When Clifford "T.I." Harris dropped Trap Muzik in the summer of 2003, he gave a Southern hip-hop genre its name almost immediately. Now, you can duke out whether producers DJ Toomp or Shawty Redd deserve the crown for crafting trap’s distinctive sound in the early 00s in comments sections. But since the turn of the millennium that sound, reliant on aggressive hi-hats and deep bass, had started to wash over the South. Within 15 years, it would have skipped over Atlanta’s state borders and bled into music around the world. So by calling his second studio album Trap Muzik, T.I. created a recognizable brand for trap, helping cement its ascent into the mainstream and giving a generation of Atlanta artists, from Young Jeezy to Migos, a platform to make it out of the trap and into the pop charts.
Trap Muzik’s true power is in its social commentary. On "Doing My Job" T.I. forced listeners to empathize with drug dealers in a way hip-hop hadn’t seen since Biggie. When he rapped: “We want to live nice too! We got moms, dads, wives, kids just like you!” he made a powerful plea to white America to rethink its war on drugs and actually see the human beings behind the cocaine transactions. Much like UGK a decade prior, T.I. instantly felt like a superhero for drug dealers.
“Back when I was recording Trap Muzik I was known around town as the lil' biddy dude with the big ass guns,” T.I. tells me, as we speak over the phone. “My family really thought I was going to die!” Yet, 15 years on since his breakthrough album dropped, on 19 August 2003, T.I. is in a very different position. Whether mentoring artists from Iggy Azaela (I mean, yikes, but she got those awards and number 1s for a bit) to Travis Scott, acting – see: Marvel’s Ant Man and The Wasp – and philanthropist, with the ear of political activists, he’s evolved into one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen. Over a crackly phone line, we caught up with him to reflect on 15 years of Trap Muzik and why it still resonates in Donald Trump’s America.
Noisey: How much pressure did you feel going into recording Trap Muzik after your debut I’m Serious didn’t make the biggest splash?
T.I.: I wanted to make a classic. I knew I had to make timeless music, which could stand the test of time. It was about showing that even if you were participating in felonious activities, there were still other things you needed to deal with: you’re not just drug dealing but also dealing with a relationship with your parents, your girlfriend, having a child too young and being looked down on by society as one thing, when you’re actually much more than that definition. You might have had a homeboy who just died, but he wasn’t even in the streets like that! Trap Muzik was kind of crystallizing this black experience into a piece of music.
With I’m Serious, I felt like I was the victim of a label [Arista] with too many success stories. LA Reid already had Toni Braxton, Outkast, TLC, Usher and the Goodie Mobb on his books, so, understandably, he would put all his energy into the proven success stories. I was the victim of a label that didn’t understand me.
How did things change when you left Arista to sign with Atlantic?
With Trap Muzik I was given the freedom to make a real reflection of my experience and environment. On the first album, I wanted to make sure people knew that motherfuckers from Atlanta could see eye-to-eye and bar-to-bar with the most formidable rappers from New York City. Even as great as Outkast was, it felt like they didn’t necessarily come out as certified street artists. The trap wasn’t getting the acknowledgement it deserved so I wanted to fill that void. The problem with the first album was there was a lot of different styles, so there was a lot of confusion about where I was actually from. But “Dope Boyz” was an unexpected hit single off I’m Serious so that gave me the confidence to then go and make a whole album rapping about where I was from. I wanted to take people to the trap!
Talk me through who T.I. was back in those Trap Muzik days...
I mean, I was still going off real heavy. Going to jail every other month. I was incredibly active, not just me but everyone around me. My circle of friends was terribly active to the point where everyone knew we were a wild pack of hooligans. My grandmother said you love hanging with them damn outlaws! I remember my uncle called me to go to my Aunt Lita’s house and they all tried to persuade me to sign a life insurance policy. My family really thought I was going to die and wanted to ensure they had the money to pay for my funeral.
How did you take that urgency into the recording booth?
