On the Boss set in a Lower West Side studio, director Mario Van Peebles gives Clifford “Tip” Harris a tip: “Keep it cool,” Peebles tells the 31-year-old Atlanta native known as T.I. Later, the director approaches T.I. again: “I just want it a little cooler from you.” After the shoot, as I sit with T.I. in his trailer, while his wife, Tiny, talks on her cell in the other room, “cool” doesn’t seem like a note he needs. The very chill rapper-actor joins the second season of the Starz series about a ruthless, all-powerful Chicago mayor.
Your Boss character, Trey, comes from the projects but aims for a political career. What in your life leads you to understand him?
I guess just his underworld ties. Trey’s a head of a gang. I’ve never been in a gang. But a lot of the activities are the same.
Same as people who are living with underworld ties. I’m familiar in some ways or another.
Like Trey, you grew up around guns and violence—ever-present danger.
Danger is ever-present in life, more for some than others. But it’s all what you make of it. Some people let danger cripple them in fear and cause them to make rash decisions, which I’ve been a victim of.
Uh, nothing worth talking about.
Do you identify with Trey trying to break from a questionable past, become legit?
That’s what I identify with, his will to win despite his circumstances. The things I grew up around—I had to take the positive parts of me and apply that to my career and take the negative and use it as a testimonial, rather than just remain trapped in it.
You’re often asked about serving time in 2009 on weapons charges and in 2010–11 for breaking probation. What goes through your mind when you hear these questions?
Just that it’s a stale story and there’s really nothing else to talk about.
It’s not usual, though, for—
But it has passed. I don’t think that if someone was to interview Bill Clinton that they would still speak about the Monica Lewinsky situation. It has passed. Time has lapsed.
Well, it was just a year ago.
Depends how many interviews you’ve done. Once you do a few big interviews and everybody’s read it—I think a journalist’s true intention is to put people up on things that they don’t know about. And that’s just not the case.
On your reality show T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, you say, “As a hip-hop artist, I’m a hustler, period.” What is hustling to you?
Making moves, working hard, losing sleep, taking advantage of opportunities, creating other opportunities for you and the people around you.
It also suggests you have something to sell.
Everyone has something to sell. The greatest thing you can ever sell is an idea or talent.
What is the idea of T.I. that you’re selling?
T.I. sells lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle of a family man who is a prestigious professional, who is well respected and who has a taste for the finer things in life but also has a willingness to share those finer things in life with those who are willing to work for it.
You have six kids. What do you want them to take or not take from your example?
Family is very important. That’s what I always stress to them, that they gotta stick together because family, that’s the thing that’s going to remain when everything else falls apart.
Was that true with your mom and siblings?
My home life was not as structured as my children’s. Me, I moved from one place to the next, year after year after year. My mom would move from one apartment to the next apartment to the next apartment. Section 8—time to move. At least now [my kids] have a stable home.
You talk to youth about learning from your mistakes. Do any of them say to you, “Yeah, but look at you: You served time, but you’re on TV, in movies, coming out with albums”?
Nah, what they mainly say is you’re in a position right now to where you can do the right thing. Back when you weren’t in this position, you weren’t able to do the right thing. I think that’s a misconception because I chose to let go of the lifestyle that I used to live prior to my success.
Which lifestyle do you mean?
Um, the industry that I used to be in, prior to music.
You mean drugs.… I’ll just note that you shrug.
But for impressionable young men, isn’t going to prison part of the rap-star glamour?
Hell nah. At least they could never get that from me. I never know where that come from. I’ve never seen anybody in prison or just getting out of prison that say, “Oh, that was cool.” They just glamorize it in their own head.
The second season of Boss premieres August 17 on Starz.