By the early 2000s, Southern Hip-Hop was undeniable.
What had been ignored as a regional curiosity in the 1980s and was recognized as an emerging phenomenon in the 1990s was now becoming the major influencer in urban culture. OutKast and The Dungeon Family had broken through to the mainstream in the mid-1990s, announcing Atlanta as a rap mecca; labels like No Limit and Cash Money out of New Orleans soon followed, with a string of platinum plaques cementing this rap powerhouses' stature. On top of already-established successes like Rap-A-Lot, Suave House and Luke Records, the South had now leap-frogged the West Coast as Hip-Hop's second most potent region. And soon, it would even overtake New York City.
But it was in that exciting transitional period that a young rapper from Bankhead came to the fore.
Clifford Harris had seen quite a bit in his 20 years.
Young Clifford was raised in southwest Atlanta's famous Bankhead neighborhood, and he learned street hustling at an early age. As a youth, Clifford would spend summers in New York City with his father, Buddy Harris; and it exposed him to sounds that his friends down south weren't paying attention to. Every time he came back to Atlanta, he would hip them to what was hot in the Big Apple. Conversely, he was able to connect associates in New York to the sounds coming out of Atlanta at the time.
"[It] allowed me a certain diversity that contributed to my swag a little later on, you know what I'm saying?" T.I. recalled in an interview with NPR back in 2014. "And it kinda put me ahead of people. Cause they wasn't — people didn't know – really, people didn't know about [A Tribe Called Quest] when I came back to Atlanta. Until like, you know, 'Bonita Applebum.' You know what I'm saying? People didn't really know about [the Notorious] B.I.G.! I came back and told people about B.I.G. It was the, I think, the year he was on the Craig Mack remix and he had things that were, you know, "Party and Bullshit," and other things that you would have to be in New York to have. And I went back to Atlanta with 'em like, 'Yo, this cat coming.'"
As he was hustling as a drug dealer in Bankhead, Clifford started calling himself "Tip," (an acronym that was short for "Ten Inch Playa") and he also began focusing on rapping. He would meet a slightly older rapper named Sean Merrett, aka Big Kuntry King. Kuntry and Tip began making demos together and one of their demos landed in the hands of man named Kawan "K.P." Prather. K.P. was an A&R for LaFace, and he connected immediately with the young emcee.
“We have a great chemistry based on being from the same place," Prather told Rolling Out in 2013. "Growing up in Atlanta and going through the obstacle course of the street stuff."
K.P. and Tip bonded, (they both even made a cameo in the music video for "85" by fellow ATL rap stars Youngbloodz) and K.P. landed Tip a deal with red-hot Arista Records. The label had just acquired LaFace Records in a merger, and as a result, was now the home for Atlanta hitmakers like OutKast and Usher.
After Tip landed the deal with Arista, it looked like his career was on the fast track. But there was one little problem: his name.
Former A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip was now signed to Arista as a solo artist, and the label was worried that it couldn't effectively market two rappers named "Tip."
"We were both on Arista and we was trying to release my first album," Tip told NPR. "The people who had to market, promote, and, you know, just spread the word on it communicated that it was somewhat difficult or confusing to have two Tips in one building. So out of respect and just the legendary reputation and career that preceded that situation, I definitely conceded. My problem, or conflict, at the time, was now this is what I've been called all my life. What do I change my name to?"
He settled on shortening "Tip" to simply 'T.I." and it stuck.
For his debut album, the Atlanta rapper landed with a who's-who of hitmakers. Jazze Pha, Lil Jon and The Neptunes all contributed to what would become his debut album I'm Serious. And the album's secret weapon has always been the brilliance of DJ Toomp. The legendary Atlanta producer helmed six of the album's tracks, including the anthem "Dope Boyz," an early landmark song in what would become Atlanta trap music; and the strip club anthem "Do It (Stick It Baby)."
But the album's first single and title track was handled by the Neptunes and featured Beenie Man. It remains confounding as to why the song "I'm Serious" wasn't the commercial home run Arista and T.I. expected. And had the album's commercial fortunes been better, "What's Yo Name" (also courtesy of the Neptunes) was ready-made for the radio. The album is nothing if not polished.
Even though the album doesn't shy away from floss, the heart of I'M SERIOUS is introspection.
Songs like the Craig-Love produced "Still Ain't Forgave Myself" and the first-person storytelling of "What Happened?" show that the still-young rapper was dwelling on the kind of life choices that can come from hustling in "the trap."
T.I.'s famous title of "King Of The South" was a product of self-actualization. "We were actually riding from Lenox, I think, one day. and we were listening to Mystikal, and Mystikal, I believe, said he was the Prince of the South," T.I. told BET in 2015. "I think that was his moniker. So I said 'How can there be a Prince of the South—who was the King of the South?' And KP said 'nobody—nobody ever said it.' I looked out the window and I looked at KP and he said 'I bet you won't do it. I bet you won't!' And I said 'why won't I?'"
It was undoubtedly audacious for a young rapper dropping his first album to declare himself "King," but Clifford Harris wasn't coming into the rap game to be taken lightly. He saw his future and reached out to grab it.
"I had no true conviction of it until after it hit and people started telling me what I couldn't say, what I couldn't be, how I couldn't—" he explained to BET. "I'm like, 'hold up; last I checked, none of y'all muthafuckas was around when I ain't have shit. So you should have nothing to say.' I ain't scared of nobody. So it was that that kinda made me go so hard about it. And the fact that I just felt like it wasn't anybody in my generation at one album or two that could see me. I just knew it. I knew that they were solidified in the streets, but their artistry wouldn't carry them there--or their artistry was good but they wasn't solidified in the streets."
But the criticism turned into snickers when I'm Serious didn't set the world ablaze. The album grossly underperformed despite T.I.'s status as one of the most talked-about artists in his home state and despite the fact that Atlanta was suddenly scorching hot. He asked Arista for a new joint venture deal or to be released from his contract. The label dropped him.
“Now, whether or not you would count I’M SERIOUS as a classic would depend largely upon your lifestyle and whether or not it represented you..."
That was how Tip described his debut album's legacy in a 2020 interview with Genius. The underperformance of I'm Serious wound up being a blessing in disguise for T.I., as his frustration led to an amicable departure from Arista and much better situation once he signed with Atlantic. That label gave T.I. the push that he needed and also guaranteed he could launch his own label, Grand Hustle. T.I. and his manager Jason Geter would found that label in 2003, after the success of T.I.'s sophomore album, the Atlantic-released Trap Muzik.
Despite the fact that it was the move to Atlantic that really solidified his career, T.I.'s debut album is still one of the most important in Southern Hip-Hop's history. And it's a landmark of Atlanta rap. The "trap" wasn't an entirely new subject (in fact, Khujo of Goodie Mob first uttered the term back on 1995s "Thought Process" from that legendary group's debut album) but T.I. was arguably the first rapper to embody the culture of the trap so thoroughly. It was Atlanta street culture, coming on the heels of OutKast's eclecticism, Goodie Mob's topicality and Lil Jon's crunk anthems. T.I. was born of all of those fathers but wasn't like any of them; he was a trap star for Y2K.
A lot has changed for Clifford Harris in the two decades since his first album. In an interview with VICE back in 2020, he was asked what I'm Serious T.I. would think about the man he's become at 40.
"I think young T.I., he would look at me now and say, 'You got old,'" he admitted, before adding, "And I think I would look at him and say, 'Yeah, but I sure did get rich, though.'”