The three-time Grammy winner discusses his latest projects, including his second novel, the new season of his TV show on VH1 and an upcoming CD.
Hip-hop artist-actor T.I.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome T.I. back to this program. The Grammy-winning rap star is out later this year with a new CD called “Trouble Man” which has already produced the hit single, “Go Get It.” He’s also just released a new book. It’s called “Trouble & Triumph: A Novel of Power and Beauty.” Before we get to that, here is some of the video for “Go Get It.”
Tavis: So now a book [laugh]. You stay busy, man.
Tip “T.I.” Harris: Yeah, but I try to.
Tavis: You stay busy. How you been?
Harris: Man, I’ve been blessed.
Tavis: That’s a good thing.
Tavis: I know David Ritz, of course, who worked with you on this project.
Harris: A phenomenal collaborator.
Tavis: He is a wonderful collaborator. I mean, this is the guy that did Marvin Gaye’s book, “Divided Soul,” “Brother Ray” with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, you run the list.
Tavis: He’s talked to all the greats.
Tavis: But this is a little bit different because this is a novel.
Harris: Yeah, this is his first fictional novel. Our paths crossed because he had intentions or aspirations of doing my biography and I hadn’t wrapped my mind around the idea of being a 29-year-old with a biography [laugh].
Tavis: No memoir at 29, huh?
Harris: Yeah, man. You know, I be the youngest cat on the show. So he say, “Well, I always wanted to do fiction” and we just began brainstorming immediately. He say he wanted to do it in the world that I know, you know, so we just collectively created this world and these characters and this plot and we been off to the races ever since.
Tavis: And what do you think of what you’ve done?
Harris: I mean, you know what? I think I’m a little biased [laugh].
Tavis: You’re too close to it, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Harris: You know what I’m saying? I’m real close to it. But the response from the people who actually read it is phenomenal, you know. It’s received very well.
Harris: And I could tell by how anxious people were about making sure that I expedited the process of getting this second installment like that. You know, women were somewhat hostile in airports [laugh].
Tavis: Where’s the next book?
Harris: How could you leave me hanging like that? Is it coming out tomorrow?
Harris: I’m flattered by it.
Tavis: Yeah. How is the process of writing music uniquely different or similar to creating characters for a book or a novel?
Tavis: Because when you write these songs, you create that out of nothing too. You make up stuff.
Harris: Sure, but the thing is, for the songs, unless it’s like a complete fabricated story, a narrative throughout the entire song, you have to continue to create plots and character development and just, you know, keep up with the same thing from beginning to end.
If you’re just doing the song, then it’s more about you most of the time. You know, the song will be more about you or more about someone you feel a certain way about. Whereas, this is not me. You know what I’m saying? It’s not my likes, my dislikes. It’s not my opinions. You know what I’m saying? It’s really just completely fictional characters drawn up from somewhat of nothing.
Tavis: So none of this is autobiographical?
Tavis: Not at all?
Tavis: Yeah. So without giving the story line away, how would you describe what this is?
Harris: Well, the best way to describe the second book is that it picks up right where the first book left off [laugh].
Tavis: Bud-ump-ump [laugh].
Harris: Yeah, you know what I’m saying. It just continues on with the conflicts of these characters and the development of these characters and what the path that each of them takes themselves down. “Trouble & Triumph” is the sequel to “Power & Beauty.” Power is a young man, Beauty is a young lady. They were raised together in the same household after Beauty’s mother passed and Power’s mother embraced and adopted Beauty as her own.
So they grew up from about 13 to 17 as brother and sister and, abruptly at 17, Power’s mother also dies. You know, through their grief and that terrible time in their lives, I guess they uncover some hidden feelings about each other.
From there, Beauty decided to take a path in fashion and doing things the way she saw fit and Power was taken under the wing of a very cynical yet powerful older man in Atlanta. So their paths were so different, but they always kept each other on the mind. You know, everyone really wants to see whether or not they end up together or not.
Tavis: This isn’t a fair word, but it’s the best word I can come up with right now. What’s the trick – if I want to be more genius, what’s the – I could say what’s the trick or what’s the genius to writing a book that appeals to women readers?
I come back to that because you were making the point earlier about how women stop you everywhere saying, you know, “T.I., where’s the next book?” Women love hip-hop, women love rap, to be sure.
