Photos: Lester Cohen/John Shearer/Scott Gries/Getty Images
Clifford “T.I.” Harris always had a crown hovering above his head, even before he rocked it with a tilt. Like his extensive vocabulary, the Atlanta rapper/thespian/entrepreneur is continuously growing, expanding, and coming up with new ways in which to make his mark on the world. Today he turns 40, and he’s set to build a grown-man blueprint for his younger peers to follow — one he’s been crafting since 2001, when he dropped his first studio album, I’m Serious.
As music editor at The Source at the time, I received an advance copy (a relic from a bygone era) that nearly knocked me off my seat when I heard it. The sharp-tongued rapper from Atlanta was self-assured, lyrical, and unapologetically Southern. I’m Serious quickly became one of those albums I played on repeat, filling the halls of the magazine’s office with this young dude’s cocky proclamations: “To play me/Baby, hey he/Gon’ need a track from God featuring Jesus and Jay-Z.”
Since then, I’ve interviewed T.I. several times. In 2008, he was one of my early guests on The Parker Report, a TV show I hosted on MTV Jams. He joked about his gun charges and the need for us all to learn from his mistakes. But it was a moment in which he began to view himself as an example — a shift stemming from the realization that all eyes were indeed on him. He went from “Rubber Band Man,” an unabashed ode to street hustle in 2003, to a reality show in 2011 that cast him as a modern-day Cliff Huxtable (T.I. & Tiny: Family Hustle). Most recently, he’s been busy writing screenplays and mentoring aspiring rappers on the Netflix hip-hop competition show Rhythm + Flow.
“Everybody takes risks, like running the speed limit, smoking a joint, you know what I’m saying? But I would take real, life-threatening, life-altering risks. It was because I grew up around such an extensive threat level.”
T.I. is most passionate these days when lending his voice to issues surrounding Black lives and racial justice. He recently penned an open letter to Lloyd’s of London, insisting that the U.K. insurance giant pay reparations to Black Americans for the company’s role in the slave trade. He’s been outspoken about American politics and has expressed outrage over President Trump’s leadership and disappointment over Kanye West’s alignment with the president (more on that later).
None of that is to say he’s relinquished his music platform, as evidenced by his latest single, the Young Thug-assisted “Ring.” A new album called The Libra (an acronym for The Legend Is Back Running Atlanta) is on deck, and if you had any doubts about his commitment to staying on the top of his game, just remember the name of that debut album.
LEVEL: I see you’re on your way to the gym. When did that become a regular routine?
T.I.: The last couple of years. Kevin Hart is the one who got me back into it. He bet me 50K that I wouldn’t get a six pack in 90 days.
So you got a six pack and bragging rights out of the deal. Did he pay up?
Yeah, of course he did. Not that he had to, but I appreciate that he did. I’m gonna have to give him a chance to get his money back one day.
You’re the latest rapper of note to hit 40. When you made “Rubber Band Man,” you were barely 20 years old. Did that kid see himself here now?
There was a time in my life I didn’t think I’d make it to 21. Life has shown me that a lot of times we don’t necessarily have all the insight that we think we do in the moment that we think we have. Once I made it to 21, 22, 23, and I could witness my dreams coming true, I started to plan for the days when I would make 40-plus.
Your astrological sign is Libra, which is also the name of your upcoming album. Does that mean anything to you?
It means balance or unbalance, depending on the circumstance. Some things I’m very levelheaded about, some things I’m erratic about.
I interviewed you many years ago, just before you were about to go and do a bid. And you had recently talked a guy down from a ledge who was threatening to end it all. Have you heard from that dude since?
Yeah man, I’ve seen him. He was doing some executive assistant work at one time. And I believe he was getting into some form of media. I don’t recall if it was a website or radio station. But he was doing very well.
At that time, you also went through a drug addiction program. How has that benefited you over the years?
That kind of therapy helped me evaluate my decision-making. Back then, I was off-kilter when it came to assessing threats and danger. I mean, everybody takes risks, like running the speed limit, smoking a joint, you know what I’m saying? But I would take real, life-threatening, life-altering risks. It was because I grew up around such an extensive threat level. I didn’t equate danger and tragedy the way I should have.
“I do believe that in one period of time, 50 Cent had more impact. And he kind of dominated the culture and the industry. However, between then and now, he’s not maintained that same level of domination.”
And you still feel that way at times?
It depends. It is less true today than it was back when you interviewed me before I was about to go to prison. But yeah, I can get carried away if I’m not careful. If I’m not monitoring my thoughts.
In what circumstances do you find yourself having to monitor your thoughts?
For instance, my son just turned 16. He got his first car and a little more independence.
Remember when I got locked up, trying to get back in my own gated community? I live in the same house. Now some lady working the front gate says to my son, “I need to see your ID.” So he says, “All I have is my learner’s license.” Mind you, he has a licensed driver in the car, my niece. But she looked at it and I guess seen it was a learner’s license, and said this ain’t good enough, I need to call the police. So of course he called us.
Oh man, that lady had no idea what she was in for.
