King of the South
Rapper T.I. talks about business and creative
by Andria Lisle
It’s shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2, and T.I. is chilling in his Cincinnati hotel room, whittling away the hours before he and fellow Atlantan Yung Joc are due onstage at Bogart’s, a popular club near the University of Cincinnati. Like any monarch kicking back in the castle before his subjects arrive, the King of the South sounds alternately bored and amused as he awaits his time in the spotlight. An entourage — including his close friend and personal assistant Philant Johnson, security guard Ronald Hausley, friend Janice Gillespie, and a kid T.I. refers to as his “lil pardner” — float in and out of the room, as rap’s latest superstar endures his umpteenth phone interview of the tour.
Born in “The Trap” — Bankhead, a dead-end district in Atlanta, Georgia, where most young Black men cycle through prison and street life until an early death — T.I. quickly made a name for himself as a hustler of the highest order before refocusing his attention on the rap game.
In five short years, T.I. has parlayed his street creativity into a multimillion-dollar business, piling on more accolades than most men do in a lifetime. He’s recorded a handful of unforgettable singles, such as “Rubber Band Man” and “Bring ‘Em Out,” inked a $2 million joint-venture deal with Atlantic Records, released four albums (including an unforgettable debut, Serious, the platinum Urban Legend, and its stellar follow-up, King, released spring 2006), received multiple Grammy nominations, launched a sneaker line, and opened a nightclub, Club Crucial.
This year, the King of the South further padded his bank account by making the now-familiar leap to the silver screen, starring in the urban flick ATL. T.I. has also waved his scepter over more earthbound matters, raising $236,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims and pouring a chunk of his wealth into the waning Bankhead community.
Unfortunately, in a few short hours, the humdrum will drastically change, following an altercation in the parking lot of Cincinnati’s Ritz nightclub, the location of a post-concert party. According to bystanders, T.I. urged his entourage to leave after a local contingent took offense to the Southerners, who had earlier tossed money off the stage in a show of bravado. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he insisted, unaware that the locals had piled into an SUV and were following him southbound down I-75. Shots rang out. Hausley and Gillespie were injured, Johnson killed.
Adding insult to injury, two days after serving as a pallbearer at Johnson’s funeral, T.I. was taken into custody in Tampa, Florida, for an outstanding warrant. It seems that old business — assault on a police officer, trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, and suspended license violations — remained unfinished, and a judge heaped hundreds of hours of community service on the young rapper.
At the moment, however, all that ugliness sits beyond the horizon, and T.I. is focusing his energy on his current tour and the new album. “Everybody’s showing love,” he says, blissfully unaware of the disaster that awaits him. “We’ve been very well received.”
How did you make the transformation from hustler/”businessman” to rapper?
I guess I just spoke well and related to people. I came from such humble beginnings, and I spoke of the struggle in way they were familiar with. I was just affected and touched by the movement, the culture, and the music.
Was rap your vehicle for escape?
Escape? No, for me, rap was not a method of survival. It was just something I decided to do, a natural way to exercise my creativity.
You’re a prodigious MC. Who inspired you when you were coming up?
Lots of people — Tupac, BIG, Jay, OutKast, UGK, NWA, Scarface, LL in his early years.
How do you fit into the current Atlanta scene?
I mean, you know that I belong somewhere at the top — but me, Lil Jon, Ludacris, OutKast, we all have healthy contributions to the progression of our city. Mine are no more important than theirs, and vice versa.
In an XXL interview, you said you made up the title “King of the South” to get journalists to pay attention to you.
No, it was just something I was dared to do. People believed I didn’t have the gall to say or do it, but I had just as much of an opportunity to say I’m the King of the South and become it as anyone. And as soon as I did it, I had a half step on everybody else.
You’ve been picked up on several charges — intent to distribute, possession of a firearm, and parole violations. In 2004, you were handed an eight-month sentence. How did you react when your career got sidetracked?
Eight months? It was more like ten. I was regretful of what happened. I got discouraged at times, but, while I was in, I stayed positive that I had time to make up for all of that, which is what I’ve been doing since I came out.
Describe daily life like behind bars.
I read and worked out a little bit. I might be conducting a little business over the phone. But that’s all you could do — read and empower your mind, make yourself knowledgeable, and learn things that you never took time to learn on the outside. Since I couldn’t do many physical things, I learned to better myself in that way.
You’re well known for your volatile temper and your propensity for violence. You had well-publicized feuds with Ludacris and Lil Flip, and you’ve made some reckless decisions, yet on the song “Live in the Sky,” you say, “Catch 22/ Either you lose or you lose/ That’s the way the game structured/ For real niggas to suffer/ And I ain’t never been a busta.” Right now, you’ve got a lot to lose. How are you keeping your temper under control?
That’s something I’m working on all the time. [sighs] I’m getting better at dealing with the day-to-day. Right now, I’m just trying to get the things out of my life that make me react. I’m working on minimizing my circumstantial situations.
How would you put that to the kids who look up to you?
