How T.I. Built a $50 Million Hip-Hop Empire

The rapper, actor, producer, and entrepreneur has been called the “Jay-Z of the South.”

John Russo

His name is synonymous with southern Trap music, but T.I. is more than a three-time Grammy Award winner; and he’s more than the master collaborator with a who’s who of popular music to his credit, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake, Lady Gaga, and 2018’s Ye Vs. The People with Kanye West. He’s also a Tony Award nominee for SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical. And if that doesn’t shock you there’s this—he turns 40 on September 25. 

“I don’t have any real feelings about any particular number, ‘cause you got two options, either grow old or die young,” he tells us. “To still be alive, let alone successful and relevant at 40 is a blessing.” 

John Russo

Dying young is exactly what he’s trying not to do in his new movie, Monster Hunter, starring Milla Jovovich, slated for release in April 2021. Based on the popular video game of the same name, the new film is directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, who’s hoping to repeat the success of Resident Evil. “Basically I’m part of a platoon that’s led by Milla,” he explains. “We end up getting caught up in some sort of portal that gathers into another dimension. Unbeknownst to us we now have to protect our lives against three-story-tall scorpions and spiders and shit. It’s a pretty wild ride.” 

That’s an apt description of T.I.’s 20-year career in music, film, TV and myriad entrepreneurial pursuits. His movie career began in 2006 with ATL, which is loosely based on his own experiences growing up in Atlanta. Numerous roles followed in movies like American Gangster with Denzel Washington, Identity Thief with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman, and Get Hard with Kevin Hart and Will Farrell. Marvel fans meanwhile know him from Ant-Man and its sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp

Early next year, he’ll play Harlem fashion designer Ken Cunningham, who falls for Aretha Franklin in Nat Geo’s Genius: Aretha. Also on the small screen, he has had prominent roles in Starz’s critically-acclaimed series Boss opposite Kelsey Grammer, and Showtime’s House of Lies opposite Don Cheadle and Kristin Bell.

 On TV he also frequently plays himself, as on Netflix’s 2019 music competition series, Rhythm and Flow, alongside fellow judges Cardi B and Chance the Rapper; and VH1’s T.I. & Tiny: Friends & Family Hustle; as well as The Grand Hustle, T.I.’s business competition show at BET, in which he oversees 16 would-be players competing for a six-figure salary and a place in his media empire. 

“Empire” might sound hyperbolic, but what else would you call a reported $50 million fortune, with assets including Bankhead Seafood, Trap Music Museum and various real estate ventures? Or your own clothing brand, A.K.O.O. Clothing (A King Of Oneself), your own music label, Grand Hustle Records, and your own subscription-based music streaming service, TIDAL? 

Actually, that last one is a co-ownership with artists like J. Cole, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Daft Punk and Madonna. As such, it comes as no surprise that Forbes included T.I. on its inaugural Hip-Hop Cash Kings list in 2007, which names the 20 top-earning hip-hop artists—a list he’s made a total of four times. So, yes, empire.

And the keystones to that empire are two words—“hustle” and “redemption,” which are all through his music. His 2018 Dave Chappelle-hosted album, Dime Trap received glowing reviews and landed at No. 13 on the Billboard 200. On it, he analyzes where he was in life, a man pushing 40 with six kids and a wife, notably in a song called “The Amazing Mr. Fuck Up.”

Born in Alabama but raised in Atlanta, Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr., T.I. (or T.I.P., a life-long nickname), began rapping at the age of eight. In 1999, when he was 19, he signed with Arista Records subsidiary LaFace Records. His first album, 2001’s I’m Serious, was a critical and commercial failure and the label dropped him. 

So, he went off and formed his own label, Grand Hustle Records, and produced Trap Muzik two years later. A seminal album, it landed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, selling 110,000 copies in its first week. It epitomized Trap, a distinctly Southern genre featuring ominous synthesizer tracks, 808 drums and booming bass, that’s rife with drug references. “I come from the generation that wasn’t supposed to make it to see 19,” T.I. says of his trapping days.

His next album, King, debuted at No. 1 and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. In 2007, he repeated his success with T.I. vs. T.I.P., also debuting at No. 1. His subsequent album, Paper Trail, made it a three-peat, featuring guest appearances by Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. The album’s number one single, “Live Your Life”, offers this succinct self-assessment from T.I.: “I’m the opposite of moderate / Immaculately polished with / The spirit of a hustler / And the swagger of a college kid.” 

In 2010, he was released from prison after serving nine months on weapons charges. Within months he was re-arrested on drug charges and sentenced to 11 additional months for violating probation terms. The experience is the basis of albums completed in this period, No Mercy and his ninth album, Paper Work, which debuted at No. 2. In 2016, his album Us or Else focussed on race issues, a subject that forms the basis of his political activism and a hands-on commitment to uplifting his community, finding redemption beyond fame and riches.

So, Happy Birthday, T.I., whom Pharrell called “the Jay-Z of the South.” But could it be that Jay-Z is the T.I. of the North? “I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not,” he shrugs, revealing his secret to staying relevant. “I live my life by a philosophy of ‘why fit in if you were born to stand out?’ I think I was born to stand out. I think that’s what God put me here for. For me to try to fit in, it would be like the tail wagging the dog.