T.I. Reveals His Favorite Roles, Talks J Prince's Business Influence & Explains Kanye West's Current Mind-Set

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
T.I. arrives at the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas.

T.I. has seen it all. Throughout his venerated career, Tip Harris has earned a plethora of platinum plaques, etched his name on the walls of rap, and has sparred with several MCs in hopes of trouncing the competition. With the stroke of his pen and, of course, his affable personality, T.I. cemented his place as a legend. Still, despite his accolades, Tip yearns for more.

Earlier this month, he earned a Tony nomination for best original score (music and/or lyrics) along with his son, burgeoning MC Domani, for their contribution to SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical.

"It was awesome. It was amazing," recalls T.I. on a balmy day in New York City. "My accomplishments pair with my children’s accomplishments. I just really think that for me to be able to pass down instructions, lessons, theories, ideals that they can turn into their own success -- to me, that’s more rewarding than what I’m able to do for myself."

While T.I. has time to relish his kids' success, he continues to build his formidable empire. Next month, he returns with Paul Rudd for their Marvel superhero flick Ant-Man and the Wasp. In addition to that, T.I. is also executive producing his new BET show The Grand Hustle, which will involve 16 business-minded men and women vying for a spot to work with the Trap Muzik star and his Grand Hustle company.

T.I. spoke to Billboard about The Grand Hustle, his favorite movie roles of all time, Domani's abilities as a rapper, Kanye West's legacy, and if Pusha T went too far during his beef with Drake. Check out the interview below:

Congrats on the Tony nomination.

Thank you!

No problem, man. Which one were you more excited about: to be nominated for a Grammy or your first Tony?

I’m more excited about my son being nominated for the Tony. That’s more important to me, for real.

What was it like for you attending the Tony Awards with your son, Domani?

It was awesome. It was amazing. My accomplishments pair with my children’s accomplishments. I just really think that for me to be able to pass down instructions, lessons, theories, ideals that they can turn into their own success -- to me, that’s more rewarding than what I’m able to do for myself.

Which song, verse or project made you a full believer in Domani’s abilities as an artist?

The latest is Amygdala and The Constellation too. I listened and was like, “Yo, he’s getting somewhere.” His music sounds more mature than mine. He doesn’t sound like a kid. He’s actually grappling with real issues that you don’t hear people in his generation discuss. Kind of like how you feel when you hear Jaden Smith. You ain’t supposed to be talking like this.

You have a show on BET, The Grand Hustle, coming out. With your success, you’ve been able to transition into TV smoothly. What are the key ingredients to your success and longevity on the TV side?

I guess being interesting. [Laughs] Being naturally interesting and diverse. If there was only one part of me by the end of the season, you don’t have a reason to tune back in. If you’ve learned everything there is to learn about someone, then why come back? Same thing that some people kind of resent me for. It’s like, “Oh, which is it? Is he this, this or this?”

That’s the same thing that kind of makes people go, “Oh, what is he doing now?” That dichotomy is probably the secret to the success of me being able to put so much of myself out there.

For the show, you have business-minded people vying for a chance to work with you. What are the key attributes you look for in them to be a part of your team?

Diligence and willingness to accept accountability for one’s actions. One of my pet peeves for people who work with me and for me is the passing of the buck, which you get a lot. The “I thought they were going to do it!” and “You didn’t say that you wanted me to do it!” and “That’s not my department.” That’s the telltale sign of if you got the mind-set to lead.

I want to take it back to '01 when you first dropped I'm Serious. If you could ask T.I. the artist back then one question and also T.I. the businessman a question as well, what two questions would you ask them?

What I would ask to the artist is: “What is your most prioritized narrative?” I feel like I’ve told a lot of stories of myself and created a lot of narratives and conversation around me for a lot of different things. What is it? I would only say that because I know it would be such a conversation later. If I asked myself that question then, I’d have a better answer now.

To the businessman, I would ask: “What do you truly want to do when you don’t do this anymore?” That’s it.

It’s crazy, because you wear multiple hats now.

I know, and I can’t tell you which one I want to do the most.

I saw a clip, and I think it was on Elliott Wilson’s Instagram page. J Prince was talking about his new book The Art and Science of Respect, and you were there praising him. What it it about J Prince’s legacy that he instilled in you from the business front?

