Rapper T.I. out to make a difference
In the middle of a discussion of his long-awaited album, “The Dime Trap,” rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris lets loose a full-throated, gravelly laugh that lasts about 15 seconds. He had just mentioned that he stopped working on “The Dime Trap” to focus on his recent short film “Us Or Else” and 2016’s double EP “Us Or Else: Letter to the System” but recently returned to the album, “which we have somewhat concluded in the last three days.”
So when will “The Dime Trap” come out?
“Hahahahahahahahahaha!” he responds. “That was very clever of you to ask. That was very clever!” He pauses.
He is informed that he didn’t technically answer the question.
“So,” he says. “How’s the weather where you at?”
Harris, 36, is the Atlanta rapper behind late-2000s hits such as “Whatever You Like” and “Live Your Life” — and he seemed poised to become a Jay Z-level hip-hop megastar until he served a one-year prison sentence for illegally possessing machine guns, then another year for violating his probation.
Upon his return in 2011, he resumed making strong albums, including 2014’s “Paperwork” and branched out into movies and TV, particularly as the star of VH1’s “T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle” reality show.
The Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and the political events of 2016 prompted Harris to shift his focus from the more pop and hip-hop songs planned for “The Dime Trap” toward social anthems. The “Us Or Else” EPs were the “exclamation point” to a 15-minute short film Harris produced, he says, also called “Us Or Else,” which came out this month.
It’s an extended music video, starring Harris in many roles, including one as a neighborhood guy who challenges two young black men to a race around the block, where one is intercepted by a white cop, shot and killed. In his southern drawl, the rapper says in the film: “It’s as if we never even existed in the first place.”
“The horrific events that consistently continue to take place in our communities, with no accountability and no repercussions whatsoever, just touched my spirit in such a way that it compelled me to do something,” he says, in his careful way of talking to interviewers, during a 20-minute phone call from a New York City tour stop. “If I was going in the same communities to market a piece of work or something to get people to spend some money on, without addressing the issues that are plaguing these communities, and not show some concern or empathy or compassion, my spirit won’t feel right.
“I got kids myself,” Harris continues. “I don’t think, when they get grown, I could actually look them in their eyes and say, ‘I did everything I can to make the world a better place’ if I did not apply some attention of my platform and resources.”
As political rappers go, Harris isn’t exactly Public Enemy, but he has some experience with the genre. He loads “New National Anthem,” from 2014’s “Paperwork,” with references to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Trayvon Martin. Although he opens the song by saying, “I know radio probably ain’t gonna play this,” he recently received a call from a prominent programmer saying he loved the new T.I. songs — even though the programmer was referring to “New National Anthem.”
“I said, ‘If they want to reach back to do (an older) song, maybe I should do a record,’ ” Harris says.
Born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. in Atlanta, T.I. didn’t take on the name T.I. until an early record executive gave a suggestion he later called “ultimatum-ish.” His parents and grandparents always called him Tip and he has recently, gradually returned to his more meaningful nickname. Harris’ father died of Alzheimer’s disease when he was 17, and his mother and grandparents (both of whom died over the past few years) raised him.
His father was “reluctantly supportive” of his music career, he says, and his mother encouraged him, but Harris had to learn how to start his career by himself, without help from his family.
“(My father) wanted to make sure I knew he disagreed with my choice, but he still supported me in spite of that,” he says. “He would still give me money for studio time, to come to New York and meet with producers and shoot my demo. But he would always say, ‘You better keep your head in them books and get yourself a real job.’ ”
Suffice to say, Harris’ childhood experience isn’t the same as his kids’ childhood experience. He and his wife, singer Tameka “Tiny” Harris, have three children together, in addition to Harris’ three teenagers from earlier relationships. They chronicled their complicated life together on the VH1 show, although Tiny filed for divorce in December (recently delayed when it came out in court that Harris never received the papers).
“The great thing about ‘Family Hustle’ was it filmed us doing things we probably would’ve already been doing 85 percent of the time. It was so organic, it was natural, it wasn’t forced,” he says. “We gave what we gave and we appreciate the ride. Whenever the time comes for us to do it again, if we all unanimously agreed to do it, who knows?”