Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is in a strangely revealing mood as he discusses working with De Niro and Pacino, how getting shot harmed his record deal, and why soldiers sign up to fight wars
“WE WENT TO A firin’ range,” recalls Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent. “Robert [de Niro] was researchin’ what he was gonna do as a New York City police officer, so he was around New York City police, shootin’ in their firin’ range. Al [Pacino] came along towards the end.”
Picture the scene: you’re a hard-working New York beat cop, just off a shift, ready to put in some extra hours honing your weapons skills. But when you get down to the range, in the lanes either side of you, hammering round after round into silhouette targets, are Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and the former crack dealer-turned-gangsta rapper and actor 50 Cent. Talk about life imitating art. “Heh heh heh!” he chuckles. “Yeah, it was crazy.”
Is he a good shot? “I’m good. They’ll tell you,” the 33-year-old grins, nodding at De Niro and Pacino’s photos on a publicity poster for the film Righteous Kill, in which he stars alongside them. “I hit all kinds o’ things — those little targets, people…” And he smiles again, the gurgling beginnings of another chortle wheezing up from his chest.
Jackson may be noted for many things, but his sense of humour isn’t one of them. Orphaned at the age of eight when his mother was murdered, he was shot nine times and left for dead at the age of 25. Yet in the summer of 2002, the first LP he released after signing a million-dollar deal with the biggest names in hip-hop — Eminem and Dr Dre — became the fastest-selling debut in American chart history. He effected this incredible transformation by turning art into science — by methodically and meticulously planning his music, and leaving nothing to chance. It has made him a star, but a curiously two-dimensional one: his music never gets close to revealing the ready-to-laugh, easygoing, affable yet conflicted personality he brings to conversation.
It’s tempting to see acting as being easy for him: certainly, he seems to spend most of his time in public putting on a 50 Cent show. Screen work had not been on his agenda — he was approached to, in effect, play himself in the thinly disguised autobiography Get Rich and Die Tryin’ (2005) — but if the calibre of his collaborators is any gauge, it has been a steep learning curve. Get Rich… was directed by Jim Sheridan (who directed Daniel Day-Lews in My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father) and one of 50’s co-stars was the Oscar-nominated Terrence Howard. Righteous Kill is only his third movie, yet he’s sharing screen time with two icons of cinema. Was he under any pressure?
“The opportunity to work with both of ’em was amazing,” he agrees, “but I felt I wasn’t the only one that was there nervous! The entire cast was. For them, maybe, it’s just another project. But for me it’s somethin’ more: it’s exciting to be a part of it. Whether I do another film project or not — and I already completed another one, it’ll be out in March [the Louisiana-set Streets of Blood, with Val Kilmer and Sharon Stone] — I’m cool: I got the chance to work with the best.”
Jackson was strong in Get Rich… though was essentially recalling events that had more or less actually happened; and the Righteous Kill role of Spider, a New York drug dealer, is hardly one he has to spend months researching. The jury is still out on his acting, and he did not prove a big enough silver screen draw to prevent his second film, the Iraq war drama Home of the Brave, in which he starred alongside Samuel L Jackson, Cristina Ricci and Jessica Biel, from tanking at the box office.
Music and movies are now just two facets of the 50 Cent brand. He made a reputed $100 million after a mineral water company, in which he had accepted shares as payment for an endorsement, was sold to Coca Cola. And as well as the de rigueur rap star accoutrements (record label, trainer range, streetwear lines, video game), he has even been in negotiations with a South African billionaire to invest in a platinum mine.
Jackson’s music is just as driven as his business dealings. The chiselled torso on his album sleeves seems an apt visual metaphor for the records’ contents: they are the result of hours of hard, repetitive work, honed and toned to perfection, but with seemingly little fun involved in getting to the end result. But that’s not how he sees it.
“Conceptually, I don’t think people understand the process of what I’m doin’ to create the records,” he muses. “They just see it as, ‘OK, a new song’. But if you listen to the actual records, I’m paintin’ pictures, of scenarios an’ situations I’ve seen first-hand. This is where my inspiration comes from: at some point it reflects somethin’ that I was actually surrounded by or forced to be around. And the negative things, or bad things, that you experience stick out in your mind a lot more than the positive things. The Curtis album [his most recent, and, at around 4 million worldwide sales, the least successful of his three solo LPs] was supposed to be human, in my head. The laughter at the beginnin’ of ‘Straight to the Bank’ was a symbol of the joy.”
