Cracking open my iTunes to listen to mixtapes I downloaded off DatPiff, which felt like my little secret as my friends weren’t that into music, I always wonder if the artists behind the tapes know they made history. The blog era, the delight of the mixtape era, these are the memories that so many of my writing peers and music industry friends hold dear in their hearts. Big K.R.I.T.’s 2010 mixtape, the one that broke him in the mainstream and landed him his 2011 XXL freshman cover, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, is one of those special projects.
“As soon as the project arrived in my inbox, I knew I wanted us to play a part in its release,” says Brian “Z” Zisook, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of our publication, DJBooth, which served as the exclusive, premier partner for the project on May 4, 2010. “The night we released the tape, our servers crashed multiple times within the first hour. At that time, crashing a website’s server was considered a badge of honor for a rapper.”
K.R.I.T. Wuz Here is a mixtape we all collectively recall playing in basements, in cars, in our headphones with our knock off iPods—or not, I mean, I got my first “iPod” from an arcade claw game. There aren’t enough words for the feeling of clicking the plastic buttons and listening to the triumphant rapper bringing the stylings of the South around the world.
“K.R.I.T. was a breath of fresh air in 2010,” Zisook adds, “and it’s a credit to his talent that his classic work has aged beautifully.”
As Big K.R.I.T.’s monumental K.R.I.T. Wuz Here hits DSPs today, I spoke with Jonny Shipes, Cinematic Music Group founder and dear friend to K.R.I.T., about the now 10-year-old mixtape, his favorite memories of the K.R.I.T. Wuz Here era, and what he sees for the Meridian, Mississippi-native rapper’s future.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Take me back to 2010, the year you signed Big K.R.I.T. to Cinematic. What drove you to sign him?
Jonny Shipes: 2010… I had already found Nip[sey Hussle] and [Smoke] DZA. When I heard K.R.I.T., it was unbelievable, because he was presented to me as a producer that was shopping his beats for a ringtone company I was consulting for at the time. I was just looking for producers that had good beats. He sent me a hook for the song “Just Touched Down,” and I was like, “Yo! Who is this on the hook?” He was like, “Oh, that’s me! I rap, too.” The beats were fucking insane—he raps, too? I went back and listened to all his projects before K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. I loved the potential of him… He was almost catering to the Atlanta sound at the time—Yung Joc and T.I.—very Southern and very trap-heavy. A different bounce to what K.R.I.T. Wuz Here turned out to be.
He sent me a ton of unreleased stuff. I’d say 75 percent of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was already done; it was just tracks he had made and were in his hard drive. All these soulful records. I remember hearing them and being like, “Bro, you’re one of the most special artists that will ever come out.” It happened by accident, almost.
I love a happy accident.
The talent is insane, still, to this day. It was a matter of piecing together all of his best music, and what sound fit him the best, you know?
Who was K.R.I.T. in 2010?
He was a hip-hop soul from the South. He was a king waiting to be discovered—he was just that good. It wasn’t like I signed him and [said], “Let’s go make a bunch of new music!” It was all there. He was from a small town—Meridian, Mississippi. He was just in his room, making beats and recording these amazing songs. He was an underground legend before even becoming a legend. He was just sitting there, poised, waiting.
I remember when we shot the “King” freestyle. He was just spazzing. There were all these dilapidating houses everywhere. What you saw with K.R.I.T., like “Hometown Hero,” that was just raw, truthful… You couldn’t get more raw. Creative Control, they were incredible and great at capturing moments, aesthetics, and culture.
What was the timeline between your signing him and K.R.I.T. Wuz Here dropping?
Not that long. I signed him, and we started putting stuff out immediately. The “King” freestyle, “Hometown Hero.” K.R.I.T. Wuz Here came out maybe six months after [the signing]. I think the last song we recorded was “Glass House,” and that was at SXSW at the house I rented. K.R.I.T., Curren$y, and Wiz [Khalifa] were just at the crib. That was the last song. That must’ve been March. I remember it being cold, so we probably [originally] linked in December or something. It was a couple of months.
What was the energy like in the months leading up to Krit Wuz Here?
