With all the drama behind him, T.I. is focused on building his empire.
Words Neil Martinez-Belkin
Images Jonathan Mannion

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of XXL Magazine. This is part three of the three-part story with Lil Wayne, T.I. and 2 Chainz.

It’s a hot Manhattan day in May, and hip-hop veteran T.I. is at Highline Stages studio in the city’s trendy Meatpacking District. As the Atlanta MC changes outfits for the cover shoot of this magazine, G.D.O.D., the first collective offering from his Hustle Gang crew, booms from the studio’s speakers. The mixtape, released just hours earlier, is the first official group project from Grand Hustle Records, the label T.I founded in 2003.

The murder of his best friend Philant Johnson in 2006 and back-to-back stints in prison (2009 and 2010) have helped stunt the growth of Grand Hustle. More recently though, the success of Tip’s VH1 family-orientated reality show, T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, and his well-received return to music with 2012’s Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head, it appears T.I.’s days of such trouble might actually be behind him. Now, he’s ready to focus on some long-awaited goals.

The matter at hand of late is finding a home for T.I.’s next album and the rest of Grand Hustle, as his 10-year deal with Atlantic Records—as a solo artist and for his Grand Hustle imprint—recently expired at the top of the year. In January it was reported that Interscope Records, Roc Nation and Universal Records were among those making bids for hip-hop’s most sought after free agent, who TMZ reported was up for grabs at a mere asking price of $75 million. It’s a long way from the after-hours joints and gambling houses in Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood that first played T.I.’s trap-inspired music during his teenage years nearly 15 years ago. It’s only a matter of time before his new deal gets announced, but today, the now 32-year-old seems most energized by his new-found TV fame, helping his Grand Hustle artists succeed and getting back on the road as part of the 2013 America’s Most Wanted Musical Festival.

XXL caught up with the trap-star-turned-reality-star to talk a little past, present and future.

XXL: When you came out, New York City was very much the epicenter of hip-hop. Yourself, Young Jeezy and a handful of other rappers changed that. When you see the newer Atlanta artists like 2 Chainz and Future and Trinidad Jame$ come in and continue what you guys started, do you feel a sense of ownership in that?
I’m happy to be on a winning team. My individual success, that lasts for a short period of time. The success of being a part of the South, of Atlanta, which is now the hot bed of music, that’s what’s gonna last the longest. The fact that I contributed to planting our flag and moving music to my city, that’s what I’m most proud of.

You started Grand Hustle about 10 years ago, but it seems like the stable is just now taking full form, no?
I’m just so happy these guys are getting their shot. They stood by me and waited. They were loyal. For the longest time, we sat back and watched Young Money. We watched [Maybach Music Group]. We watched this one and that one, and I knew we had the same amount of talent, if not more. I was dealing with cases at the time, so when they would come to me, I just had to tell them the time would come. So I’m so happy to give these guys an opportunity to showcase their talents now.

You’ve always delivered albums on a consistent basis, even when you had to go to prison. Have you considered shifting gears career wise and putting the focus on being a label head?
I would love to do that. I wouldn’t mind going somewhere and taking a president position and signing acts and taking the attention off of me and taking what I’ve learned in my career and applying that to another person’s. Because I ain’t going to face the same adversities I’ve faced again. I’m not going to have another friend die in my arms. I’m not getting caught with no more guns and silencers. All these things I’ve gone through, I have these lessons and the only way to use these lessons is to give it to someone else and keep them from having to go through that. Right now though, I’m still the earner of this roster, so as of right now that’s what it’s gonna be. I got an album right now ready to go: Trouble Man: He Who Wears The Crown.

On that note, you’re kind of in the middle of a major label bidding war, right?
[Laughs] Listen, a message to the labels: Don’t look at this deal like you’re signing an artist. You need to look at like you’re acquiring a multimedia company, because I have six, seven, eight areas of business that are each generating at least one or two million dollars a year. So, if you were going to buy six McDonalds and each were generating one or two million dollars a year, you would not be trying to down talk Ronald for offering you an opportunity to participate in his franchise. I’m offering them an opportunity to participate in my franchise. You don’t want it? Good. Keep selling 150,000 units.

With your reality show and even your books, there’s been a real shift in your image. Do you think you’ve changed?
I do, but a lot people want to take that change and connect it to entertainment. “Oh he got all this money and changed, or “He got in trouble so he changed.” When I got introduced to the game, I was 19. Right now I’m 32. You could take anybody man, police, fireman, journalist, radio personality, actor, producer, from 19-32, he’s gonna change. But my change is publicized. So instead of connecting it to a natural, organic growth, they want to connect it to prison or something else.

Was Atlantic Records happy about the new family-friendly T.I.?
Nah, they hated it. Labels love hardcore T.I. That keeps the cash register ringing. They don’t want me to go to prison and caught though. They want me to be the Teflon Don, and I can’t blame them. That shit’s sexy. But I’m older, man. I’m wiser, I’m calmer… I’m better, stronger. I’m ready for whatever tomorrow got coming.

Your debut album, I’m Serious, came out 12 years ago. Did you ever think this is where you’d be in 2013?
Hell nah. I thought I’d be in prison or dead or back selling crack. I came so close to getting back in the game after my first album didn’t do what it was supposed to do. I still had people to feed. I wasn’t front lines like I was at one time, but I definitely…I’m not going to talk anymore about that.

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