a long talk

T.I. vs. the People

The Atlanta rap titan on his new album The L.I.B.R.A. and why he’ll never quit being divisive.

Photo: John Russo
Photo: John Russo

T.I. is a jack of all trades and he wants you to know it. The Atlanta rapper, actor, and entrepreneur born Clifford Harris first rose to prominence as perhaps the brightest star of the southern rap explosion of the 2000s, thanks to the brusque, quick-witted lyricism driving hits like “Bring Em Out” and “What You Know” and the pop smarts on display in “Live Your Life” and “Whatever You Like.” The vivid narratives detailed in songs like “Dope Boyz” and “Doin’ My Job” came from experience; Harris ran into trouble with the law as a youth selling drugs and spent long stretches of his career in the prison system, culminating with a 2009 stint on federal gun possession charges and a stay in 2010 after he and his wife, Xscape singer Tameka “Tiny” Cottle-Harris, were stopped on Sunset Boulevard and ecstasy was found in the car. When he got out, T.I. committed himself to turning his life around, following earlier roles in films like ATL and American Gangster with T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, a long-running VH1 reality show detailing the couple’s wholesome, colorful home life with seven children. Through his label, Grand Hustle Records, he helped build careers for B.o.B., Iggy Azalea, and Travis Scott, and put out records from a list of southern rap legends including Killer Mike, Trae tha Truth, and 8ball and MJG, all the while charting respectably with solo albums like 2012’s Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head and 2014’s Paperwork. He’s also a podcast host; ExpediTIously With Tip “T.I.” Harris features probing interviews with musicians, activists, and comics.

I spoke with T.I., who recently turned 40, this week about his journey in advance of his 11th album, The L.I.B.R.A. (short for “The Legend Is Back Running Atlanta”), out today, which, like the rest of Tip’s late-career output (see: Trouble Man, Paperwork, and Dime Trap), is still full of fire, if less overtly commercial than the radio-ready Paper Trail. Early in our conversation, he spied me wearing a Yankees fitted and steeled himself for another trying conversation with uninformed northern hip-hop media — an impression I unintentionally fueled when, in the lightning round of his impromptu southern rap aptitude quiz, I mixed up the names of Big Hawk and Fat Pat, brothers and members of Houston music icon DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. Still, it was an illuminating conversation, touching on the works in his back catalogue he’s most and least proud of, why he pivoted to reality TV after prison, reasoning with Kanye, and hip-hop’s north-south divide.

With this album, it sounds like you’re showing people that you still have a lot to say, and you shouldn’t be counted out.
Any motherfucker counting me out can’t count. I feel like you’re only as good as your last display. As far as putting a lot of songs together, a motherfucker taking their life experiences and telling stories from their perspective, and still having the material to be jamming like a motherfucker, I don’t think nobody could do that shit the way I do it. And I think every album that I put out is a clear example of that, [never mind] the record sales. I’m so fortunate and blessed and happy as hell that I don’t have to worry about that. My income — or should I say, my lifestyle — is not based on the residuals from record sales. I don’t have to put my album out and wait on the money from it to take care of everything I need to take care of. So I’m doing this shit really for love. I put this album out because enough people have come in my studio, heard all of the songs that I’ve got, and every time I start playing the song, they’re saying, “When is that coming out?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” For instance “Ring,” the record with [Young] Thug. I had that record for a year and a half —

Maybe two years. Really, I make music for me and my homeboys and my people that listen. And people stop me, like, “Hey, man, you need to put that out.” And I’m like, “I’ll get around to it.” It’s usually about the time I have to dedicate to [promotion], this part of it. I can make the music, I can put the album together, and I can put it out there, but I don’t always have time to do shit like this. I have to create that time so that I can present it the way that it deserves to be presented.

