T.I., Going Through Changes [Cover Story Excerpt]

Images by F. Scott Schafer

Echo Recording Studios is not an easy place to find. The unmarked building is lodged in a cluster of industrial structures on a ragged stretch of Southwest Atlanta lined with vacant houses, hair salons and meandering junkies. Before entering, guests wait in front of a surveillance camera, until a chain-link fence wound with razor wire slides open. The yellow Ferrari, silver Porsche and stretch limousine parked in the protected courtyard are early clues that this is not an ordinary warehouse. The entrance to the actual studio is via another secure doorway, this one protected by a large cage of thick metal bars. And deep within this prisonlike tangle of steel and wire is Clifford “T.I.” Harris, a free man.

Seated on a swivel chair, beneath a collection of closed-circuit monitors, on a warm evening, T.I. is under observation too. The small mixing room is packed with a camera crew, a VJ with wholesome R&B-singer looks, an engineer and assorted label personnel. Dressed casually but crisply—in dark denim jeans, an army-style button-up, a Red Sox fitted and Air Jordan sneakers—the 29-year-old rapper is illuminated by a halo of camera lights that glint off the chunky watch wrapped around his wrist. With recently recorded songs blaring from the speakers, T.I. mouths the lyrics, his fingers dancing in midair, his wrist flicking to punctuate snare hits. There’s a Jersey Shore–bound anthem plucked from the same peapod as 2008’s Rihanna-led “Live Your Life” single (complete with boisterous “ayes!” and all). There’s a poppy love song that the VJ breathlessly proclaims to be his favorite. And then there’s another track, a mean one, that T.I. penned while incarcerated in federal prison last year. Here, he growls about grabbing a knife to “leave a nigga drippin’ like a sippy cup.” The smile plastered on the VJ’s face turns waxen. “That one’s more aggressive,” T.I. says of the song. “Prison kind of shook my mind up a bit. It woke something up in my mind that was gone.”

After completing the last three months of his yearlong jail sentence at an Atlanta halfway house—a punishment stemming from federal weapons charges—T.I. has come home. Things are different, and not just because he no longer shares a room with five cell mates. The terrain upon which he built his empire—six albums, a closet stuffed with RIAA-certified gold and platinum plaques, his Grand Hustle Records label, big endorsement deals, millions of dollars in the bank—has shifted. T.I.’s vacated position as ATL’s most-celebrated dope boy is crowded with candidates like Gucci Mane, Jeezy, hell, even Waka Flocka Flame. The Billboard pop charts T.I. dominated with smash singles from his last album, 2008’s double-platinum Paper Trail, have become a playpen for babies such as Drake and B.o.B (an artist on T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records no less). Still, with his seventh album, King Uncaged, due late this summer, Tip’s not ready to cede his crown. “The term ‘King of the South’ did not exist before me,” says T.I. between sips from a Heineken bottle. “The term cannot be passed along unless I choose to pass it along.”

With a small frame, a head slightly too large for his body, and intense features, T.I. doesn’t look like a grizzled rap veteran who’s spent the last decade battling for primacy beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. But he has aged. While the youthful version of T.I. charged out of Cobb County jail in 2004 with sneering defiance, after serving time for violating probation, the contemporary model is far more subdued. To be sure, a mature, civic-minded T.I. can still sell records. Paper Trail, his sixth effort that included several singles with inspirational and reflective themes, was responsible for his most-notable moments of commercial success to date. But the LP was also cleansed of the gunplay, drug dealing and bristling menace that characterized so much of his earlier music. The duality expressed on T.I.’s 2007 split-personality album, T.I. Vs T.I.P., seemed questionable to some critics then, but he contains multitudes. There’s the public facade (entertainer, executive, faithful fiancé on the straight and narrow), and then there’s the other T.I. (a reckless thug who bought a stack of machine guns on the day of the 2007 BET Hip-Hop Awards). Only he knows where one ends and the other begins—or if they both still exist.

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  • Sha

    With a little hustle T.I. can gain back the throne. But let’s be honest…. It’s going to be hard as hell…

    For one…. Many emcees fail to realize the importance of TIME.

    The woman that is HIP-HOP can be fickle. She loves you one minute. She hates you the other minute. And that bitch never stops. Not for you… Not for anyone. She is always innovating (which is good), but she can go to some ignorant shit too. Sometimes her intelligence can be heavily disputed. But her ability to surprise is what keeps every emcee on her bra-strap.

    When an emcee goes to prison, he leaves everything behind. He leaves the smoothly-running machine that is his business. Other niggas infiltrate and while you are not there to protect your weaknesses from being exploited, in prison… you can’t stop it. Niggas figure out what you did. And then they transform it and do it better than you did.

    The public gets time to get “Accustomed” to your absence from the game. They hunger for more. Sure…True fans will stay. But not the “Whatever’s hot” consumer. Their dollars will be on to the next product. Crack 101 baby.

