Images by F. Scott Schafer
T.I. spent much of the last year counting calendar days in a low-security federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas, in a room with five other inmates. The 185-man dormitory was spartan in comparison to his mansion overlooking Georgia’s Lake Spivey, but it wasn’t without some comforts. Behind bars, he was able to coach sports, play handball and tinker around with musical instruments. Tip says he never felt any sense of danger, but admits to having a few disagreements over “principle.”
The sequence of events that ended with T.I.’s incarceration began on May 3, 2006, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Following a concert, his entourage was involved in an altercation with locals at an after-party. As a van carrying T.I. and his crew cruised along Interstate 75, a green Jeep Cherokee drew alongside and riddled their vehicle with bullets. When they pulled over, Tip’s childhood friend Philant Johnson was lifeless, an entry wound in his left temple. “I felt all those rounds were fired for me,” T.I. later told the courtroom during the November 2008 trial of Hosea Thomas, the man sentenced to 66 years in prison for pulling the trigger.
A few weeks after the bloodshed in Cincinnati, T.I. booked a New York City recording studio for himself and Grand Hustle artists Young Dro and Alfamega. If his anguish appeared under control on the surface, his state of mind was revealed in the booth. Over a jarring, violent beat, he snarled threats and promised vengeance upon enemies. Sadly, any therapeutic benefits were negated by interruptions caused by an inept engineer. At first, T.I. was friendly, offering encouragement, weed and beer. But when technical difficulties dragged on for hours, his mood darkened.
After the engineer made another mistake, an angry Tip threatened him from the vocal booth. “I ain’t going back to jail for you,” the rapper said. “Don’t make me fuck you up.” A few minutes later, after another trip up by the engineer, T.I. rushed from the booth like a whirlwind in a white V-neck, yanked the man from his seat and dragged him out into the adjoining hallway. Tip could be seen barking into the engineer’s face through an interior studio window. The engineer went ashen.
T.I. remembers the incident as part of a tumultuous time. “I just had a lot of mixed emotions, a lot of unchanneled aggression that I had not yet found ways to deal with properly,” he says. “It started coming out at different points and periods of time, minor situations. I just spazzed out and spiraled out of control, little by little.” T.I. twisted into the abyss, and his landing at rock bottom was not a soft one. —Ben Detrick
To read the rest of this cover story, be sure to pick up the July/August issue, which is on stands now.