He’s the top-selling artist in the world, his life story is being filmed by an Oscar-nominated director and he’s moved on from being a rap star to being a brand. In an exclusive interview, 50 Cent tells Chris Campion why, from hid drug-dealing street days to his superstar life, he’s always been taking care of business.
RAIN IS FALLING in thick sheets on an intersection in a New York ghetto. People dash back and forth along the sidewalk – in and out of the soul food restaurants, nail parlours and drug stores – trying to spend as little time in the downpour as possible. Every few minutes, the thunderous rumble of subway trains pulling in and out of the elevated platform overhead drowns out all the noise below. It’s not the kind of day to be out on the street, unless you have business there.
One chubby black youth doesn’t seem to mind. He’s wet to the core, weaving in and out of the slow-moving traffic, occasionally ducking his head into the driver’s side window of beaten-up Cadillacs and Chevy Coupes, brazenly palming something off to the occupants. Nearby two of his associates josh with one another while keeping a close eye out for the law. One looks familiar. From a distance it looks as if Curtis Jackson – better known as crack dealer-turned-rapper 50 Cent – has returned to old ways, old means and his old stomping ground.
But just beyond all this activity, another throng of people are busying themselves with the business of making a movie: a fictional recreation of 50 Cent’s life story. An intersection in the Bronx (north of Manhattan) has been closed off to stand in for Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in Queens, the strip where Jackson used to sell crack for real. Jim Sheridan, the Oscar-winning director of In the Name of the Father and In America, stands on the sidelines, also keeping a close eye out, to make sure his $50 million shoot runs smoothly. There’s a lot riding on it. The film, entitled Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (set for a January release in the UK), and a forthcoming autobiography, From Pieces to Weight, are part of a plan to develop a new phase in 50’s career that will make him palatable to a whole new audience. With the exception of Eminem and 2Pac (who has been posthumously canonised), no other rapper has been so ruthlessly marketed through the exploitation of his life story.
Orphaned at the age of eight when his mother, Sabrina, a bisexual drug dealer addicted to her own product, was murdered, Jackson was brought up by his grandparents in South Jamaica, Queens. He was out selling crack at 12 and by his mid-teens was overseeing a local drug operation that brought in over $5,000 a day. But his meteoric rise in the drug world inevitably set him up for a fall. In 2000, aged 25, he miraculously survived being shot nine times at close range during a hit by rival drug dealers. Ironically, it had come at the point when Jackson was trying to reinvent himself as a rapper. Two years later, he signed to Eminem’s label, Shady Records. His debut album (also called Get Rich Or Die Tryin’) sold more than 10 million copies. 50’s second album, The Massacre, sold so quickly (a million in four days) it prompted headlines claiming he was as big as the Beatles. He is currently the biggest-selling artist in America and has even eclipsed the success of his mentor, Eminem, with whom he plays five UK dates in September. 50 also heads his own G-Unit business empire (named after his rap crew) which rakes in millions from sales of branded sneakers, an urban clothing line and his own grape-flavoured “vitamin water” (Formula 50). His latest venture is a line of diamond-encrusted sports watches, priced between $400-4,000. His combined business interests meant that in 2004, he earned $50m without even releasing a record. .
When we meet in his trailer, on a concrete lot near the movie set, Jackson explains in stark terms why he believes America has embraced 50 Cent, the rapper and the brand: ‘For telling the truth and nothing but the truth.’ If that’s the case, so help us God. For on the evidence of the tales of ghetto life that unfold in his music, 50 lives in a cold and unforgiving world, one alien to much of his audience. There’s little trace of humanity. He seems merciless and unforgiving, as invincible as a superhero and sometimes, if truth be told, as two-dimensional. The video for his debut single, ‘In Da Club’, even played on that idea with scenes of the rapper being built to design, like the Six Million Dollar Man, while his mentors Eminem and Dr Dre watched on.
While 50 is neither the most skilled rapper nor the most accomplished wordsmith, he has an ear for melody that has fixed his records in the upper reaches of the pop charts. But, really, it’s all in the delivery: he could be counting rocks and still sound riveting.