On the new song “Pardon” you say you have “four or five classics.” For the official record, which ones?
When I say “classics,” I’m talking about albums that have such an undeniable link to people’s childhood and moments in history that once you become a grown man, you look back and think about the things that you were listening to and the things that you felt were the soundtrack to your life. I got four or five of those. If you from New York, then you may disagree. Anybody from below the Mason-Dixon Line —

We got you on, like, two or three. That’s a lot! Almost nobody has even one.
We all have opinions and we can sit here and go back and forth about what we think are classics, but if you stop somebody that’s our age and say, “Hey, man, when you were 19, what was the dopest shit that was out?” They’re gonna say Tip. They’re gonna say Jeezy and Ludacris. They’ll mention Gucci. I think Trap Muzik, Urban Legend, and King are undeniable. Now, whether or not you would count I’m Serious as a classic would depend largely upon your lifestyle and whether or not it represented you. And if you from New York, it probably didn’t. You probably, were like, “Man this nigga can spit and he’s from Atlanta, I’ll look into him. I’ll check him out.” New Yorkers got to understand, we don’t need you all to justify our classics for us.

We had to learn that over time.
We ain’t looking for validation. We know what means something to us. In New York, a lot of motherfuckers say Mobb Deep’s [The Infamous] is a classic. I tend to agree. But take your ass somewhere on Bankhead or in Decatur and tell them folks Mobb Deep is a classic and see what happens. For us, undeniably UGK, Ridin’ Dirty, classic.

Honestly, I didn’t hear that till my 20s or 30s.
You see what I’m saying? That’s on you! So you got Trap Muzik, Urban Legend, King, and an asterisk by I’m Serious. Paper Trail … there’s no way you could [doubt it]. I don’t give a damn. Your ass could have been on the moon.

Paper Trail was jumping in New York City at the time. Well, the singles were.
Undeniable classic, you dig what I’m saying?

No Mercy, though …?
I gave you my five.

Are there albums that make you look back and question whether you gave 100 percent?
No Mercy and T.I. vs. T.I.P.. I was incredibly distracted and just kind of all over the place. My head wasn’t on straight at all. With T.I. vs. T.I.P., I really should have took more time off and collected myself before I just rushed some shit together. But motherfuckers still identify with that and come up to me all the time saying that was their favorite because of the concept and the narrative behind it. A lot of motherfuckers really, really felt that shit, and I appreciated it. No Mercy, I feel like the music was there, but I was gone in prison and couldn’t necessarily work that album. I feel like if I had waited until right when I came out and dropped it then shit would have been better off. Let me see what else … Trouble Man

I like Trouble Man!
I think that was my last record as an Atlantic Records artist. They wanted me to extend, and I didn’t really want to extend. I feel like they were kind of … conservative with how much of an investment they wanted to put behind Trouble Man without me extending. That could have gone better. Let’s just say, had I extended for two more albums, they would have put the whole house on it … I think we could have went harder. For me too, though. I think I would have went harder. At a certain point, I was like, “All right, shit, what are we starting to do now?” On both sides, it could have been executed better.

On The L.I.B.R.A., you have a song called “Family Connect” with your son, Domani. Your daughter, Deyjah, does a feature at the end of the album. How is it watching your next generation coming into their own creatively?
I’m impressed. I’m always impressed with seeing different parts of my personality pop up in their lexicon, in their habits and mannerisms. I know how bad I was, so to be a father to mannerable, level-headed, and respectful kids … I value that more than I do my career. My career, it’s good. It’s cool. But not many motherfuckers where I came from can go through all the shit that I’ve gone through, with the lack of examples that existed in my upbringing, and to go from there to having kids that are the antithesis of the energy that I had as a child. That is an anomaly within itself. Through all the chaos, through all the nice things, through all of the debauchery and the kerfuffles, we still managed to have seven well-mannered, respectful, intelligent, talented, ambitious, self-motivated children. And they’re all different personality types. Some are more introverted, some are more extroverted. Some are quiet and some are outspoken, but they’re all just incredible kids. That’s the shit that I’m most proud of.

I’ve always wondered if T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle was an attempt to reform your image a little bit after prison.
Yes. Absolutely. Talked about it in the visiting room at Forrest City Prison. I felt like people were judging me based off my headlines and not off the life that I had invested in. I had to clear up a bunch of bullshit that I had in my path from poor decisions, being impulsive, lack of planning, and just trauma — understanding that I had been through a bunch of shit that fucked me up a little bit. I had to work through that, and it took time. In that time, I was working through it, I goddamn … fucked up my freedom. However, that is a blip on the radar in comparison to how far we have left to go.

