Rapper T.I. on Prison, Weapons, Death Threats, Drugs, Justin Timberlake, 'Tower Heist'
Fresh off an 11-month prison stint, chart-topping rapper T.I. has released his debut novel, Power & Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets. He tells Marlow Stern about what inspired his novel, the death threats that drove him to purchase illegal weapons, how he was almost cast in Eddie Murphy’s role in Tower Heist, and more.
In the chorus to “Rubber Band Man,” the hit single off rapper T.I.’s 2003 sophomore album, Trap Muzik, which launched him to stardom, the Atlanta-born MC boasts in his trademark Southern drawl, “Rubber band man / Wild as the Taliban / 9 in my right / 45 in my other hand / Call me trouble man / Always in trouble man …”
And he was, indeed, always in trouble. Born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., T.I. was raised primarily by his grandparents and, at 17, lost his father to Alzheimer’s. That same year, he reached the height of his drug dealing. T.I. eventually abandoned the drug game in favor of rhyming, and his aforementioned album Trap Muzik went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide. His subsequent albums sold more and more, including his platinum-selling 2006 album, King, which included the Grammy-winning hit single “What You Know.” Shortly after the release of his next (and fifth) studio album, T.I. vs. T.I.P., his best friend and personal assistant, Philant Johnson, was gunned down after a nightclub fracas between T.I.’s entourage and a group of Cincinnati criminals. T.I. was subsequently arrested on weapons charges and sentenced to a year in prison. Then, in September 2010, he was arrested under dubious circumstances and charged with possession of ecstasy. He was sentenced last October to 11 months in prison, and was released at midnight on Sept. 29.
Now “clean and sober,” the rapper has released his debut novel, Power & Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets, co-written by David Ritz. It’s the story of Power, an impressionable young man who’s guided by his shady mentor, Slim, through a world of sex, drugs, and crime—all to woo his seemingly unattainable crush, Beauty. The book, which reads like The Great Gatsby meets Boyz N the Hood, is the first in a planned trilogy for T.I.
In a sit-down interview with The Daily Beast, T.I. opens up about what inspired his novel, the death threats that led him to purchase his illegal arsenal, how he was almost cast in Eddie Murphy’s role in the upcoming movie Tower Heist, his frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake—and much more.
There seems to be a lot of your personal story in your novel, Power & Beauty. I read that your grandparents raised you and your father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in your teenage years. That must have been tough.
My father didn’t develop Alzheimer’s until I was about 17, so my early years with my father are my fondest memories of him. He was playful; he joked a lot. As a kid, he just showered us with all kinds of extravagant gifts and such. Going to his house was like going to a house with an unlimited supply of everything a kid could want: cable TV, sodas, snacks, takeout food, all these tennis shoes, and everything. Pops was just a cool cat, man. But I still lived with my mom and I bounced back and forth with my grandparents.
What was your childhood like? I heard your “rubber band man” nickname originated pretty early on.
Well, it originated from my years in the drug game. My peak in the drug game was probably at 17 years old. Initially, it signified how much money I anticipated handling throughout that day, and if I needed to wrap a lot of money up, I would wear more rubber bands.
How much cash did one rubber band equal?
About $1,000, depending on the types of deals you were handling.
Why do you think you initially got into the drug game?
Lack of options, you know what I’m saying? That was the game that yielded the most profit, and it was right outside my door. It was the easiest to get into.
I see you still wear the rubber bands.
That represents the struggle and people who are still in the [drug] game and wanting to get out.
Where does your rap name, T.I., come from?
Tip was my great-grandfather’s name, and my father named me Tip. Tip was my rap name until after [record label] LaFace merged with Arista, and Q-Tip was a prominent artist on Arista, and they couldn’t have two “Tip”s, so I had to change my name. So T.I. was just, “We’ll go with that!”
Power’s “mentor” in the novel, Slim, looms large in the story. Did you have a mentor like Slim when you were younger?
I observed people. No one really mentored me in the drug game on purpose. I just observed their actions, saw how they moved, and if I saw that they were successful, I began to pattern myself after them. A mentor is a time-consuming position to play in someone’s life, so I can’t say I have a mentor either in my music career. I don’t know if anyone is that invested in my well-being in music, as it stands.
What parallels do you see between yourself and Power, the central character of your novel?
Man, aside from us being young and in the inner city and being smart and observant, personality-wise, me at that age and him at that age, we were worlds apart. He wants to do the right thing and is led away from doing the right thing. My first priority as a teenager was doing the wrong thing, and I had to be led back to doing the right thing.
