In the heart of most rappers is a pop star dying to get out. Maybe that’s why so many hip-hop artists have taken such a liking to the pop phenom Justin Bieber. Co-discovered by Usher and signed to Island/Def Jam by L.A. Reid, the 17-year-old Canadian star received a Best New Artist nomination from the BET Awards last year and won four American Music Awards, including Artist of the Year. A bit stranger seeming is the endorsement he’s gotten from some of rap’s biggest MCs. During the past year, he has collaborated with Ludacris, Kanye West and Raekwon. He struck up a friendship with teenage Young Money rep Lil Twist and was the titular subject of a Lil B song. And sometimes, when the mood is right, he even busts rhymes himself, under his own MC name, Shawty Mane.

But maybe it makes more sense than you’d think. Bieber is actually a lifelong hip-hop head (still not that long!) who was introduced to rap as a toddler. XXL caught up with him recently to talk beats, rhymes and life.—Vanessa Satten

XXL: How long have you been listening to hip-hop?

Justin Bieber: I’ve been listening to hip-hop, basically, since I was, like, like, three. My mom listened to a lot of Ma$e, and my dad introduced me to Tupac when I was, like, like, four.

Oh, Tupac? So you were a Tupac fan early on.

Yeah, I was a Tupac fan.

Did you ever believe any of the conspiracy theories that he might be alive? Or think he might come back?

No, I don’t think so. I think he’s dead.

What about when you got older? Do you still listen to him as much?

Yeah. I mean, I’m still a huge ’Pac fan. But when I was, like, eight or nine, I could rap all of “Thugz Mansion.” Like, the whole song. My dad taught me.

So was it a big deal for you at all when you started to meet rappers?

Yeah. I was a big Ludacris fan, and then I was able to meet him in Atlanta at his restaurant. And I was freaking out. It was a crazy moment for me. Then I got to do a song with him, which was incredible and just a great experience. Probably my favorite rapper now, right now, at this moment, is probably Lil Wayne.

How do you pick your favorite? What do you base it on?

Just the stuff they do. Like, he’s on a lot of songs and some of them get repetitive, but usually he’s on.

You play around and rap, but do you ever see yourself trying seriously?

[Laughs] Not really. I just do it for fun, but nothing serious. I don’t think people would take me seriously if I came out with, like, a rap album.

In the beginning, did you ever get intimidated by rappers? ’Cause it’s a whole different genre of music from yours.

Yeah.

It’s fascinating how you have been so accepted by all the rappers. Your being so young and from a genre of music that’s so different, it seems pretty cool.

It’s great. Drake, he’s kinda like my big brother, and, like, a bunch of people I’m just really close to. I mean, most of Young Money—I know all of them, and they’re really cool and stuff. I try to associate myself with them. But not too much, because, like, you know, I don’t wanna get hurt or anything. [Laughs]

FOR MORE OF JUSTIN BIEBER, GO TO PAGE 2