T.I., “U Know What It Is” (Originally Published March 2007)
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.
I MADE IT
Throughout his 14-Year career, B.G. has seen everything the rap game has to offer. But back in the majors after four years indie, he’s feeling like a rap rookie again.
For a 26-year-old, B.G. has lived a whole lot of life. By the age of 18, he’d dropped four albums on Cash Money Records. By 19, he’d coined a term, “bling-bling,” that would be inscribed in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. But when the money started getting funny and the Louisiana label’s success headed south, B.G. stepped to the left. Signing with New York independent label Koch Records, he sold over 250,000 copies of his 2003 album Livin’ Legend. Two years later, he sold 175,000 of The Heart of Tha Streetz.
In 2007, he’s a rapper reborn. Four years free of heroin, with an Atlantic Records deal for his Chopper City imprint, he has his first majorlabel album in seven years on the horizon. While the new project is being executive produced by his Atlantic roster mate, T.I., B.G. recently had a conversation with estranged Cash Money boss Baby. It’s a new day, all right.
You really feel like a new artist right now?
Man, I’m feeling so good about everything that’s going on with my career. My new album is gonna be called Back to the Future. I feel like I’ve been here before. I’m here with a new breath of life, a new situation, all positive people around me. It’s a real good feeling.
How’d T.I. come to executive produce your next album?
Something had gotten leaked on 106 & Park saying that I had gotten signed to G-Unit South. Tip called me to congratulate me, and I’m like, “I appreciate it, nigga, but it ain’t official yet.” And he like, “It’s not? Maaan, what it’s gon’ take to get you over here with me? You need to be at Atlantic.” I’m like, “Yeah, we already went up there, but I don’t know what’s going on...” He’s like, “Man, lemme make a phone call.” He called me back in a couple days, and Craig Kallman flew me to New York. T.I. opened Craig’s ear to my vision, ’cause Tip got the same vision.
You shocked a lot of people in December 2006 by calling a New Orleans radio station to send your condolences to Baby after he lost his sister Tamara to a car accident.
I did what I felt was a real nigga’s responsibility. Yeah, we got our problems, but I knew his sister personally. ’Mara and I grew up together. I just pushed the bullshit to the side, because you never realize how much you care about somebody ’til they gone. If it woulda been the shoe’s on the other foot, I would’ve expected the same out of him.
Did y’all get to speak behind the scenes?
Yeah. He respected what I did, so he called the radio station and said, “I really need to talk to him.” He left the number for me, and I called him. We talked for like an hour. He poured his heart out. I poured my heart out. He told me some things I probably needed to hear. I told him some things he probably needed to hear. I told him how I felt about the whole situation. He told me this and that. I told him, “Man, you know what? We gon’ sweep it under the bridge.” It is what it is.
He rolls with the top-selling artist in the game. He has the most sought-after mixtape franchise in hip-hop. He runs rap’s no. 1 DJ crew. How can DJ Drama’s competition keep up?
Branding is the key to big business. Since Y2K, no other DJ has done a better job of searing his signature into hip-hop’s hind flanks than T.I.’s inhouse, in-concert wax spinner, the leader of DJ supercrew the Aphilliates, DJ Drama.
After fueling the rise of Southern hip-hop over the past few years with his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series (which has yielded such classic street albums as T.I.’s Down With the King, Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die and Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2), the West Philadelphia–bred, Atlanta-based 27-year-old upgraded in ’06 with a new Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records deal for his official debut, Gangsta Grillz: The Album. You’ve copped the product, now it’s time to get more familiar with the disc jock who’s made himself more relevant than most of today’s MCs. As he would advise, pay attention.
What separates you from all the other DJs that are out now?
My track record. I don’t get caught up in what I did yesterday. I could easily sit here and talk about my Down With the King CD and Trap or Die or Dedication 2 or signing the deal, but that was yesterday. I’m a student of the game, so I know how fast the game moves, which keeps me hungry and humble.
How did you wind up landing your deal through Grand Hustle?
I knew for a while that if I kept the brand of Gangsta Grillz going, I’d get a deal. I had a couple different offers, but me being [on the road] with Tip, I had already been in the system. I liked the movement, so I figured it’d be good to keep it in the family. We sat down with Kevin Liles, and I remembered the old DJ Clue situation with Roc-A-Fella. Being able to work with people in that circle that already did the DJ albums when they were successful was how I made the decision to come to Atlantic.
The Gangsta Grillz mixtape series is in such industry demand. How do you decide which artists get a tape?
The music, the movement—timing is important to me. I turn a lot of projects away, and I pick the right ones. I treat it just like the cover of XXL. You’re going to put who’s deserving on it. I never want it to become, “Gangsta Grillz? That was the shit yesterday.” So I keep it very fresh and very tight, to not be pimped by the industry. I know everybody is in their boardrooms like, “Aight, we gotta get a Gangsta Grillz tape.” But them niggas don’t really give a fuck. They just wanna roll with what’s hot.