In person, there’s nothing remotely threatening about him. Usually immaculately groomed, in his own signature G-Unit gear, today he’s dressed in character, as his former self. His hair is woolly and unkempt. A plain baggy grey T-shirt and loose-fitting jeans shroud his six-foot frame. But his physique looks nowhere near as imposing as it does on the cover of his latest album, on which he is pictured stripped to the waist, his upper torso pumped-up and oiled like a bodybuilder’s. He’s also surprisingly soft-spoken and gentle. “I always had to be two people,” he explains. “When I’m in the street, I’m aggressive as I have to be to get by in that environment. And when I come into my grandmother’s house I have to be her baby.”
One day, his grandparents turned up at school to tell Curtis his mother had died. He didn’t find out the circumstances until he was a teenager. She had been drugged and then gassed to death in her apartment. “Her death affected me a lot,” he says. “In my head, growing up, my mother was the reason why everything went wrong in my life. If something didn’t go the way I thought it should, it was like, ‘If my moms was here that wouldn’t even be like that, it would be different’. I used to say that to myself as a kid.”
Although he says all this quite matter-of-factly, it’s clear that his relationship with his mother, who had essentially given him up as an infant, was secondary in his life. He never knew his father, has no idea who or where he is, and now says he has no desire to. His grandparents raised him as one of their own but couldn’t provide for him. “When their kids were growing up, sneakers cost $10. I asked them for Air Jordan trainers that cost $100. They would do it for me but I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on them.”
Instead, old street associates of his mother spoilt him with gifts. After a while, instead of doing that, they gave him crack to sell so he could make his own money, and then taught him how to cook it up from raw cocaine. And that’s how it all began. “They felt like they was doing me a favour and, in all reality, now I see that they kind of hurt me.” The aggressive side of his personality, the persona he channels through his music, was born out of his experience hustling in the streets from that early age. “That’s just what you have to do to progress, to be effective,” he says. “Humans are habit-forming and that’s a big habit for me. So, now, when I get frustrated or aggravated, where I don’t see any other way to reason with a person, that’s when 50 Cent start. Ahead of that you deal with Curtis. And I’m humble, I’m respectful to everyone when I meet them. And only because I know I can meet me.”
Although Jackson is indeed courteous and charming to a fault, he makes frequent references in conversation to another more menacing side to his character. “Do you know what a killer looks like?” he asks. “There’s no stereotype for a killer. It could be a guy with a smile. But I’m the guy with the smile.” His mouth broadens, flashing a set of bright white teeth, gritted tightly together. “In my neighbourhood,” he continues, “if you’re over aggressive to the point that you intimidate people, you’re going to die.”
Jackson’s “neighbourhood” is now the affluent community of Farmington, Connecticut. He bought Mike Tyson’s old pile for $4 million: a mansion with 18 bedrooms, 38 bathrooms and its own 1,000 capacity nightclub where he lives in Gatsby-like seclusion, removed from the environment that bred him. He maintains with a thudding predictability that success hasn’t changed him.
Shortly after we talk, Jackson turns into 50 Cent, grandstanding around the concrete lot outside his trailer during an impromptu game of dice (called C-Lo), played for real money against several of his co-stars. Within minutes, he has cleaned everybody out. Clutching a thick wad of notes (at least several thousand dollars’ worth), he walks over to a gaggle of young kids who have gathered to watch him from the street, crisply peels off three bills, handing one to each of the three starstruck little boys pressed up against the iron rails. One proudly holds the bill up like a banner.
The day before, when onlookers crowded around the set, 50 had driven by in his bulletproof Landcruiser Jeep showering them with money. It’s part of his schtick. But it also ties in to something he had said earlier, when explaining why dealers invariably bought flash vehicles: “In my neighbourhood, success rides by on four wheels. That’s when people see that you’ve progressed. And you feel like you’ve progressed.”
Tony Yayo, the longest-standing member of G-Unit, grew up a block from where Jackson used to hustle drugs and recalls seeing his progress. “At 16, he had a motorbike. At 17, he had a Landcruiser Jeep with rims on it. At 18, he had a white Benz. In my neighbourhood, everyone knew who he was… He was a legend. Everybody looked up to him.”