I just knew this message needed to happen. White people don’t know how close they are to being in our shoes. If you have sub-standard education and few experiences outside your own neighborhood, then you take what you can get. If crack is all that comes in then that’s what you've got to make money out of as there’s no other choice! No one really took time to understand that.
Motherfuckers chose crack cocaine as a career choice, not knowing it was the Contra scandal that led to so many Americans having knowledge and experience of mixing baking soda with water and cocaine to make crack. I don’t know no black people who are chemists! We won’t take the chance to fuck up a bag of cocaine, trust me. I really felt like the purpose [of my government] was to spread guns, drugs and death through our communities so we, black people, couldn’t maintain. To set us up for failure and send us to the prison system, which mirrors slavery, so corporations could receive free cheap labour from us. It was all a strategic plan to make us not seem like humans. I wanted to do the opposite with Trap Muzik.
A sense of juggling multiple lifestyles runs throughout the album. On "Long Live Da Game," for example, you rap about having a “Crib in the trap and a crib to relax”—was maintaining this balance a challenge?
Look, nobody lives in their trap if they can help it, You gotta treat the trap like an office. You pull in, handle business and then by the time you feel like you’ve taken enough risks you can leave and go somewhere safe and peaceful, and develop a new creative, more articulate strategy for the day to follow. That is every dope boy’s hope and intention. No one wants to sell a bunch of heroin or crack cocaine in a place and never be able to leave, you know what I am saying? You have to create somewhat of a duality. When Tony Soprano went home, he wasn’t the same guy as he was at the Bada Bing!
Obviously you show an introspective side throughout the album, but you also say “I want to be a musician, not a politician”—what changed with the Tip in 2003 to the Tip we see now who regularly speaks out against Donald Trump?
I still feel the same way; I don’t wanna be no politician! I wanna assist the politicians who are best fit for the opportunity, but I don’t wanna be one. I guess I have no choice but to speak up.
There’s a lot of live guitars, pianos and instrumentation on Trap Muzik , which quickly moves from the minimalist bass of a UGK to the soulful jams of College Dropout-era Kanye West. What were you and the album’s producers looking to achieve?
I wanted to create new diverse sounds that still managed to stay true to the lifestyles of the people I wanted to represent. When I went in with Kanye and we did “Doin' My Job,” I wanted to do a song for the trap, but not one containing that typical trap sound. It needed to be more classical to stand the test of time. For "Let Me Tell You Something," I told Kanye to remake "I Want to Be Your Man" by Zapp and Roger Troutman from scratch and he just did it, and it sounded so soulful! I knew Kanye was a genius, but I had no idea how far the spectrum could shift from then to today.
With DJ Toomp, it was much more of a personal relationship. My cousin Tremell grew up with Toomp and I would go over to his studio and he would play me music while he cut my hair. That is how we worked, it was all love and that’s why we had such a great chemistry.
Why do you think Trap Muzik is still spoken so highly of? Is it a classic?
I think it is the beginning of an era. It's an accurate depiction of the lifestyles people were living through that others in more comfortable positions had no idea of! No one knew this was going on in the world, because when people saw drug dealing they went straight to New Jack City. If you are a drug dealer you are either Nino Brown or Scarface. Trap Muzik let people know how day-to-day it was. It was the human story, that these are actual people with moms and dads, not just characters created for the sake of a movie. We never met Nino Brown’s mother so we didn’t see him as a real person. That’s why when he died in New Jack City no one cared! I wanted Trap Muzik to make people care about drug dealers and see us as human beings. I feel like Trap Muzik was more like Boyz n the Hood as it hits you in the heart—all these other rapper’s records were like Scarface or New Jack City.
There’s still an ongoing debate around who created trap music as the concept we all recognise today. You and Gucci Mane have been going back and forth on it for years, right?
He is just being an alpha male and trying to dominate everything. This is something that can be dominated by words and words alone! To say you created this, you’d have to have beaten me to the punch. I don’t want to take away from his contribution as it was significant; Gucci took trap to a different place, Young Jeezy and them did too. But there isn’t trap music without me... Gucci knows this!
You can find Tom on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.