Is your wife, Tameka, your “Beauty”?
[Laughs] Nah, man, Tameka’s just a little bit older than me. She is now my beauty. But I don’t know if I could be invested enough to continue to want a woman … it was so interesting to me because he wanted so much what he couldn’t have. If I can’t have it I just don’t want it no more, or if I want something so much, I’m going to get it. I’m not just going to admire it from afar.
So how did you come about writing this novel?
It was the beginning of 2010 when I was introduced to [co-writer] David Ritz, and we were introduced to possibly do an autobiography because I was just getting out of my first prison situation. I was and still am reluctant to do this autobiography because I can’t figure out how to end it. And at 31, I feel like I’m too young to do an autobiography. So he said he wanted to do a fictional novel in the world I lived in, and we just began exchanging dialogue and developing a story. It took from the beginning of 2010 until about May of 2011. I finished it while I was in prison. I actually had more time on my hands than anything!
I’ve always been curious about the initial weapons arrest, and why you needed this heavy arsenal of automatic machine guns with silencers on them.
Well, to understand that, you need to understand my specific circumstances. An attempt was made on my life, and the life of a friend [Philant Johnson] was taken. Those people had never been brought to justice. They were still out there and I was getting anonymous threats. They were identifying themselves as the ones who initiated that first attack, saying, “We’re going to finish the job … We know where you live,” so I was advised by my security to upgrade the equipment. Quite naturally, I was paranoid and concerned about mine and my family’s safety.
And with the more recent drugs arrest, I read the report, and it said the police smelled the odor of marijuana coming from your car, yet failed to find any in the vehicle. Do you think the cops targeted you?
Any time you smell it and don’t find it, it’s going to make you scratch your head. If you smelled it, and that was your reason, and you never found it or charged him with it, did you really smell it? But that’s neither here nor there. I’m beyond that and ain’t even dwelling on that no more.
In a situation like prison, they say that’s when you find out who your real friends are. Did your friends visit you or send you letters in prison?
Man, honestly, I got a lot of support, but even with people who try to contact you and be supportive, you have to question their motives. Are they looking to get in on a momentary time where you’re separated from society so that they can expect something in return later? I’m just happy that I’m beyond that now.
Did you have any incidents in prison where people tried to give you shit?
Man, nothing I can’t handle.
OK, so one of my favorite pop songs ever is “My Love,” with you and Justin Timberlake. But word is he’s not doing music anymore.
I mean, he’s a multifaceted individual, and I think the sky’s the limit for him.
Are you two going to collaborate again?
Sure! Man, I’m down. If not in music, maybe in movies. We’ll do a remake of 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon or something. [Laughs]
You had a very successful acting career yourself before prison with roles in ATL, American Gangster, and Takers, which you also produced. Are you looking to get back into the acting game?
Yeah, sure. I’m looking at stuff right now. All I’ll say is I’m looking to do comedy. Actually, man, I was supposed to be in Tower Heist. I was “indisposed.” Me and Brian Grazer, who produced American Gangster, were speaking about it when it was just a script and Brett [Ratner] hadn’t even came on to direct it yet, so it was years ago. After that, it went away, then came back with Brett attached to it and Ben Stiller, and I was reconsidered, and Brett and I had some very, very positive discussions about it and I was right there. And then life happened. But I still believe it’s going to be a good movie.
So with rap, now that you’re free, whom are you dying to collaborate with?
Frank Ocean … Alicia Keys, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift … I could go on and on.
The Taylor Swift thing is interesting because one of your first performances after you were freed was when you performed a duet with her at her concert in Georgia.
She called me to come out and asked if I would perform “Live Your Life” with her. I had a wonderful time, man, and I really do appreciate them calling on me to come out. It was so strange, because my friends were backstage just like, “Man, you see how different it is how they rock and we rock?” And my friend was like, “Man, do you realize what just happened? You just went from the federal penitentiary to walking out onstage with America’s sweetheart. Do you recognize the significance of this?”
You’ve also got this upcoming reality show on VH1.
It premieres Dec. 5, and it’s basically a peek inside my life—the balance between the person and the professional—and how everyone in my family has a hustle of some sort, and how we apply that hustle together and we help support each other in our goals.
So what else does the future hold for you?
Akoo for Women, my clothing line … I’m really just focused on music, finding the right film, expanding my brand, diversifying as an artist and a man, and remaining on the right track. That’s it.