“Prison ain’t changed shit, homeboy,” T.I. declared on his new single, “I’m Flexin.” With all due respect to the self-appointed King Of The South, at least a little shit has changed… homeboy. For one thing, T.I. (Clifford Harris to his mother) is much richer than he was before spending 11 months in federal prison. Sales for his clothing line, Akoo (A King of Oneself), were up 25% with him behind bars. (Insert your own “turns out crime does pay” joke here.) He also wrote a novel, the just-released Power & Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets (published by William Morrow), and he’s working on a new VH1 reality series, Family Hustle, which premieres on December 5th. And then there’s that single, “I’m Flexin,” which he recorded just 36 hours after being released from prison, which is head-spinningly prolific. When most people get out of the big house, they need a little down time to find their sea legs. Not T.I. He wasn’t out of prison five minutes before he was all like, “Get me to the nearest recording studio. I don’t care how many red lights you have to run, just do it. Oh, and get Taylor Swift on the phone. No time to explain, just dial, damn you, dial!”
I called T.I. to talk about his various projects, but really I just wanted to ask him about the formerly incarcerated elephant in the room.
Eric Spitznagel: You’ve been busy since getting out of prison. Are you just trying to make up for lost time?
T.I.: Absolutely. Without question.
I’ve never been to prison, so this is a very uneducated guess, but I’ve always thought it’d be a great place to get some work done.
(Laughs.) That’s what it seems like?
What else is there to do? You lift some weights, you watch The View, you make a few shivs. I’d think prison would make somebody very productive, just out of boredom.
Yeah, you’re right, you do have a lot of time on your hands. And how you invest that time is a determining factor in what you take away from the experience.
Do shivs still exist? Is that a thing, or is it too cliched at this point? Can you just as easily teach a lesson to another inmate with a disparaging Tweet?
I’m going to tell you something, man. I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on prison. It’s over with, I’m passed that, and I intend to move forward. I just feel like there’s so much time and attention being invested in such a small part of my life.
But you understand why we’re interested, right?
Sure, sure. Because this is America. Prison is one of our pastimes. I understand the fascination, but I want to move on to something a bit more meaningful.
Let me ask just one more prison question and I promise that’ll be it.
Is prison exactly like The Shawshank Redemption?
Absolutely not. No way.
That’s disappointing. You’re telling me that the warden wasn’t a crook, and the guards weren’t all sadistic pricks, and you never met a Morgan Freeman-esque old-timer who showed you the ropes?
Well, I’ll just tell you this. There’s good people and bad people everywhere you go. I’ll put it like that.
You and a lot of other hip-hop artists are very ambitious when it comes to marketing yourself. It’s not just the music, it’s also books and movies and clothing and on and on. I don’t get the sense that, say, Arcade Fire have as well thought-out a business strategy.
I have not heard of them. Enlighten me.
They’re a Canadian band.
(Laughs.) Well there you go.
They won a Grammy last February for Album of the Year.
Are you sure?
I am, yeah. Oh wait, I think it happened when you were in prison.
Yeah, I think so.
And that brings us back to prison again. See how I keep doing that?
(Laughs.) I understand, man. I really do. I just don’t want to talk about it.
Arcade Fire or…?
Wilco just put out a new album. Should they be following your lead? Would Wilco sell more albums if Jeff Tweedy had his own clothing line?
The things aren’t connected. I never think ‘Well, I’ve got an album coming out, I better write a novel.’ One thing has nothing to do with the other. I do what I love to do, and I do what my heart drives me to do. I want to continue challenging myself and surprising people at the same time.
Is there anything you can’t do? Some creative genre or skill set that will never be on T.I.’s resume?
There are several things, man. But if I’m honest with you, I don’t remember any of them off the top of my head. If I’m reminded of them, I could talk about it. But I’d need my memory to be jogged.
We can do that. I’ll just name a bunch of things and you tell me whether it’s in your wheelhouse. How about…. archery?
Naw. I don’t have it.
Not even close.
No knitting at all? You’re not a regular at the Hobby Lobby?
(Laughs.) Sorry, no.
How about cooking? You can cook, right?