My advice to the young people is just listen to the people who have been through it before. Don’t try and relive other people’s tasks. Let your heart dictate your future, and do what you know is right. You don’t got to ball when you’re young. Put yourself in the position where you can create opportunities. Become enough of an entity, and you’ll be able to ball as an adult. Empower yourself. Knowledge is power — the more you learn, the more of a commodity you’ll become.
Who taught you that?
There were different people along the way that I respected enough to listen to, to get life lessons from. They shared that knowledge with me, and now this is the way I conduct myself.
Care to name them?
Who raised you?
My pops was mostly out of town, but my mom was around. She would take me to grandmama’s house and leave me there to straighten me out.
How’d you feel about that?
I appreciate it a lot more now than I appreciated it then!
After Serious, you told L. A. Reid to give you $2 million or let you out of your contract. Then you tried to talk to Def Jam, and they turned you down —
Def Jam didn’t turn me down. That was just one of many meetings I had — I also talked to Bad Boy, Columbia, Atlantic, Universal, and Warner Brothers.
So why did you sign with Atlantic?
They didn’t seem to be intimidated by my intentions to be an executive as well as an artist. They gave me the funds I needed to operate my movement. They didn’t mind giving me the deal I was looking for, which was a joint-venture structure rather than a regular royalty. At that time, there were only a few people with joint-ventures — Cash Money, Master P, Jay Z, possibly Murder Inc., and the Rough Riders. I was definitely the youngest person trying to get in.
What’s your secret to being a successful businessman?
It’s simple: I sell records. I make sure I make more money than I spend. That’s the best thing I can say, and the simplest way I can put it — I spend less money.
You’ve banked with songs like “Rubber Band Man,” “Bring ‘Em Out,” and “What You Know.” Do you feel constant pressure to write another hit single?
I guess I’m prolific. All of my most complicated songs are not the singles. Singles like “Rubber Band Man” and “Bring ‘Em Out” are the songs that came the easiest to me, they were the easiest songs for me to do.
You’re listed as executive producer on the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. Were you actually hands-on with that project?
My company worked along with John Singleton, Triple 6, and Lil Jon to put it together.
And how did you react to Three 6′s Oscar win?
It was a big time for the Southern movement, for the rap movement, and for young Black people, period.
You just made your silver-screen debut with ATL. How similar are you to Rashad, the character you portrayed?
Rashad and I don’t have much in common, other than the fact that we were both put into a grown-man situation early in life. We also both have a healthy appetite for the opposite sex!
Evan Ross plays Ant, Rashad’s little brother, who’s making bank as a drug dealer — a career that you have experience in. Was it a realistic script?
Different people have different experiences in that trade. Some people have an experience that makes them want to continue on in their endeavors. Other people aren’t built for it. They ignore the signs, and the story just gets worse and worse. Sure, there are circumstances where it’s worked out, but there are plenty of examples — in real-life and in movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood — where it doesn’t.
Tell me about your next role. Any good scripts come across your desk?
Right now, I’m sorting ‘em out, trying to see what I want to do and what’s right for me. I am very selective.
Are you pursuing acting so you have something to fall back on when the rap game plays out?
Oh, no. I’m not limited as a rapper — it’s just the opposite. I catch on quick, and, as I progress, I’m passing up all the competition, which just continues to move at the same rate of speed. In a minute, there ain’t gonna be much else for me to do.
Where did this drive to succeed come from?
I don’t know. [pauses] Life. Will. As a kid coming up in the Trap, I never really went nowhere, so I don’t know where it comes from.
You’re currently heading a construction company that’s devoted to making Bankhead a better place.
With New Finish, we have about 40 to 50 properties constructed or renovated. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but you have to start somewhere — in order to travel a hundred miles, you’ve got to take that first step. Now, you can turn the corner and where you used to see landfills, vacant lots, and dumping sites, you see residences. People are living there. They’ve got stainless steel appliances and garages — and until now, not too many people had garages in Bankhead.
You also did some community service to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
As King of the South, I’ve got to be the first in line to move when the South is in trouble. Otherwise, I’m not worthy of the title.
So you feel obligated to help?
Absolutely. With great reward comes great responsibility.
As King of the South, do you feel obligated to stay in Atlanta?
I am definitely gonna always call Atlanta home. I’m also definitely gonna buy properties in other parts of the world, and it will be up to me how much time I spend in one property or another.
It sounds like life is going well. What’s the worst part of your job? What about the rap game drives you crazy?
My biggest frustration? That’s easy — the lies people tell. They gossip about you, they wanna talk about you, even when they don’t know what’s really going on. The truth never matters — only what makes the best story.
How do you get away from all the pressure?
I like to spend a lot of time being at the house, being with my kids as much as possible. I just picked up golf. It’s a good game, but I’m still bogeying, I’m not up to par yet.
Where can we find you on the links?
At the Charlie Yates golf course in East Lake. There’s also a course in Southside called Wolf Creek that I like.
What if you lost everything today? Could you return to your former life as a neighborhood dealer in Bankhead?
Absolutely not. That scenario is not possible.