Tavis: But we think of rap as a man’s game. You know, fairly, unfairly, right or wrong, we think of rap as a man’s game, but this stuff is…
Harris: To be honest with you, I think that the challenge is finding something that’s sexy and dangerous at the same time. You know what I’m saying?
Tavis: Women like both [laugh]?
Harris: Yeah [laugh].
Tavis: I’m just trying to learn from you, man, just trying to learn. I got it now, sexy and dangerous.
Harris: I mean, you got to have a very compelling love story, but you got to make sure that the stakes are raised so high that anyone could die any moment, but they’re doing it in the name of love.
Harris: They risk it all.
Tavis: So you got “Power & Beauty,” you got “Trouble & Triumph.” Maybe “Sexy & Dangerous” is the next one [laugh].
Harris: Hey, who knows?
Tavis: I want my royalties on that if you go with that [laugh].
Harris: I got you.
Tavis: So I want to come back to David for one particular reason, which is when you’re doing your music, I know you said earlier this stuff is typically about you or somebody the artist is connected to in some way, shape or form. Is your music written collaboratively or do you do that pretty much solo?
Harris: Well, don’t get me wrong now. I have music, or should I say, production beats that are done by other people.
Tavis: But the lyrical content?
Harris: The lyrical content is usually all me. I may accept the hook from someone, but I don’t have verses written because I’ve always been an artist that’s been respected and held in high regard for bringing my life and no one else can write my life for me but me.
Tavis: We know what the upside of that is. The upside is you sell millions and millions and millions of records. Is there a challenge or a downside to being so transparent about your life in your lyrical contents?
Harris: I mean, I guess the only downside is that people always feel like they know you even when they don’t. You only know what I told you. You know what I’m saying? There’s some other things that I chose not to mention, for whatever reason, that leaves you in the dark. So you’re still observing from a limited space.
But I think that, all in all, that’s the best way to connect to the people. In today’s climate, the music industry, given all of the digital technology and whatnot, it has to be something more than the music that drives people to you.
For me, whether I got a hot song or not, I’m still going to have an influence because these people are tuning in to my life, you know. If you’re just about a song, it’s just about whether or not the song’s doing well on the charts, if it’s played a lot on the radio…
Tavis: So you mean now, the books, the reality TV stuff, the clothing line?
Harris: It all revolves around lifestyle. All this is around the lifestyle that I’ve lived since I was a youngster and the lifestyle that I’ve been blessed enough to walk into right now, but I’m delivering you this lifestyle and you can’t bootleg a lifestyle.
Tavis: I like that, you can’t bootleg a lifestyle. But is there a danger – speaking of sexy and dangerous, coming back to the danger part at least – you can’t bootleg a lifestyle, but is there a danger, though, in promulgating and putting out there for your fan base a lifestyle that they can’t ever have?
You’ve heard this argument before, that you rappers and others are selling a lifestyle that, while they can’t bootleg it, they couldn’t even have it if they wanted to.
Harris: Well, see now, I don’t believe in that.
Tavis: Okay, I want to hear why.
Harris: I don’t believe that there’s any human being on this earth that, if he puts 100% of his time, effort and energy into achieving a goal, that can’t happen. I just simply don’t believe that.
And for people who say that they’ll never be able to, then your faith is weak and you don’t deserve to achieve it. I think that anybody with the right of skill, effort, energy and ingenuity can accomplish anything.
Tavis: The flip side of that argument, though, is that you think there are T.I.s everywhere and I don’t buy that argument. I don’t believe nobody’s as gifted as you are, is as talented as you are and got the flow that – I don’t buy that either.
Harris: No, but they don’t have to make it this way in music, you know.
Harris: They could make it this way in marketing, they could make it this way in journalism, they could make it this way in so many different things, photography, directing. There’s so many different areas. God gave everybody a gift, but some people spend so much time on focusing the gifts that other people have.
Tavis: Coveting, yeah.
Harris: They don’t ever take acknowledgement to the gifts that they’ve been blessed with. So there goes a waste of talent.
Tavis: Right. Given at least a significant portion of what your base is, I’m like you. I don’t believe in knocking hustle. I believe that hard work, you know, is obviously one of the ingredients that goes along with being successful. I do think there are institutional barriers oftentimes, structural barriers that keep people in the hood from being able to elevate, no matter how gifted or talented they might be.
So to that particular core of your base that’s stuck in poverty or stuck in a hood, what say you to them about trying to find a way out even though they know they’re gifted, they know they’re talented, but they can’t seem to find the break that they need to make that turn?
