Tip “T.I.” Harris has lived the last 15 years of his life on the big stage. Fans have watched him rise, fall and ascend to new heights again, remaking himself each step of the way. From dope boy to dope emcee. From inmate to activist. From reality star and box-office draw to real estate developer and film producer.
But the Tiny Desk has a way of stripping even the biggest acts back down to their musical essence. For Tip, that meant stretching beyond his comfort zone again, this time by rapping along to a group of high school string players instead of his classic tracks. Without his usual audio prompts, he kept lyric sheets close at hand while running through the definitive street hits “Rubber Band Man,” “What You Know” and the Billboard 100 chart topper featuring Rihanna, “Live Your Life.” He may have stumbled a few times, but when you’ve successfully reinvented your career as often as Tip has had to it’s probably hard to stick to the same old script.
As for Tip’s Tiny Desk transformation, he brought along his mini orchestra of young talent from Atlanta to fill in for Rihanna. The artists in training, from the non-profit Atlanta Music Project, put a classical twist on his street anthems, adding strings and brass in place of 808 bass. “That’s a true example that really says that you’re never defined by your environment unless you want to be,” Tip said, crediting the youngsters for their commitment to craft. Meanwhile, he kept his set funky with off-the-cuff stories of the drama behind his music — like the time when he found out, after shooting the video for “Rubber Band Man” with Puff Daddy, that his home had been raided by police. “This music was about the elements that people have to endure in their lives every day and find a brighter side and make a way out of no way,” he said. “That’s what this music represents.”
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Trap Muzik, the sophomore album that branded T.I. King of the South and birthed an Atlanta movement that would eventually give hip-hop a global makeover. The music gave voice to a discarded generation stuck between socioeconomic despair and criminal exploits. In a genre where the performance of authenticity snares talented artists in their own trap, Tip has conquered those demons. His last album, Us Or Else found him raising a conscious fist in unity against the systemic inequality highlighted by the Movement for Black Lives. Now, with more movie credits to his name than solo albums, his most respected role has been serving as part of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ transition team. But Tip’s past is still present. In addition to investing in the redevelopment of Bankhead — the west Atlanta community that raised him and gave him game — he plans to return to his metaphoric roots on his next studio album, The Dime Trap.
Indeed, Tip still knows all about that.
“Rubber Band Man”
“What You Know”
“Live Your Life”
Producers: Rodney Carmichael, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Beck Harlan, Maia Stern, Khun Minn Ohn; Editor: Khun Minn Ohn; Production Assistants: Catherine Zhang, Téa Mottolese; Photo: Eslah Attar/NPR.
Watch the full episode below: