Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. – rapper, father, entrepreneur, actor, reality star T.I. – has never had a problem speaking his mind; not in his role as truth-telling trap music avatar, reflecting on the ways of coming up hard in his Atlanta hometown; not in the lived-in advice given by him and his wife, songwriter Tameka ‘Tiny’ Cottle, throughout VH1’s long-running series “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle;” and not in a political outlook he’s shared with his friends and fans.
In the last 24 hours, most of T.I.’s advice has been geared toward Kanye West. Following West’s White House visit to see and praise Donald Trump, T.I., who has written newspaper op-ed pieces on the President’s role in promoting hate and inequality, is mad at Trump, but madder still at West, who he has disavowed on Instagram.
Variety caught up with the rapper to talk about his latest, and arguably smartest, album, “Dime Trap” (out this week on Grand Hustle/Epic), just ahead of the October 22 season launch for “T.I. & Tiny.”
You’re a true pioneer of trap, what with 2003’s “Trap Muzik.” Do you feel that those who have taken from that sound – and it is everywhere in hip hop – owes you some debt of gratitude, or do you view it as something to be shared?
To be honest, my whole intention in making “Trap Musik” was to represent a walk of life, a formal representation. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. There was a lot of party music at that time, a lot of glitz and glamor, and there was conscious music. Yes, there was music about the drug trade, but there wasn’t anything as vivid and real about the dealers, that elaborated on the life – to humanize it all in a way that “Trap Muzik” did. I don’t think a debt of gratitude is owed. My thoughts concurred with so many. I’m just happy to play an instrumental part in creating a lane that allowed people to express themselves.
But you even brought the sway and the swagger of those lyrics to life in the music and the rhythm.
For me, it’s always come down to the subject matter. For others, it’s been about sounds. There is no right or wrong to it. No definite way to do it. If you are being true to the culture, the lifestyle of people who are forced to live in under-served areas of society, and who have little to no other opportunities than to deal in the drug trade…. It is a means to an end.
Speaking of the underserved, Kanye West was meant to address some of those issues during his visit to the White House, but clearly the message got lost. You described his action as “the most repulsive, disgraceful, embarrassing act of desperation and auctioning off of one’s soul to gain power I’ve ever seen.” Tell us how you really feel…
To be honest, if something good comes of it, great. But you don’t just sell out a bunch of people to get nothing done. You don’t sell out a whole generation and a whole race of people to get nothing done. He spoke to me about joining in that meeting, and I said I’ll will need someone a whole lot smarter than me to be in that meeting — a Minister Farrakhan, an Ambassador Andy Young, a Harry Belafonte. I told Kanye straight up that If I could go in with them, I’m going. The conversation went away. Look, I’m no politician. Mine is an accidental activism that I stumbled into. I am very new. Far be it for me to think that I can go in and negotiate terms with a president, and not be taken advantage of. That’s stupid.
What would you say?
I would have to address: What is with the constant disrespect and disregard for the lives of black Americans that you continue to display over and over and over again? How can you continue to galvanize white supremacy and ignore all of the plight of the underserved members of our community? Until that is addressed I can’t, in good faith, believe that we could negotiate any terms on anything. When you go into a meeting you need to have mutual respect. If you’ve shown me and my people nothing but disrespect, it is impossible to have mutual respect – that’s what I told Kanye when he talked to me about going with him. It ain’t the meeting that’s the problem, it’s that Kanye went in there shucking, jiving and tap-dancing and hugging, saying, “How much do you love this man?” when you don’t even know this man. He seemed like he even made Trump uncomfortable [by being] so affectionate. Bro, what you doing? You don’t go in there shucking and jiving and behaving that way, it’s hurtful and regressive on so many levels. That was how I felt.
Two things that come through in the lyrics of “Dime Trap” are consolidation of power and the consequences of one’s actions.
Those are two broad strokes, you are correct in that. I can expound: When Spiderman first got bit by that spider and found how he had these powers, and dealt with it.. versus how he dealt with it in “Spiderman 3” (laughs). He had to learn those powers for good. My first album was me going, ‘I got these f—ing powers. Woah! This s— is cool.” This album is me saying, “What good can I do to benefit more people beyond myself?” When I made that first “Trap,” it was about a guy, a young man, who lived a certain lifestyle and engaged in certain activities. He did this for so long, and was exiting out of that world and stepping into a very new world of music, entertainment and celebrity. What was he bringing from the old world into the new, and how he was adapting… his philosophies, his opinions and how that all meshed together. That was the first album. This new album is basically ‘OK, I lived that life a long time ago, and I made the transition into this new lifestyle.’ There are my thoughts on what I learned, my epiphanies. The messages. It was about growth and evolution – of me and trap.
You even mention going to marriage counseling on “Seasons.” That’s brave for hip hop.
Also related to family and children. Your son produced “Light Day” on “Dime Trap” and you recently wrote songs for the Broadway musical “SpongeBob Square Pants” with another of your kids. You and Tiny have made a point of making and maintaining a dynasty in very real and organic way. How did you know that your kids could handle it?
Well, first of all my son had been working on beats in the basement beyond my knowledge for quite some time. When he approached me with the music, I was impressed to say the least. After we recorded it, I decided to keep it. It wasn’t a matter of him being ready for it, I surprised as to how truly good it is.
You mentioned accidental activism earlier, so I have to ask about your ‘Buy Back the Block’ program in Atlanta. Your activism seems more purposeful than something you tripped over.
Yeah, but I would not have done it solely for activism, It was business. I would not have allowed myself to submerge so much of my finances into a project, if I did not see great utility for business.
Yeah, but you made sure that some of the houses in your original neighborhood being refurbished and resold at a higher market value went to those who might not be able to afford them at present.
I got into real estate in 2000, and my original intention was to rehab homes, buy houses, where people used to sell crack. I wanted to turn crack houses into single family homes. But after we did over two dozen of them, we saw that some of them were crack houses again. That was disheartening. In order to make real progressive steps, we had to develop whole communities, then just do houses at a time.
You have been doing this for a minute, and therefore are considered a statesman of hip-hop. What do you make of feuds between Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly or Cardi B and Nicki Minaj? And how do you stay above the fray?
I have discrepancies with people I don’t’ see eye-to-eye with, but I keep it out of public consumption. When you do present those discrepancies in public, it becomes more like WWF wrestling than anything else. But Eminem and MGK? Rap battling is the attitude that made hip-hop great. For as long as I have been listening, they’ve talked about the sucker MC. For us to bring out the very best in us, we have to create that imaginary adversary – that pulls the most creative application of skills out of us. Sometime it goes overboard. The Cardi and Nicki thing; that’s a woman’s thing. I don’t address it. It’s like the Marvel universe – there’s good, there’s bad on-camera and off-camera. I don’t let myself be part of it, because it usually all blows over in the end.