T.I. vs. T.I.P. had the makings of a monster hit.
Released in July, the fifth album by Clifford "T.I." Harris features Wyclef Jean, Eminem and Jay-Z on guest vocals. And it has a provocative split-personality theme that explores the conflict between being a street hustler from Bankhead and an international music star.
The album opened at No. 1 on the charts, and quickly sold more than a million copies. But critics and fans agreed that one thing was missing.
Aldrin "DJ Toomp" Davis is the closest thing T.I. had to a mentor. In the mid-'80s, before the first embers of hip-hop culture wafted from New York to Atlanta, before OutKast and Jermaine Dupri turned the Dirty South into a mecca for the urban music industry, Toomp was making some of the city's first rap records.
Toomp met T.I. in 1997 when Toomp was a journeyman producer and T.I. a teenager. He helped the young rapper polish his talents and introduced him around the local music industry. For a decade, they worked together. And when T.I.'s career took off, Toomp was there, providing street anthems for each of the rapper's first four albums.
Toomp is now 38. In the forever-young, forever-rebellious hip-hop world, those sound like dog years. Most of his contemporaries, from MC Shy D to Public Enemy, haven't had a hit in more than a decade.
But last spring Toomp won the biggest honor in his career: His production of T.I.'s "What You Know," on the 2006 album King, earned a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.
By last February's Grammy Awards ceremony, however, T.I. was at work on T.I. vs. T.I.P., and Toomp wasn't involved. He and the protégé who'd outstripped his own fame had fallen out.
Sitting on a bright August afternoon on a leather couch inside his million-dollar high-rise apartment in Buckhead, Toomp insists he didn't take the falling out personally. His head is shaven clean. He looks fit and compact in a white T-shirt augmented by jeans and brown leather Prada shoes. His work with T.I. made him a force in the music industry and, he says, he's moving on to bigger things.
"From 1997 to 2007, you're speaking about 10 years," Toomp says. "Over 10 years a lot of stuff changes. You can speak about a whole lot of empires that went their separate ways after 10 years."
As he speaks, Toomp keeps his ears perked to a TV, which is tuned to a digital music channel rotating classic old-school soul. At one point, he excitedly turns up the sound. "Do you hear that shit?" he exclaims. The song was D-Train's "You're the One for Me," an energetic club hit in 1981. "I'm telling you, I'm a real old-school dude, man!"
Aldrin Davis was 13 in 1983, when he headed to the old Screening Room theater at Lindbergh Plaza to see a movie about New York's early hip-hop culture. It was called Wild Style, and it was destined to become a cult classic.
The kid from southwest Atlanta's Ben Hill neighborhood already was familiar with the world of R&B. His father, Alphonzo Davis, sang in the MVP's, a soul quartet that scored a minor hit in 1972 with "Turning My Heartbeat Up."
Most of the men in his family were entrepreneurs who worked a variety of legal and illegal hustles, from driving a milk truck to managing gambling houses. "They got in a little trouble," he says. "My dad had to sit down [and went to jail] for some years. My uncle, he got murdered. I can definitely say I learned a lot from them. ... I guess I learned from OGs, man. I learned how to move around and get some extra money in the streets."
But one famous scene in Wild Style changed his life. In it, pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash mixes records on two turntables in an apartment kitchen.
"When I saw him moving those records back and forth, it was like, 'God, I know I can do that,'" he says. "I just snapped into a mode where I didn't want to play basketball or baseball anymore."
Davis decided to become a DJ. He called himself Toomp, a nickname his older sister, Valencia, gave him, and began to spin records during lunch hour at Therrell High. He made customized mixtapes, collating the latest hits onto cassettes, and sold them to other kids for $5 or $10.
By the mid-1980s, the South was awash in bass, a hybrid of old-school party rap and electro-dance music, and Toomp was at its center. With a school friend, Makaya Raheem, he cut local hits such as "The Rahim Twins." He held a residency at the famous Jellybeans Skating Rink, which inspired the 2006 film ATL. When he won a citywide DJ competition at the Atlanta Civic Center, he drew the attention of MC Shy D, one of the bass scene's biggest stars.
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