You have to go back to before Jackson was shot to find a song in which he told jokes. ‘How To Rob’, possibly the best and certainly the most relaxed thing he’s ever done, has 50 running through a lengthy list of rap and R&B stars, musing in spry, pointed couplets on what he might get away with if he stuck them up. The 1999 song sounds like it was recorded while the humour was still fresh, knocked out quickly. “Right,” he nods. “Very quick. It was made out of desperation.”
His girlfriend’s pregnancy had provided the short sharp shock that sentences to rehabilitation programmes and an army-style boot camp had failed to deliver; Jackson had decided to abandon his lucrative crack dealing enterprise and, after meeting the Run DMC DJ Jam Master Jay, who encouraged him to write raps and schooled him in song structure, he decided that his future lay in music. He was signed to the major label Columbia, and was working on an album — but his career progress seemed to have stalled, and ‘How to Rob’ was his attempt to get it moving again.
“Columbia didn’t understand who I was as an artist, didn’t know how to market me to the public,” he says. “The concept of ‘How To Rob’ wasn’t difficult. I knew all the details, I had frivolous information that fit into the song about different artists, without even thinkin’ about it. So writing it was easy enough for it just to be fun.”
It worked, earning the newcomer a place on a film soundtrack album, and creating a buzz. But then came the shooting. The circumstances surrounding the attempt on his life remain unclear — the prime suspect was himself murdered weeks later, and while the case has been invoked in other court testimony, no charges were ever brought. If Jackson knows who was responsible, he has never said. To him, the worst was yet to come: as if nearly losing his life wasn’t enough, he also lost his job.
“When I was shot Columbia Records stopped communicatin’ with me, like I shot somebody,” he recalls. “Suddenly, not knowin’ what you’re gonna do with your life after you’ve made the decision to write music for a living, everything is more confusing. In that space where you’re actually experiencing it, you can get angry an’ say, ‘I shoulda just been doin’ the shooting, ‘cos then at least I wouldn’ta had to go through the painful portion of bein’ shot.’ Some people’ll hear that and be like, ‘I can’t believe he just said that.’ But it’s because they’re not from that environment, they haven’t been in those positions and that space.”
The combination of extremes certainly served to harden Jackson’s resolve, and when he recovered, he attacked his hip-hop career with the unremitting determination that is a trademark of his albums. Not that 50 reckons his experiences make him a hard man.
“I went to perform for the soldiers in Iraq,” he recalls. “Those are the tough guys — the ones who signed up for it. Psychologically, the people that I met aren’t even the same people that their loved ones miss at home. Could you imagine how different you’d be if you came in a platoon of 45 people, an’ now your platoon is 27, an’ then tomorrow it’s 21, then 18? They go for different reasons, and the sad part is that some of ’em went for a college education and in exchange they’re gonna go to war probably not gonna make it back. They don’t say ‘Sign up to die for your country,’ because the lines’d be a lot smaller. But to kill is different — an opportunity to kill without punishment is what they sign up for.”
Does he really believe that? “Yeah. If you’re goin’ to war, what would your expectations be?”
That you might have to kill, but not that you’d necessarily want to. You’d maybe hope that your presence might defuse situations; feel that your job was to keep the peace, not wage war.
“Alright,” he allows. “But I think, generally, the guys just decidin’ to sign up now? They would be excited about the opportunity to go, especially after bein’ attacked. After 9/11, they’re gonna sign up to go kill.”
It is a revealing claim. On the one hand, here is an artist who projects a steely invulnerability, erecting impenetrable barriers that prevent his listeners from getting close to an understanding; who has refined his mindset to seemingly eradicate anything other than forward-looking focus, surely in part as a form of emotional self-defence. Yet on the other, here he is, throwing thoughts around in conversation with a stranger which shine light into corners of his psyche that all that hard work and resolve has been built up to hide.
“People don’t understand,” he says. “In order to be as successful as I’ve been in the last five years, I can’t possibly be what the message is in the music. It’s art.” But maybe it would be more powerful art if 50 Cent could allow himself a little less meticulousness in his method; let himself off his own tight leash, and let his listeners in a bit more.
© Angus Batey, The Guardian, 1 October 2008