ON MEETING the rapper and business mogul 50 Cent, the first thing you notice is that he’s a lot smaller than he looks onstage. In live performance, his muscular physique seems almost implausibly pumped up – rather as an iguana will inflate itself with air, so it can fall from a considerable height without hurting itself. In person he is a more contained but still commanding presence; impeccably polite and even jovial.
This particular day – in a luxurious suite at The Lowry Hotel in Manchester, the morning after a sold out gig – he is simply dressed in jeans, sneakers, baseball cap and relatively discreet (but no doubt wildly expensive) platinum and diamond jewellery. His t-shirt has a seemingly unremarkable design on the front, involving a quantity of dollar bills. But when illuminated by a shaft of winter sunlight, these banknotes momentarily take on a three-dimensional aspect, so the money seems almost to be exploding out of his chest, like blood pouring from a wound.
Given the apparent ease with which 50 Cent turned the near fatal injuries he received when shot nine times at close range into one of the most successful marketing gimmicks in pop history, this trick of the light seems almost eerily apposite. The effect is compounded by heavy bandaging on one of his densely tattooed arms (the aftermath of a minor accident at the wheel of his 4X4). “It’s not that bad,” the soft-spoken rapper nods at the dressing with a wry smile, “I just covered it up cos’ it’s ugly.”
Throughout the conversation which follows, Fifty (as his fans know him, and some more familiar mode of address does seem to be called for, if only for the reason which is about to be outlined) continually reaches forward with the other arm, and taps on my knee with his middle finger. It’s not clear whether he does this to emphasise the truth of what he is saying, give his words a form of manual punctuation, or perhaps even translate them into morse code. But in view of the violent subject matter of many of 50 Cent’s lyrics, and the numerous man-to-man confrontations which have marked the progress of his public life, the effect could easily be a little intimidating.
Such are his obvious delight at the prospect of being interviewed by a newspaper with a largely financial remit, however, (“I used to read The Wall Street Journal even before my music even took off,” he enthuses), that it seems best to interpret 50 Cent’s percussive digit as the expression of a rarely remarked capacity for physical tenderness. In the field of employment in which Fifty then found himself – dealing drugs on the mean streets of Southside, Queens – neither that august publication, nor his other favourite literary resource, The Forbes Hot 500, were widely considered required reading.
“People probably assumed I had more interest in the sports section, but for me it was always amazing to see the possibilities. I don’t see any limits. And with the right decisions, and of course with the money to put my ideas into practise, I knew I could become involved in some investments that could take me to a different space, financially.”
There is a tendency to view the outside business ventures of those in the music industry through a filter of cynicism. In 50 Cent’s case, however, this situation has effectively been reversed. Far from turning his back on the art-form he loved to pursue easy money from advertising contracts, dolls and other merchandise, he seems to have regarded his music as a means of entry into the one arena where his creativity could find its fullest expression – the world of business.
From the moment his career was launched – as the protégé of fellow 18-Rated wordsmith Eminem and producer Dr Dre (a symbiotic relationship which brought the former party ready access to a huge white suburban audience, and the latter duo huge financial rewards and a healthy measure of reflected glory) – 50 Cent showed an instinctive grasp of the best way to translate the popularity of his music into a dizzying range of other commercial interests. Presumably in the early stages he must have benefited from input of his patrons’ financial advisors?
“Absolutely,” Fifty nods. “I utilised what I had around me. We had the same accountants and business managers. I was just a little more focussed and willing to invest than Em’. He made so much money off the actual music that what happened after that didn’t really matter to him. All he wanted to do was know where his money was at, so he tended to be very conservative about what he did with it. Whereas I had more of the hustler’s mentality, which is ‘Let’s turn this money into some more money right now’, so I was willing to make much riskier investments… I remember we actually had conversations about the vitamin water early on…”
At this point Fifty’s countenance becomes momentarily wistful, as he ponders the opportunity his friend missed out on “I was just trying to find something for myself personally, to use as a replacement for soda: a drink where the calorie intake is different and it has vitamins, so it’s healthier. I mean, it was obvious it was going to work, and I really felt like I knew what I needed to do to promote it and make it hot. So I told Eminem’ ‘This is gonna be great’ and asked him if he wanted to be in on it, and he’s like ‘Oh yeah? [Fifty shrugs disinterestedly] That’s good’.”
Last year, the company which makes 50 Cent-endorsed grape-flavoured ‘Formula 50’ vitamin water was sold for over four billion dollars, with his share of this transaction estimated at 100 million dollars, after tax. “Because I did a deal very early on, and got in the elevator on the first floor,” he notes modestly, “when it reached the top, I was a big part of the situation.”