Do you sometimes wish your family business was less public?
Only two times have I felt like my family business was too public. That was when me and my lady were going through our shit and everything, when we had our separation. We both had our moments in the public. She and I had come to an understanding that we weren’t necessarily seeing eye to eye anymore and were making decisions for ourselves based off what we felt was best for our futures. But I would be out at a business meeting or just socially but harmlessly at a bowling alley or something, and an old lady would come up saying, “You all need to work that out. You need to get back with your wife.” In the airport or anywhere. That’s the shit that upsets me, not the comments on social media. That shit isn’t even real until it hits your face.

Same thing with the situation that I had with Deyjah. If a motherfucker come up to my face talking about my daughter, I’m gonna beat your ass. That’s straight up, period. Don’t play with me. Either you kicking some ass or I’m kicking some ass. One of us is walking away with a ass whooping if you pull up on me. Whatever your opinion is, I don’t give a fuck what you got to say if you got my daughter’s name in your mouth. If you within arm’s reach, man, we will be reaching.

The L.I.B.R.A. also has a song called “How I Feel” with Killer Mike, where you say nonviolence was taught to us by oppressors. I’m wondering if that means you think people should make use of their anger as long as they use it the right way?
I’m not responsible for how people interpret what I say. I’m not telling anybody what to do. I’m just offering perspective. I said “not fighting back.” I didn’t say “nonviolence.” You can be nonviolent, but if you hit me, I’m gonna fight back. Nonviolence is different from not fighting back. I approach the situation, and I come in peace, and I’m nonviolent. If somebody hit me in my mouth, I’m fighting back. I come in peace, but if I’m not met with peace, I can’t continue with the peace shit. You slap my momma, I won’t be nonviolent. That nonviolence shit is out the window. Anybody come and grab my lady by the ass, the nonviolence shit is out the window. I’m as nonviolent as my environment will allow me to be.

When the protests jumped off in spring and things got hot in Atlanta, you were one of the people who spoke at Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s press conference asking people to go home. People really latched onto it when you called the city Wakanda. Do you wish you worded that differently?
No. I said what the fuck I said. When you think of Wakanda and what that meant, albeit fictional, where do you have [that] aside from Atlanta?

Renaissance-era Harlem.
All right, well you get your time machine, you go on and enjoy it. I was trying to use word association and references so people could see how illustrious and good the best part of the city is for us, our culture, and our people. If we’re burning shit down, my point was, 20 minutes away, we have the largest monument for white supremacy in Stone Mountain. Twenty minutes north we have Marietta Square where Black people were hanged. It’s still functioning to this day. So if you in the mood to get to burning down some shit and tearing shit up, why start here, where we got it together? Go on back to the places where the action happened.

Was it tricky telling people to cool off as someone who has made songs people surely fought in the club to?
No, it’s evolution. Life is about change. Life is a series of adjustments. No one stays the same. If you think I’m some kind of monolithic creature that only has one thing to offer the Earth, then that’s your fault. I am a diverse individual in all facets. If your mind doesn’t expand to the point where you can see me operating in all these capacities, that’s not my issue.

Talk about embracing that variety into your music. You started off making a lot of street stuff and later you pivoted and incorporated politics
That’s not true. That’s how I know you from New York. You didn’t even take the time to listen.

I’ve heard every album you ever put out.
Every album? You said I started out making street stuff —

You did! You didn’t only make street stuff, but
I don’t have just one thing to offer as a artist or as a individual. I don’t have to fit into the box of being the token street nigga from Atlanta. I can be way more than that. I don’t got to be the super-woke nigga of the generation. I can be everything. I could be all this shit at one time. You know why? Because I’m dope.

Do you feel like with Us or Them that you maybe turned the
Us or Else. See what I’m saying? Typical New York shit. Us or Else.

Hold on, because technically I’m from the South. I’m from Texas. My family is from the South.
Well, you got New York habits.

This is true.
For you to be from Texas and talk about how goddamn you just got turned on to UGK in your 30s is blasphemy.

I can’t help what radio didn’t play where I grew up.
You shouldn’t even mention Texas. Man, have you even heard Too Hard to Swallow?

I’ve heard every UGK album.
You heard Super Tight?

Yes. And most of the solo Bun B stuff, which is pretty good, a lot of it.
Did you get into the DJ Screw era?

How far, Z-Ro?

I know Z-Ro. I’ve listened to plenty of Screw tapes.
What about Pat?

