Even though the center of Atlanta rap has shifted multiple times since T.I. was slinging mixtapes out of his car in the mid-1990s, the rapper born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. has managed to stay relevant two decades later. Some of this, surely, is due to T.I.’s ability to blend bars confirming his street cred with soaring hooks nimble enough for the radio. From 2004 to the end of that decade, T.I. was arguably one of the biggest rappers on the planet. His next decade featured more hits than misses, and in the past few years Tip has been in the news more frequently for his personal life than his music. Despite some (widely covered) missteps, though, T.I. is still within the good graces of rap’s upper echelons. He’s an OG of our modern era, a pioneer of Atlanta’s current atmosphere, and keeps his finger on the music’s pulse beyond his own city with his label, Grand Hustle Records, to which he signed the likes of Travis Scott and Iggy Azalea.
Just take a look at the tracklist for his latest release, The L.I.B.R.A. (Legend is Back Running Atlanta), which features ATL’s latest crop of superstars like Young Thug, Lil Baby, and 21 Savage, plus legends of yore like Snoop Dogg. It’s a sprawling project and a return to form for T.I. Throughout our conversation, Harris is playful and quick to laugh at himself, admitting that when it comes to making music, his fastball can still hit the upper 90s, but it takes him a little while longer to loosen up his arm. Apart from music, his work with the Atlanta community and HBCUs has inspired a younger generation towards activism, and the voter drive he set-up at Atlanta’s Trap Museum is putting the importance of casting a ballot at the forefront of rap culture. Though T.I. occasionally says the wrong thing or makes the wrong move, his honesty and frankness never wavers. GQ spoke to T.I. about his new album, his work in the community, his cautious, measured relationship with Kanye and more.
Now that the album’s finally out, how are you feeling?
I'm happy that everyone in my close social circle has already expressed how much they rock with it. And to be honest with you, that's what I do it for. Then you got young kids, maybe 20-21 years old, in my son’s age group, reaching out, like, "Yo, I ain't know you could still get down like this, man!" It’s so rewarding because when “What You Know” came out, these kids were like 6 or 7!
Their view of you is entirely different.
Music touches us in such a special place because we associate it to times in our lives, whatever kind of times we were having. There are songs I can’t even listen to now, like “Pretty Wings” by Maxwell. I remember hearing that song when I was in prison. I can't stand that song, but it's beautiful. Now I have some songs that can be a part of a whole other generation of lives. If you’re 21, you don't want to listen to a song that reminds you of when your mama was telling you when to go to bed, and when you couldn't get some juice. Now you gained your own independence and you need a different soundtrack to the life that you're living right now. So for me to be a part of that is a dope thing.
There are some songs that transcend, though. “What You Know” came out when I was 13 years old, and I can still rap every single word of that song. I had a great relationship with that song, and it’s evolved as I’ve gotten older. I still love to listen to it.
But see now, you got to think about 13. 13 is a special age because that's when you start riding your bike and you gain a little sense of independence for yourself, you dig what I'm saying? Now “24’s” came out in 2003. So what would be your relationship to that record? What do you remember about the timing of when you were 10? How old are you now?
I’m 27. I still feel like everyone was reeling from 9/11 in 2003. I don’t remember a ton outside of that. I was in 5th grade. I definitely didn’t know about “24’s.”
So you’re 27 years old, man. A lot of people who come up to me are late 20s, early 30s, and they be like, "Yo, bro, I grew up listening to you." I'm like, "Damn, bro, you seem a little old to say you grew up listening to me." And then I do the math in my head like, "Goddamn, I guess they did." But that's a reward to have my art help somebody through their life and get them through their tough days.
There are kids in Atlanta growing up now who never really had T.I. as a superstar. It's not the same obviously, but you can be a different voice for them than the earlier generation.
I think that that's dope to even be here, to be sought after or looked at for guidance and perspective. I like to be that person that people look to for counseling. It reminds me of the role and the position that my father played in his life. I always saw people coming to him, asking him for meetings.
The title of the new album alludes to you as a returning legend. Do you ever feel like you lost your status as one of the greatest to do it out of Atlanta?
