T.I., “U Know What It Is” (Originally Published March 2007)

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He professed it like prophecy five years ago. He lived it in 2006. T.I.’s on the tip-top of hip-hop. But Being King ain’t all rose petals and platinum.

Interviews Bonsu Thompson
Images Phil Knott

Robert Greene calls it the “strategy of the crown.” It’s when a proactive dreamer doesn’t settle for mere self-confidence. Instead, one almost hypnotizes oneself into self-conviction, eventually morphing into one’s ideal identity. The result: Onlookers see nothing but a king. “Always make a bold demand,” Greene wrote in The 48 Laws of Power. “Set your price high and do not waver.”

Five years ago, when drug dealer turned rapper Clifford Harris—Tip to his hometown Atlanta; T.I. to the rest of the world—declared himself “King of the South,” it sounded pretty precocious. In hindsight, it looks pretty prophetic. On the evening after Christmas, T.I.’s petite, 5’6” frame stands tall as the top-selling rap artist of 2006—his fourth album, King, having moved 1.7 million copies.

It began with last winter’s simultaneous introduction of an anthemic first single, “What You Know,” and T.I.’s acting debut in Chris Robinson’s coming-of-age drama ATL. The result was 523,000 in first-week sales in the spring. After the Crystal Waters–inspired “Why You Wanna” kept the summer two-steppin’, mainstream pop star Justin Timberlake requested a T.I. verse for a song he was working on. The resulting 16 bars helped “My Love” top the pop charts come fall and earned the Bankhead MC one of four Grammy nominations.

This year, T.I. hopes to build his label, Grand Hustle, into an industry powerhouse. With backing from Atlantic Records, he and his longtime partner Jason Geter are aiming to push their stable of artists—DJ Drama, Young Dro, Big Kuntry—to their own platinum plaques. What’s more, T.I. is sponsoring the next phase of Southern vet B.G.’s career.

It all sounds grand, to be sure. But while giving XXL a tour of the castle he’s having built just above Georgia’s Lake Spivey, on break from recording his next album, T.I. vs. T.I.P., the 26-year-old millionaire is in a mood far from celebratory. The most rewarding year of his career was marred by the May ’06 death of his friend and personal assistant Philant Johnson during a postperformance highway shoot-out in Cincinnati. Like Shakespeare said, heavy is the head…

With all the success you had in 2006, the year had a real dark side—you lost your friend Phil to a senseless killing…
I think that’s the biggest loss that I’ve taken in my life. I mean, we’ve had partners that died before in shoot-outs, but we was in that life, and it was already understood when you go do certain things, one of us might not make it. But when you feel like you’re out of that lifestyle and it go down, that’s when I consider it more of a loss… The good stopped outweighing the bad for a minute… If it was up to me, I wouldn’t do this shit no more. I love the fans. I love the game. But when you done got so good at something that it’ll make a muthafucka hate you to the point where they’ll make you kill them or they’ll try and kill you, at that point… I can get money a lot of other ways.

How are you able to focus on T.I. vs. T.I.P.?
Basically, half of me wanted to quit the game, half of me wanted to go even harder and be more successful. It’s still a piece of me that says, “Fuck this shit. I’ll risk it all for what I believe
in.” So it takes a lot to not react on that impulse. I try and just isolate that shit to the studio. I have rage issues, and that shit just got even worse since Phil died. All that disrespect, hatin’ and sideways bullshit that come with this business, that people try to ignore so they don’t jeopardize their career, I react to it differently. Just me trying to get a handle on that is quite interesting. It makes for some good music.

Pharrell Williams once called you the “Jay-Z of the South.” And there are a lot of similarities, careerwise. Do you see yourself one day running, say, Warner Music Group?
Definitely, man. That’s why I’m trying to break artists. You can’t really be taken seriously as an executive until you introduce an artist that surpasses your level of success. Jay-Z has always been Jay-Z, but not until he dropped the artist that blew past him, Kanye, was he really considered a label owner amongst the label owners. Every rapper got a label, so I’m trying to go from a rapper with a label to a label owner. I need Big Kuntry, Young Dro, even DJ Drama—whoever, man. Come on in and sit me down [with the label owners]. I invite you.

A big part of your success—and you say it all the time—is your manager and partner, Jason Geter. Is he’s like your Dame Dash?
Nah, I mean, it’s a role reversal, though. He has Jay’s demeanor, and I got Dame’s demeanor. Whereas I’m the artist and I play that role and he has the executive hat on, you know, so it’s a proper role association. Everybody playing they part. He not trying to—like, if I buy a car, he don’t feel like he gotta go and buy a better car.

How do you keep Grand Hustle from ending up like a Roc-A-Fella Records?
I mean, dawg, Roc-A-Fella ain’t end up bad. Everybody cashed out quite nicely, I think.

But on the friendship level.
Yeah, we got a friendship. I can’t speak on [the Roc-A-Fella] situation. There’s a lot of shit about that shit that I don’t even know about, so I shouldn’t even speak on it. But me and Jay [Geter] never had no problems, nothing we couldn’t talk about. Ain’t no slime shit about no money. Me and Jay deal on a handshake. Been dealing on a handshake for years… Jay know me, and I know him. Like, I can call Jay, mad as a muthafucka, about to do some dumb shit. “Man, these muthafuckas!” [And he’ll be like,] “Yo, Tip, why you gonna go and do that? That shit’s gonna cost so much money and lawyer fees. Fuck around and have to sit in jail for a couple months and get a bond. Miss about a mil and a half in show money. Shit don’t make no sense, dawg.” Just to hear that, that clear thinking without all that opinion.

Explain the B.G. situation. He’s down with Grand Hustle, but he’s not actually signed to the label?
Yeah. I did the deal over at Atlantic. B.G. got his own company, his own situation, his own label deal with Atlantic. I just did the deal and said, “Hey, we need to sign B.G.”

So he’s Chopper City/Atlantic?
Yeah, it’s Chopper City/Atlantic as of right now. You know, he’s still Grand Hustle family, though. I’m executive producing the album. It don’t matter what you put on paper, ya dig? He working in my house, you know what I’m saying? He one of us. He ride with us on the road. Every opportunity that’s available for me and my artists is available for him. I just taken a liking to him. He’s real genuine, and that’s from day one. We’ve been kickin’ it for a minute. You can’t fake it so long. You be around a person four, five years, man, you know they can’t fake it. ’Cause fuck, nigga, it’ll show.