Atlanta rapper, executive, producer, and movie star Tip “T.I.” Harris called himself the King Of The South well before he was a major player in hip-hop. But at this point, he’s lived up to that title with a string of hit albums, smash singles, and superstar collaborations, as well as a personal life that attracts as much attention as his professional endeavors.
The former drug dealer got off to a slow start commercially when his 2001 debut I’m Serious underperformed commercially and he parted ways with his label, Arista. He had much more success with his new label, Atlantic, which released his 2003 hit Trap Muzik through his Grand Hustle imprint. A string of hit albums followed: 2004’s Urban Legend, 2006’s King, 2007’s T.I. Vs. T.I.P., and 2008’s Paper Trail. T.I. branched out into clothing, publishing, and film, and scored a small but memorable role in American Gangster and a starring gig in the autobiographical drama ATL. His thriving career faced a serious threat when he went to prison on a weapons charge in 2009, but the incarceration only increased anticipation for his forthcoming comeback album, King Uncaged, and collaborations with Kanye West and Dr. Dre. During a press day for T.I.’s new film Takers—he plays an ex-con who lures his old partners into a big heist—The A.V. Club recently spoke with the enigmatic rap superstar about prison, Larry King, being a role model, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and literary and musical trilogies.
The A.V. Club: What attracted you to this project?
Tip “T.I.” Harris: The script. The script attracted me to the project, first and foremost. The many different dynamics and dimensions of the plot, and how there were so many layers of stories within stories. Every character had their own motivations, every character had their own personal circumstances and situations that led them to make the decisions that led them to be in the positions that they were left in.
AVC: Do you feel a responsibility to be a role model?
TI: A responsibility to be a role model as a father yes, as a man, as a public figure, yes. That responsibility just leads me to do what I feel is right and to conduct myself with the moral standards, principles, and integrity that were instilled in me by my family.
AVC: You speak a lot to children. Is it cathartic to talk about your experiences?
TI: Cathartic? Well, I think it’s the best way for them to benefit from the experience. If I choose to keep it to myself, and locked away in my inner mind, heart, and thoughts, then they never get a chance to take my experiences and learn from them.
AVC: Is it painful reliving what you went through?
TI: Not at all. The pain of it cannot match the pain that was ever-present going through it.
AVC: You’ve said that you can’t really see yourself rapping 10 years from now.
TI: Not full-time. I can’t really see myself as an artist. Now, to step out here and there, do it when I feel like it, that’s a possibility. But for me to be a full-fledged, full-time artist in the industry, I don’t think so.
AVC: So where do you see yourself in 10 years?
TI: I can’t say. I didn’t see myself here 10 years ago.
AVC: Have you thought about writing a book?
TI: I am; I’m actually in the process of writing a three-part novel, called Power And Beauty, with world-renowned author David Riggs.
AVC: Will it be autobiographical?
TI: No, it’s a novel. An urban novel. While I was inside, I read Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight. So I said I wanted to try to have something that at least was in close competition with that.
AVC: You’ve also talked about your new album being the last part of the trilogy. What’s the connecting thread between these three albums?
TI: Well, I think it was a cause-and-effect. The cause was my partner dying in 2006, and that led to thoughts, emotions, and opinions that led to the making of T.I. Vs. T.I.P. Now that conflict or duality within myself, and I guess the unresolved grief, anger, and paranoia that was stated all throughout T.I. Vs. T.I.P., led to decisions and actions that led to my arrest on federal weapons charges. So me being on federal weapons charges, that insight, that retrospect, that sentiment, all those elements that then existed in my life led to the making of Paper Trail. Me having to leave, go away to prison, all of the resentment, the anger, and then the celebratory feeling of me coming back home and getting back to doing what I do best, that would then lead to the emotions I evoked and displayed on King Uncaged.
AVC: So it will be more of a celebratory album.
TI: I believe so.
AVC: On Larry King Live, you described yourself as a “retired gangster,” or having retired from being a gangster. Will this album reflect that?
TI: In some ways, you still have an edgy element. But not as many songs of that nature as previously. You will still have those records, but you will have some other records that, range-wise, are totally on the other end of the extreme. And records of diversity to bridge the gap in between. There’s a wide variety of demographics for fans of T.I. now, that you have to do something to satisfy everyone.
AVC: “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied your hit “Whatever You Like” while it was still a No. 1 hit. Did he ask permission?
TI: Yes, he did.
AVC: What did you think of his song?
TI: I thought it was just as good as any of his other parodies. I think that’s, in pop culture, how you know you have truly affected the days and times of entertainment. If you’re not worth speaking on, then you haven’t adequately done your job.
