We’re 26 flights above Sixth Avenue, overlooking the Midtown bustle through giant windows in the Atlantic Records lounge. It’s been raining on and off all afternoon, sapping the energy out of the day and the sterile room. And Clifford “T.I.” Harris, arguably the world’s biggest rap star, is exhausted.
While a cameraman fiddles with equipment, Harris reclines his diminutive frame on a plush leather couch, ignoring a frazzled writer clutching a notepad, ready to get this last batch of interviews over with. When an assistant lets him know that there’ll be a photo shoot and drops for the new album to do before the day is done, T.I. snaps to attention, whipping off a sideways glare that’s equal parts irritation and helplessness.
It almost makes one feel bad for the young multimillionaire. And that’s before we consider the big picture—T.I. is squeezing in promotion for his sixth album, Paper Trail, in between a court mandated 1,000 hours of community service (in the form of educational speeches to schools and youth groups) and a one-year jail term, conditions of his plea bargain for violating his parole with possession of machine guns and silencers.
And then consider the circumstances once more–like the fact that the MC was at one point facing over ten years in the clink–and realize that nothing can be taken for granted: not the hugely anticipated album, not a burgeoning screen career, not another endless day of promotion. It’s a bizarre, perhaps unprecedented scenario—an entertainer at the peak of his abilities, forced to take a very public year off—and dude’s handling it to the best of his abilities. The mixed up life of Clifford Harris.
Before the assistant scurries out of the room, a cup of coffee is requested. “The way you had it before was good?” the suddenly meek underling asks. TI grunts his approval, and the camera rolls.
Once you began house arrest, how quickly did the process of writing down your rhymes come back to you?
My writing process came together pretty quick. It wasn’t very difficult at all to get accustomed, or adjusted, to the new creative process.
So you’d wake up in the morning, and go straight to writing?
Nah, usually stay up late at night and write.
And people would send beats over?
Absolutely. I actually started out, the first songs that I did, I did the beats myself. Or Smash Factory, my production team. Me, my homey Mars, I don’t know if little C’ helped me with these. And yeah, Smash Factory, we did the beats ourselves for the first couple of records we did.
Do you think it’s made you a better MC?
I think that I definitely tapped into a certain element that’s may have been missing. You know, whether or not that’s better, I won’t be the judge of that. I’ll let the fans be the judge of that.
What is that element?
I just think it’s another level of lyricism.
Is it something you’re going to keep doing?
I mean, that would largely depend on this one! (laughs). Quite possibly, you know.
Is there one line in particular that, after you wrote it, you were like, that’s it, that’s the shit right there?
(laughs). I mean, not one in particular, they all… I’m not gonna judge the music. I let the fans judge the music. I’m just gonna make the music.
You mentioned you almost missed house arrest after you got out. Was it because you got a chance to relax?
Yeah, I mean, waking up whenever you want to, nowhere to go, hanging out all day, not needing to put on no clothes, your robe and your basketball shorts and your slippers all day long. Lounging around the house. Asking everyone where to go where you want them to go, bring back what you want them to bring back…
Do you have any advice for those entering house arrest? What’s the one thing you need?
(laughs) Books. Books! Movies. Computer. A mac, for the iChat. Um, let me see. And, a woman (laughs)
What was the closest time that in your mind, you thought it would be a longer jail bid than what it ended up being?
Before I got my bond.
And what was going through your mind—your career, your life…
Family. Family first.
What’s your mental preparation for the year in jail?
It’s more of a physical, financial preparation. Mentally, once you’re there, you’re there.
So no big deal?
I ain’t gonna say [that]…it’s a big deal. But there’s nothing you can do to mentally prepare. You can think, and you can say what you want to say in your mind, but nothing prepares you, except actually being there. Once you get there, man, after about three days, you make your adjustments.
What kind of conversation were you having with the record label people? Did you feel any pressure to make this your biggest album?
Nah, I felt pressure to make it the best possible product that’s possible. I felt pressure to make the best possible product, just because…I mean as I do any of my albums, I want to make every album my best album. And when I stop feeling like I can’t make my best album…a better album than the last album…I’m gonna stop rapping.
So this is your best album right here?
I’m not gonna judge that. I’m not fit to judge the music, only to make it. I’m gonna let the work speak for itself.
I was all set to ask about Tha Carter III, and ask you if this was gonna blow Tha Carter III out of the water…
(laughs) you know, Wayne doing his thing right now. But you know, I’m not…that ain’t what I’m here for. I’m not here to critique any music, or compare any music.
On a lighter note, I watched the video for “Whatever You Like,” where you sort of pick up a girl at a fast food place. Have you ever done that in real life?
In my younger days.
What’s the best fast food place to pick up girls?
Let me think…I’ve picked up girls from McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendys, Chic-Fil-A, Burger King. Several different places, in my younger days. Yeah.
Varsity? (from cameraman)
Man, I’ve never grabbed me some chicks from the Varsity, man. Hmm. I never really thought about that. Yeah (laughs) .My fast food days are over. I like soul food now. (laughs)
You’ve mentioned you wanted to shoot romantic comedies—what are some of your favorites?
Romantic comedies, some of my favorites—Hitch, Boomerang, the Breakup.
What about Hugh Grant? You like Hugh Grant?
You know, I haven’t seen a lot of his stuff. Give me an example…
Uh, Two Weeks Notice…you know, and those British ones, where’s he’s always trying to be charming and messing things up…
You know another one I’ve seen that I think I’d like, Honeymoon in Vegas. I think I’d enjoy that.
With the community service, are you getting better with public speaking?
Um, sure. It’s a phenomenal experience, I’m honored to be able to do it.
How honest do you feel you can be with them?
Absolutely, 100 per cent.
You’re fairly vocal about the election, with the Respect My Vote campaign. How do you stay informed?
CNN, Fox News, CSPAN, MSNBC. [the campaign] is going well. We just left “Money for Breakfast,” the Fox News morning show today, me and the reverend , Reverend Yearwood. It’s going well.
You’ve said this is a monumental election. What’s your feelings about what will happen? Or what should happen?
Ah man, you know, hopefully we can put someone in office who can make the necessary changes and necessary adjustments to push us forward.
What are the issues closest to you?
I mean, for one, the education systems in the inner city. I think the standards should be raised, the budget should be upped. I think something must be done about this home owner crisis, this foreclosure crisis, something should be done about the present state of the economy and the value of the US dollar. Something should be done about the shortage of jobs and of course, the price of gas (laughs)
You saw what was going on with Ludacris’s support of Obama and Bill O’Reilly. I think he called Ludacris a radical, which is sort of just ridiculous.
I mean, yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about that for real. I definitely don’t share in his enthusiasm. Neither do I agree with all of the statements of Chris. But I don’t think he a radical just because his opinion differs from dude’s…I don’t’ think that gives him a right to pass judgment.
You’re cool with Ludacris now, you recorded…
We’ve always been cool. We had fun [recording]. [we did that] at my house. This was recently.
You guys hang out?
I mean, nah, not generally, but I’m sure it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.
I saw you on a morning news show in Philly with a very chipper blonde lady.
Yeah, she was cool.
You handed it like a professional. When did you pick the skill to move from one world to another that seamlessly?
(laughs.) I’m still working on it. I’m still working on it. Practice makes perfect. The more you invite me on your TV shows, the better I’ll be.