King of the South

It’s shortly after five o’clock in the afternoon on Tues., May 2nd, and T.I. is chilling in a Cincinnati hotel room, whiling away the hours before he’s due onstage at Bogart’s, a popular club located near the University of Cincinnati. Like any monarch kicking back in the castle before his subjects arrive, the King of the South sounds alternately bored and amused as he awaits sunset and his time in the spotlight. An entourage – including his close friend and personal assistant Pliant Johnson, security guard Ronald Hausley, friend Janice Gillespie and a kid T.I. refers to as his “lil pardner” – float in and out of the room, as rap’s latest superstar endures his umpteenth phone interview of the tour.

Twenty-five years ago, T.I. was born Clifford Harris, Jr., and raised in West Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood – a dead-end, blue collar district where most young black men fall into the Trap, the drug-dealing, thug lifestyle, and cycle through prison and street life until an early death.

“My pops was mostly out of town, but my mom was around,” T.I. says of his childhood. “She would take me to grandmama’s house and leave me there to straighten me out – I appreciate it a lot more now than I appreciated it then,” he adds with a hearty laugh.

Even in a world where felons are heroes and gun battles are just another cost of doing business, T.I. is a walking dichotomy.

His grandmother’s intervention notwithstanding, he never really straightened out – today, his rap sheet lists charges for possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and parole violation, among various other misdemeanors.

Even so, the M.C. has successfully replaced the Trap with the Game, exchanging his corner trade for a stake in the music biz.

“I guess I just speak well and relate to people,” T.I. says of his transformation from hustler to entertainer. “I came from such humble beginnings, and I speak of the struggle in a way they are familiar with.”

“For me, rap was not a method of survival. It was just something I decided to do, a natural way to exercise my creativity,” he continues, naming Tupac, B.I.G., Jay-Z, OutKast, UGK, NWA, Scarface and LL Cool J as his early inspirations.

His drive to succeed, he says, is a natural reaction to a difficult life. “It’s sheer will,” he maintains in a determined voice.

T.I. Photo by Christian Landry

T.I. Photo by Christian Landry

Clearly, T.I. doesn’t mess around. In five short years, he has parlayed that creativity into a multi-million dollar business, piling on more accolades than most men do in a lifetime. He’s recorded a handful of unforgettable singles, such as “Rubber Band Man” and “Bring ‘Em Out,” inked a $2 million joint venture deal with Atlantic Records, released four albums, including the platinum-selling Urban Legend, and a stellar follow-up, King, released this spring, received multiple Grammy nominations, launched a sneaker line, and opened a nightclub, Club Crucial.

“They didn’t seem to be intimidated by my intentions to be an executive as well as an artist,” T.I. says of his relationship with Atlantic, forged after deserting Arista (and tastemaker L.A. Reid) in 2001. “They gave me the funds I needed to operate my imprint, Grand Hustle. They didn’t mind giving me the deal I was looking for, which was a joint venture structure rather than a regular royalty.”

“At that time,” he proudly notes, “there were only a few people with joint ventures – Cash Money, Master P, Jay Z, possibly Murder Inc and the Rough Riders. I was definitely the youngest person trying to get in.”

Prodded to give up the secret of his success, T.I. sighs impatiently. It’s easy to imagine him propped up in the hotel bed, rolling his eyes at the question, or absently flipping channels via the remote control. “It’s simple: I sell records,” he finally offers. “I make sure I make more money than I spend.”

This year, the King of the South padded his bank account by making the now-familiar leap to the silver screen, starring in the urban flick ATL.

T.I. has also waved his scepter over more earthbound matters, raising $236,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims and pouring a chunk of his wealth into the waning Bankhead community.

“As King of the South, I’ve got to be the first in line to move when the South is in trouble,” he states. “Otherwise, I’m not worthy of the title. With great reward comes great responsibility.”

“We have about 40-50 properties constructed or renovated,” he says, brightening at the thought of his Bankhead construction company, New Finish. “It’s definitely an uphill battle, but you have to start somewhere – in order to travel a hundred miles, you’ve got to take that first step. Now, you can turn the corner and where you used to see landfills, vacant lots and dumping sites, you see residences.”

Incredibly, T.I. has accomplished all this despite a lengthy stint in jail after being picked up on parole violations.

“Eight months? It was more like ten,” he responds when asked about the 2004 sentence that threatened to sidetrack his career.

“ I got discouraged at times, but while I was in, I stayed positive that I had time to make up for all of that, which is what I’ve been doing since I came out,” he says.

“I read and worked out a little bit,” he recalls of lock-up. “I might be conducting a little business over the phone. But that’s all you could do – read and empower your mind, make yourself knowledgeable and learn things that you never took time to learn on the outside. Since I couldn’t do many physical things, I learned to better myself in that way.”

That knowledge translates into fierce rhymes, such as the lyrics in the song “Live in the Sky,” where T.I. raps, “Catch 22/Either you lose or you lose/That’s the way the game structured/For real niggas to suffer/And I ain’t never been a busta.”

“You don’t got to ball when you’re young,” he explains. “Put yourself in the position where you can create opportunities. Become enough of an entity, and you’ll be able to ball as an adult. Knowledge is power – the more you learn, the more of a commodity you’ll become.”

Yet T.I. seems to have difficulty following his own advice. “That’s something I’m working on all the time,” he admits with a heavy sigh. “I’m getting better at dealing with the day-to-day. Right now, I’m just trying to get the things out of my life that make me react. I’m working on minimizing my circumstantial situations.”

Unfortunately, in a few short hours, the day-to-day is about to drastically change. Following his Bogart’s performance, fate steps in, taking the form of four gunmen who take a dislike to the King of the South after an altercation in the parking lot of Cincinnati’s Ritz nightclub, the location of a post-concert party.

According to bystanders, T.I. urges his entourage to leave after a local contingent takes offense to the Southerners, who have tossed money off the stage in a sign of bravado. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he insists, unaware that the locals have piled into an SUV and are now following him southbound down I-75. Shots ring out, and Hausley and Gillespie are injured. Pliant Johnson is killed.

Adding insult to injury, two days after serving as a pallbearer at Johnson’s funeral, T.I. will be taken into custody in Tampa, Fla., for an outstanding warrant. It seems that old business – assault on a police officer, trespassing and disorderly conduct charges and suspended license violations – remains unfinished, and a judge heaps hundreds of hours of community service on the young rapper.

But for now, all that ugliness sits beyond the horizon, and T.I.’s focusing his energy on his current tour and the new album.

“Everybody’s showing love. We’ve been very well received,” he says, blissfully unaware of the disaster that awaits him.

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