I’m extremely proud and very humbled to feature non other than Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr – also know as ‘The Rubberband Man’ on this little blog of mine.
Perhaps you are more familiar with this individual as T.I. – an abbreviation more than an acronym – or as TIP (the nickname he received as a child) but for the ones who don’t know this ‘King Of The South’ hailing from Bankhead, Atlanta, I suggest you catch up on his extended body of work here.
However, let me take you through some of my personal favorites from T.I.’s music catalogue real quick! The tracks I consider worth mentioning are the following: ‘Whatever You Like‘, ‘Bring Em Out‘, ‘Big Things Poppin‘, ‘U Don’t Know Me‘, ‘Go Get It‘, ‘Soldier‘, featuring Destiny’s Child, ‘Here Ye, Hear Ye‘, featuring Pharrell Williams, ‘Ball‘, featuring Lil Wayne, ‘Get Back Up‘, featuring Chris Brown, ‘Dead & Gone‘ or ‘My Love‘, both featuring Justine Timberlake, ‘Live Your Life‘, featuring Rihanna and last but not least ‘Swagger Like Us‘, featuring Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne.
Acting is one of his newfound passions, a direction I’m super excited about to see him grow in. In my opinion he was simply brilliant in ‘TAKERS‘ and ‘HOUSE OF LIES‘. Furthermore between all that he manages to capture his family moments in his reality series THE FAMILY HUSTLE.
I can’t possibly take you through àll of T.I.’s work, it is simply too much, but all the above should give you a pretty good idea of what the man’s been up to the past few years since he started out.
This man is getting ready to release his 9th studio album called ‘PAPERWORK: THE MOTION PICTURE’ due to be out in the next few weeks and executively produced by Pharrell Williams. A big deal for T.I. who worked with P plenty times before, but always relied on his trusted DJ TOOMP for overall production.
The release of the two songs ‘About The Money‘, featuring Young Thug and ‘No Medicore‘, featuring Iggy Azalea both got him popping in the charts like he never left in the first place. Besides New National Anthem and Stay T.I. also released this new already heavily discussed track called ‘Paperwork‘ together with Pharrell. Ofcourse let’s not forget the huge and somewhat controversial hit ‘Blurred Lines‘ he was featured on this past summer?
T.I has been in the music industry for more than a decade, representing the southern style in hiphop as a pioneer and a self-proclaimed king paving the way for many artists in that genre. He also has a smell for new talent, whether it be pop with Iggy Azealia or rap with Travis Scott (who Tip found first and Kanye later) both signed to his Grand Hustle Records label. His clothing lines Hustle Gang and AKOO are both extremely successful endeavours selling thousands of units and T.I. is also well-known for ghost writing for plenty of artists and besides all thàt, also has managed to get two novels out.
At age 34, T.I had quite the interesting life, with high ups and intense downs, the down part being him serving two terms in county jail, twice for probation violations and a federal prison bid for a U.S federal weapons charge. He served 11 months in prison. He came back, openly spoke out of his mistakes, tried to overcome and endure his adversities and went straight back to what he does best. Chasing paper like nobody can do it but TIP.
Now. This is the story.
Day two of Les Ardentes Festival and my sixth day in a row that I wasn’t in bed before 6AM. Needless to say, I was exhausted. T.I. was scheduled to play from 19h45 till 20h45, so we used the day time to have dinner in the city of Liège, catch up on some sleep and headed to the festival around 18h. We were posted outside the entrance of the Les Ardentes artist village, our usual spot to observe the coming and going of artists and we were right on time to catch T.I. arrive in a black van with his bodyguard Mike, his assistant Snake and his wife Tamika also know as Tiny and a very kind older man who was also on the team. It felt really exciting to finally see T.I. in real life. It’s one of those artists, when u live in Europe, you just don’t see that often, because they don’t pass by that much. Interesting fact. I was invited by Sony to come to T.I.’s listening session only a few days before his gig in Belgium. They would pay my trip to Paris back and forth but I couldn’t come because I was in Berlin during the T.I. listening session. I suggested that maybe I could do something with T.I in Belgium, since I was going to be at Les Ardentes Festival anyway, he was performing there and then Sony wouldn’t have to make any travel expenses but… long story short, it was impossible to arrange. What’s new, moving on. I’ve been following T.I.’s career for a long time now and I really had my mind-set on portraying him on Polaroid. I was eager to be on time for his performance, so together with my camera man Fred VanZandycke, I headed to the stage where T.I. was about to perform so I could try to catch his arrival to the stage on camera and capture the first three songs on tape. After we got that, we ran back to the artist stage so we were on time for his return to his backstage lodge. So far so good, we got the additionals on tape, but the main goal; the Polaroids, still seemed far away and my exhaustion came up again. You have to realise, to do this blog, channeling energy is very important. You have to remain positive, focused and sharp. You have to observe and be frosty for the smallest opportunity.