I meet Yayo in the nondescript offices of G-Unit Records in midtown Manhattan. He is accompanied by a man called David, a camp-looking Russian Jew wearing orange slacks and a white Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt. He introduces himself as the rapper’s manager but he doesn’t look the part. A leather man purse hangs off his arm. Confusingly, when showing off a huge medallion around his neck, Yayo describes David as his “jeweler”. The medallion looks like a child’s bead maze but made of solid silver and containing over $125,000 worth of loose diamonds.
Although three years Jackson’s junior, Yayo followed a similar path. He dealt crack and heroin from the age of 15 up until the day 50 Cent signed his record deal with Eminem. ‘Selling drugs is an addiction in itself,’ he notes. ‘I always wanted to emulate a big-time drug dealer because I always was a drug dealer. The way that people look at rappers now, we was looking at drug dealers back in the ’80s… They was making millions.’
The crack epidemic that swept New York during the 1980s was driven by the activities of teenage dealers. The rise to prominence of these young drug kingpins coincided with the explosion of hip hop culture. Drug dealers and rappers often lived side by side in the same New York neighbourhoods. The exploits of figures like Alpo, Rich Porter, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, Howard “Pappy” Mason and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols have long been immortalised by New York rappers. The oral history contained within their rhymes is often so coded in street vernacular that the casual listener would be hard pressed to decipher it.
Under Rudolph Giuliani’s watch as Mayor of New York in the Nineties, law enforcement cracked down hard on the dealers, many of whom were either jailed or dead by the end of the decade. During the same period, rap became a billion-dollar industry fuelled by the huge sales of crime-ridden, bloodthirsty music peddled by labels like Death Row, Bad Boy and Roc-A-Fella. Growing up in these times, Curtis Jackson would have been acutely aware that rap provided a far more viable prospect for raising himself up than his life of crime. But the way he tells it in his autobiography, which gives short shrift to his musical career, something far more personal convinced him that it was time to go legit: the birth of his son, Marquis, in 1997 with his then-girlfriend Shaniqua.
In Pieces to Weight, Jackson describes how a chance meeting with rap legend Jam Master Jay, the former DJ for Queens rappers Run DMC, led to him being mentored in the craft of songwriting. He began churning out tracks at a furious pace, applying all his drug-dealing savvy to marketing them by flooding the streets with mixtape CDs, much as he had flooded the strip near his grandmother’s house with crack.
He caught the attention of Columbia Records, who signed him up for an album. But, frustrated with the pace of his career, he also returned to crack dealing, spending $5,000 of his advance on a consignment of cocaine. A prior six-month stint at a Shock Incarceration Program (a prison run as a military boot camp) had only made him a more disciplined and ambitious drug dealer. But his rising profile also made him more cavalier, angering veteran dealers who took out a contract on his life. In May 2000, while sitting in a car outside his grandmother’s house, a would-be assassin crept up and shot him nine times. His grandmother, who was babysitting his then three-year-old son, was standing outside and saw it all happen. Jackson suffered wounds to his hand, face, chest and calf. His hip was also shattered. He spent two weeks in hospital but was unable to walk unaided for another six.
“After he got shot, he was even more hungry,” says Yayo. “He came back skinnier. He was working out. It was like he was in training. He’d carry a gun everywhere he went.” Jackson also, famously, took to wearing a bulletproof vest in public, even to meetings at record companies (Columbia dropped him after the shooting). The bullet that went through the left side of his face left a hole in his jaw, which has resulted in his distinctive lisping rapping style. The curved scar, still visible near his mouth, makes it look as if he’s smiling to himself.
Boo Boo, the pet name his mother gave him, would never cut it as the name of a rapper. So he took on the identity of 50 Cent, in honour of Kelvin “50 Cents” Martin, a small-time Brooklyn hood who had a reputation as a ruthless stick-up kid akin to that of a modern-day Billy the Kid. In 1987, Martin appeared in a group photo on the back of Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full, one of the most influential rap albums of all time. But he was dead within two weeks of its release, gunned down by a rival in a stairwell.
