T.I. at 40: the hip-hop artist and Grand Hustle mogul reflects on age, activism and Atlanta

Atlanta Hip-Hop artist T.I. sits in his Super Sound Studios to discuss his milestone birthday, as he turns 40-years-old. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

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Atlanta Hip-Hop artist T.I. sits in his Super Sound Studios to discuss his milestone birthday, as he turns 40-years-old. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

T.I. needs his shirt.

The Atlanta rap mogul is walking around Super Sound Studios, the recording haven he purchased last year, talking into the heel of his phone.

He’s wearing a white tank top and blue and green patterned sweats, but the rest of his clothes are locked in the back of his new truck and the spare key is back at the house.

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Atlanta Hip-Hop artist T.I. talks life, activism, and legacy, as he turns 40-years-old. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

King, his 15-year-old son with a quick smile and shock of hair, offers, in between sips of his peanut butter protein shake, to drive back with an (older) friend to retrieve it.

In the ensuing hour, two of T.I.'s other sons, Domani, 19, and Messiah, 20, cut through the studio, echoes of “Hey, Pops!” in the hallways as if they’re in the comfort of home.

The boys are three of T.I.'s seven children – Messiah is the oldest and Heiress, the youngest, is 4 – and even though T.I. turned 40 on Sept. 25, he still carries himself with a youthful vibe that makes him seem more like a cool older brother than “Pops.”

In the nearly 20 years since his studio debut, “I’m Serious,” T.I. — born Clifford Harris and known to friends as “Tip” — has earned five platinum records (the biggest among them 2008′s “Paper Trail”); been featured on songs with artists ranging from Kanye West to Mariah Carey to Charlie Wilson; starred in more than a dozen movies (“Identity Thief,” “Ant-Man” and its sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” among them); worked with VH1 for nearly a decade with his reality show franchises “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle” and “Friends and Family Hustle”; and in late 2018, put his legacy and money into Atlanta’s Trap Music Museum and Escape Room.

His Grand Hustle empire includes a dizzying array of business ventures, from liquor deals to social media apps to clothing.

T.I.'s accomplishments have been rightly celebrated and his position as an emissary for his hometown elevated when, during the May protests-turned-riots in downtown Atlanta, he and fellow Atlanta hip-hop luminary Killer Mike joined Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on TV to address the city.

And while yes, T.I. and the law have intersected — weapons and drug charges were levied in the first decade of the 2000s and he paid a fine in 2018 for cursing in a public place — maturity has meshed with responsibility.

In between Zoom interviews with radio stations and the recording of his “expediTIously” podcast, T.I. pulls a white Polo T-shirt over his tank and sits in the same studio where Elton John recorded a song last year for Ozzy Osbourne’s latest album. He sips from a clear mug of Earl Grey tea and only glances at his phone once, when the screen alights to a message that distracts him.

He is candid and focused, opinionated and funny, and for an hour, shares his thoughts about the coronavirus, his interaction with the next generation of Atlanta rappers (he just released “Ring” with Young Thug) and his relationship with the community he loves. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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Atlanta's T.I. talks about his greatest accomplishment and regret. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Atlanta's T.I. talks about his greatest accomplishment and regret. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

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Atlanta's T.I. talks about his greatest accomplishment and regret. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Q: When we talked in April, you were holed up watching “Tiger King” and not going out much. What have you been doing since then?

A: I did a film with Deon Taylor called “Don’t Fear” at Lake Tahoe. It’s myself, Terrance J, King Bach, Joseph (Sikora) fromPower” and a few young ladies whose work I didn’t know, but they were cool. The film is about a group of friends who make their way in the middle of the pandemic to a place that will accept them. It’s a horror flick, man.

Q: Were you planning to do another movie?

A: It was real spontaneous. Deon called me and we’ve always been looking for an opportunity to work together. This time he was like, I need you to come Monday. I was in L.A. — I just got a new house and was in the middle of decorating. They only needed me six days.