Harris: Well, I probably just, you know, lean back on the theory of mine that when God closes a door, he opens a window. So you may think that this is your way, but you have to take all consideration into mind when other opportunities may be presenting itself and you may be a little bit more closed-minded to it because it’s not what you want. You know what I’m saying?
I think that, to me, I just honestly feel that anybody who truly applies faith and if you are sincere and you pray and you work hard and you make sacrifices, I just don’t see how that can’t produce progress. I can’t teach nobody no different than I was taught.
But if you’ve accepted that you’re stuck here, then all you really need is temporary motivation. You just need something to take your mind off your circumstances.
Tavis: I like that [laugh]. There are many things, as you know, I respect and love about you. One of the things I love and respect about you is that I have never had you on this program or any other where you refuse to answer questions.
This is a strange business where people come on your show and they try to tell you up front. The publicist says he’ll come on or she’ll come on, but don’t ask about this, don’t ask about that. I don’t play that. They’re gonna tell me what I can’t ask; I don’t need to talk to you in the first place. People don’t do that to me ’cause I don’t like being done that way.
But you’ve always been open, you’ve always been transparent. So I wanted to ask, because you’ve been so open about the troubles that you had, how it is that you go – what’s your process for learning from the mistakes that you make?
What’s your process for learning from the trouble you get yourself into and, beyond your process for learning, how does your audience, how do those fans who watch you, see in your life that T.I. learned? How does that translate to them? Does that make sense?
Harris: Well, the one way, I think, man, you got to keep watching, you know? You just got to keep watching. There’s no one answer that I can give that’ll say, oh, he got it. You know what I’m saying?
You learn the most about people when you watch them when they don’t know they’re being watched. You know what I’m saying? You just got to keep observing me. You know what I’m saying? I think that eventually if all that I believe to be true is so, then you’ll see that my actions will speak for me.
I mean, I think that self-observation, acknowledgement of responsibility that one had in whatever circumstances there may be and, you know, making necessary adjustments, those are the skills that it takes to turn things around. But how well I’m doing it, that’s gonna take time for people to just observe.
Tavis: How well do you think you’re doing?
Harris: I think I’m doing a lot better than I was.
Harris: You know, it’s day by day for me. Today I’m doing great [laugh].
Tavis: You said earlier that you can’t bootleg a life. I love that line. I may use that.
Harris: I want my royalties [laugh].
Tavis: Without adding the music [laugh]. So we both wait for the royalties perhaps, okay. So you can’t bootleg a life, but when those ebbs and flows happen, when those ups and downs happen, how do you decide what you do want to talk about in your music and what you don’t want to talk about? You made it very clear earlier. We only know what you tell us.
Tavis: So how do you decide what you want to share with us?
Harris: I guess relevance. Relevance would be one thing, the element of truth being added to that. If something’s not true, I just shrug it off. I don’t care to speak about it. You know, there have been a lot of rumors circulating about me and my family for quite some time. I was taught, man, you worry about the truth. You don’t have to really speak on the lies, you know.
So relevance and truth will probably be the most, you know, compelling elements to whether or not I add it into the music.
Tavis: Right. Since you referenced your family, there are a number of families – I don’t need to call them all ’cause everybody knows who I’m talking about – a number of families that have made decisions to put their life or at least a part of their life on television through reality television. There’s a whole gamut of people who decided to do that. What’s the reason why you decided to do that?
Harris: My main purpose was to make sure that people who intended to judge and criticize, to make sure that they were able to do it from a place of knowledge and understanding, a place of certainty, so you could see a full picture and not just judge me based off isolated incidents, glimpses of my life, you know. I mean, seconds in consideration to the whole life that I’ve led.
You know, I wanted them to see who I was as a man, to see who we are as a family, and then after that, if you still share in the same sentiment, by all means, go right ahead, but at least now you know.
Tavis: I hear the distinction you made earlier, T.I., between truth and lies and you worry about the truth and you don’t have to address the lies. Does it matter to you what people think of you?
Harris: [Laugh] It used to. I’m numb to it now.
Tavis: That’s a fair answer.
Harris: Yeah, I’m numb to it.
Tavis: What brought on the numbing, the anesthetizing? What brought that on?
Harris: I overdosed. You know what I’m saying [laugh]?
Tavis: You overdosed on caring what they thought [laugh].
Harris: Yeah, I overdosed. I cared so much and suddenly just – man, who cares, you know? I saw caring wasn’t changing nothing, so maybe not caring will bring about some sort of a change.
Tavis: Interesting. Let me talk about the music. So you got another project dropping this December?
Harris: Yeah, December 18.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. What are we gonna get from this one beyond “Go Get It?”
Harris: You’re gonna probably hear me say a few times that I don’t care [laugh].
Tavis: More of this…
Harris: Yeah. I mean, it’s really just a presentation of me and why I feel like, you know, there’s no one out there that could do what I do the way that I do. I feel like, if there was, then they’d have already stepped up and done it by now. You know, I’ve been gone for a minute, you know, and the music business moves fast.
Tavis: It really does.
Harris: So if somebody could’ve stepped up in my shoes and taken my place, they would have.
Tavis: Were you at all concerned that? I ask that because years ago, and I’m not suggesting I’m all that and then some, but I remember years ago – I’ve been at this now for 20 years as a broadcaster. I remember years ago I would not take a vacation and I wouldn’t take a vacation ’cause I was afraid to let somebody sit in for me.
I was afraid, if I let somebody sit in for me and they were better than me, that the network might not invite me back after vacation.
Tavis: That was years ago. I long since got over that and now I can’t get enough days off around here. But there’s a confidence that’s come with doing it for a while and I realize that there’s only one of me and, if they want somebody else, they can get somebody else. If they want me, they got to tune in to see me.
Harris: There you go.
Tavis: But I was scared for a long time to even just disappear. I didn’t want to give anybody – was it Satchel Paige who said, “Never look back, they may be gaining on you?”
Tavis: So were you afraid or at any point, you know, concerned about stepping away from the game for so long? Because you write music moves like the speed of light.
Harris: Right. Well, I gave it careful consideration. I don’t know if fear was ever applied into my senses. I mean, man, of course, it’s something that you must acknowledge.
The possibility exists, but I feel like you can’t deny talent and hard work and integrity and relationships and just the things that most people take for granted, the things that other people don’t take the time or have enough courtesy to do that I’ve been doing for 12 years. So I don’t think that there’s anyone who can outdo me better than me.
Tavis: Speaking of relationships, I’ve been reading – I haven’t heard it yet, but I’ve been reading about the collaborations on this project.
Tavis: Who isn’t on this thing?
Harris: Well, I try to find a way to work with people that I haven’t worked with before. This time around, man, I had the pleasure of working with Andre 3000. I had the pleasure of working with A$AP Rocky, Pink, Cee Lo, Lil Wayne, R. Kelly. You know, I think that it’s really – all of my albums are like memoirs for this moment of my life.
You know, it details the mind state I’m in at the time. I mean, that’s basically what you’re gonna get. It’s gonna be some things that remind you of vintage T.I., then there’s gonna be some things that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before from T.I.
Tavis: Is that in any way frightening for you, to push away from what people have heard? I ask that in part because I’ve talked to so many artists over the years who will admit to you a certain discomfort in trying to get their audience to listen to something new ’cause you know they want the same old, same old.
Tavis: But trying to give them something new, that’s not always easy.
Harris: Well, you got to reheat the same soup. You know what I’m saying? Some portions, but you can’t give them an entire five-course meal of that. You might give them an appetizer or something that they are used to and then you mix it up a little bit with the entree or the dessert. You know what I’m saying?
You just give them something that they’re familiar with, then throw them off a little bit with something that they might not be familiar with.
Tavis: Now you’re cheffing too [laugh]? Got Marcus Evans up in here now [laugh]. Let me close with this. I was saying when you walked on the set that I saw you again last night, as I often do, ’cause they keep playing the records like it just came out. The cable networks love this movie. So how’s the acting thing coming along? What’s next?
Harris: It’s going great, man. I have tons of opportunity on the horizon I’m looking forward to. My next film comes out in March of 2013. It’s called “ID Theft.” It’s starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, directed by Seth Gordon. You know what I’m saying.
We’re really just, you know, doing what we do. I’m doing the best I can trying to transcend this music thing and diversify myself as a true thoroughbred thespian [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, I got it [laugh]. You are a brand unto yourself.
Harris: Thank you.
Tavis: The new book from T.I. is called “Trouble & Triumph: A Novel of Power and Beauty.” T.I., good to have you on the program and I will see you again soon, I hope.
Harris: Thank you.
Tavis: Stay strong.
Harris: All right.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. I will see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.