Aw hell yeah I cook. I can cook well. I cook different flavors of fish. I can do Mesquite, Cajun, blackened, garlic herb. I have a parmesan shrimp that I make that’s one of my family’s favorite things. I can do a lot of different dishes.
Why haven’t you opened a restaurant yet? Ludicrous has his own Singaporean restaurant in your hometown. Flavor Flav had a fried chicken franchise for almost three months. You could show them both how it’s done.
I have looked into it, but the proper opportunity hasn’t presented itself. I’m not going to rush into anything. The restaurant biz, it’s a tough industry. It’s very easy to lose money, and it’s very easy to fail.
Unlike a career in music or books or fashion, where everybody gets rich and nobody ever fails.
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, I hear what you’re saying. But with the restaurant biz, it’s very easy to find yourself in a position where you have employees who may be less than truthful with you. They may say you’re doing bad when really you’re doing good. You know what I’m saying? I just want to make sure that when I step into it, I’m doing it right.
You were calling yourself the King Of The South long before you were a hip-hop star, or even had any career to speak of. Was that like The Secret, where you’re putting positive thoughts about yourself into the universe?
I guess unconsciously I was doing that. I didn’t set out and say, “Well let me do this.” I was just speaking my heart and what I believed I could accomplish.
Did you make a vision board?
Did you go through magazines and cut out pictures that represented what you wanted to accomplish, and sentences like “Don’t give up” and “You’re special”? That kind of thing?
No, no, no. I was just allowing my ambition to lead my heart.
Your real name is Clifford. Did you ever consider using it as your rap name?
(Laughs) Yeah, right, sure.
Oh come on, Clifford is bad ass. It never crossed your mind?
I thought about it. But it was voted out of the running very soon, almost immediately. I tried it out on a few people. (In a gangsta voice.) “How about this for my stage name. Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.!” And they were like, “Ummmm… yeah, no, let’s go with T.I.” But I’ll tell you what, I really admire those people who use their real names. Especially if it’s a really cool name, like Kanye West. He’s got a cool ass name, you know what I’m saying? Those are the people I look to and say, “Yeah, that’s a’ight.”
Besides your own, do you have a favorite hip-hop pseudonym?
You know what’s a cool name? Wiz Khalifa. That’s a cool fucking name. Where the fuck did he get that name? Who the fuck says, “Hey, I’m going to be Wiz Khalifa?” That’s some shit I never would have thought of. In a million years I never would have thought to call myself that.
Maybe it’s like Shazam. He’s got to say “Wiz Khalifa” before he has the power to rap.
Yeah, maybe. (Laughs.) You know what it reminds me of? It’s like the name of a world-renown Las Vegas magician. “Ladies and gentlemen, Wiz Khalifa!” (Laughs.) That’s an awesome fucking name.
There’s a rapper from Texas called Chamillionaire. What do you think of his name?
That’s a cool name. It’s creative. You can kind of see where he got it from.
Would you explain it to me?
He’s a chameleon and he’s millionaire. You know what I’m saying? He’s saying, “I’m a reptile, I adapt to my surroundings, and I got a lot of money.”
That makes no sense at all.
No, no, I get it. It’s a good name.
That’s just putting two random things together to make a nonsense word. It could just as easily be, I don’t know… Orwellianaire.
Orwellian-what? What is that?
A wealthy Unperson. One of the proles who made some fat bank and now he’s making it rain.
(Laughs.) Okay, sure. I like it. But I’m still all about Wiz Khalifa.
You can’t get past that, can you?
I really can’t. I just can’t figure it out. Who the fuck tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know what? I’ve got an idea.” Did he hire a bunch of writers, the best creative minds in the business, and told them, “Okay, nobody leaves this room until we come up with the greatest rap name ever created in history?” Exactly eight hours and seventeen minutes later, somebody said, “I got it! Wiz Khalifa!” (Laughs.)
If I could get Wiz on the phone right now and he agreed to it, would you do a name exchange? He gets to be called T.I. and you become Wiz Khalifa?
Maybe, I don’t know. (Laughs.) No, not at all. But it’s a kick-ass name, man. He did a great fucking job at his name.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTV Hive.)