    And God forbid, you went away for some really cruddy shit (T.I.’s crime wasn’t too bad). But then the internet, tabloids, and conservative America will attack from all angles. Pretty soon, you’re “Defending” instead of being on the offensive. And you know what that means? No endorsements… Less shine…. You’re playing catch-up. Sure…. You can have a decent career. But as far as being on top? Dead that. Forever.

    It is high time for emcees to learn. To a certain degree (and probably the most important degree) hip-hop has ceased to be just an art-form. IT IS A FULL FLEDGED BUSINESS. These emcees need to realize… They aren’t “JOEY THE EMCEES” anymore. They are a business. A corporation. And they need to realize that they will rise and fall by the rules of the corporation. Not by what some nigga in the street believes. Hip-Hop and business is an unhappy marriage now. Get used to it.

    T.I. can get back on top. But trust me…. He’s going to sweat like hell for that crown again. He may be one of the few to wear it again (if he plays his cards right). But the odds are against him.

    • http://xxlmag Lil Flip


      • Anonymous


      • geneva yearby a/k/a pimp squad chic

        learn how to spell illiterate ass bitch and let the kings name taste like shit in your mouth pussy nigga.

    • geneva yearby a/k/a pimp squad chic

      i have to say to that is motivation get on your job niggas haters get on your job.you couldn’t fuck wit him wit a brazil hoe nigga.get money or get lost or just be easy.

  • http://www.tiringtone.com T.I. Ringtone

    Can`t agree with you more. When T.I. was hot everybody wanted a piece of him. Now he will probably need to put on every hot artists on his next albums to kinda get back on top!

    • geneva yearby a/k/a pimp squad chic

      is that what you thought do your research bitch the king is back.

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  • Da Illest

    Im not a big fan of southern Hip-Hop but I respect TI lyrically so he could say he is the best down there. He doesnt kiss men in the lips like Wayne, he can outrap Gucci Man, Wacka Flocka & Jeezy. The only thing is that he cannot talk about street stuff no more since he only did 3 months for a 10-15 year charge…I wonder what he had to do to deserve that little time.

  • smh

    don’t worry we can tell you’re not a fan, especially since you only know of 4 guys from ATL and 1 dude from New Orleans, shit if thats all I knew I would think TI was some lyrical genius too..

    T-rock>TI any fucking day of the year!


    “I WONDER WHAT HE HAD TO DO TO DESERVE THAT LITTLE TIME”- I definitly feel you homie but the thing that strikes me is he didnt deserve that little itty bitty time the nigga should of gotten what he deserved and thats 30 plus years that was on his head. If that was you or me shit we’d be in that bitch for life plus another mans life….and it’s sad because this is our “JUSTICE SYSTEM???”

    What because he is an “entertainer” means he can sign a deal and get a year really only doing 8-10 months in minimum security prison. Oh but all of a sudden you want to act like your a changed man and go to schools and youth centers and talk to kids. trust me fam that shit is not gonna work don’t get me wrong I dont wanna sound like a hater because I’m not.

    It just really puzzles me that all you ppl don’t wanna believe the man finally gave in and signed the oath look at where his career has been these past 5 years you don’t think there gonna approach him anytime soon?? Of course they are they see him reaching to a broad GLOBAL audience not to mention the kind of tax bracket the man is in you they gonna sucker his ass in and this was the final step. Oh and for the record I don’t appreciate that lil jab at Tupac saying “I want to surpass All Eyes On Me”……..

    Nigga you never will, continue being a sucka and a pimp because thats all your doing to our communities. People when will you wake up and see the FRAUDS in this music industry!!!…….To my homeboyz: KEEP YOUR HEAD UP AND CONTINUE FIGHTING FOR THIS REAL SHIT!!!

    • matty21

      yo u fools are stupidd! see about da situation man or dont speak on it…”What because he is an “entertainer” means he can sign a deal and get a year really only doing 8-10 months in minimum security prison. Oh but all of a sudden you want to act like your a changed man and go to schools and youth centers and talk to kids.”

      naa not just cuz hes an entertainer, not cuz he “STARTED” going n talking to kids @ schools n youth centers… becuase he was going and talking @ schools n youth centers to kids FOR YEARS BEFORE THE WHOLE GUN SITUATION HAPPENED! dats FACT

      t.i. was trying to do good n have an impact FROM JUMP STREET, since he got in da game! if u dont believe it, go check man… i dont wanna think ya’ll r hopeless man, but get da shit right… t.i. aint like most da other rappers in da game, hes be tellin it like it is from day 1 n trying to help others, especially da youth on da same path…listen to da music BEFORE da gun situation (‘BE BETTER DEN ME!’) n look @ his ACTIONS above all


      n of course he wants to surpass ‘all eyes on me’… what u want? him to wanna do worse than ‘all eyez on me’ ? lol cmon stupid shit

      n if you’re fighting for t.i. n others like him, YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR DAT REAL SHIT BOY..