So yes, we shot it in the midst of Covid. Nobody got sick. One person did come up positive at the end, my last day of filming. The test on the way out, we found out the photographer was positive, which made everybody else think we were positive because, full disclosure, we were smoking. I hit a joint after him and when they said he had it … after our next tests I was sure I had it, but I was negative. None of us got it. He had no symptoms, by the way. I don’t think it’s as contagious as people say. Don’t take my word for it and go out without a mask.

Q: Are you worried at all about getting sick?

A: I’m not worried for me. My wife and I have taken eight or nine tests...and around the seventh test, we’re still negative, but she’s developed antibodies somehow. So if all of her tests have been negative but she now has antibodies … I don’t have any antibodies and my test is negative also. That means that she had it, fought it off, developed the antibodies, but didn’t give it to me!

It’s experiences like that that make me feel like, how much of a coincidence is it that every state is a Republican state that is open and every state that is fighting to stay closed is a Democratic state? It seems a bit politicized to me.

Q: You’re hitting the milestone of turning 40; tell me what you consider your greatest accomplishment and one of your greatest regrets.

A: My greatest accomplishment is definitely my children. That I was able to accomplish all of this and maintain a healthy relationship with all of my children and that I’m still present consistently in their life. Becoming a pops is the best thing I’ve ever done.

Now, regret? Hmmm. My greatest regret (is) having ideas and allowing other people’s opinion of those ideas to stop me from acting on those ideas. So many times we all have visions, aspirations, thoughts that come to us, and the first thing we do is say something to someone, “I’m thinking about doing this,” and they’re all, “Aw, man, you can’t do that!” And you know, we absorb that negative energy. That takes us off our path.

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T.I. prepares to record an episode of his "expediTIously" podcast at his Atlanta studio. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

T.I. prepares to record an episode of his "expediTIously" podcast at his Atlanta studio. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
T.I. prepares to record an episode of his "expediTIously" podcast at his Atlanta studio. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Q: Do you consider yourself a trendsetter?

A: To be honest with you, I think we all have had our moments in trendsetting. How often we’re able to replicate that moment and how we can sustain it I think is what separates us from the flash in the pan artists that most people like today and forget tomorrow. Yes, I think trap music was a moment, a moment bigger than me.Trap music is relevant because of how many people are affected by the drug trade, how many people can relate to that process, whether it was the crack era, the war on drugs, the opioid crisis. Whether your mama was on dope , whether your daddy went to jail for selling dope, somebody some way has been affected by it. It’s like a fraternity, a counseling group that we all kinda are in, and when you hear a song that talks about some of the pain, the same experiences you’ve gone through yourself, that’s gonna cause a groundswell. If you’re talking about something that so many people relate to but don’t necessarily speak about it, they know they’re not alone and they gravitate toward it.

Before I made “Trap Muzik” (in 2003), the only person who would play (the single) “Dope Boyz” was (V-103 DJ) Greg Street. Nobody wanted to play it because it was talking about selling dope. The radio didn’t play that. I feel like that led to the album “Trap Muzik” and when that came out, I think other artists who were in similar positions thought, if Rubber Band Man can do this, then my story can do just as much or better, which led to the Young Jeezys, which led to the Guccis (Manes). I think every generation has the gatekeepers. In my vision, I say, Kilo Ali and (Hitman) Sammy Sam crawled, so that Outkast and Goodie Mob could walk, so that me, Jeezy and Ludacris could run, so (Young) Thug and Future and the Migos can fly today. We all did our thing, took it from where the last generation dropped it off and then the next generation elevated it and contributed to the evolution.Yeah, I’m a trendsetter. But even with setting the trends, if other artists don’t say, “Let me find my way to do this,” it could have died with our era.