I couldn’t fucking stop myself from giving her the business even though I wanted to be diplomatic about it. I couldn’t help myself, man. That’s a moment where, like I said, I have to really, really monitor my thoughts, really monitor like how I respond to certain things, you know? But I have instinctive reflexes and I have to make sure that I stay on top of that as the world continues to happen around me.
Let’s talk about this Verzuz battle with 50 Cent. There are so many willing opponents out there, why challenge 50?
Ain’t too many people who match my level of intensity without feeling offended, without feeling ostracized, or like they’re being picked on. So I want the bully. If it’s anybody else, I might seem like a bully. But, shit, you can’t bully the bully.
What’s your strategy for taking down a bully like 50 who has a gang of hit records on his side?
I think his catalog is just illustrious enough to put next to mine and be shown to be inferior. At first glance, if you look at it, “Oh man, Tip can’t see 50. He got a diamond album.” That’s the great thing about Verzuz — it’s about a consistent delivery of records over time that had an impact on the culture and on the lives of the people who listen. In one period of time, 50 had more impact. He dominated the culture and the industry. However, between then and now, he’s not maintained that same level of domination. He’s going to take off real hot in the first quarter, but after halftime, we’re gonna have to come to terms with the reality and the gravity of the circumstance, ya dig? [Laughs]
So basically, you’re planning on overwhelming him with songs from eras when 50 was on cruise control?
All those days and nights when he didn’t have to pull up to the studio because he already had done sold 10 million — that shit gonna catch up. When he didn’t have to put out an album for two and three and four years, that shit gonna catch up. All those motherfucking nights in St. Tropez on the yachts and shit. All that big-time shit hanging out with Eminem and Dr. Dre all night, counting money ’til the sun rise, that shit gonna catch up. [Laughs] But really, I think it will be great for the culture.
With your ExpediTIously podcast and other endeavors, you’ve evolved from an artist to somebody who tackles issues outside of music. Did you intend to move in that direction?
I’m using my influence and my platform to shape and mold the culture in a way that will promote some significant level of change. When my kids get older and they’re out in the world getting jobs and driving cars and getting apartments and going to college, they’ll exist in the world that I’ve created or that I left behind. So if I haven’t used my influence to shape and mold that world to be a better one for them to be in, then it was all for nothing. That’s what it’s about for me.
Is that why you’ve been so vocal in your criticism of President Trump?
I’ve been honest because I’ve seen his blunder. It ain’t how I feel about him personally, he’s just really fucking it up for everybody. I could just shut up and accept my tax breaks and all of my benefits. But it’s a poor representation when you travel out the country and then they gonna ask me: “What the fuck is y’all doing with this guy? How did you let him in there? What are you guys gonna do about that clusterfuck you have in the office?” As an American, we ain’t used to being the laughingstock of the planet.
“How you think you gonna put out the new Yeezys and you gotta run the country?”
If the vaccine for Covid-19 were to come out soon, would you take it?
Naw. Hell naw. And don’t you do it. Let them put no shit in you. You don’t know what the fuck that shit is, man. No, no. That’s a fat-ass no. No flu shot. No vaccine.
When it comes to presidential politics, it seems like most hip-hop artists are on the same page. And then there’s Kanye West, who’s on the ballot for president in some states. Have you spoken with him?
I talked to him and I’m like, “Why? You’re rich. What do you want? What are you trying to achieve?” One thing about Kanye, you ain’t gonna get no straight answer to a direct question. He just said it’s what he wanted to do. And I was like, “Shit, bruh, this way too much work for you. How you think you gonna put out the new Yeezys and you gotta run the country?” Does he know you have to give up Yeezys? If somebody told him that, it might affect his decision.
Did he ask for your support?
It felt like he came to me for advice. He was asking me questions. I was like, “Bruh, you should sit this one out. The best thing you could do is make it for 2024. You can start your campaign now for ’24 if you’re really, really serious.”
Have you thought about running for political office?
No. No, man. I’m not interested at all. I tell too much truth. I ain’t gonna bite my tongue or mince my words. I’m in the for-profit business. Any position that disables me from making legitimate money for myself, I’m gonna have a problem with that. I’m gonna get into trouble, so I’m not gonna do that.
You talked about your son and how he’s going out into the world as a young man now. What do you tell your kids about interacting with police in this polarized environment?
I’m teaching them about the sickness of racism and the logic behind it. I believe that equips them with the ability to deal with it.
Also, there has been some normalizing of Black Lives Matter issues, thanks to people like Colin Kaepernick, who’s still unofficially blackballed from the NFL.
I think we owe Kaepernick support, you know what I mean? But at the same time, he’s anti-establishment. When you are anti-establishment, you don’t look to the establishment for any acknowledgement or consideration. All of his roses should come from us. He’s our national treasure. Fuck what anybody else got to say. We got to stop looking to other people to validate what we know to be true in our hearts. We know how valuable what he did was. We know how valuable Muhammad Ali was. We know how valuable Malcolm X and Langston Hughes was.
What does that look like?
