It’s chaotic backstage at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre. Label reps, venue staff, and photographers are darting back and forth as RapRadar’s Elliott Wilson slowly paces through the space, looking lost in his thoughts about the conversation he’s about to have in front of a packed audience with Southern rap heavyweight T.I. A publicist pushes aside a beaded curtain exclaiming, “You’re next!,” and points the way into a small, tucked away room. Inside, on a leather two-seater sofa sits T.I. with two or three other people lounging around him, including his wife, Tameka “Tiny” Harris, who seems to be mulling about making sure everyone is content with their drinks. A sort of calm exists here, a sense of that good ol’ Southern hospitality, and the so-called King of the South looks up to welcome the new person in the room with a huge grin and a hand already outstretched for a handshake.

Such a warm welcome isn’t quite what you’d expect when you’re about to sit down with a former drug dealer who did jail time, faced gun charges, and happened to steer his life in such a way that he ended up being a chart-topping rapper, actor, and reality TV show star. There are no hulking bodyguards nearby, scantily-clad women lurking in close proximity, weed smoke in the air, or empty Hennessy bottles strewn about as many surely imagine the behind-the-scenes of rap life to be like. Well, minus the glistening chain around T.I.’s neck which manages to shine even amidst the poor lighting in the room. In fact, as our conversation begins, love is one of the first topics to come up, as T.I. explains the ideas behind his next projects.

T.I. Talks The Paperwork Trilogy 

“The next project is Paperwork: The Return,” T.I. “Tip” Harris says. “And for all intents and purposes you could say it’s the return of Trap Muzik. The following is called Paperwork: Love and Liability. Let’s just say that’s everything that the story of ‘boy meets girl’ entails from beginning to end for a gangster, a street nigga. Of course if a normal guy goes through that situation he’d have his challenges, his triumphs, his adversities. However it’s very different for a gangster because a gangster isn’t really supposed to get close to much of anything but money. I think that conflict makes for a wonderful story.”

Indeed it does, and despite the distance from his past criminality that music industry fame has brought T.I., he’s sure the man to tell it. 2014 has been a notable year for Mr. Harris, as he unleashed his ninth full-length album and watched his Aussie protégé Iggy Azalea edge her way into the worldwide mainstream. That gangster, money-motivated mentality is still clearly present in his business moves (even the running theme of Paperwork’s single “About The Money”), even if he is a loving father and husband behind the scenes. But how does one stay so successful in an era where a platinum album is something like an endangered species? He suggests an approach of diversification. 

T.I. Suggests Diversifying Your Bonds

“It’s a content-driven business now. You don’t go platinum, but you still have streaming. There are SoundExchange checks. There are ancillaries. You have to continue to deliver content. If you got webisodes, if you were to get a camera to follow you around two hours a day for five days a week, put that shit up, and you continue to get clicks and views on that, that’s another stream of revenue. Merchandise. So many other portfolios from which you can still make a great living, if you choose to diversify. Some cats don’t even want to put an album out. They’ll put a mixtape out…look at Big K.R.I.T. You got cats that are out here livin’. The album is a commercial, and with the album you must have something to sell, something else to sell. You gotta find a way to get content, maybe by way of something like an app. Music is selling, but technology is selling at an all time high. Find a way to leverage the music for the technology.”

Unfortunately, even the best of businessmen aren’t above the law, and T.I. has been notorious for having legal issues cloud some of the highest peaks of his career. We stray from the lane of our interview as we begin to converse about recent sentencing guideline changes going on in the federal prison system, which hits home for T.I., who famously did a stint as a federal inmate in addition to house arrest and time in a halfway house for re-entry following his incarceration. During his conversation with Elliott Wilson, we’d learn that he actually recorded some album tracks during his time at the halfway house, so we discussed the difficulties of returning to society after incarceration, even as a famous rapper. He gave some advice for people who may be preparing to come home or are recently back, like his rap compatriot Hardo (with whom, according to T.I., he has already recorded new music).

T.I. Speaks On True Freedom

“Don’t think you’re free. Inside, we build ourselves up to think that we’re free on our release date. The sooner we get out and we taste the air, we turn around and we think that we’re free, but when we turn ourselves into the halfway house, it’s the same, it’s just another building. There’s still a muthafucka’ telling you shit to do, with simple ass rules to follow, which are things you must adhere to because these are the challenges you must face and overcome in your journey back to your normal, regular life of prosperity. The entire quest is important and necessary. It’s what it takes to not just show the system, but also yourself, that you can play their game and win. It ain’t just about doing what a muthafucka’ say, it’s showing that man, I did it my way, and I had some success at that, but ultimately I lost. And now I need to show myself that I can do it their way and win. That’s what I think, and when someone looks at it like that? Like, ‘These muthafuckas’ ain’t gonna beat me!’ Then, everybody in the game, whether you a drug dealer from the smallest to the largest, you’re competitive, [and] if you turn it into that, a me-against-them situation, it inspires people in a different way.” 

Tough situations make for valuable life lessons, though, and as the obviously busy publicist pops back in to let us know our time is up, T.I. closes the chat reflective of his growth resulting from his setbacks. 

“I have a tad bit more perspective and look at life through a different set of eyes. It made me see that a lot of shit that I used to be up in arms about ain’t really that important.”

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