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T.I. tells Jalen Rose about his early days in trap music

T.I. Harris is the king of the South. The Atlanta native owns restaurants, is a formative voice in the trap music movement, a reality star and an actor. But it all started in grade school when T.I., then an antsy and “mischievous” 9-year-old, started dropping bars.

“I start rapping like in second, third grade, just writing raps to challenge myself,” he told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man.” The truth is, he was one of those kids who would finish his work early and be a disruption out of boredom. Despite his good grades, he also wanted to fit in with the troublemakers, so he leaned into it.

“My uncle told me if I got in trouble again, that he would go kick my ass,” T.I. said. “So I knew after I finished my work, I had to occupy my time. That made me challenge myself to write a rap … And I did it. I kicked it at the cafeteria table. Everybody went crazy. Didn’t believe I wrote it. Said, ‘Well, do another.’ So overnight I’d write another rap, you know, and do it again. So then I did it again on the playground, but it went crazy. And that’s when I found that this is my thing.”

Another Atlanta product made him realize he could make an impact at any age.

“I really thought I had to like be a grown-up before I pursued [music]. I didn’t understand until Kris Kross came that I could do this now,” he told me in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on his new thriller, “Fear,” his foray into stand-up comedy, why he doesn’t wade into politics and who really rules the roost in his house. Spoiler alert — it’s his wife, Tiny.

Coming up, he idolized LL Cool J, N.W.A. and Jay-Z, and now that he’s an actor as well, he has taken cues from other rappers-turned-thespians, like Ice-T, Will Smith, Tupac and Ice Cube.

T.I. is very much an innovator in the Atlanta sound. Although he wasn’t the first rapper to come out of that Southern capital, he did coin the term “trap music.”

“Everybody was affected by the war on drugs,” the rapper said. “We are all refugees. Everybody was impacted by the crack era,” he said. “I don’t care whether you sold it, you knew somebody who smoked it, whether your daddy went to jail for selling it. It don’t matter … Everyone was impacted. Therefore, trap music came out. It is philosophy set to music about a period in time where a lot of people were affected and a lot of people share similar experiences.”

His influence is felt on his home city in more ways than one. He started the Trap Music Museum and the Trap City Café, which he said has a great brunch.

“We call it Vibe Emporium,” he said of the place, which has games, karaoke and comedy, something he is now trying out.

Rapper T.I. performs at halftime during the game between the Sacramento Kings and the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on November 23, 2022
T.I. performs at halftime during the game between the Sacramento Kings and the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on Nov. 23, 2022.
Getty Images

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it breaking into the industry. Happy to be here … I consider myself a student,” he said of the art.

He very much is a leader — but he’s politically averse.

“It’s important for me to have a connection to the community. It’s important for me to fill the gap, find ways to be of service to the community. Politics? Yeah, no. I want to support somebody with a genuine interest to help the community. I ain’t really into politics like that. I’m into it when it’s somebody that I feel that the community can trust, that I can get behind … Politics is so … flimsy. You know what I mean? And [there’s] not a lot of sincerity in it.”

He’s making a sincere effort at the box office this weekend when “Fear” hits theaters. The movie, a psychological thriller about a weekend vacation that turns sinister, is directed by Deon Taylor and stars Joseph Sikora and T.I., who is also a producer. They started filming it during COVID when most of the industry had gone dark.

“We kind of trusted the process, you know. Talking about fear — I have a fear of losing my money,” he said with a laugh. His other fears?

“My greatest fear is not being able to be there for the people that depend on me when they need me,” he answered earnestly.

But back to his bank account. I had to ask if he had any regrets over his early, more, ahem, frivolous purchases.

“There’s so many,” he told me.

“I overpaid for a penthouse, just because I wanted it, and didn’t get the money that I could get out of it because I just had [to have it] it right then,” he admitted. “I overpaid for a mansion before.” And on his 25th birthday, he did the most extravagant thing.

T.I. performs during Future & Friends "One Big Party Tour"at Spectrum Center on January 13, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina
T.I. said he started rapping at an early age in elementary school.
Prince Williams/Wireimage

I bought an Aston Martin and a McLaren on the same day — cash,” he said. “I’ve gone and bought charms and chains for all my partners. I bought chains for people who didn’t even wear jewelry.”

“Due to the grace of God, I have been able to learn from my mistakes,” he said. “And my investments have overwhelmed my negative purchases. And that’s how I can still stay here and live to spend another day.”

Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive-produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.

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