From the elder drug-dealer who obligingly takes the teenage Curtis Jackson on one side to advise him on the unfeasibility of his “business model” onwards, Fifty’s sober but remorselessly entertaining autobiography From Pieces To Weight abounds with parallels between the twilight world of the street-corner hustler and the fluorescently-lit realm of legitimate commerce. This is an equation which is often made in hip-hop (most recently in 50 Cent’s fellow drug-dealer-turned-CEO Jay-Z’s soundtrack to the film American Gangster) and, like many clichés, its over-familiar soft fruit contains a hard kernel of truth.
Perhaps because it is those who feel themselves most excluded from capitalism’s benefits that tend to pursue them with the greatest energy and ruthlessness, the crossover between these two worlds does seem to be a relatively straightforward one. “The one real difference between a boss in my neighbourhood and the CEO of a company,” Fifty explains, “is that the guy selling drugs doesn’t think killing you is not an option. The guy running the straight business might not have psychotic means of accomplishing his goals – he won’t have you shot just to take over the corner you’re standing on – but he will do pretty much everything else short of killing you to get what he wants.”
For all his bleakly Darwinian vision of the realities of corporate life, 50 Cent is happy to have left behind the more violent aspects of his former life behind him. “There are some people who actively enjoy doing the wrong thing” he says quietly. “Then there are others that are just standing there within the entrepreneurial spirit, thinking ‘this is regrettable, but it’s gotta be done’. I definitely fell within the latter category. For me it was the only way that I could provide for myself financially. I was only a kid when I started dealing, and I was kind of in a cycle. My mum had decided to go into that type of lifestyle in order to take care of me, and even though that decision led to her death, because I associated everything good in my life with her, I made the mistake of going the same way.”
“You don’t feel the pain until you know you’re OK,” is 50 Cent’s assessment of the most famous of his own numerous brushes with the grim reaper. “Then, once the doctor says you’re going to be fine, everything starts hurting. Suddenly you’ve got a headache in the middle of your leg.” In From Pieces To Weight, he puts an almost messianic gloss on his subsequent recovery from those nine bullet wounds: “When you look at how my body healed itself, I want you to see the bodies of those who never healed.” Yet in person he seems quite humble about it: “The only thing that puts itself back together is the human body,” he says gratefully. “All we need a doctor for is to line up the bones.”
50 Cent has few peers when it comes to turning a negative into a positive, Even the distinctive slurred vocal delivery that made his first – and biggest – hit ‘In Da Club’ so instantly memorable came from the hole in his gum left by a bullet. And if there’s a vicarious element in the thrill his seductive packaging of this aspect of his identity gives to people, well, so much the better. “There are some people who hear the music and identify with it because they’ve lived through something similar,” he observes even-handedly, “and others who enjoy how close it brings them to a world they don’t actually have to inhabit.”
Far from being a symptom of his inability to leave behind the ghetto mentality that shaped him, the endless feuds with other rappers which seem to accompany each new record release are simply a matter of giving the public what they want. “What I’m doing,” 50 Cent explains “is trying to capture a portion of my earlier experience perfectly, before I move on and do different things.”
Alongside the endless expansion of his business empire (clothing, trainers, watches, video-games and publishing are just scratching the surface), film seems to be a major current growth area. While Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ – Oscar-winning director Jim Sheridan’s movie version of 50 Cent’s life-story – did not quite do justice to the material it was adapted from, Fifty’s performance in the role of himself certainly seems to have worked as a cinematic calling-card.
His imminent theatrical releases include The Dance (“It’s me and Nicolas Cage – I play a fighter in Angola state prison”) and Righteous Kill (“That’s myself, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro”). And while the subject matter of these films is hardly a quantum leap from that of his albums, Fifty insists these projects have “enabled me to go some place creatively that I can’t go within my music.” What does he mean by that exactly? “It’s exciting for me to be able to show my vulnerability. Hip-hop is so competitive that it doesn’t allow you to do that: the aggressive nature of the art-form obliges you to stay in a position where you’re willing to compete.”
On the face of it, his September 2007 “chart battle” with Kanye West. (when the co-ordinated release dates of the two leading rappers’ third albums inspired a Blur vs Oasis style media furore in the US) provided irrefutable evidence of 50 Cent’s declining powers in the musical marketplace. In fact, to have taken a record which no-one – least of all the artist himself – seems to have had very much interest in, and placed it at the centre of America’s cultural life, was a master-stroke of showbiz hucksterism. Shifting nearly seven hundred thousand copies of an album in one week in the current austere CD sales climate is the kind of second place most of his peers would gladly settle for.
The prevailing image of West as the thinking person’s counterpart to 50 Cent’s brutish hoodlum is a gross under-estimate of the latter’s street-smart shrewdness. But from the Reading Festival crowd who threw bottles at him in the summer of 2005, to the widespread misconception that he “stood up for” George W. Bush in the aftermath of Kanye West’s attack on the US president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina (“I said he was a gangster, but people didn’t understand what I meant: they thought it was a compliment”), Fifty seems to draw strength from other people’s negative perceptions of him.
Even mention of the so-called Christian group who recently called him a “Satanic piece of filth” does not seem to faze him “When you’re a public figure,” 50 Cent shrugs affably, “everyone has a right to their opinion of you.”
And you don’t begrudge it? “You can’t,” he replies calmly, “because it’ll make you go crazy… That’s the moment celebrities really start to lose touch with reality – when they start to care too much what the public thinks about them. They’ll be looking at what the bloggers are saying about them.” He grimaces. “Come on, man. I don’t care what those people are saying. It’s obvious the person who is putting that stuff out has nothing better to do – why else would they be sitting on the computer writing their blog all day? Because this is the place that you can be tough, without actually having to be tough.”
“A blogger can say whatever he wants, like ‘Man, Fifty sucks! That fucking punk, I wish I could see him. I’d punch him in his fucking eye!’ Then you actually see this guy, and he weighs, like, 120 lbs.” 50 Cent’s habitually narrowed eyes widen sardonically. “He’s fine writing that stuff in the privacy of his own home, but saying it face to face would be a different thing.”
Zero tolerance is not a doctrine customarily associated with gangster-rappers, but once you have entered 50 Cent’s own personal space, etiquette is of the highest importance. Late last year, discerning viewers of the Living TV ratings-topper America’s Next Top Model will have seen him in attendance at a pool-side party in LA. This occasion had been specially arranged so that the show’s leggy herd of aspirant clothes-horses might test the waters of the celebrity lifestyles into which they were theoretically about to launch themselves. One especially bumptious wannabe mannequin found herself experiencing this rite of passage in a rather more literal way than the show’s producers had anticipated.
50 Cent takes up the story: “I threw her in the pool,” he remembers, matter-of-factly. “I guess she was over-excited that I was there. She kept coming back at me and jumping in the middle of other people’s conversations, but I was trying to talk to everybody – that’s what I was there for. I asked her to leave and she didn’t – she was really starting to irritate me. So I threw her in the pool. I didn’t do it for show, that’s just how my personality is… she was hot though,” he concedes gallantly, after a ruminative pause. Was there perhaps an element of flirtation in this transaction – like in a romantic comedy? 50 Cent grins but won’t commit himself to a verbal response.
The frisson of mingled fear and sexual arousal generated by his mere presence in a room has been a great strategic asset in Fifty’s business career. “Fools like the perception better than the actual reality,” he notes bluntly. “So if people have a perception of 50 Cent that they’ve created based on what they’ve heard, and it’s not actually who I am as a person, then that can be very useful to me. Especially if people think that I’m not paying attention. If I’m having a business conversation with some guy, and we’re hanging out, and he’s excited just to be in my world, then there’s every chance he’s going to sign up to something his lawyer wouldn’t necessarily have wanted him to commit to.”
At this point, as his manager pokes his head round the door to indicate that our conversation is coming to a close, Fifty asks that the tape-recorder be turned off, while he outlines the concept of “The Lion in the Room.” The gist of it is as follows. Just as if you walked into a boardroom and saw a mountain lion gazing dispassionately back at you, the predatory feline would automatically have your attention, so it is that in business meetings of a certain size, everyone else will apparently always defer to the person who makes the least visible response to whoever is doing the talking.
50 Cent, needless to say, is always the lion in the room, “because people know what I’m capable of, or what they think I’m capable of.” It is almost frightening to think of the amount of leonine stone-walling that is going to be going on in American boardrooms when the volume from which this corporate apercu is drawn (The Fiftieth Law, co-written by 50 Cent and Robert Greene, best-selling author of Machiavellian self-help manuals The 48 Laws Of Power and The 33 Strategies of War) finally hits the shelves later this year.
“You can write your own version of what I’ve just said,” 50 Cent avers with a grin, after graciously giving the go-ahead for the tape-recorder to be turned back on. “But we’re just finishing up the book now, so I’m trying not to give people too much upfront.”
This is the full, unedited version of the piece that appeared in the Financial Times
© Ben Thompson, Financial Times, 8 February 2008