You gotta know, he and Master P, Tony Draper, Ted Lucas -- all of them, they were the reason, whether they shared directly or indirectly, I knew where all the money was coming from and going. I didn’t know the difference between an artist deal, production deal, a JV to a PND. I didn’t know the benefit of owning your own masters or that it was even possible.

I didn’t know the upfront money was just to keep you from asking questions. All that kind of shit I learned. Even diversifying. Me seeing J Prince get in the cattle, get in the hay, just acquiring properties, just seeing all these different things he is able to accomplish.

He comes from the same place I come from. He came from the same place, took his talent like I took mine, turned it into success by telling stories and investing into people who also told stories. He took the proceeds from that and got into other areas of business that may be connected or not connected. I didn’t get that from nowhere else. I didn’t have no other examples for that close enough to where I came from and close enough for me to converse with.

Where do you rank yourself as a businessman in hip-hop today?

I don’t. I don’t, and it’s not for me to do. I do things so other people can sit around in barbershops and tables and have that discussion. It ain’t for me to get involved in. I’m disqualified from that conversation when I’m involved because I’m biased.

The Ant Man sequel comes out next month, but I gotta admit, I loved you in House of Lies, Takers --

[Laughs] That was one of my favorite characters.

With that being said, give me your top three favorite movie and TV roles.

Rashad [from ATL], because it was so different from who I was at the time. It was just so different from who the world knew me to be. Now the world knows me for so many different things that it doesn’t come as a shock and surprise. At that time, it was expected for me to play something based off my music or my persona.

Rashad was exactly the opposite of that. For me to portray that appropriately without compromising the integrity of the other persona of myself -- people didn’t look at Rashad like, “Aw man, see, he’s been faking this whole time.” At the same time, they didn’t look at Rashad and say, “He’s soft.” He’s just real dude. I appreciated that.

It was unexpected because I didn’t really know what to expect and I just did it because Will Smith put it on the line and he said if I didn’t do the role, he wasn’t going to do the movie. They didn’t want to give me the leading role, but Will said then he wouldn't do the movie. So I felt like there was a lot of pressure because of that. I felt obligated to perform.

I love House of Lies. I really just channeled Dame Dash. That’s really what I did. I love that role, but I loved my role in Boss. Working with Kelsey Grammar, that shit is meticulous. Also, American Gangster. With Denzel, that to me, I was like, “Man, I’m a real fucking actor!” Denzel said, “That was good stuff. You give 'em that shit.”

I remember, because we were talking about being nervous and fighting that anxiety of whether or not you’ll do well and break through that to perform at your highest capacity. And he said, “They got you here for a reason. They could have had anybody, but they got you here. What the fuck they get you here for? They brought you here to do that shit!” [Laughs] That’s what he told me. So that’s what I did.   

It’s been a month and a half since “Ye vs. The People" came out. Looking back now to that convo you had with Kanye, do you feel you have a better understanding of him now?

I do, because I spent so much time speaking to him and dissecting his views. Anybody who speaks to him for an extended period of time will get it. They will understand the message he’s trying to convey and where he’s coming from. But if you only get it in, like, blurbs or highlights and snapshots, you won’t get it like that. You gotta invest some time.

You watched that Charlamagne interview in its entirety, you get a very clear understanding of him and where he’s trying to go. If you watch that goddamn clip from TMZ, that shit sounds preposterous.

I think people shouldn’t listen to Kanye if they aren’t willing to invest the time and attention that it takes to download and understand it. I understand it. Whether I agree with some of the shit or not, I understand. I’ve asked him real questions that I know he didn’t really have an answer to. I know that him not having that answer, it kind of pulled him back from some of that shit a little bit. Not completely, 'cause he’s still Kanye.

I know I saw it in his eyes, and when I asked how he felt about hurting people, about putting that hat on -- he hadn’t considered that. He hadn’t considered it, because he hadn’t intended to hurt any of the people. Then, even when we talked about the TMZ “slavery was a choice” thing, he asked me, “Hey man, listen. All I need you to do, I’m working through something and my spirit is telling me I need to move a certain way. But what I need you to do is trust me that I mean no harm and let me get it out. Don’t let them destroy me before I get it out.” I said, “All right. No more surprises, right?” He said, “Nah.” I said, “Cool. I’m on.”

That might have been the first day he dropped “Ye vs. The People” unbeknownst to me. He just dropped it. I had no idea, and someone just commented about a song with me and Kanye and said they’re playing it on [LA hip-hop station] Power 106 right now. That’s when I took it upon myself to do press and explain to people where he’s coming from.