However, coming straight from an intense 4 day trip to Berlin (where I also captured Ferg) and ran around town for fashion week at the same time, and then straight to Les Ardentes Festival, totally wore me out. Luckily, I had a secret weapon that night, that came in the form of my bestie and longtime assistant of this blog, called Jules. Jules and I worked on so many stories together, she knows the ins and outs of this blog and knows how to support or contribute when I’m not at my best. She also learned to be very careful around artists and she understands you need to catch their vibe or lay low. Jules arrived at the festival around 9.30PM and I told her I was so exhausted I could cry. So she calmed me down, let me tear up for 3 minutes and we got back to business. When one of T.I.’s assistants left the artist village I didn’t hesitate, walked up to him and did my pitch. I was fortunate to show a lot of new Polaroids I took that last week so the man, a very kind, slightly older man quickly got a glimpse of what my intentions were. He told me that those kind of decisions were not up to him, but that he would ask T.I.’s PA to come and have a talk with me. A few minutes later I introduced myself to Snake, T.I’s assistant and did my elevator pitch. Or at least, I stuttered my elevator pitch because I was so exhausted I could barely even remember who I shot in Polaroid since I do this blog let alone speak fluent English. That was the state I was in. Luckily, Jules busted out some artists when my brain failed to do so. Snake asked me if he could take my new Polaroids and show them to T.I. and see what the response was. To my huge surprise, he came back and said that T.I. wanted to see me. At that time, my camera man Fred was filming the three first songs of Redman and Method Man who were performing at that same time. I texted Fred that I was inside with T.I. and that I would brief him with updates asap and that he needed to get back, stat.
When me, Jules and Elsa entered the small backstage room T.I. was talking on the phone. We said hello to his wife Tameka also known as Tiny and tried to find ourself; what I like to call; ‘a fly on the wall spot’. In this case; imagine three girls glued to a wall because we were all a bit stunned from the situation we were witnessing. T.I. was on the phone, talking non stop about…money. Money, Money, Money. This deal here, that movie role there, that cut here, that percentage there. It could have been a scene straight out of Entourage. (I hope for their sake they gave him a feature in the new movie.) Meanwhile, Tiny was also on the phone talking and the both of them were walking in the room, doing circles around the table in opposite directions, talking to the phone. The scene was both hilarious as surreal but I also felt like an intruder in a very private situation. 10 minutes in, T.I. looks up to us, holds the phone, smiles and says: “Excuse me , this will not take too long.” and he continued his heavy energy monologue about money on the phone. They call this man ‘The Jay-Z Of The South’ and I was witnessing in real-time why. T.I. has his own tv show, his own label, a new album to promote, he executive produces the reality series ‘Sisterhood Of HipHop’, has his own clothing line and his career as an actor is growing stronger with every new role. Of course you’ll be on the phone a lot if you manage all that by yourself. At some point, the business calls are done and T.I. asks me to take a seat next to him and says: “Now. Show me your work.” So I walked him through some of my Polaroids, which he looked at very critically and commented on some of them like: “What’s up with Wiz and these white glasses tho!” and other funny or hilarious feedback.
This picture was taken by my assistants who were briefed nòt to take any pictures, before I talked T.I. about it, but what can I say. Disobedience! 🙂
I was shocked when they silently told me in the car ride home that they sneaked some pictures backstage. (also a bit proud of their balls, i have to admit, but still!) This could have get me kicked out and believe me, if you are aware how T.I. responded recently to Azealia Banks, you better knòw you don’t want rub T.I. the wrong way. (If you see this, sorry TIP. Ahum)
Meanwhile Tiny was rolling some little joints and T.I. poured some vodka and orange juice for me and my team. Then he said: “Why are you doing this? Please don’t say you are doing this for the love are you?” I immediately knew where he was going to take this conversation. I had this type of conversation before. I said: “I actually really do if for the love, because I love music, stories and imagery, but I see where you are heading with this, so I’m working on capitalizing on my time invest if that is what you mean.” He smiled and said: “How much money do you make with this, since you started ?” I told him this blog is still a non-profit thing, but that it’s part of my other business indirectly generating other income and that setting up future expos are a way of making money to invest back into the blog. He immediately asked me to show me the exposition blow-ups and when he saw my huge blow-up Polaroid of Pharrell he said: “I want to buy this for P his birthday.” He asked me what the price was and when I told him the price he smiled and said: “Very nice.” He told me that I needed to come to the States asap with my work and team up with a partner who could support me. This is nothing new for me, to keep this blog alive, especially with the video content I’m making now, I have to get more money out of it. It has been a love project far too long and the business side needs to be developed harder and fast. Every artist needs a Maecenas and this little blog really needs one for sure. I’m just looking for the right one.
