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Taking the street route back

THE ARTS | POP MUSIC

Rap's T.I. rebuilt his career with the self-releases called 'mixtapes.'

May 12, 2005|Soren Baker | Special to The Times

T.I. is riding the wave of his commercial breakthrough, but only three years ago the Atlanta rapper was at a crossroads.

He had released his debut album, "I'm Serious" (2001), and even though it earned critical acclaim, the collection quickly stalled on the pop charts and was soon forgotten. The man who was born Clifford Harris was then dropped by Arista Records.

But rather than give up on his dream of music stardom, the rapper also known as Tip decided to try a new way to get back in the game. "Mixtapes" -- unofficial rap releases sold or given away by artists trying to make a name for themselves in the streets -- were popular in New York but not the South. T.I., however, realized how they could work for him.

"The same rules apply" in Atlanta as in New York, T.I. said in a relaxed tone as he reclined on the couch of his trailer on a sunny May afternoon. He is in Los Angeles shooting two music videos and will perform along with Nelly and Fat Joe on Friday at Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk.

"You've got people and you've got music," he said. "People want music, and there's only so much good music coming out. That means people are starving for new things, so we've got to give it to them. When there's a demand, that's the executive's job to supply it, in any business, whether it's music, movies, fashion, automobiles."

So T.I. formed his Grand Hustle Entertainment and started releasing a flurry of mixtapes featuring new, unreleased music from the lyrically gifted, street-centered artist. In early 2003, T.I. appeared on "Never Scared," a smash single from fellow Atlanta rapper Bone Crusher. With his burgeoning mixtape notoriety and the mainstream exposure from "Never Scared," T.I. was once again a hot property.

T.I. signed a joint venture deal with Atlantic Records, and in the fall of 2003, T.I.'s second major-label album, the largely stark "Trap Muzik," was released.

He followed it up last year with the more commercially minded "Urban Legend." The two albums have combined to sell more than 2 million copies. The gritty collections feature lyrics steeped in Atlanta street culture and production that is hard-hitting yet accessible, and they helped T.I. establish himself as one of rap's newest stars.

"I think I diversified myself a lot more," T.I. said. "I became a lot more open to what mainstream America wanted to see. They want a variety, and they don't want to see so much of the ghetto that it's depressing. But then, they don't want to see so much of the suburbs to where it's not realistic. I feel like I can blend with both. You've just got to bridge the gap and straddle the fence without tipping over to either side too much."

He has parlayed his success into guest work with some surprisingly disparate artists. He collaborated in 2003 with New York rapper Memphis Bleek and in 2004 with R&B star Destiny's Child, appearing on its "Soldier" single. He also made the seemingly obligatory jump from rapping to acting with a recent appearance on the suburban drama "The O.C."

Next he will test his acumen as a talent scout. In July, "25 to Life," the debut album from the rap group P$C, will be released on Grand Hustle-Atlantic. It features T.I. rapping alongside the rest of the group members, who are also his friends: Big Kuntry, Mac Bone, AK and C-Rod.

T.I. is in Los Angeles to shoot the music video for "ASAP," the third single from T.I.'s "Urban Legend," and "Set It Out," the debut single from the P$C album. During the interview, T.I. played several songs from an early version of the P$C album. The songs are much more gangsta-influenced than T.I.'s.

"It's a lot more street, a lot more hard-core," T.I. said. "Not to say that my stuff is watered down, but I try to be mindful of who I want to listen to my stuff when I make it. I try not to make something that only people that live that side of life can listen to, whereas P$C was like, 'Forget it. We're making this album for them.' "

Big Kuntry, for one, is confident fans will appreciate P$C's music. "We make music like eight-tracks," said the personable rapper. "Eight-tracks, you couldn't rewind them. You had to listen to that whole eight-track. That's how we make our music, from beginning to end. Period. No skipping. You don't need to skip with us."

Soren Baker can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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Nelly, with T.I. and Fat Joe

Where: Gibson Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday

Price: $29.50 to $49.50

Info: (818) 622-4440

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