AVC: So it’s an honor.
TI: Yeah. Absolutely.
AVC: You recently went to Hawaii to work with Kanye West.
TI: Yeah, it was an outstanding experience working with Kanye. I mean, he’s a phenomenal talent, man, a wonderful person, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Hawaii ain’t a bad place to work. Looking forward to going back and doing it again.
AVC: Who are some of the other people on your album?
TI: Well, I’ve recorded a hundred and something songs to the project, so it’s difficult for me to speak on the people I work with, because I don’t know which of those songs will likely end up on the back of the album, and which ones will have to be saved for later.
AVC: You’ve compared this to Tupac’s post-jail album All Eyez On Me.
TI: Just in the… not in the tone of the album, but just in the anticipation of the album, given the obvious circumstances, and similarities in the circumstances. What I think the original statement was, is “the most highly anticipated comeback album, from a highly publicized hiatus.” And you haven’t seen the situation like this since All Eyez On Me.
AVC: Do you think prison was good for you, creatively?
TI: Good? No. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you do a lot of writing?
TI: No, I didn’t.
AVC: You also worked with Dr. Dre?
TI: I worked with Dr. Dre for the Detox project. He gave me some stuff for my project; we just haven’t recorded it yet.
AVC: Right, right. You recently signed a deal with Rémy Martin Cognac. How did that come about?
TI: Well, they extended the opportunity to work alongside them in creating even more awareness for the brand, and having me endorse the brand, and making me global brand consultant. And I was thrilled to do so, just given their historical presence in the marketplace, and their prestigious image, I feel like it was an infusion that was organic and naturally carried out. It was just an absolute pleasure.
AVC: What do you get from acting that you don’t get from rapping, and vice versa?
TI: The element of surprise. Acting in film, you know I hear all the time, people say “You did so much better than I thought you would.” So there’s an added element of surprise in film, different than in music.
AVC: You think people have lower expectations?
TI: I guess, for me. I guess because people put me on a box, and I love when people think they know what I am capable of, or not capable of. I thrive off of that.
AVC: People have lower standards for rappers who act.
TI: I mean, I think they have… I don’t know if it’s lower standards for rappers who act, or if it’s just for me in particular, because they feel like they know who I am already. They feel like “He can’t get too far away from this.” And I just look forward to continuing to surprise them.
AVC: You talked a little earlier about the trilogy of novels you’re putting out with David Riggs. What other plans do you have for the publishing imprint you’re starting?
TI: Um, I have a few plans, I have a few ideas… I’m just right now, in my mind, thinking of whether I would like to share them with you. I have a few ideas, that’s the idea of a novel or a fictional urban novel, and other things are more genre-based; a book written about a certain period of time in my life, that may captivate people’s interest. A lot of people may want to know more about a certain time in my life that was very, very widely publicized. Another one about my efforts in community service, and just pretty much putting in a book what I say to kids when I go speak.
AVC: When you do speak to children, what’s your overarching message?
TI: Just basically, education over incarceration. Just that the possibilities of success are limitless, as long as you’re willing to put the work in. And just the acknowledgement of the fact that you are not defined by your environment unless you allow yourself to be. And I just try to give examples of everything that I say to strike a different perspective of thought from them. Give them examples, give them ways to say “I never thought about it like that.” And another book is a relationship book from the perspective of a man, coming from me, and from the perspective of a woman, coming from a woman that I am rather close to.
AVC: Would there be other authors putting out other stuff on your imprint?
TI: I think that’s still up for discussion.
AVC: Right. You’re a man of mystery.
TI: I like that.
AVC: You did a fantastic job on Larry King Live. What was that like?
T.I. Well. They invited me. I sat down. He asked the questions. I gave the answers. That’s pretty much it; I didn’t go into it with any more of a meticulous or methodical approach than I do to any other interview. They asked questions, I answer honestly, it’s as simple as that.
AVC: When he said “swagger like us,” it seemed like you were trying hard to suppress a laugh.
TI: To subdue my laughter, yeah. But Larry was cool. I thought he had a more adverse opinion than he actually did. I think that at the end of the day, when people understand the circumstances that led to the circumstances, they begin to sway their views. Of course it’s not accepted, but it’s explainable.
AVC: So what’s next for you?
TI: I can’t call it, man. Release this album, continue to try and find ways to challenge myself in film, both as a star and as a producer, continue to fashionably release clothes to the marketplace that hopefully can add swag to any man’s life when necessary, and just continue to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to me, and live up to my full potential.