T.I. On Making Grown Up Trap Music, Bar Hopping with Dave Chappelle & Recording With Outkast

Jenny Regan

T.I. photographed on Oct. 1, 2018 in New York City.

T.I. is a man of many words. He has a mellifluous way of speaking, pulling from an impressive lexicon that makes everything sound — whether intended or not — really, really profound. “I’ve done a lot of living,” he tells Billboard. “With a lot of living comes a lot of lessons. With a lot of lessons, comes a lot of wisdom.” It’s late afternoon on the rooftop of Epic Records in New York City. Although we’re overlooking the bustle of Madison Square Park, it’s relatively Zen up here. Stalks of bamboo -- it’s unclear whether real or artificial --are laid out and lingering employees take in the unseasonably warm October weather.   

T.I. is promoting this tenth studio album, Dime Trap, which is out today (Oct. 5). It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Atlanta native who used to visit the city as a teenager. “I used to get into fights because motherfuckers used to call me ‘country’,” he remembers, his Southern drawl intensifying. “Until they saw I could fight!” At 38 years-old, Clifford Harris has lived several lifetimes. An originator of trap music, he’s enjoyed both hip-hop and pop success. He’s since evolved into a modern family man -- bolstered by the reality show T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle -- as well as a hip-hop elder statesman. He’s been vocal about issues that he cares about, including lambasting Kanye West for his support of Pres. Trump.   

“I’m blessed,” he muses in a wide-ranging interview about the album, working with Dave Chappelle and the trap museum he's working on in his hometown.    

It’s been 17 years since you released I’m Serious. Creatively, what’s your head space now?

It’s always to encourage and inspire those that are stuck in the lifestyle, to inform those who know nothing about the lifestyle and to make jammin’ ass music in the process. That’s always the intention. Reflect on things that I’ve learned, epiphanies that I’ve reached. You know, challenge the perspectives of yesteryear.

The album features Meek Mill, Young Thug, Anderson .Paak and others. How did you select guests?

The music selected them for me. I kinda did records with people who I had the best relationships with. You know what I mean? I don’t really vibe too much with reaching out to people on the cold introduction.

You’re not someone who links through DM on Instagram?

I might’ve tried it once but it wasn’t successful.

Who did you hit?

Kehlani. She responded, but we didn’t get the song done. But then I hit Teyana Taylor and she responded immediately, got it done immediately. That’s the record that made it on the album. I’m more proud that it happened that way because it derives from a personal acquaintance.

You have comedian Dave Chappelle doing a voiceover on Dime Trap. How did that come about?

That derives from a personal acquaintance. We spent a lot of time hanging out, leisurely. I’m a fan of his. We usually start at a show -- maybe his show, maybe my show. Usually we start there, then go somewhere. Never a big, big club. Usually a small dive bar.

What are you drinking at a dive bar? Beer?

Scotch. Hibiki; Japanese scotch. Macallan. Johnnie Walker Blue. Man, we relate to one another so much. We’ve reached a certain level of uber success, but we still maintain strong footing on our foundation. We don’t wanna get our heads too far up in the clouds but we wanna go up there just long enough to get as much as we can and then, bring it right back down. We need to find a place to come back to that’s solid.

What’s your place of anchoring?

Home. I got children. I have an actual relationship with the universe where I’m in tuned with what goes on around me and how significant these things really are.

For many people, they need an ah-ha moment to realize what’s important. Did you have that?

Prison. Federal prison. That’s going to put everything into perspective, as far as how quickly things can dissipate. Your freedom. All of the accolades that you walk around with to boost your ego. All this shit can be gone. If it’s gone, then what? If you don’t have a solidified structure that you can ground yourself to, you’ll be out there floating in the clouds with the rest of them.

You’re currently working on an “Escape the Trap” Museum in Atlanta. Tell me about that.

We curated it from conception. The purpose of it was to acknowledge the most significant contributors to the culture. Secondly, inform those who may be least knowledgeable about the genre. And inspire those who are in the environment that inspires the genre.

Do you feel responsible to be an arbiter of trap?

I consider myself a founder.

What you do want to accomplish with this album?

Evolution. Not just me as an artist but trap music, what the preconceived notion of it is. I want to diversify it and also, I guess, allow it the ability to mature.

What does the grown up trapper evolve to?

You operate within the lifestyle but understand that these are means to an end. Understand this isn’t a lifetime game. You need an exit strategy. Save your money. Start businesses. Buy real estate. Instead of contributing to the crack houses that run down the community, you purchase land and build. You become a cornerstone of the community rather than a parasite to the community.

Meek Mill has faced legal issues similar to what you’ve experienced. Do you talk to him about that?

All the time. Every step of the way. That’s like a little brother to me, so every step that he goes through, I’m always there for any added support, insight, advice. We speak all the time. We just spoke yesterday — we’re not going through much of anything — just to check in and make sure everything is straight. If I’m going through something, he’s gonna hit me.

Jenny Regan
T.I. photographed on Oct. 1, 2018 in New York City.

You’re known for dropping gems of wisdom. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

The key to life is moderation. Too much of anything is good for nothing. I’m excessive in nature. I’m a risk-taker. I feel that’s what got me here. If I wanted to do something safe, I would’ve graduated from high school and learned how to work for a white man. You dig?

In high school, did you have a plan B in case hip-hop didn’t work out?

I mean, drugs. Trapping. The drug trade, you know. I just hoped I could connect myself to a plug and leave enough work to legitimize myself some other way, shape, form or fashion. Like, Ghost from Power [Laughs].

What do you think is your purpose in life?

Speaking up for people who can’t speak for themselves and supporting something bigger than me. I don’t know what it is yet. Could be the revolt. Supporting something bigger than me, bigger than music. I think all of this is just to get me the platform that will allow me to benefit a greater cause — not just me. The greater good of all.

You’re outspoken out about social issues, including debating Kanye West on his affinity for Trump. Do you feel a responsibility to say something?

To each his own. You do what you can, man, and mind what you can’t. As long as I put forth a diligent effort, I spoke my mind. I was sincerely genuine about bringing about change. Sometimes change don’t happen when you want it. Sometimes it happens organically and you don’t dictate that. I just do everything that I can and never mind what I can't.

At this point, you’ve worked with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Rihanna. Is there anyone you still want to collaborate with?

A song with Outkast.

Have you spoken to them?

I think, approaching the monstrous success of Outkast is… Dre don’t mind doing something if it’s Dre. Big don’t mind doing something if it’s Big. They don’t mind coming together to tour to commemorate their [past] success. But to come out with something new? Keep your fingers crossed.

Outside of music, what’s left on your bucket list?

Flying a plane. I want to learn how to fly.

You want to buy a plane?

I was always taught that uh, what’s the saying? “The things that you drive, fly or fuck, you want to lease.” [Laughs]. I learned that from an old, rich, white man. The upkeep, the maintenance on these items far exceeds the benefits.

Put it out in the universe. Maybe next year, you’ll be flying your plane to an Outkast recording session.

Ya dig? That’s what I’m saying. Sounds like a plan.