T.I.: The Man Who Would Be King

T.I. just couldn’t wait to be King. In 2006, if there were any other bidders for the crown of the South, Clifford “T.I.” Harris raised his hand and his voice – blocking out whatever and whoever else. As his fast-selling T.I. vs. Tip album continues to find buyers, and get discovered through second and third singles, T.I. spoke to AllHipHop.com about the motion to become king, the pressures of going corporate, and why Grand Hustle isn’t your typical label built around one star. As the new album continues to burn in the ears of fans worldwide, it’s worth noting the journey, and masterpiece, leading up to the soul-search. AllHipHop.com: After King, the crown appears to be glued on, and not moving. Respect due, but after Slim Thug called his album Already Platinum and ended up reaching for gold, critics and fans really came down hard. When you did King, looking back, was there any doubt that it would be challenged?T.I.: No. None. Believe it or not. Because whether you know it or not, [before] King, the groundwork was already laid. It was already unanimous at that time. It was undisputed. Just think about it: before T.I., who was King of the South? The term didn’t exist. So how can you say that he’s not? I felt like it was just like about time.AllHipHop.com: “What You Know” was the hardest single out last year, and without doubt, it played the longest. DJ Drama pointed out to me that it was you going back to your roots with a hard, soulful street record that your longtime production affiliate DJ Toomp made. It marked the journey you made to the top. Is that how you see it; was it all that intentional?T.I.: You look at your strengths and your weaknesses, and you ask yourself, “What do people like about you?” You keep all of that and you add in as much as possible that could attain you a market that you haven’t reached. “What do people who don’t know of you yet already need to know about you?” Then you make a song called “What You Know (About That).” [Laughs] AllHipHop.com: Growing up, did you ever think you’d see a rapper or hear a rap song during a Super Bowl commercial?T.I.: [Laughs] I never put that much thought into commercials, period. It’s just one of those accolades that you acquire along the way of gettin’ to where you want to be. It’s sort of like most of us who really, really do it in this game, it’s so hard, we just keep our head down and keep workin’, and then, before you know it, we look up and we’re Jay-Z, or we’re Puffy, or we’re 50, or we’re T.I. All the little things that you accomplish along the way, you hardly ever really stop and smell the roses.AllHipHop.com: Of those guys, you’re one of, if not thee youngest to do it. At a point in your life where so many people might settle for “prince,” how does it feel it be “king”? T.I.: Shhh…phenomenal. It was definitely a high standard. I put it up there. It didn’t mean half as much to me when I said it as when people tried to deny me of it. When people told me I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be it, that’s when I started going harder.AllHipHop.com: From Eminem back in the day, to the Shop Boyz recently trying to merge with Rock Star Energy Drink, has the Chevrolet deal affected the way you’re writing your lyrics?T.I.: Not at all. Until I become a partner or get in bed with a conglomerate or a corporate sponsor that’s willing to compensate me to be mindful of my lyrics, then I don’t see the need to.AllHipHop.com: One of your favorite albums is Jay-Z’s Blueprint, which was more or less, free of guests. That was at a time when it might have been in Jay’s best interest to put Beanie or Bleek or Freeway on a hit record. With T.I. vs. Tip, you haven’t prominently featured Grand Hustle artists. Is that difficult, as a friend and mentor, when your artists see the major vehicle for exposure that is this album?T.I.: Nah. Because in my camp, everybody, they earn they keep. It’s a matter of you doing what it takes to break you as an artist. You’re gonna have to come up with that record. If there’s a song on my album that has an artist on it, it’s the opportunity that the artist took. For instance, anybody can come in when I’m making a record and say, “Hey, I like this, I wanna get on it.” Very seldom will I say, “Nah, you can’t do that.” So I have songs with Big Kuntry, with Young Dro, Mack Boney, Alpha Mega, so on and so forth. But in the song-picking process, I’m not gonna say that I have to get all of these things done. I can’t put that before picking the best songs to make the best quality album. At the end of the day, man, whoever is standing, is standing. That’s not to say, “These songs aren’t good.” If you did your thing, you did your thing. Just like when they’re picking their first singles, it’s not mandatory that it’s a record T.I. produced or T.I. is on; I allow them to do their thing. They allow me to do the same.AllHipHop.com: As I’ve walked around the Atlantic Records building, it seems as though I’ve seen your face all morning. [T.I. laughs heavily]…T.I.: That’s what happens when you pay the bills somewhere, man.AllHipHop.com: Well, that’s what I want to ask you. For a while, 50 Cent was calling himself Curtis “Interscope” Jackson. When you’re in New York, how do you feel when you walk around the Atlantic building?T.I.: Like I’m at home. Period.AllHipHop.com: As musicians and as men, what was the chemistry like with Eminem?T.I.: Man! All around mutual respect. We recognize the differences in one another. I know he do what he do to death, and he knows the same thing about me. We respect it. Man, we really met each other for the first time and it felt like we’d known each other for a long time. We’d spoken over the phone before, but actually face-to-face, doing these records was when we met. We gelled like we’d known each other for years. Because I don’t know everything that he goes through, and I haven’t experienced everything that he’s experienced, but I’ve gotten a piece of it. I know how you can feel like you can never get time to yourself, and you’re giving more of yourself to the game than it gives you. I understand a lot of the things that other people ridicule him for, out of their lack of knowledge for the situation. We just respected each other. I’m sure he can respect certain things about me that other people might not be able to. AllHipHop.com: “Live in the Sky” is an important record. It speaks to me. I’m told it’s a sensitive issue with you and subsequently, it’s a tough question to ask. With all the talk of the state of Hip-Hop, do you feel that if that single had gotten out there further, that it would have bettered your Grammy chances for Album of the Year?T.I.: It was a single. It was a video. AllHipHop.com: I know that.T.I.: It just didn’t overshadow “What You Know (About That).” With that single, we sold records. We went from 1.3 [million copies sold] to 1.6 off of that single. It ain’t like it didn’t have the opportunity. I think the Grammy’s would’ve been bombarded with T.I. if we had my already-four nominations, plus equate the other singles. I think it was, “We’ve had enough of T.I., let’s give the other cats a chance,” you know? AllHipHop.com: You were the first person that ever used the term “trap” to me. Do you feel that five or so years later, that the term “trap music” has been bastardized both other rappers in the game?T.I.: I mean, man…[sighs]…you should’ve asked [Tip] about that, but I’ll speak on it a little. I think it should be used as any term is used. There are some who’ve taken the term and done it justice, and there’s some people who’ve taken the term and exploited it. All in all, as the originator or the founder of the term, I’m just happy that people are using it in everyday conversation. AllHipHop.com: One of my favorite ad-libs ever in a verse was, “Y’all ain’t never seen a dope-boy play piano and rap at the same time” on “Be Easy.” Looking at that line, how do you think the balance exists in Hip-Hop today between musical ability and street credibility?T.I.: Mmmm. I think it’s very important to infuse the two. I think that your talent and your natural ability gets you to a certain point. I think that your will to work hard gets you to another point. But I think that your ability to relate to the core of this Hip-Hop game is what gets you to either of those points. If you don’t have that in the beginning, it’s very hard to make it to point it to point B or C.