What’s in a name, Interview with T.I.
T.I.’s love for music started when he was just a child of nine years old, after he began writing rhymes and rapping, drawing inspiration from hip-hop institutions like N.W.A, LL Cool J, Rakim, and the Ghetto Boys to impress his friends. He scored his first record deal ten years later with Arista subsidiary LaFace Records, and shortened the nickname, T.I.P., bequeathed by his great-grandfather, to T.I., out of respect for new label mate and hip-hop legend Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest fame. After the lackluster label support of his first album, 2001’s I’m Serious, he signed on with Atlantic and released 2003’s Trap Muzik, which included the hit that helped launch his career, the street anthem “Rubberband Man.”
Since, his albums have spawned nine top-ten Billboard Hot 100 hits and captured three Grammy Awards including Best Rap Solo Performance in 2007 for “What You Know,” and Best Rap Collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the track “My Love.” T.I. was nominated for four more Grammys in 2009 for his sixth album, Paper Trail, with the “too cool ode to Dean Martin” track “Swagga Like Us,” performed with Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, M.I.A., and Kanye West at the award show, before it won for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
T.I. took on the lead role in the movie ATL in 2006, and then played alongside Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in director Ridley Scott’s 2007 hit American Gangster. He caught the acting bug after Will Smith and Dallas Austin approached him about ATL, but the studio head scoffed at the idea of a rapper with no acting experience anchoring a film. “He said, ‘Now there’s no way that this first-time actor — or rapper who wants to be an actor — is going to be able to carry the lead role of a movie,” T.I. says of his first time around the block in the big-screen biz — or at least the first time he was given the chance to prove his ability.
“You know, when people say I can’t do something, it lights my match.” Much like Eminem in his breakthrough film 8 Mile, T.I. surprised everyone but himself with his performance in his first starring role, and now has goals to star in movies made by some of the biggest names in the history of filmmaking. His wish list of directors to work with includes icons like Spielberg, Stone, and Scorsese. “All directors have their strengths and capabilities, so the director of a film would definitely depend on the type of film I’m doing. Whoever’s bringing their A-game,” he says. “It could be someone unknown, as long as they’re passionate about what they’re doing. I want to surround myself with the best in the business, as I’ve always done.”
T.I. was convicted of a felony for selling a controlled substance in 1998, and in November of 2007 he was arrested again after his home was raided just hours before he was scheduled to perform at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. Federal officials claimed T.I. ordered his then-bodyguard to purchase machine guns and silencers for him, and it is illegal for a convicted felon to have someone acquire guns on their behalf. As part of his plea deal, T.I. will be serving a one-year prison term, and must also complete 1,000 hours of community service. If he doesn’t fulfill these obligations, he will face a 30-year sentence.
To fulfill his community service obligations, T.I. and MTV have been working on a reality show, T.I.’s Road to Redemption, leading up to his incarceration, with the premise of the show being his work with 15- to 18-year-old at-risk youths. “I’m very proud of it,” he beams. “It’s a show that we worked diligently at completing, and we were sincerely passionate about doing everything we could to impact the lives of young people in a positive way.” T.I. doesn’t want to change his image, he wants to change his life. When posed with the question of public perception and his impending jail time, the pause is brief, the answer succinct and unyielding: “My image is my image. I can’t change [it] without changing my life,” he proclaims. “If I change my life, my image will change on its own, ya dig? I’m not primarily focused on an imagery makeover for myself. I’m more focused on helping others…”
“It’s been fulfilling, and an absolute treasure to be able to use my experiences to help motivate others to change their lives and change mine,” he emphasizes. It’s a work in progress, he admits, but T.I. says his efforts have been inspiring. He talks to the kids from a position of equality — not an iconic pedestal — by relating to their situations. These kids don’t understand that their environment has programmed them to think a certain way, says T.I., and they need to break from that line of thinking if they ever truly want to succeed in life.
“Once you take them out of that environment, then you begin to see a different person,” he says, enunciating like a preacher from his pulpit. “A lot of these kids, if you ask them, ‘Hey, look man, all the times you and your gang go to fight or whatever ya’ll do, you ever thought about what if one of ya’ll didn’t make it back?’ And most of the time, they say, ‘Well, no. I’ve never really thought about it.’ It’s just, ‘We’re going to fight just to be fighting. We never thought about if somebody didn’t make it back.’” “I say, ‘Well, that’s a likely outcome. What you gon’ do? Don’t think about it when it happens. Think about it now while you can still prevent it.’” The rapper feels most at-risk kids are dealt with by people who haven’t lived their lives and aren’t qualified to teach them how to overcome many of the obstacles they face every day on the street. “And them knowing my experiences and knowing my history, they know I’m speaking from a level of integrity and experience, not just me telling them something I think or [what] somebody told me to tell them,” he says. “I’m sharing my experiences with them. When you apply that level of intellect to it, it becomes fairly — I won’t say easy — but it’s more of a probability for them to change.”
T.I.’s four sons and two daughters have changed his life in “every way known to man. [Being a father has] definitely given me a grounding, and something else to live for besides myself. It’s given me a whole ‘nother motivation to want to do my best at everything so they will see that anything is possible if they are willing to do their best.” “We’re just taking advantage of all the time that we have to spend together, and not really focusing on the time that we won’t have.” He’s driven, and his focus is by no means single-minded. He’s passionate about everything he does, from rapping, producing, or acting, to playing golf whenever he can find the spare time, or to just being a father, trying to spend his last free days — for now — with those he loves most. Be damned what the Internet reports or what the newspaper and magazine clippings say about him, Clifford, T.I., T.I.P., or King is a man seeking to change his life. Just a man, no more, no less. Besides, what’s in a name?
Shaun T. Cox