"She's tal-en-ted." T.I., typically polite and always loquacious, was speaking as if I'd asked the dumbest question in the world, pausing between each syllable. "She has hit records. Broke the record for the most weeks at Number One for a female rapper. She sells millions of singles. She sells out her shows. She has a cult following, where fans drive from miles to see her."
Then again, maybe I had asked the dumbest question in the world, inquiring about Iggy Azalea's success as if it were concocted, rather than a given. The Grand Hustle CEO, artist, executive, reality TV show star and people's hero is an ideal interview, insightful and generous, elaborating on his point of view in great depth. Iggy Azalea, who he signed in 2012, has an undeniable smash record with "Fancy." That this has caused controversy in certain corners seems to mystify him: It's his job to find talent, and that's exactly what he did.
But there's a lot more going on in T.I.'s world these days. He has two hit singles – "No Mediocre" with Iggy and "About the Money" with Young Thug – an album trilogy on the way, a label with a diverse range of artists, from B.o.B. to Trae the Truth, and an upcoming fifth season of T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle. Sitting down at VH1's offices, the rapper, businessman and reality star spoke about that upcoming season, what it's like for his kids to learn the family business and how Chief Keef and Soulja Boy changed the way young artists approach their careers.
How much do you involve the kids in the creation of the show? What have they learned?
I think they've learned how to present themselves to the world. I think that's something that I want to instill in them. The way you present yourself to the world is the way you will be perceived. If you take yourself seriously, people will take you seriously. If you goof off and you take yourself as a joke, people will take you as a joke. What you put into it is what you will get out of it. That was something I always wanted to make sure was known above all. Regardless of what industry they were in, where their passion leads them. That quality is ever-present in whatever world they could find themselves in.
Let's talk about your music career. "About the Money" is a big single right now. What do you like about Young Thug? How'd you connect with him?
He's dope, he's genuine, he's a guy who doesn't compromise his thoughts or feelings or expression for the popular vote. I think he dares to be different, regardless of who likes it or not. If what he presented to the world was exactly what he was when you met him, then that means he'd be exactly what everyone expects him to be. And I don't know an artist that presents himself as being exactly what everyone expects him to be.
He's consistently finding new things to teach the industry about him. Everything is a surprise now. Oh, he wears extremely tight clothes. Then you meet him. Oh, well, he's from the projects for real – he sounds just like my cousin who's from the projects. And oh, he can really rap! He's really talented. Everything is a surprise. Which makes it new, fresh, and exciting for the consumer.
And me as an executive, that's "ching-ching." I don't care what you say about him. I think that he's dope. He comes in the studio with me and he can do 10 songs. I work fast. Every time I go in and knock mine out, he's ready to walk in and knock his out. He ain't even put out an album yet. And if he can keep up with me, that's something worth saluting. And also just him maintaining a sense of individuality and not being afraid or ashamed to be who he is. That to me is impressive in a youngster.
What is the focus of your attention right now?
This album. This album or should I say these three albums, because this album has kind of turned into a trilogy. The music, we already have it, it's already done. We just have to really platform it, promote it, market it, and strategically apply it. But this album, we hope to make a film that will consist of three short stories. And each of these three short stories will combine six or seven videos from these three albums. And it would star me playing characters. But these characters would find themselves in situations that would allow the music to narrate the circumstances.
It's extremely ambitious and could be very costly. But I feel like it's your ninth album and you've got to use your seniority and your success and your relationships and resources, you've got to use them to do something significantly different. Or else you're just another motherfucker putting out an album.
"The same thing L.A. Reid and Jay Z saw in Rihanna is what I saw in Iggy."
I do have to ask – I'm curious about Iggy Azalea. She's had a very controversial...
Why? Why is it? I would like for you to raise a significant reason why it should be any more controversial than any other rapper. "Fancy" is a hit record. "Fancy" would have been a hit record whoever did it. It's just that she was the first one to think to do it.
Are you still involved with her career? What's your role?
She's a Grand Hustle artist and a Hustle Gang Member.
Have you met a person that finds her style of performing to be weird or abrasive to them?
None that will say it to my face. And if they would, they won't get any hostility coming from me. I'm just going to approach it with logic and reason. Just explain yourself. Make this shit make sense to me, especially if they are a black person. Because black people have stood up for equality, for justice, for being treated fairly, for whatever they choose to do, and we have had to break down barriers in caucasian dominated areas. From Tiger Woods in golf, to I'm sure there's a black man somewhere playing hockey. And whenever it happens, it's always the same thing. Black people are like, "That's not fair. They're not allowing them the same opportunities, just because of their color." So why would we stand in judgment, when someone else is in the same position we have found ourselves in, why would we not treat them the way that we want to be treated?
When you first discovered her, what stuck out to you?
It was the vision that she had for herself. The killer instinct of quality. The same thing L.A. Reid and Jay Z saw in Rihanna is what I saw in Iggy. I think as executives, it's our job to spot that kind of intangible star shit and harness it and nurture it and cultivate it and present it to the world. That's our job.
What's the biggest challenge as an executive in the industry right now?
Man, getting the youngsters to accept the idea of artist development. To get them to not look at the way Chief Keef did it, or to not look at the way Bobby Shmurda's doing it, or the way Soulja Boy did it. To say, listen man. You can't plan on that to happen. If you are trying to prepare yourself and prepare for success, there is a formula. There are things that come before you just being tossed into the stratosphere. To get young artists to accept that process is difficult.
I think with the Internet and the technology and the ways that people now have a way to present themselves to the industry, it bypassed the whole gatekeeper process. Back then, when Russell Simmons said something was going to be a hit, and you believed it because it was Russell Simmons, and he wasn't going to present nothing to you that was wack.
Over time, that went away. So now it's just like, OK, y'all say I'm not ready? So what. Fuck what you say. Put my shit up on YouTube. Now when people click on their computer for free – for free! – costs them nothing, they just click on it. They could be laughing, they could not like it. Just because they clicked on it. If you get enough of those, that bypasses me saying, you ain't ready yet. In some cases, that is the absolute best thing. In other cases, it clogs up the pipeline, and they take up space for cats who really do deserve to be heard. So I mean, it's the gift and the curse.