I felt blessed to have this kind of conversation with T.I. because he looked at my work in a very business kinda way, took it very serious and it felt like an accomplishment that he valued it that high. I do realise for a long time that the business side of APS is essential for the further existence of the blog and telling stories with a certain quality and depth, so he wasn’t telling me anything new, I knòw what this blog needs, but between knowing and getting there, from where I stand, is a different story. I was just grateful to have this type of conversation with a man of his caliber. So after we had that conversation he asked me: “So what do you want from me?” This was my time to tell him that I’ve been doing more video and that I would love to portray him on Polaroid while documenting the process on camera. I explained him my camera man wasnt with me because he was filming Method Man & Redman. He agreed but on a few conditions. He wanted to change his clothes because he was still in a shirt from the Les Ardentes festival, probably refreshing clothes after his performance. He didn’t want to do it in the backstage but rather take the shots in his hotel so that meant that we had to leave the festival all together because his hotel was at the Brussels airport since he was leaving first thing in the morning. This meant that I would have to let go a possible new Polaroid series of Method Man & Red Man, which I already portrayed in the very beginning years of this blog, but was aiming to get some better, current shots. I quickly made my choice. I wasn’t sure that T.I. would visit Europe anytime soon, and definitely not in Belgium so I decided to tag along with him. I was actually very surprised that he did that specific proposal, because inviting somebody in your hotel, a group of 4 that you simply don’t know is a very intimate decision. T.I.’s final condition, was that if we came to his hotel, there was no recording allowed but the capturing moment of the Polaroid. I’m in the position where I’m grateful to be invited and to be able to capture some moments with this man, so these conditions are more than fine with me. Right before we left he said: “You have an interesting hustle, it’s a ‘nice’ one, but it’s definitely a hustle.” That feedback made my day. 🙂
That being said, we all left the festival, heading for T.I. ‘s hotel in separate cars. Right before T.I. hopped in the van, he asked my cameraman: “Wait, what car are you driving?” My camera man started laughing and said: “Ow a Peugeot, it’s an ugly European car.” where T.I. quickly responded; “I don’t give a damn, I need to know the color of your car so I know who’s driving behind me.” My cameraman was stunned for a minute and stumbled: “A silver-grey Peugeot 307….” What can I say, Tip can be intense. 🙂
We all hopped in the car, everybody both nervous as excited for the prospect of actually spending time with T.I. and his wife, but no clue what to expect. In the car, I briefed my team that taking snaps like they did backstage was definitely not allowed and that the camera will only record when I have T.I.’s clear approval. If there is one thing that is super important for me, is that artists feel comfortable with me and my team and can be completely themselves. This comes with respecting their wishes and not being thirsty for whatever you want. You are invited in a space you have normally no business being in. I value that and treat it with respect. While driving to Brussels, we suddenly realised that we weren’t even sure that we were one hundred percent about this hotel, because there are apparently two Sheratons in Brussels. Luckily Jules was sharp enough to recall hearing T.I mention that his hotel was straight across the airport, so we took a gamble and headed for Brussels airport. We parked the car and the minute we walked in we came across T.I.’s assistant who was just walking out the hotel trying to find some Mcdo for T.I. and his wife.
He told us to wait until Mike, T.I.’s bodyguard texted me to come up to T.I.’s hotel room. We decided to have a drink in the lobby to calm our nerves and about 30 minutes later I received a text message from Mike that I could come up. I gave my team final briefings and instructions, we went up, knocked on the door and were welcomed by T.I. with a big smile who invited us in his hotel room with great enthusiasm. They just finished their Mcdo and Tiny was looking to open up a window so she could smoke a little joint. Now, you know what they say: ‘weed makes friends’ but hotels don’t have open windows, so I kindly suggested that there was a good trick to go around that issue: putting socks on the smoke detectors. Both T.I. and Tiny looked at me like I was crazy and I said, trust me, just cover the detectors with a sock and you’ll be fine. This resulted in the hilarious situation of T.I. grabbing some of his striped color socks, covering the detectors in the right corner of the room on a chair and standing on the bed to cover the detector that was in the middle of the room. True story! Hey, I was glad to make a contribution! After we got that covered, T.I. asked us to take a seat around a glass round table which we all did. He immediately took his computer, plugged his Beats By Dre pill into his laptop, sat down and said: “This is the first song of my new album Paperwork, it’s called KING and it’s produced by Pharrell Williams.”
I never expected that he would give us a private listening session in the middle of the night and I was super nervous how my team would respond to that. You see, listening sessions are just weird and not really my thing. I once had a few previews of Miguel’s new music, but that was done in a super relaxed way. More like; “hey! look, here are a few bits of things I’m working on.” an approach I feel more comfortable in. Personally for me, when it comes to new albums, I like to listen to a new album in my own space and time. While working, while doing the dishes, while cleaning, on the train. I’m too much aware of the time and the effort it takes for artists to create something, so to immediately give response to an artist and especially one of that caliber at such a small table gave me stress like you would not believe. You just don’t want to offend anybody and also, what is the right body behaviour when you do a listening session?! I sometimes need to listen two or three times to a song to suddenly fall in love with it. Of course you have the hit singles that immediate catch your attention, but to appreciate or validate a body of work in a whole I need time. Also, I always think that listening sessions are somewhat fake, with people bobbing their heads and like really ‘feeling the music’. I just can’t. I immediately looked in the corner of my eyes how everybody responded to that announcement. Nobody saw it coming, everybody was super silent and was listening to the music in very low-key way. Jules was bobbing her head, I just barely moved and tried to listen very objectively, Elsa was against the wall leaning in but my camera man who is 21 years old, who never did a listening session in his life, was sitting right to T.I’s other side and during the listening session, he was nervously circling his fingers around a button on his Red Epic camera. When I’m with an artist I’m always in the moment without losing touch of the energy level in the room. It was super hard for me not to stare at T.I. his face during the session. I’m sorry but that man is extremely handsome, I just wished I could just stare at his face for at least 10 minutes and get over it, but you don’t want to be rude towards his wife or come across as a freak so I looked down and ignored the excellent way T.I. was moving on his music. It was because of my focus on the situation I suddenly noticed how T.I. his body movements were slowing down, his eyes slowly moved towards the camera that was resting on top of the table and he was looking very intense with a certain darkness that scared the shit out of me. I was looking for eye contact with my cameraman, hoping that he would look up and feel that there was something up, but the music was blasting so hard from that damn Dre Pill (I need that in my life, it’s so loud and small, it’s totally awesome) that I could not really warn him.
All of sudden I see T.I. rìght in the ear of my camera guy asking very sharply what he was doing. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but Fred, surprised to find T.I. suddenly so up close, responded very calm to whatever T.I. was saying and was eventually saved by a phone call T.I. suddenly received from Young Yeezy. He immediately jumped up, stopped the listening session and started another intense phone conversation. Jules, trained to work on A Polaroid Story enough to be aware of energy changes immediately said: “Ok, saved by the bell!!” grabbed the camera from the table and immediately put it down on the floor. I was mortified as fuck (excuse my french) and stressed out beyond believe. Was my camera guy filming without my consent?! We were so close to get kicked out and my credibility as a genuine storyteller could have been destroyed by that situation. I only had a full grasp of how serious it might have been after Fred told me in the car what exactly happened. So Fred didn’t really knew how to behave during the listening session and found himself a posture playing with his Red Epic cam by turning around some button. A Red Epic camera standard has a red light that burns, even if the camera is out. When the camera is on, the red light turns green. So because of his nervous behaviour, Fred accidentally moved the button too hard, which made the camera lens slowly move and turn in the direction of T.I. who immediately caught that movement and understandably assumed that the camera was recording. Fred was calm enough to immediately explain to T.I. that he wasn’t recording and showed what the camera does when you do. The minute T.I. saw that this was a misunderstanding he let go and thén he got the phone call. Can you understand how mortified I was by that situation? I will never, éver have a camera on a table éver again. If the thing is not recording it will be on some floor. Lord have mercy, I swear to God, you do not want to make a man like T.I. mad, I’m sure you understand that. Anyway, after T.I’s very entertaining phone call that was a mix about money, deals, Iggy Azealia and the BET awards drama he sat down again, ready to proceed with the listening session. By that time my whole crew and I were so tensed and dying for a drink so we could chill the fuck down. But how do you ask a superstar that you want something to drink? By asking him if he wanted something to drink? That resulted in a hilarious and even heart warming situation where both Tiny as T.I. realised they didn’t offer us something to drink, maybe realised that this would chill out everybody a bit and so we made some room service orders and then continued with the listening session that by that time felt a lot more chill and relaxed. We all talked about the songs, the production and it was a great experience in the end. The songs we had in preview were King, Stay, About My Issue, New National Anthem (which T.I. told us he was hoping to have a version with Lady Gaga), About My Issue and Paperwork.
