh31