The global community and culture of hip-hop have been lucky enough to have a few artists with a reach so wide that those buried in the underground and those who turn to radio and night clubs to feed their souls, can agree on their significance.
City Press had a virtual conversation with one such artist from Atlanta, the epicentre of the dominant sound in hip-hop.
Tip “T.I.” Harris is best known for lighting the streets of the world on fire with hits like What You Know, Whatever You Like and Swagger Like Us to name a few.
He’s also regarded as a pioneer of Trap music with the first contribution to this avenue of hip-hop being his Trap Muzik album in 2003.
Speaking on a global media run for his latest album L.I.B.R.A, the rapper is seated in his expediTIously Podcast studio, looking weathered from work but with that air of street swag colliding with boardroom smarts.
T.I. made news earlier this year when he answered local rapper Nasty C’s request [for the former] to appear on his Def Jam Recordings debut, A Zulu Man with Some Power. The young rapper from Durban has been very clear about his idolisation of Harris, perhaps to the detriment of his own sound.
The rubber band man had nothing but respect and praise for Nasty C and the SA hip-hop movement.
Explaining whether or not this was done so as to position himself to gain more access to the South African audio markets T.I. in his southern accent and cadence, says: “If I can be an asset to you then definitely. So long as it’s dope, I aint gon’ do no wack things. Just like Nasty C and I, we connected very effortlessly. I spent maybe two or three months in Cape Town filming Monster Hunter which should be coming out soon [December 30]. We was (sic) in Cederberg. So, while I was there, and on our way to set, my cousin who is also my assistant, would be playing some Nasty C or some AKA and different artists.”
He reached out to Nasty C on Instagram and two weeks later Nasty C sent him a record with a request for a verse which is now housed on one of T.I’s two appearances on that album. Harris says he also enjoyed working on a pre-existing track which we now know to be They Don’t.
“It was a phenomenal experience and I welcome the opportunity to do it again with him or anyone else who is doing dope work.”
Trap is almost a refinement of gangster rap, street ideals and the culture of drug addiction, at times depicting both sides of that transaction.
Or as T.I. explained at his NPR Tiny Desk Top performance in 2018: “Trap music is about the elements people have to endure in their lives everyday and find a brighter side. To make a way out of nowhere and that’s what this music represents.”
When he released arguably the crown jewel in his collection King (2006), Nasty’s favourite T.I. album, he also dipped one foot into what would become the warm waters of cinema, with yet another attempt at telling the story of his city, Atlanta. He has since been in screen classics as American Gangster, Takers and Sleepless alongside Jamie Foxx.
We were urged to steer clear of a 2019 scandal that involved the rapper accompanying his then 18-year-old daughter to visit the gynaecologists to check on the state of her hymen. He rather publicly described the visit and how he wanted the results expeditiously which saw him come under fire. Hence his reservation to engage on this subject.
The forefather of trap is also not unaccustomed to run-ins with the law which even saw him famously serve sentences on federal gun charges and probation violations in 2009 and 2010. However, this presented an opportunity to grow seeds he planted when he was younger.
“Confinement helped me learn a lot of things. I already had a love for vocabulary, early. I had an affinity for literature even in school. I always made 100s on my spelling tests, that, and maths. Social studies and science,” he explains.
He makes a groaning sound while waving his hand horizontally before adding: “I didn’t get it. The language is part of those things I always had, they caught my attention and I could apply myself a lot better.”
He credits a high school teacher of his named Ms Pearson for helping to rein in his focus for language around the time he started getting involved in the street life. He missed a lot of school, walking into classes late but Ms Pearson tapped into his love for music when she caught him writing raps.
“She made me rap in front of the class or something like that, and I did. The class was like oooohhh, you know what I’m saying.”
He allowed this teacher to open him up to parts of language that he is now regarded among the most skilled in using and as a result his run has been legendary.
Trap music has spread from Atlanta to places as far as our shores, slowly filtering its way through other genres, altering their compositions to resemble the steely sonics of trap.
T.I. says: “It’s surreal to have something as impactful, urgent, relevant and lucrative as trap music is. To be the one who kind of set it off, ya dig? Trap music did not exist. There was no description of the sound before my second album.”
He explains how the idea behind the monolithic Trap Muzik album was inspired by a song called Dope Boyz on his magnum opus, I’m Serious. That album was draped with other flavours of hip-hop which was done to garner the attention of the States at large with music from the Southern States being shunned for a time in hip-hop.
“When we saw the most successful, the most sort after, the more listened to, the most consumed record was Dope Boyz then I said if that’s what they want, give them an entire album, full of it. Call it Trap Muzik.”
It was a portrait of his life as a 21-year-old in the streets. When the album was released, he was only 23.
“That is what became the voice for an entire community of young men and women that weren’t being spoken for at the time.”
He says being an architect of this genre is an honour and he believes all the artists who have played a part in shaping this sometime sordid style of music albeit inspirational in a dark way, should be respected.
The 40-year-old wears a Trap Music Museum hoodie of which he’s the founder and curator.
“I’m just trying to do dope s@@t, trying to continue to do dope s@@t. I want to make sure what I do today is as dope to the community as the stuff I did two decades ago. When I did things two decades ago, I was doing it from a place of telling y’all what’s going on. This is what’s is happening out here, y’all aint up on that, let me put you up on game.”
He attributes that messaging to spending the majority of his time back then, on the block. Of course, now things have changed, he has a successful music stable, is largely responsible for bringing us Young Thug, mentoring Travis Scott and his film career is sitting at around 20 cinematic appearances. The flip side of the coin is often ignored when it comes to trap. Consider the name for the genre, trap, a device designed for the enclosure and entrapment of animals.
His latest album L.I.B.R.A [The Legend is Back Running Atlanta] is a decent listen with standouts being Ring with Young Thug, Make Amends with Benny The Butcher and Jadakiss as well as a track called Horizons, to name a few.
Watch T.I. explain how some of the features on his album came about as well as unearthing the multi-talented D Smoke on Netflix’s rap talent search, Rhythm + Flow