After the listening session and a first round of drinks that took a lifetime to arrive, it was time to capture the Polaroid.
The following additional video portrays what happens next:
A little note that goes with this video. With his recent Hollywood features like House Of Lies , his reality show and his recent feature on the massive hit single with Pharrell & Robin Thicke on ‘Blurred Lines’, I somehow forgot where T.I came from and it hit me in all my exhaustion that T.I. is quintessentially street and I felt that in his whole being. I’m not going to lie that it intimidated me just a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, T.I. was a true gentleman and welcomed us with open arms in a very private situation because he stuck to his word. There was nothing stopping him to say at 2AM,; “Hey, I don’t feel this anymore, I’m sorry.” At the end of the day, who are we to this man really? When I’m exhausted it’s harder for me to connect, because at the end of the day, you exchange energy. That’s why I was happy that my trooper Jules, who worked three years with me on this blog, was there, to catch up my exhaustion and keep the energy level fresh. T.I. is a tough cookie, a really good-looking one too, with a huge natural entertainer inside of him, a smell for business so tangible it hurts and an intellect I’m sure everyone would be very surprised of. Can I point out his manner of speech? Or is it preach? That man’s vocabulary is immaculate. Or to quote the man himself; “I’m the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished with the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid, allergic to counterfeit, impartial to the politics, articulate but still will grab a ni**a by the collar quick.” So that in itself is an intense combination to come across if you first meet somebody. And I think that I can speak for my team and myself that we were honestly a bit freaked out with the whole camera situation. With the risk of sounding completely stupid, but after we left the hotel room everyone was exhausted and admitted that each one of them felt that same intensity level in different parts of the night.
All that aside, T.I. is first and foremost a very regular and grounded person and an individual who has been very honest about his mistakes that got him in jail. To have the opportunity to hang with him was a rare thing to come across. T.I is the caliber of an artist that is here to stay for a long time, whether you see him passing by as the family man, the thug, the business man, the cook, the actor, the entertainer, the writer, the producer. Clifford Harris is no one-dimensional person. He is diversified, complex and definitely one of my favorite encounters in the history of A Polaroid Story. It was really fun to do this with him and I can only dream how cool it has to be to make a music video with him. (Hey, let a girl dream, will ya?) Another thing I really want to mention is how very rare it was to be invited in their private space as a couple. Tameka was there observing the entire process, talking with Elsa about her kids and random girl stuff like hair and make-up. She lets her man be himself and do his thing. After all he invited 4 strangers into his hotel room in the middle of the night, she sure has to be ok with all this too. Of course, Tameka has a long history in the entertainment industry herself, she was once part of a girl group called Xscape , a 90’s girl band discovered by Jermaine Dupri, that released 3 albums. She does the reality show with T.I. and still has her own thing she does with her own endeavours called ‘Pretty Hustle’ matter of fact, she just released this single. Tameka is also a songwriter, one of biggest tracks she co-wrote was TLC’s ‘No Scrubs.’ So she is used to a thing or two and I was very happy to meet T.I.’s ride or die chick. In the States, their personal relationship as a married couple is heavily discussed in hip hop gossip press, but in all honesty that doesn’t really interest me that much to go any deeper in. But considering that, it’s pretty amazing that they invited us the way they did.
Meeting T.I. was definitely a milestone for me and he definitely empowered me to stay focused and take it all the way with this blog and just be a little more aware that I must have my money game just a little bit harder in the back of my mind. I organically tend to do things mostly because I love doing them so much, sometimes at my own expense and thàt is definitely something that I have to protect myself of in the future.
For my readers who stuck it out to the end, (hà #longread much?) I leave you guys with some of the Polaroid shots we took together:
shot with Impossible Project Film
Interesting fact. The default Polaroid of this story is the ‘pure and simple’ one. T.I. acknowledged that it was indeed his best shot of the series, but emphasised that the Leopard framing was not something he would choose and I quote: “I’m not a print kinda guy, more of a pins and stripes kinda fella.” In case you wondered. 😉
Special thanks to Elsa Fralon, Fred Van Zandycke, Julie Devriendt & Andres Willaert for their contribution to the story.