No, I don't think I lost my status. I think the realization of that has faded some as time goes on. And like you said, the generation of people who understand that about me, they still understand that, they have full awareness of it. But they done got mature enough to not be running around talking about it. So the word don't travel. The people who tweeting and Tik Toking and doing all that shit, those are the ones who have to have that understanding, who have to gain that understanding for it to move around and travel for real.
That awareness can't be had without examples being set. So the examples that I set, at least the ones that are the most prominent and the most visible, happened a while ago. Everything has to be renewed. Your driver’s license, your passport, and your status in the game has to be renewed. Even though I have that legendary status, I have that past tense legendary status for the things that I did in the street and in music. But for a present-day understanding, there has to be a present-day example being set. That's why I feel like this project is so important.
You actively embrace younger Atlanta MCs like Thugger and Lil Baby. What is it you see in these younger artists from Atlanta that makes you so excited to work with them?
Man, more than anything, I see individuality. They’re not scared to be themselves. With Thug, to know him personally and then see his persona, that shit is wild. There are always three versions of ourselves. There's how we see ourselves, how the world sees us, and who we really are. So for Thug, I know him as who he really is. And then I know how the world sees him. I ain't never asked him how he sees himself. But I think how he really is and how the world sees him, those motherfuckers are astronomically different [laughs]. Even when people are extra critical of him over whatever decisions he makes, he ignores them and that comes from knowing who you are. You got to have a strong sense of self to operate this way.
Lil Baby, from what I've seen of him, he's just super silent. He's a man of his word. If he says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it. In working with people, you have some folks who will hide behind their manager. Lil Baby’s at the top of the game, he could definitely operate like that. But he didn't, not with me. So that garners an elevated level of respect from me, because that's how I am, that's how I move. If I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it.
21 Savage is also like that. He just a real, super-solid cat, man, and don't keep up no bullshit, ain't fixing to sit around and do a bunch of hating and talking. Because a lot of people get around you, and you know something is wrong with somebody when every time you’re around them, all they do is talk about other people. You can tell what kind of person you’re dealing with at that point. None of these guys do that. You can tell they were all raised under old-school principles.
There are so many stars on the new album. Are you trying to flex your muscles and show that you can still get all these people to work with you?
No. No, no, no. I just wanted to make dope shit. Now, there was some conscious effort into making sure that I work with the producers and the motherfuckers who running the game today. With “Moon Juice,” I didn't ask Snoop to do it because he was a big star. I just heard him on that record, in some part because it’s a sample of one of his records. I have a relationship with all of the people on this record. I was never told to call the label or anything like that. I don't have the patience for that. So if I couldn't get you on the phone and I couldn't talk to you about when we could get it done and how we need to get it done, it didn't get done. There's a chemistry that comes with that.
People tell me I'm too accessible. I know it's an anomaly and I know it could come as a shock and a surprise when you ain't used to interacting with people at a certain level in the industry.
There's always a point at which rappers have been doing it for so long that they start losing a little heat on their fast ball. Do you still think you're at the peak of your power?
It might take me a little longer to get the verse done. I might have to put a little more thought to it, but I think it's because I'm being more considerate about the things that I'm saying. Sometimes I can elevate the consciousness or the perspective of whatever point I'm making and be more poignant. I've been in studios with real lyrical juggernauts, Eminem and Andre 3000, and they take forever. Man, Eminem wrote a verse for maybe three days straight, I think. And 3000, he did the same. We did a record, “Sorry,” man, it took 3000 a long time. But when it was finished, that motherfucker was perfect. And I was always the guy who was the phone-booth rapper, I'd get in there and come right back out like Superman. But as I get older, I've learned that the more time and attention I give it, the more I can determine the outcome of it.
With all the different things you do, people forget that you also run Grand Hustle. Travis Scott, arguably the biggest rapper alive right now, had his first deal with y’all. How do you feel about the year that he's had so far?
Travis has an undeniable energy. It's palpable, you feel like you can touch it and feel it when you’re around it. He has a vision. I think the first time I met him, when I sat down like, "So what you want to do?," he said, "Man, I just want to get the kids to run shit. So let the kids run shit." I'm like, "Okay..." [laughs].
