It’s just after 11 p.m. one night in late February when Timbaland decamps to Executive Studios, a recording facility owned by multi-platinum rapper T.I. in Atlanta. The night before, Tim (the mega-producer’s offstage name) and Justin Timberlake performed at Atlanta’s Philips Arena for yet another sold-out show on the ”FutureSex/LoveSounds” tour and, after a day’s rest, Tim is ready to hit the studio again.
When the door to the studio swings open, we’re led by an assistant to a sprawling studio where T.I. is congregating with a group of friends that includes Atlanta mixtape maestro D.J. Drama, Philadelphia rapper Cassidy and T.I. himself, whose tiny, reed-like build belies his ”King of the South” moniker.
Tonight, T.I. is impatiently pacing back-and-forth in the recording studio — which is sparsely furnished with a mixing desk and a flat screen TV — playing back songs from his upcoming album which is untitled but is themed ”T.I. vs. T.I.P.,” out in July on Grand Hustle/Atlantic. (The rapper’s real name is Clifford Harris and his two nicknames are ”T.I.” and ”T.I.P.”). ”I got almost 60 songs already,” T.I. announces, reeling off the names of big-name producers (Wyclef Jean and Mannie Fresh among them) who have already contributed beats to his new release. Then T.I. plays snippets from several of the tracks he’s completed, including a fierce collaboration with Southern superstars Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy. ”Whoo!” Tim cries, nodding his head to the beat. ”Them n—as is a problem. Ya’ll should start a group together.”
After T.I. finishes previewing his new album, Tim grabs a pair of chunky Sony headphones and begins setting up his Ensoniq ASR-10 in a corner of the studio. Tim’s made all of his hits on this early ’90s-era keyboard, from Ginuwine’s ''Pony'' to Timberlake’s ''What Goes Around Comes Around''. He has an almost romantic relationship with his ASR-10 — he confesses that when he tried to switch to another keyboard, it ”got mad at me?the letters [on the keyboard] starting looking at me like they was frowning” — so he can’t start a session until the machine is ready to go.
Moments later, when the ASR-10 is plugged in, Tim calls out to T.I. ”What you lookin’ for? I’m a man of many colors.” T.I. scratches his goatee contemplatively. ”I could go anywhere with you,” T.I. says, ”how about 'Dirt off Your Shoulder' [Timbaland’s hit with Jay-Z on The Black Album]. I want this year’s version of that.”
Tim sits down at the ASR-10 and begins silently beat-boxing to himself (this is how all Tim productions begin, even multi-layered masterpieces like Timberlake’s ''Cry Me A River''. Moments later, Tim shouts ”Turn the lights down!” to an engineer, and when they dim he cranks out a minimalist drum beat (which sounds like something like L.L. Cool J’s ''Rock the Bells'' over the gargantuan studio speakers. Heads nod approvingly to the beat but Tim is far from finished. ”This is the foundation,” Tim says over the music. ”I can go much further than this. You want it melodic?”
T.I. looks on, thrilled at the early progress of Tim’s work. ”Do what you do,” he replies, smiling widely, ”Do you.” So, Timbaland adds a squishy, Parliament-Funkadelic-styled synth sound followed by a sample of an angelic sounding voice cooing ”AHHHHH.”
Suddenly, Tim stops the music and presses a button on a computer perched next to his ASR-10. The voice of an old Southern black man comes over the speakers: ”Put a ball on each end,” the voice croaks, ”stretch it upside the wall and make a SOUND.” No one — not even the beatsmiths who work for Tim — has any clue where the maestro is going with this. Tim confuses the situation even more by actually talking to the sample. ”You like that track?” he says directly to the computer. ”It’s aiiiiight,” the sample says back when Tim pushes a button on the computer. ”Who the hell is that?” T.I. says, laughing. ”It’s Ed,” Tim says nonchalantly. Tim then reboots the sample and when ”Ed” says ”make a SOUND,” Tim cuts to the track he made for T.I. Now it all makes sense; Tim has created an unusually powerful spoken word intro to the song. But Tim still isn’t done. He runs across the hall to a soundbooth and beat-boxes into a microphone which T.I.’s engineer rushes to record. Then Tim taps out a frenetic beat on the studio glass which he motions the engineer to capture as well. T.I. looks on silently, stunned by Tim’s strange genius.
Now T.I. is inspired. ”Let me in!” he shouts to Tim. T.I. and Tim then trade places in the vocal booth. Like Jay-Z before him, T.I. does not write any of his lyrics down on paper, so he stands in the vocal booth for a moment running through rhymes in his head. Then he grabs the mic and nods to his engineer who pushes ”record.” To everyone’s surprise, T.I. starts with what’s obviously the song’s hook: ”Get that money, get that money!” he raps in trademark husky Southern drawl. ”If you ain’t got nothin’ for me/well get back from me!” The chorus is so instantly catchy that when T.I. repeats it in order to get the most perfect take, Tim’s beat-makers stand up from their chairs and pantomime handing out huge wads of cash. ”Does that suffice,” T.I. says, bowing down respectfully in front of Tim, ”oh great one?” Tim expresses his satisfaction with the hook and then T.I asks for help: he wants an even darker sound. ”I want that zeeeeeooowwww,” T.I. says, making a bassy, growling sound. Tim goes to work on his ASR-10 and a low, humming ”Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” booms over the speakers, shaking the room as though it had been hit with an earthquake. ”It’s the mark of Zorro,” Timbaland says proudly, packing up his keyboard just after 5 a.m. ”I’m gone.”