Can't knock Grand Hustle

T.I.'s label won't grind to a halt while the breadwinner serves his bid

It's funny how things come together in a time of crisis.

For at least three years, Grand Hustle considered signing Atlanta rap stalwart Killer Mike, recalls Jason Geter, the co-CEO. Likewise, the label wanted to sign Decatur-bred B.o.B well before Atlantic Records gave the emerging MC a deal.

Neither happened — until, that is, the label's other co-CEO, and primary breadwinner, got sentenced on federal firearms charges.

With one year and one day of prison time looming over Clifford "T.I." Harris' head, Grand Hustle eagerly moved toward personifying its brand name. Now, on the eve of T.I.'s impending departure, the urgency with which the label has beefed up its roster is impossible to ignore.

It all started with the signing of B.o.B. in mid-2008, after Atlantic determined that the MC could benefit from being introduced to the world by such a well-established artist as T.I. Brimming with left-leaning charisma and above-average lyrics, critical darling B.o.B seemed like the least likely signee for a label whose only mainstream success had come via the decidedly hood T.I. But thus far, it's worked to the benefit of both, lending a smidgen of street cred to B.o.B. while throwing some artistic shine Grand Hustle's way.

The label followed that deal up by signing a range of acts: Southeast Atlanta's swag-happy Yung L.A.; Southern rap pioneers 8Ball & MJG; singer and brother of "American Idol's" Fantasia, Rico Barrino; as well as T.I.'s longtime friend and former Big Boi protégé, Killer Mike. In the span of 12 months, Grand Hustle went from being perceived as a prototypical vanity label to boasting what might arguably be one of the best rosters in hip-hop.

"The moves Grand Hustle has been making are definitely deliberate," T.I. said during a phone interview in January. "You definitely have to be honest with yourself and your situation. ... If you're the flag waver for the company and you're not going to be able to wave the flag, you have two options: You can set someone else up to wave the flag, or you can accept that the flag won't be waved for as long as you'll be gone. The latter is just not an option that we were ready to accept."

Like seminal Southern rap labels before it — Suave House, Cash Money Records, and more recently, Big Boi's Purple Ribbon (which at one time included Killer Mike, Janelle Monáe and Scar) — Grand Hustle's talent pool suddenly seems boundless.

At best, most artists facing T.I.'s situation would simply hope to remain relevant by stockpiling material beforehand to be released during the length of their prison stay. But the options the label hopes to exercise in the coming months prove Grand Hustle doesn't plan on betting the entire franchise solely on its sidelined star player.

Killer Mike, who signed a joint venture with the label in December 2008, says he intends to push the GH brand as hard as he reps his own Grind Time imprint. Given his long history with T.I., waving the Grand Hustle flag is more than mere business in his mind.

"I know how this shit goes," says Mike. "I know it's out of sight, out of mind. There are a lot of people that want T.I. to be forgotten. This man gave me an opportunity to build and there's no way I'm going to allow anything to interfere with what he started. I was brought here to hold that muthafucka down, and that's what I'm going to do."

Although Mike believes it's his duty to hold down the fort for his longtime friend, most eyes are deadlocked on B.o.B., aka Bobby Ray, to keep the label's momentum going. After being discovered in the T.I.-owned Club Crucial during an open-mic night a couple of years ago, B.o.B. has become tastemakers' choice. He's already graced the covers of XXL, Ozone and URB — all without an album. His Hi! My Name is B.o.B. mixtape received Creative Loafing's Best Mixtape Critic's Pick in 2008's Best of Atlanta issue.

It's the kind of positive association that could take T.I. to new heights, transforming him from a hip-hop heavyweight into an artist-breaking executive — in spite of his legal issues.    
"We're focusing on putting someone in the position to assume the same level of success as me," says T.I., "or to surpass it."
With only a few days left before Harris' year-long sentence is scheduled to begin March 27, the future weighs heavily on the minds of Geter, T.I. and Grand Hustle's general manager, Hannah Kang. While the environment at the label remains relaxed, according to Geter, everyone is focused on the grind. In addition to the MTV reality series "T.I.'s Road to Redemption" (which airs its final episode this week as he completes his 1,000 hours of community service mentoring troubled young adults), another show in the works, "Pink Slips," is scheduled to be filmed for the music network, too. Grand Hustle also has film projects in development.

"We know in this business you have to continue to do some things or you're going to fall off and you're not going to be relevant," Geter says. "Of course, we're not going to have our big dude, but we believe in taking negatives and turning them into positives. And that will give us more time and more manpower when it comes to other breaking acts."
And if talk of all the planned activity conjures images of T.I. overseeing the label's daily operations from behind bars — similar to the long arm of the mob — well, you can't knock the hustle.