It was the same year that Curtis Jackson started selling drugs. There are remarkable parallels between their lives. Kelvin Martin was also raised by his grandmother. Turning to crime at an early age, he reputedly vowed to “get rich or die tryin'”. And when he was injured in a shoot-out, Martin also took to wearing a bulletproof vest.
The wealth of music Curtis Jackson released and his 2000 shooting conspired to turn 50 Cent the rapper into a local legend before his debut album had even been released. In some senses, he represents the latest incarnation of an archetype that crops up time and again in popular music. Early blues singers often retold in song the story of a deadly confrontation between Billy Lyons and a pimp called Lee Shelton ( known variously as Stagger Lee or Stagolee), two real-life characters from the Deep South whose 1895 shoot-out resulted in Lyons’s death.
In Stagolee Shot Billy, a book about the social history of the myth, writer Cecil Brown describes how Stagolee’s persona as the “bad black hero” feeds into our perception of characters as varied as Puff Daddy, OJ Simpson, Malcolm X and Huey Newton.
But while the story of the original 50 Cent, Kelvin Martin, ended in a pauper’s grave, the path taken by his namesake has already deviated from the outlaw narrative.
As the title of his autobiography implies, Jackson has reached a place where the stakes, at least financially, are that much higher. Instead of holding crack, now he’s laden with diamonds. Yet there’s little indication in the book, which was written with US rap journalist Kris Ex, that he has changed his ways much beyond going legit. He certainly offers no apologies for his former life. The book and the film are part of a process to transform the focus of his life story from the nihilism of his music into a more conventional rags-to-riches parable.
“I was so excited,” Jackson says of the film script, which follows him from the death of his mother at eight-years-old until he makes it as a rapper. “It rang true to me … It’s not fictionalised totally. There are some facts to it.”
It’s a tacit acknowledgement that for Jackson to progress any further, he is obliged to widen the gap between his real life experiences and that of his fictional alter-ego, smoothing off the rough edges. While 50 continues to pander to his audience by rapping about getting high, partying and hitting on “bitches”, Jackson doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs and (according to a source close to the rapper) doesn’t even “do” groupies. Instead, he is intensely focused on one thing and one thing alone: making money. In that sense, Curtis Jackson has redefined Kelvin Martin’s maxim to “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”. But he also seems acutely aware that perceptions don’t change easily. “I am a villain,” he admits, albeit reluctantly, “but that’s because I’m aggressive … But my head is not there. I don’t look for trouble. And I don’t want the trouble. My past is my shadow. Everywhere I go, it goes with me.”
In 2002, shortly after he signed his deal with Eminem, 50’s past did indeed come back to haunt him when his mentor Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) was murdered in his studio, three blocks from where Jackson was hit two years earlier. Police surmised that the shootings were part of the same rap feud and immediately offered Jackson protection, which he claims he refused. Mizell’s murder remains unsolved. But one theory pursued by the police was it was connected to an alleged affair his wife, Terri Corley-Mizell, was having with one Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. Throughout the ’80s, McGriff ran one of the biggest crack-dealing organisations in Queens out of the Beasley Park public housing projects. He is also suspected of being the financial muscle behind rap label Murder Inc (whose artist Ja Rule has had a long-running feud with 50 Cent). Murder Inc’s offices were raided in 2003 by federal agents as part of an investigation into racketeering and money laundering. A 2003 article about rap feuds by US journalist Ethan Brown cited a source from Queens who maintained that 50’s mother, Sabrina, was not only working for McGriff – the apartment she sold drugs out of was a stone’s throw from Beasley Park – but that he could have been involved in her murder too. Asked whether there was any truth to this, Jackson becomes visibly uncomfortable. “I don’t know much about that,” he says, mechanically. “I never know much about homicides.” He backs away to the far end of the couch, hugging a pillow to his chest. “No, but, you know,” he repeats, “I don’t know much about that.”
For the first time he seems vulnerable, offering up the possibility that the showy bravado he projects as 50 Cent is just part of an elaborate armour that protects Curtis Jackson from further harm.
© Chris Campion, Observer Music Monthly, 21 August 2005