At the beginning of his music career, rapper T.I. crowned himself the King of the South and has stuck with the title for almost two decades since. Now, he's focused on making his theoretical kingdom better, dreaming big about the changes he wants to see in his hometown of Atlanta.
The "Whatever You Like" rapper has won three Grammys, founded a record label, started several clothing brands, invested heavily in real estate in his former neighborhood and is trying to pass on some of his hard earned lessons about building a career and a fortune on a new reality show called The Grand Hustle.
He wants to tackle big issues — the same massive ones on the minds of politicians and community leaders across the nation; affordable housing, employment opportunities and better education. He worries specifically about the consequences of long-standing citizens being pushed out of the city by rising housing costs. "The people who work in the city, live in the city and exist there, they give it the culture that gives it the energy that attracts all of the opportunities that have been able to grace our great city," T.I. says.
T.I. was born in Atlanta in 1980 and grew up dealing drugs on the west side, but kept a vision of bettering Atlanta in his head.
"A lot of the people around me, even to this day that were around me then, they say, 'Man, you always saw it,'" he says. "If I didn't believe, if I couldn't envision it, then I don't believe that the stars and the moon would have ever aligned the way they have."
Through his music career, T.I. has remained active in community charity efforts. In January he was appointed to Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' transition team, which advised her primarily during the first 100 days in office.
From reality TV to government appointments, T.I. will pursue any and every channel possible to overcome the seemingly insurmountable issues in his hometown. "As long as I'm investing my time, effort, energy and attention to these things, I think there's no question that I can make them better," T.I. says. "And that's with anybody, not just me."
Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story. Listen to the entire interview at the audio link.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
He is a rapper, an actor, a reality show star, an entrepreneur and, in his own words, the King of the South.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT YOU KNOW")
CLIFFORD HARRIS: (Singing) See me in your city, sitting pretty, know I'm shining dog, riding with a couple Latin broads and a China doll. And you know how we ball...
MARTIN: That is Clifford Tip Harris. You probably know him as T.I. And he will be the first to tell you that he's come a long way from his early days dealing drugs on the west side of Atlanta. He's won three Grammys, founded a record label, started several clothing brands, invested heavily in real estate in his former neighborhood, and now he's trying to pass on some of his hard-earned lessons about building a career and a fortune. He's hosting a reality TV business competition show, "The Grand Hustle," on the BET network. The prize is a spot in his business empire. And T.I. is with us now from our studios in New York to tell us more.
Mr. Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HARRIS: Oh, well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: So you're not new to the reality show scene. You've done one before. But this is a business competition show. It features people from a lot of different backgrounds. Some people have advanced degrees. There are even some former politicians. You also have people whose experiences are more, say, people who had been in the underground economy let's say...
MARTIN: ...And are trying to move into a different reality. So why this show and why now? And what are you looking to showcase here with this group of people that you've selected?
HARRIS: I think that the show is unique because it answers the age-old question - or at least it begins to answer the age-old question of which education is more valuable - the formal education that comes from Ivy League institutions and HBCUs or the, I guess, intangible skills that come from the school of hard knocks - you know, that never say die, unwilling to yield attitude. And which education is more valuable to building a business? That kind of was the source of the idea of the creation of the show.
MARTIN: You want to play a clip? Let's play a clip. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GRAND HUSTLE")
HARRIS: The last man or woman left standing will become a part of the Grand Hustle empire and begin earning a six-figure salary. The rest of you will be cold-heartedly shown the door.
MARTIN: So there's a lot to talk about here. I mean, first of all, in recent years, a lot of people have - they have concerns about the reality show genre - first of all, that it's fake, but also that it encourages behavior that maybe makes for good television but perhaps isn't that productive in the real world. Like, for example, there's evidence that one reason women are doing well as executives is that they know how to cooperate and they know how to put some ego to the side.
So the concern I have is, you are now a person who has run complex organizations. And what I'm asking you is, as a person who really has done this, are the lessons people are drawing from the show the ones that really make a difference?
HARRIS: In my opinion, I would say absolutely. They're the lessons that have made a difference for me. And I can only show as I've been shown. I can only teach as I have learned. And, just speaking to your point where you said that for women to be successful, they have to put their ego to the side, I would moreover - to say for anyone to be successful, they will have to put their ego to the side. I don't think that that's gender-specific. And, I mean, I share in the enthusiasm of people who have concerns about reality shows. That's why I make sure that anything that I'm involved with is, you know, nothing of the sort and sets itself apart. And I believe everything that I have done within the genre has achieved that.
MARTIN: Let's talk about some of your other projects, if we can. I wanted to talk about your work in real estate investing. You were even appointed by the mayor of Atlanta to her transition team. Tell me about your vision for that side of your life right now. What are you hoping to accomplish?
HARRIS: I think that I very selfishly hope to see the community maintain the standards of culture that it has for so long and that the people who - the natives who have made up the community and who were there to see it through some of its worst times - that they can continue to remain there and that they can afford to live in the community.
A statistic that I learned is nearly 80 percent of the people who work in the city of Atlanta can no longer afford to live in the city of Atlanta. And that, to me, is an issue because I feel like the people who work in the city live in the city and exist there. They give it the culture that gives it the energy that attracts all of the opportunities that have been able to grace our great city from back, I guess, in '73, when Maynard Jackson took the helm.
MARTIN: If we're to cast forward, though, five years, say, from now, or even 10 years, what do you hope we're talking about? Can you show me a vision of, like, what it is that you hope will be different as a result of what you're doing?
HARRIS: Well, I'd like to have ambitious as well as affordable housing on the west side of Atlanta increased and make sure the employment and opportunities also get better, as well as better education. So I would hope to see those things increase.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, Atlanta Magazine wrote a profile of you, and it says there's a reason why a place to buy drugs is called a traphouse and the act of selling them trapping. Once you're in that world, you're not supposed to get out, but you did get out. And I'm wondering when you were, you know, in those early days when you were still kind of on your hustle on that bicycle...
MARTIN: ...Did you, you know - I mean, you know, doing what you were doing - did you ever envision this?
HARRIS: I could see it. I could see it. I knew that there were certain points of execution that had to happen in order for it to become a realistic possibility, but I could envision it in my head. And, you know, a lot of the people around me even to this day that were around me then, they say, man, you know, you always saw it. And I think the law of attraction was the only thing - was one of the only things - the law of attraction, work ethic and the cultivation of my skills. That's what got me out the ghetto. If I didn't believe it, if I couldn't envision it, then I don't believe that the stars and the moon would have aligned the way they have.
MARTIN: All right. Well, let's stay in touch. I want to hear more about your future projects, and we can assess, you know, how it is going forward. That is T.I. talking to us about a lot of things and his latest TV series, "The Grand Hustle," which is airing now on BET.
HARRIS: Right on.
MARTIN: T.I., Mr. Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HARRIS: Well, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.