Like, we need to pick a date and make it Malcolm X day. Fuck what it say on the government’s calendar. We got to operate separate from them. Everything that Kaepernick has coming, whatever money he could get, he should get. But I’m talking about all that consideration and acknowledgement and celebrating, that shit supposed to come from over here. And we shouldn’t look to them to do that because if they was willing to do that, we wouldn’t be in this fucking situation in the first place.
You penned an open letter to Lloyd’s of London after the U.K. insurance company admitted to financially benefitting from the slave trade. Why do you think they owe more than their pledge to hire more Black employees and support diversity?
You can’t make amends to me and then tell me what you’re going to do to fix it. You can’t say, “Okay, we have a cultural advisory board and we’re donating to causes that we deem appropriate.” Naw, bruh. That ain’t no way to make amends. That’s just lip service. That’s just talk. If you really want to make good, you have to say, “Hey, how can I make this right?” You can’t say, “You know what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna get you a milkshake.” That’s preposterous.
What about America? This country actually enslaved people. Do you believe the U.S. owes reparations?
Yeah. Hell, yeah. Unequivocally. Indubitably. Without question.
Something tells me you have thoughts on how it should work here, too.
I got several ways they can pay us. First off, how about no taxes? They say no taxation without representation anyway, right? I don’t think we have proper representation. Why the fuck are we being taxed?
Okay, a no-Black tax. How else can Uncle Sam pay up?
How about free education? How about loans? They have packages for farmers and loan packages for small businesses. What about the Black people’s reparations loan. How about that?
Did you watch the hip-hop auction at Sotheby’s?
I heard about it. I heard they were auctioning Biggie’s crown.
And that went for more than $500,000. The rumor — that I’m starting now — is that you bought it.
As much as I love Biggie, I would not pay half a million for something that I could also put on my head and say the same thing. But people who are attracted to the allure and the mystique that comes from hip-hop, those types of items are far more valuable. ‘Cause they can’t fathom some of the shit Biggie was speaking about. The reason we loved it is because we know it all too well.
This summer, LEVEL dropped “40 Over 40,” an interesting list ranking rappers’ careers based on their output after age 40. What does your music career look like after 40?
So you asked me to tell the future? I don’t know, bro. I’m still gonna do music, but I think I’m gonna dedicate my forties and fifties to different capacities, like more production, songwriting, and directing videos and films. I wanna discover more talent and kinda lend support. Use talent as instruments to tell my stories rather than using myself as the instrument.
You directed the video for your new single, “Ring”?
Yeah. I’m trying to do more directing and producing, writing screenplays as well. I just want to tell stories. I feel like I have such a unique story and such a unique perspective due to my observations from the experiences that I’ve been in throughout my years. I’ve been through a lot of shit. And I’ve seen the world from a lot of different angles to have not perished. My eyes observed all these things. My mind absorbed all this information and all these different perspectives. I want to share it with the world in some way, shape, form, or fashion. And I don’t think music is a large enough medium to hold all the things that I have to offer.
Are you still going to act?
I’m still acting, of course. Once I write the story, if I feel like I can play this character the best, then I will. But if I think shit, Michael B. Jordan can do it, let him get his ass in here. I shot a horror movie in Lake Tahoe during Covid-19. It’s called Don’t Fear. Deon Taylor directed it. Me, Terrence J, Andrew Bachelor, Joseph Sikora from Power, and a host of talented people all came together in June.
Let’s talk about your creative process with screenplays. How does that work?
I have a team of writers that I worked with. I just kind of come to the table with the concept and idea. It could be a world or it could be like a character and conflict. And we’ll just expand and build on top of whatever I have. Then we’ll put it in the form of a synopsis. From there, they write 10 pages, I make my comments, and we work our way up to a 90-page script.
What’s an example of a character or world that has inspired you to start building a film?
I’m working on the project called Once Upon a Time in the Nineties. It’s a television show — it’s really my Wonder Years, my Everybody Hates Chris. It’s the story of me at 15, all the trouble I was getting into with my best friends and all of the lessons we learned. These are the same moments in my life that inspired me to make trap music.
Who do you talk with to help you navigate this next phase?
Steel sharpens steel, brother. It really depends on the circumstances. I think that I’ve been afforded the luxury of feeding from the pools of knowledge from people around me as I need it. I don’t have a day-in, day-out mentorship program with anybody, but I have an open-door policy with the top of the pyramid when it comes to the shit that we do: the Jay-Zs, the Puffs, the 50 Cents, the motherfucking Will Smiths, the Swizzes, the Timbalands, the Dave Chappelles. I could call anybody if I ran into something and I’m like, “Okay, shit, how do I do this? What’s the proper way? Or is this a good deal?” The value of that can’t even be equated.
Outside of music or career, what’s next for you? What are you going to do for your birthday?
I ain’t really trippin’, man. Go somewhere nice — with no coronavirus, no mosquitos. Get a nice boat. Enjoy the view and the breeze, have me some tequila, listen to some music, play some Spades. It’s other people around me who trippin’ like, “Man, it’s your 40th, you gotta do shit.” But all I gotta do is live. I gotta wake up that day. That’s it.