Q: I know you’ve been working with Lil Baby recently…

A: I see myself in Lil Baby probably more than anyone from this particular era. I think there’s a confidence, kind of a quiet cockiness (like I had). I knew that I knew more of what I was talking about than most people I was talking to, which gave me a confidence and air. I just felt that way. And I hear that from him. Of course I did my metaphors and similes and double entendres. But if you hear records like “Dope Boyz” and “Doin' My Job,” “Prayin' for Help” — it ain’t a lot of sophisticated word play. I’m just articulating thoughts and perspectives and concepts and consciousness and I feel like that’s what he do. I see a lot of myself in him in the music. Outside the booth, I can see myself in all of them. Like Thug, I think it’s his ability to not give a (expletive) and face whatever is in front of him. Him wanting to go to the art shows and fashion week in Milan. (Expletives) from Atlanta weren’t doing that before me! If you look at the cover of Vibe (in 2002), we shot that and did that interview in Milan for fashion week and that (expletive) hadn’t connected at the time.

Q: Do any of the younger Atlanta rappers ask you for advice?

A: They might, like, is this deal a good deal? How do you stay with your lady for so long? Somebody might be having some trivial discrepancies that could blow up into some unnecessary (expletive), like what would you do if… But it’s always in the form of a casual discussion.

Q: People in the community do look to you, though, as an ambassador. Think back to that night in May, the night that the protests turned violent and you and Killer Mike went to be with the Mayor and addressed people. I know you had to talk Mike into going; why did you want him with you?

A: I knew — and I know — that we both have very unique strengths and abilities to reach and relate to different crowds of people for different reasons. I feel like Mike being a Morehouse man, he appeals to scholars and politicians who may be turned off a little bit of some of the antics or reputation of T.I., you dig? And I feel I kinda relate to cats who feel like Mike might be a little too evolved.

I went up there and spoke passionately. I had nothing prepared. I felt like…somebody had to do something to salvage the part of America we’re getting right. I feel like Atlanta is the most evolved, the most advanced, the most diverse…that this is the closest representation of what we’re hoping to see across the nation, right? So let’s not tear this down, not to the point where we cutting off our nose in spite of our face.

Q: Does that make you feel more of a responsibility now?

A: I suppose you could label it responsibility. To me it’s just an urgency. I feel an urgency to answer the call and the need that I know has been plaguing our communities for decades.

Q: You have always been on the front lines with charity in Atlanta, whether it’s delivering turkeys to the elderly at Thanksgiving or buying people’s gifts in a store at Christmas. Why is that so important to you?

A: More than anything, our communities are plagued by the deficit of education, opportunities and experiences. The education is what allows the system to operate behind our backs and allows them to speak over our heads because they aren’t teaching the same curriculum in THESE communities as they are in THOSE communities. So we’re left out. That puts you at a disadvantage automatically.

Next, opportunities. You have 100,000 people fighting for 40,000 people worth of opportunities and when you have that, it’s going to increase crime and make it to where every household, even working a full-time job, is not enough. So you have to do more than just what you get in your paycheck. You have to have a job and a hustle and if that hustle happens to be one of those things they consider illegitimate, now you have an added level of pressure and stress because you have this danger looming over your head. You’re not breaking the law because you decided to be a career criminal and live your life like this; this is how I meet my ends. You dig what I’m saying?

And exposure-slash-experiences. You don’t know what to aspire to be if you aren’t exposed to it. Our children continue to do the same things because that’s what they’re exposed to. They don’t know to achieve to be a coder so they can release an app and be the next (Mark) Zuckerberg or (Jeff) Bezos, so they can’t aspire to that. I had never met a stockbroker when I was going to school. I didn’t know what a real estate agent was. I wasn’t exposed to that so I couldn’t aspire to be until later in life and my uncle exposed me to it.

Those three things are the things that plague our communities and keep us chasing our tail. So when you see me giving out turkeys, that’s exposure. That’s so the kids can say cool, he from here and he did something to exercise his mind and abilities to make it out of here, so if he can do that, so can I. And that energy is more valuable than the turkeys or any of the things we’re giving away.

Q: Do those types of efforts almost become more important than the music?

A: There is a bigger picture. I know God is real because I’ve seen the hand he’s had in my life and how he navigated me through situations and circumstances in a way I know only a superpower could. God is real; religion is fake, to me. Religion is a man-made structure. I guess you would call it an institution that is put in place to control the minds, actions, intentions and finances of the masses. I don’t believe in religion for real. I believe in God.