It was crazy! Everybody was talking about him. That was the time of blogs. Blogs broke every artist I had at that point. Everybody was telling us how amazing he is, saying they’d never heard anything like this since Pimp C. He got a lot of comparisons to Pimp C, and we were just waiting for the Bun B co-sign. Pimp C is an icon and a legend, and we didn’t wanna run with that narrative at all, but Pimp C heavily influenced him.
When Bun reached out, Luda[cris] reached out, we knew. I had already known beforehand he was gonna be one of the greats and such an important part of hip-hop. When Bun B hit him and co-signed him, I’ll never forget. K.R.I.T. was here at that point, we all felt it and knew it was gonna be something real. All the labels were calling.
What were the major hurdles you and the team had to clear to get this project to the people?
There weren’t that many, because it was before DSPs. Mixtapes were free. They would go on NahRight, and whatever other big sites were out. We just put it together and dropped it on DJBooth. It was that easy, honestly.
Do you wish it were still that easy?
In my opinion, it’s easier to break [now] than ever. There’s no gatekeepers, which is good. Back then, it was just: put out some great music, get on some blogs, get it heard, and if you’re dope, your shit’s gonna cut through. I don’t remember there being too much headaches with it. It was pretty simple back then. We flew him to New York; we had him at my crib; he was recording here. He was recording at his house. We put it all together and dropped it.
K.R.I.T. Wuz Here announced Big K.R.I.T. to everyone and led to his 2011 XXL Freshman cover spot, too.
100 percent. That was the reason. Back then, your project spoke for you.
What subsequent accomplishment was most special to you?
I remember this vividly. Apple had some sort of curated panel in San Francisco, where they would bring out the artists that made the most impact for the year, and they invited us! I just know the other people were huge, and we weren’t. We knew we had arrived at that point. This is crazy! Country, small-town kid, me from NYC still trying to build, it was special. It was that moment where I was like, “Damn, they’re considering us with the best.” Definitely the “Country Shit” remix with Bun and Luda, too. We knew we were on to something big.
How good did it feel to see him release K.R.I.T. IZ HERE, and see him pay homage to his roots with you?
It was dope! Me and K.R.I.T. are still homies. Anybody I came up with, we were all family. I speak to him often, and we check in with each other. I knew it was coming, but it was dope because from the Wuz to IZ is a natural progression, you know?
Ten years removed, what does K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mean to you?
Everything. It’s funny, because… The press has never been like, “XYZ album that Cinematic and Shipes have put out is critically acclaimed.” But when you look at Nipsey’s mixtapes, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Joey Bada$$’ 1999, DZA has such a big catalog, it’s a moment for me. When I talk about my history within the staff, I often refer to those mixtapes versus albums I’ve put out. We just got such big praise for it. It holds a special place in my heart, because I fucking love music, starting with hip-hop.
Being able to say I worked on K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, I don’t need a GRAMMY to know I did something special. I could go listen to that right now and be like, “Damn, I was breaking up with my girl of eight years during this time. This song right here resonated with me. ‘Hometown Hero’ made me feel like I was playing ball again.” It’s a special project. I know I’ve given the world some classics, and that’s probably the best album I’ve put out, in my opinion.
What do you think K.R.I.T. Wuz Here means to K.R.I.T.? It must mean the world to him.
It has to! It catapulted him from nothing to something. And something special. He was always that before the project and before me. I can’t do anything with an artist that isn’t great, but if you’re great, I can help you get to where you’re going. He had all the intangibles. You could ask anybody that worked on that project, I just brought him to New York and dug through his hard drives, and I was like, “Bro! These songs have never come out?” It was all there; it just had to be pieced together. I would imagine, for him, it meant everything. He went from being a really good baseball player in his hometown and thinking he was gonna go to the majors—we always used to joke about that—[to being] catapulted into the spotlight.
What do you see for K.R.I.T.’s future?
It’s only up from here. We were all learning the business back then, you know? All of us: DZA, Nipsey, me, K.R.I.T.. No one taught me anything. We all learned it through trial and error coming up. K.R.I.T. is in an independent spirit, and I think he’s just getting started. I don’t see him slowing down any time soon.