We were doing so good, then the Charlamagne interview dropped and people were like, “Oh, OK.” Then, he went to TMZ and I was like, “Yo, we said no more surprises.” He said, “Well, I kind of figured that wouldn’t go well, but something in my spirit told me to do it. People hate me right now, but at least they’re having the conversation that they needed to be having and if it takes the hate of me to come together and have this discussion, then it was worth it."

He said 400 years of slavery was a choice. He’s like, “We have to empty all of the shit we have learned out.” We’ve been so indoctrinated with bullshit that we have to empty our bucket out and refill it. It’s not going to come easy and people ain’t going to enjoy that.

To be honest with you, for awhile, Ye -- I don’t want to say he was ostracized, but he didn’t get the love and acceptance from the community that he felt he worked so hard to represent and put it all on the line for. With the Taylor Swift [VMA interruption] shit, even though it came from the bottom of a bottle of Hennessy, he felt like he was doing that in defense of Beyoncé.

He felt he was doing that in defense of black culture, to make MTV respect us, our culture and contributions, and not put us aside for someone who looks like them physically but patterns us musically. When it happened and shit hit the fan and the president [Barack Obama] called him a jackass, and his relationship with Jay and Bey, he felt like people didn’t come to his defense. That, on top of his mom dying and that was his connection to the less privileged part of the world. That was just a lot.

He’s being welcomed by these fascist Republicans. Now, I can imagine why. I don’t know if he sees it that way. He might see it as the support he always should have gotten from this community. It’s like, “These motherfuckers see that I’m the shit. They know my potential. They see what I can do. They want me on their side.” That’s my interpretation from being around it as long as I have.

You’ve worked with Kanye on “Swagger Like Us” and you had him on "Welcome to the World" with Kid Cudi. That Kanye, that caliber, does he still exist in 2018? Have you heard Ye?

I did. I heard it. I thought it was dope. I think Ye was dope the same way 808s and Heartbreak was dope. I think it’s conceptual and thoughtful. It ain’t have as many big hits on it as there was on Pablo or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Graduation. It don’t got like those types of records, but you could listen to it from the top to the bottom and it’s cohesive. It tells a story of a man in a transformation.

That’s why it’s all over the place and cohesive at the same time, because he doesn’t know where he’s going to land. If I did an album while I’m jumping out of the sky, I’m skydiving, from different altitudes you’re going to get different versions of me. As I come closer to the ground, oh shit! [Laughs] That’s kind of where it is. You just got to invest into an artist. If you’re willing to invest into an artist, you ride from the top to the bottom.

Some friends, you might love 'em to death and they might be your real partners, but you not finna go on no eight-hour road trip. You just not gon’ do it. Kanye just want motherfuckers to just get in the car and go on a road trip and let the moment take us where it takes us. The motherfuckers who are willing to get in the car, I feel like when they get there, it’ll all make sense.

If you don’t get in the car, why even critique which route he chooses to take? If you ain’t in the car, why are you like, “Why are you going that way for? That’s the long way.” You not in the car, though. So you either get in the car, take the trip, or get the fuck out the car, and don’t comment on the route that’s being taken. I feel like that’s fair.  

You used to get busy back in the day when the gloves needed to come off. You went against both Lil Flip and Shawty Lo. With the Pusha T and Drake beef, do you think Pusha went over the line?

I would have thought that, had it not been for the mention of [Pusha's] fiancée in Drake’s verse. When Drake mentioned his fiancée, you kind of opened the lines up. It’s whatever now. OK, you mentioned my fiancée, all right, cool. Now I have to mention some shit to bother you the way it bothered me. You don’t have a fiancée. I’m going to have to dig deep into this. I’m going to have to unpack this. Take what they call a deep dive. [Laughs] I would have felt that he went too far had it not been for that comment that Drake made.

To be honest with you, what Drake said, it was one of the least dopest lines that gave justification for all the rest of the stuff that would come. I think anything goes after a mention of the significant other, the person who I sleep with, who I have to lead, who I have to maintain my authoritative presence in front of -- you compromise that, I’m going to have to show her that you ain’t shit. I’ma have to win in her eyes.

Do you think you can be considered the best rapper alive if you don’t write your own lyrics?

Nope. You may be the best artist, or the best entertainer, but the best rapper alive must write his own lyrics. He simply must.