Which Pat? There’s several Pats. Big Pat? Project Pat?
He from Memphis. Man, never mind, man. Let’s just talk about something else.

How is quarantine?
Great. I actually enjoy the quarantine shelter and places, period. I love that shit. Got a chance to spend time with my family, with my children. I wasn’t rushing off to this plane and that plane, going this place and that place. Got to read my daughter bedtime stories, tuck her in, make breakfast when she wake up. That shit to me was phenomenal. I’ve been to prison so I wasn’t tripping. Now … how can I say this? Being in media, as you are as well, has allowed me to come and go a lot more than others [because it’s considered] an essential business.

I never thought of it that way.
Oh absolutely. I needed to come back and forth to my studio every day to check on things and get around the city to make sure that all of my properties and investments were still standing. And there was no traffic. I could goddamn get up and down and back and forth. That’s what the quarantine showed me. It’s a bunch of motherfuckers just out here in the way. They’re clogging up the pipeline of coming and going. I had the whole fuckin’ city to myself it felt like, and I loved it.

If you could rewind time, would you skip that debate track with Kanye?
What do you mean, not do it? That track was a breath of fresh air musically, and I think that with all of the conspiracies, assumptions, and speculation that surround him and me, I don’t think nobody else could have had that conversation with him as eloquently as that record came out. I feel like it was just a perfect record, that only he and I could have done.

Do you feel like you got through to him at all?
When you’re talking to people, especially grown people who are headstrong, just stubborn motherfuckers, especially when you’re speaking in public, you’re not speaking to change their minds. You’re speaking to the motherfuckers watching. It’s somebody looking at Kanye, and they’re on the fence about whether or not this shit is acceptable or not. If nobody ever stands up and say, “Hey that’s some bullshit, bruh,” they are gonna fall over on his side of the fence. Somebody has to offer the alternative to that discussion. “Hey man, that’s some bullshit. That’s not what’s happening. This is what the real deal is. I’ll show you why.” So the person who was on the fence is like, “Okay, this makes more sense to me.” If I’m critical of someone publicly, I’m not necessarily talking to them, because I already know their mind’s made up. It’s a bunch of motherfuckers watching them who haven’t made up their minds. They’re trying to figure out who they’re supposed to be following. So I’m just trying to clear the air and let them know.

A few months back you were talking to Jeezy on your ExpediTIously podcast, and you mentioned the possibility of reconciling with Gucci Mane. Was there any progress, or is the ball in his court?
It wasn’t meant to make no progress. It was hypothetical, you dig? Who knows? I ain’t got no crystal ball. I’m going to keep doing the shit that I’ve been doing to get me where I’m at and hopefully everybody else will do the same. If our paths ever intersect, I’ll be keeping the Champagne cold.

Is it a trip doing all the interviewing instead of being interviewed?
It was at first. A lot of motherfuckers told me I won’t let people talk. “Man you keep cutting people off. You gotta let people talk.” I may have a bad habit of doing that, but I’ve been getting better as the time goes. Practice makes perfect.

Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
I’m gonna feel like a bad dad if I don’t say “Family Connect.” “Family Connect” and “Deyjah’s Conclusion.” It’s an exceptional moment. Deyjah don’t speak. Public speaking, putting herself in a position where she’s in the spotlight, she don’t ever do that shit. So to do this is a special occasion. Exceptional circumstances. Anybody who knows my family and who knows her is gonna be like, “How did he get her to do that?” One day I said, “Hey Deyjah, write me a poem.” She said, “I don’t really have nothing but I could.” [She wrote it in] half a day, probably.

More writers in the family?
Absolutely, but see the thing is she isn’t going to do this shit on the regular. We have to wait till she reaches a moment of clarity again and cares to share.

A lot of successful artists are like that. Pusha-T says he only writes when he feels like it.
He dope as a motherfucker. I do this shit every day. I get up, come to the studio, and go in. If a motherfucker play a beat that I like, I’m going in that motherfucker, not because I have an album to put out, just because. It’s in me, not on me.

Do you just have millions of songs we never heard? You only drop an album once every two years or so.

What happens to that stuff?
I think I would like to pass it down to the family, to the kids and the grandkids. That’s the best inheritance I can give a motherfucker.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

T.I. vs. the People