The slaying last week of his personal assistant and lifelong friend Philant Johnson has forced T.I. to re-evaluate his life and career, the rapper told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in his first interview since the incident.
Still shaken from the hail of bullets that killed Johnson on Wednesday after an altercation at a Cincinnati nightclub spilled onto the streets (see "Police ID Man Killed In Shootout Involving T.I.'s Crew"), T.I. said he'll never forget the final moments of his friend's life. "I told him that I had him and it was going to be all right," the rapper, born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., told his hometown paper. "That was what I said. And he said, 'All right.' "
A few hours later, Johnson died.
"I'm kind of like watching my life change right before my eyes. I'm figuring out whether or not I even want to keep doing this [stuff] right now. I don't know," said T.I., who spoke at Johnson's funeral on Monday at Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The paper reported a heavy police presence as the funeral began Monday afternoon. Photos of Johnson ringed his open casket as guests began to arrive, including former "American Idol" singer Kinnik Sky, who sang at the service.
According to the Journal-Constitution, T.I. stumbled over his words as he stood over Johnson's midnight-blue casket and tried to describe losing his best friend while giving a eulogy. "I spend a lot of time holding the microphone and performing," T.I. said from the church's pulpit. "But I ain't never did nothing quite this hard. ... For my partner, I ain't even going to focus on no negativity. ... Family forever, and I love you."
The funeral was also attended by Atlanta rappers Killer Mike and Yung Joc, as well as "ATL" director Chris Robinson. T.I. was among the pallbearers who helped lift Johnson's casket onto a black horse-drawn carriage.
T.I. and Johnson had been friends since nursery school, according to the paper, and just hours before T.I. had tried to comfort his dying friend, Johnson, 26, had been standing beside the stage, holding the rapper's phone as he performed at Bogart's nightclub in Cincinnati.
"He loved music, always," said Johnson's mother, Alicia Brown Cook. "And my son just told me two weeks ago ... he was like, 'Yeah, Mama, I love my job!' He was somewhere in Cali. Lying on the beach."
"It just seems like as long as I can remember, he was there," T.I. said of his friend. "As long as I can remember, his mama and my mama were partners. His cousin and my uncle were partners. His auntie and my grandmama stayed up the street from one another. And we just always knew each other, and it was cool."
The two often spent the night at each other's houses as children, and in high school they engaged in the time-honored traditions of young men: video games, "tearing up stuff. Breaking windows. Throwing balls. Being somewhere they had no business. Or running in somebody's yard. Just typical boys," Cook said.
T.I. told the Journal-Constitution he wasn't sure what sparked the fight that led to Johnson's death and the wounding of three other members of his crew. What is known is that after the show at Bogart's, the group went to an afterparty across town at Club Ritz, where some in the crowd reportedly were angered by someone throwing money into the audience during a set by T.I. protégé Yung Joc.
As T.I. and his crew attempted to leave the party and avoid a scene, several people piled into SUVs and followed T.I.'s vans as they left the club. While T.I. told the paper that what happened isn't even worth discussing, he did offer a snapshot of the incident.
As his van headed toward the highway, T.I. said, he was sitting in the back row on the driver's side, Johnson in the row in front of him. When shots rang out, they hit Johnson and three others: Janice Gillespie, Ronald Hausley and Elijah Edwards. Once the van stopped on the highway, T.I. helped load his friend into another car that transported them to the hospital. Days after the incident, T.I. still had long, red scratches across the back of his left shoulder from the glass that shattered when it was hit by bullets.
"Man, we kind of thought we didn't have to live like that no more. We thought that [stuff] was over for us," T.I. told the paper. Both men had overcome life on the streets and felt like life was changing at the time of the shooting, according to friends.
"I can honestly say in our last conversation, [Johnson] was like, 'Hannah, I'm so happy,' " said Hannah Kang, general manager of T.I.'s label, Grand Hustle Records. "He and his girl had just bought a house together. ... He was trying to get settled. Talking about working out. ... He was happy." The Monday before the shooting, both men had played a round of golf with Michael Jordan.
"I'm not ever going to be the same," T.I. told the paper. "Success isn't measured in money. It's measured in happiness. Peace. And I ain't at peace right now. And I ain't happy. My partner's gone."
T.I. was scheduled to pick up his tour schedule again on Tuesday (May 9) in New Orleans following Johnson's funeral, but the rapper said Friday he wasn't sure if he could do that, and an Atlantic Records spokesperson could not be reached for clarification of the tour's status.
"I don't know if I'm going to be in New Orleans Tuesday," T.I. told the paper. "It's hard to say. Because there are so many things that Philant would be doing that ain't going to be able to be done now. I mean, Phil handled everything. ... He made sure the only thing I had to worry about was performing and handling the business. One of the worst parts is, at the end of the day, I'm responsible for everybody. Everybody entrusts their husbands, their sons, their daughters, their brothers, cousins, their best friends — everybody entrusts them to me. And it is my responsibility to ensure their safety and their safe return. And this is one time that I could not do that."
The shooting has caused the Cincinnati police to increase their uniformed and undercover patrols in the area around Club Ritz based on tips from local sources and officials in Atlanta that there may be some kind of violent retaliation in the works by people from Atlanta, according to a spokesperson for the Cincinnati Police Department. The spokesperson also said that officials have developed significant leads in the case but have not yet announced any arrests or people of interest. So far, there have been no retaliatory incidents that police know of.
[This story was originally published at 3:39 p.m. ET on 05.08.2006]