Isn’t it ironic that all of the people who are devout religious supporters, regardless of what particular religion they support, they’re the same ones scared to death of this Covid thing? Well, if you have faith in God and you know he won’t lead you astray, why are you so scared? Faith and fear cannot exist in the same place, so if you’re fearful of something, that means you’ve lost your faith in God in this particular area. I don’t get it. There’s so many contradictions.

Q: Let’s talk about something a little lighter, like music! What’s going on with your new album?

A: I don’t know if I’m going to drop an album, man. I record every day down here (at the studio). I always keep my skills sharp by recording and making music because I love to do it. I’d do it for free. Now, I wouldn’t do it for free if somebody else was getting paid for it! Songs wake me up out of my sleep and it’s a huge part of me. But the process of the act of putting out an album…you gotta create a concept, you gotta do a photo shoot, come up with a title. It’s not just, I gotta put these songs together for the people.Then I gotta sit down and do interviews and explain what the title is and what it means…

Q: But didn’t it used to be fun, back in the beginning when it was a new experience?

A: Nope. It was never fun. Look, there’s three versions of us. Who we see ourselves (as), who the world sees us as and who we really are. So if I am collaborating with a photographer, I know who I am, so now he’s going to be conveying to me based on who he sees me as and if we don’t see eye to eye, that (expletive) don’t work. But it’s still about being dope. I still want to do dope (expletive). The core of why I still make music is having a connection with the people, having a song that people use to get through tough times or celebrate in great times. That becomes a part of their journey for forever. I can remember (Tupac Shakur’s) “Dear Mama.” I was 13 or 14 and it was just me and my mama in the house and we were going back and forth and butting heads and that song helped me in dealing with how I responded to my mama — and that will never change for me. All of the charting positions and the plaques and the record sales and the money and the awards — those are welcomed. But at the end of the day, we gotta connect with people.

Q: So you must miss being on stage.

A: Nah, not really. Maybe because I was tired of going around and doing the same old songs, anyway. If we ain’t got nothing new to do, I don’t want to go here and be doing the oldies but goodies. The new records that I do, it’s a new connection. I’m excited to produce that energy and receive that energy back onstage.

Q: Do you find with the TV show that your work is transcending generations?

A: It’s a lot of that. I did a show somewhere and it was a daughter, a mom and a grandmom all at a meet-and-greet. I appreciate seeing grandmama because she’s been earning consistently over time so she’s gonna buy some merch. She’s gonna buy the album — she ain’t gonna bootleg it, she gonna buy it! (And then for Christmas), “I got you this T.I. hoodie when I went to the show.” I think it’s great to make that connection. The problem I feel…everything that I do, whether it’s film, television, music, fashion, the (Trap House) museum, social justice, I feel like everybody who supports me in every compartment wants me to just stick to that. I just feel restrained or restricted. Like, I can’t represent social justice and fight for a cause because when I drop a song that’s jamming, they try to apply contradictions and I have to be pigeonholed. All humans are fallible and imperfect. All of us. Your pastor. Your politicians. All of the people you look to — Obama, Oprah — all the people who ain’t never got in trouble, they’re still imperfect. I’m not making any attempts to present myself as perfect. I’m gonna give it to you real and raw.

Q: If you look at the next 10 years — what’s left? You’ve got music, you’ve got the studio, film, TV. What would you still like to do?

A: I think telling more stories, through our lens, about our people. Directing, writing and producing. I want to spend more time trying to create opportunities that allow others to flourish, especially my children. Nobody is ever remembered after they die because of all the great things they did for themselves. If you really want your name to be immortal, you’ll only be remembered for what you did for others. Nobody ever talks about what kind of car Martin Luther King drove. Nobody speaks about what kind of watch Malcolm X wore. Nobody talks about what kind of house Muhammad Ali lived in. All of these things that we do for ourselves, it may please us momentarily, but in order to be remembered after you leave this Earth, you gotta work on what you’re doing for others.