T.I. Brings Hustle Gang Tour to New York City, Talks Tragedies Sparking Politically Charged EP 'Us or Else'

Paras Griffin/WireImage
T.I. performs on July 16, 2016 in Atlanta.  

The rapper T.I. made his name during the '00s with a series of triumphant, irrepressible hits, mostly keeping politics at arm's length as he shouldered his way into the pop mainstream. Not anymore: Last fall, he released Us or Else: A Letter to the System, which directly addressed police brutality -- including the murders of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile -- mass incarceration, stop and frisk, and other ways that government policy perpetuates violent racism. "This modern day slavery," the rapper concludes on "Warzone." "And the jig's up."

With his Atlanta hat clamped tightly on his head, T.I. is sitting at a jam-packed dinner table in the back room of Hunt & Fish Club, a swanky establishment in midtown Manhattan. One wall is covered in ivy, the ceiling is glass, and the surfaces look like marble. He's surrounded by the rappers associated with his label, Grand Hustle. Bread baskets are piled high, and sea bass dishes are being handed around the table. 

"Throughout my career I have definitely had monetization in mind first and foremost," T.I. tells Billboard on Monday (May 8). "I usually have one song on each album that's dedicated to the state of the community. Had it not been for so many tragedies taking place with no answers and no accountability, I don't think Us or Else would have been made. I felt like there wasn't nobody else that was doing it. Other people are, for lack of a better word, ignoring it."

Last year, as the number of black deaths at the hands of the police mounted and officers of the law faced few consequences, T.I. felt compelled to transition into a new role. "I can't think of a reason good enough to excuse the taking of a life of an innocent young man who has all of his future ahead of him," the rapper says. "It's stolen, taken away senselessly. There's no excuse for that, no way to justify that." 

"The moment said, do more to promote change," he continues. "That was inclusive of music but not limited to it. We also protested; we also did a supporting black banks initiative with Killer Mike; we also sat and met with our elders and tried to figure out what were my best ways to organize and mobilize and use my platform."

And when Lil Wayne distanced himself from Black Lives Matter in an interview with ABC last November, T.I. took him to task with a lengthy message on Instagram. "Stop embarrassing yourself and everyone out here who's been supporting you," T.I. wrote. "Oppression knows no neutral party, either you're part of the oppressed, or you [are] with the oppressor."

"People ask, 'Why didn't you just call him?'" T.I. relates. "If there was an issue that I had with him, if I was trying to get through to him, that's what I would've done. But I needed to reach his followers. At least they'll know, this isn't cool. The only way to reach his followers is to put it on a platform that his followers will view. That's the reason I chose to do it the way I did, which was uncomfortable for me but I felt like I had no choice."

Of course, that all took place before the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a law-and-order platform, and whose Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has already signaled that he will reduce federal oversight of police departments. "I don't know if it makes promoting change more difficult, but it speaks to how much change needs to be promoted," T.I. says, reflecting on the impact of the new administration. "I don't think the constitution protects people the way it says it was intended to. Those are founding morals and principles that America stands on -- we've abandoned those principles."

T.I.'s move past monetization also includes addressing conditions in a place where he has more direct influence -- the music industry. He is increasingly focused on helping the next generation of rappers, and his current tour with the entire Grand Hustle family marks the ensemble's first jaunt around the country as a group. "This to me is not really about making records or selling records; it's not about making money and getting rich," T.I. says. "It's more about creating a cultural institution. Our rituals and our practices and habits, and the principles and foundational standards that we hold dear -- for them to stay alive, you have to introduce people that can carry them on."

He likens the Grand Hustle organization to Professor Xavier's school for mutants in X-Men; speaking before over dinner, Grand Hustle rappers  -- Trae tha Truth, London Jae, Translee, Bryce, Yung Booke, Tokyo Jetz, B.o.B., RaRa, Rossi, and Young Dro -- repeatedly refer to the unit as family. "I'm all about vibes, and me and T.I. got the brother vibe," said Trae, who was recently promoted to Hustle Gang's VP. "We can do the good guy-bad guy, or we can both be bad guys."

B.o.B., who has been public about his disaffection with other labels, notably Atlantic, in the past, applauded Grand Hustle for treating its artists with respect. "It's a clan, we move strong, we move like a team," he explained. "I'm glad to be a part of it." 

These comments were echoed by Booke ("Most labels are just made up; they're not together") and Tokyo Jetz. "People expect female rappers to rap about certain stuff," Jetz said. "And no one over here ever put pressure on me to change the way that I rap or change what I rap about. I came in, and I'm still the same person that I was from day one."

"We about to corner the market, the whole rap game," RaRa predicted. "Club music, conscious backpack: whatever you want, we got something for it." "We all stand for something," added Dro. "And we just want to be heard."

Later that night at the B.B. King Blues Club, members of Hustle Gang started trickling on stage one by one around 11 p.m. Translee made Gucci Mane references while rapping declaratively over an organ-filled beat, then London Jae opened his brief set by singing a rock-like ballad at center stage before moving into needle-nosed trap.

RaRa brought the jokes  -- "I don't just look good, I rap good too" -- and delivered his lines over bulbous bass lines and steady electronic claps. Tokyo Jetz reprised her take-no-prisoners freestyle over the beat to Yo Gotti's "Down in the DM," which earned her attention online; Booke danced furiously to Future's "Mask Off"; Trae showcased his a cappella rapping multiple times, stringing syllables together at a rapid clip or dripping them slowly in a nod to his Houston roots. 

T.I. strolled onstage around 12:30 a.m. and immediately cranked up the energy level: Watching his set was like witnessing an army on parade -- unhurried, finely tuned, commanding. He moved through smash after smash, mostly adhering to a simple, perfect formula: jutting slabs of bass, the hyper-speed hi-hats that T.I. and other southern rappers helped move into pop's mainstream, and a simple, bright melody from gleaming brass, pastel synths, or any other instrument that can conjure and maintain a thick, irreducible presence. 

There were no explicit politics during his performance, just a stream of inescapable records drawn mostly from the period between 2003's "24's" and 2008's "Live Your Life." (Although, earlier in the evening, Translee announced that Trump is not his president, and signaled his dissent by queuing up Young Jeezy's ode to Barack Obama, "My President.") T.I. stuck to the triumphant side of his catalog -- these were victorious paeans, songs of exultation. "We got hits," he told the crowd. "We can do this all night."

But this was a celebration of the team, so T.I. also spent much of his time on stage ceding the spotlight to others. First came Young Dro, a loose-hipped dancer with a textured rasp, for the snapping, kinetic "Shoulder Lean" and the nastier "FDB." Then came B.o.B., who dipped into his catalog of cotton-candy hits: the poppy "Headband" and his guest verse from Ty Dolla $ign's "Paranoid," both produced by DJ Mustard.

T.I. was happy to welcome guests from outside of the Hustle Gang universe as well: In a nod to the home crowd, he invited the New York rapper Juelz Santana to perform two songs from the Diplomats' 2000s heyday, "Oh Boy" and "Hey Ma," and a recent collaboration with another native, Dave East. And Harlem MC A$AP Ferg came out for two songs, "New Level" -- which shares some qualities with T.I.'s own "ASAP," from 2004's Urban Legend -- and "East Coast." For his encore, T.I. drove home the coalition-first aspect of Hustle Gang once more, bringing the entire ensemble out to rap and jump around to "About the Money," his 2014 hit.

"I've done just about everything that there is to do," T.I. said before the show. "At a certain point, the only way to do something significant is to do it for someone else."