      • matty21

        pac laid da tracks for others, as others before pac did for him… n all da real ones are aware of that n show homage to that…pac paid homage to da 1s before him, as da real 1s of today do to pac everyday…

        t.i. in particular has already paid homage to pac many times…n he pays homage EVERYDAY! by living n doing his thing, by studying n learning from pac, his triumphs n mistakes, pac lives on thru t.i. n others everyday 4real… n dats da ULTIMATE HOMAGE, carrying dat name on 4ever THROUGH ACTION n showing it to others, n learning from their life…

        pac wanted dat shit n it was da biggest reason y he did what he did, to help others n LAY TRACKS! dat shit lives FOREVER, n its already proven in pacs case, pacs legacy is alive n well to this day in others

        so quit with da bullshit, all da pissed off people referencing pac, n how their “offended” by what t.i. is doing and saying… its what pac wanted out of his life… i saw 1 dude say “fuck t.i.!” cuz t.i. said “jail made me worse” like pac… most people do say that after jail, cuz its fckin true, da enviroment n shit can make u worse, not just cuz pac said it, but cuz its true

        pac had a HUGE influence on da game, n forever will man… dats how it goes

        quit with da BS

  • dnt-no-nudda

    Dang u do sound like a hater and thats what u is haha Come on now the man is more honest n real than rick ross yet he still gets forgiven for being fake cause he makes gud music well t.i.p makes better music so he will be fine

  • gift

    man niggas on this site is talkin madness. TI damn sure is one of the best spitters in the south and the game right now. Period. When this nigga put out trap music, and urban legend, and I’m serious, niggas was all on his dick, but when a nigga has a fuckin moment of clarity, and tries to go another way, he’s a snitch, or he ain’t hood no more. Nigga If anyone on this comment section had TI’s money, they would probably get off just as easy with the same type of situation. Half the niggas on these comment sections still hang with snitches or is a snitch theyself, then get on a website and try to kick gangsta shit. SMH

    • matty21

      i know, fuck what these fools say…. i guess its if they didnt get the point by now, and dont understand the message and what it stands for by now, then they aint meant to and never will… ‘T.I. one of the best spitters in da south and in the game right now, T.I. one of the best spitters ever, and at spittin that real, rise up out da struggle shit…. spit da REALEST shit like no1 does

  • Da Illest

    Gift – even people who are in the crime business can tell that he had a deal with the police to reduce his sentence. Ask any one who is the drug business and explain to them the time served by T.I. and what do you think they will tell you…dont be so naive to believe everything these STREET POETS are telling you man. T.I. is a gifted rapper but Big Meech, The Real Rick Ross, Pablo Escobar he is not..no matter how many times he wants to rhyme about dealing cocaine.

    • matty21

      fuck no, he aint no Big Meech, *REAL* Rick Ross, or Pablo Escobar, r u kiddin me? lol, he never claimed that and no one thinks that (no1 who thinks rationally)…he’s da dope boy from da street, n he may have rapped about how big he got, but he was the street man… in da hood with the nix n dimes… big meech, ricky, pablo, fuck no!… but HYPOTHETICALLY SPEAKING, if da king died right now, he would be on those dudes levels as a rapper real talk… if tip died(god forbid) right now, with out any other work, he would go down as one of da G.O.A.T. guarantee that….n thats right now, no future work, only the amount of shit hes done to date…n dis aint to mention whats to come in da future… t.i. is a rapper/entertainer/actor not no meech, ricky, or pablo, read about dem dudes, 1 of a kinds!

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  • gift

    @ da illest

    I feel you on certain points. Yeah his time is fishy just on the outside looking in, but you also gotta realize the types of individuals that spoke on TI’s behalf during his trial, the hrs of community service that he completed, the fact that he has millions to beef up his legal team. He has various luxuries that the average individual doesn’t have. Also, I know that TI and like 98.9 percent of the niggas on record talkin street shit, ain’t really bout that shit. I got people who in the pen doin they time. 15yrs, 20 yrs, these niggas kids is gonna be grown when they get out. I ain’t blind to game, but records regarding criminal activity cannot be keep private from public record. Maybe if he was part of the CIA or some shit, but he is not that either. I thinks it’s more to the story, but I just don’t believe he snitchin, at least until their are documents to prove it.

  • Anonymous

    the king of the south will always be dj screw fuck T.I and anybody who hatin!!

  • Badd Kidd

    Dj Screw will always be tha king of the south Fuck T.I and anybody hatin!!

  • http://xxl Sick K

    still da dopest, fuck that i will get a cappy of the mag end september,but some dope shit are wort waitin

  • racheal

    good luck ti

  • Yung Narc

    The setup sounds dope…like recording in prison…with your limmo in the yard…cameras in your face…NICE! Lil Wayne should do that…record in prison…i mean…yeah

  • El Q

    I can imagine TI’s joint is tight..so diffrent 4rm other rappers who gots 12storey recording studios – he’s his own in the dirty backyards of ATL of which I think is what keeps him inspired.

    GrandHustle 4 life!!