He has vision and shit in his head that I saw, but he didn't articulate it very well. So at that point, Jason [Geter, T.I.’s business partner] and I became, I guess, translators. We know the people who are sitting in these legislative offices, they’re not going to understand Travis. I remember early in his career, he had to take the opportunities that were available. So even if that's performing before the BET Awards outside at like 2 PM, we made him do that shit [laughs].
He wants all of his shit to be dark, and he wants L.E.D. in his production. I just remember it was just a huge, huge feat trying to get the level of production that he wanted for himself in his performances early on. I remember having a knock-down drag-out argument fighting with him and fighting for him to get a L.E.D. screen for a performance that was outside in the daytime [laughs].
We have to talk about Kanye.
I'm shocked. I never would have guessed [laughs].
I wholeheartedly agree with his line of thinking on album masters and shady label dealings. But then, he still dons the MAGA hat and pushes buttons in that way. How do you balance those two sides when they seem so contradictory?
I don't. He's not in any danger. He's not harming himself. I truly believe that. He seems to be in as healthy of a place mentally as Kanye can be. So I just care about him as a human being. As far as what he does politically or what he’s been up to, I tell him, "Man, you on some bullshit." And I don't have a problem exchanging dialogue with him. We've done it several times before. And he knows he’s going to get the real sauce from me. And if he wants it, then he'll come and we'll exchange dialogue.
I agree with you and him on the masters as far as how a lot of labels operate, and try to keep the artist in the dark as far as how the equity in their art gets distributed. And I also think it's even doper that he gave Big Sean his masters. Practicing what you preach is always good. That gives me levels of optimism that there is a way to embrace the side of Kanye with a big heart trying to do good.
I’m also proud that he’s done the things that he said he wanted to do. I remember talking to Kanye when we were making Trap Muzik, and he told me all of his aspirations. I said, "Man, this ‘Jesus Walks’ record, you fixing to play this on the radio?" I knew it was going to be an uphill battle for him. But he took it and he made that his strength. What we saw as a weakness, he made into a strength. And I think that's the beauty of Kanye. He takes things that are supposed to be inhibiting and uses it as a superpower.
I also saw when he dedicated his time to fashion and went out and moved to Paris and shit, and did an internship, I believe, at Louis Vuitton or somewhere, to really learn the game. Then he started with the Pastelle shit and that didn't do well. But he didn't quit, he went back at it again. He pivoted and approached it from a different angle. He went to Nike and him and Nike fell out about him not having enough equity. Everybody thought he was crazy for walking away from Nike. Then he walked into Adidas, and Adidas gave him 100%. I look at shit like that and say, that’s dope. But his political views, I don't pay that shit much attention. I try not to.
Hindsight 20/20, are we doing “Ye vs. the People” again?
Of course, yeah. I think it was an amazing record and a much-needed dialogue.
The work that you're doing in the community is inspiring and it seems like you're trying to create a sustainable foundation instead of putting band-aids over existing issues. What advice would you give to people who want to get involved in community work but don't have the same resources that you do?
Volunteering your time is one of the most expensive, valuable, and beneficial things that you could do. Take some time out of your day, talk to kids in your neighborhood. If you’re a kid, talk to some of the older people in your neighborhood, make sure there isn't such a large gap of communication among the people within our communities. We talk around each other and we talk at each other, but we don't never really see where one another is coming from. You can start with investing time before you begin to invest anything monetarily. That’s so valuable and yields so many positive results that it'll lay the foundation and build the bridge to wherever else you need to go.
Do you plan to vote?
Of course. We’re doing voter registration here at the Trap Music Museum in Atlanta. It’s so important to exercise that right that we have. I talk to young people and they really do feel like it's an act of futility. I always say, "Well look, man, I ain't never seen nobody try to stop somebody from doing something that was just null and void. If this didn't interfere with their plan―
Republicans wouldn't go so far to suppress the vote.
They wouldn't care. Obviously, this is the monkey wrench in the plans of theirs. That is why there are so many efforts, so much energy, and so many resources put into the suppression of votes and to deter people from voting. They’re putting policemen at the polling places. They know most black people don't want to go nowhere where police at. By making the lines long, by breaking the machines, and doing all kinds of just foolishness, they’re clearly saying that this matters. Why would somebody go through all of these things to stop you from doing something if it didn’t matter? That’s why it matters. That’s why you gotta vote.
Originally Appeared on GQ