50 Cent: 'I still have passion for music'
The former drug-dealer rapper has become a film writer and actor, author, and clothing, drinks, and property magnate. But, he says...
Friday 19 March 2010
At some point, Curtis James Jackson III will probably want to bid farewell to the gangsta-rapper charmingly known as 50 Cent. The controversial performer – famous for being shot nine times, entertaining disagreements, dodging lawsuits (his most recent involves allegedly posting a sex tape online), and wearing bullet-proof vests like thermals over those intimidating, tattooed biceps – employed the persona well when he debuted in 1999 with the single "How To Rob". He went on to sell 12 million records with his first album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' and, from a brand perspective, it had enough mileage to warrant a movie inspired by his life, his own G-Unit record label, a couple of video games which indulged kids in gangster-like fantasies and a series of "hip-hop noir" novels.
But in 2010, 50 the businessman looks to have established more credibility with other ventures which include clothing, properties and a lucrative share in Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater, not to mention last year's New York Times bestseller The 50th Law, where he collaborated with business strategist Robert Greene. It all begs the question of how relevant songs about wiping out his foes and animalistic sex are nowadays, when carefree pop music reigns in the hearts and minds of the mainstream who don't get the thug life, or want to spend an hour of their life mulling it over either.
Of course, his loyal fans will always get it, but they were the same people ready to lick the rapper's wounds when he lost out to Kanye West in a battle of album releases in 2008.
Then there's the fact that Jackson now prefers to approach his interviews like his own publicist, who'll happily talk numbers and strategies all day, with the right amount of philosophising to convince his most dubious critics that he's actually a pretty nice guy. And that he is; the 34-year-old has the sexy side of confidence down to a fine art. What he says is often prefaced by a smile, and his responses are so measured it often exposes less about himself, and more the factors that will help him sell something, anything.
But a private matter beyond his control was when his son's mother and ex-girlfriend, Shaniqua Tompkins attempted to sue him for $50m, and, after the case was dismissed, battled him over his $2.4m home she was living in before it was destroyed in a fire in 2008.
He chooses to reveal little about what goes on behind his closed doors. "Um... I don't really have much of a personal life to offer," he says, with a shrug. "I've kept what little of my life that is personal to myself. I'm very private and it's not a part of the show. I think some people really lose themselves to the entertainment business and they become consumed so much with entertaining people that they offer everything that they actually have, even down to inside their house, as far as reality television is concerned. But there's got to be a place where you stop and you actually live away from it."
On this Monday afternoon in Berlin, he's particularly keen to talk about his latest album, new business projects, and his global tour, which comes to the UK this month.
"I'm excited to be going on tour right now," he says. Cue smile. "A lot of music that I hear coming from new artists, I mean, some of it's good and some of it I'll completely pass on. And I think a lot of people out there feel the same way, and it's just a shift in the actual climate of the music business itself." He adds that it's important for him to go on the road and connect with his core fanbase. "I think at this point, most artists would dream of having the ability to travel from the United States to different territories and actually be wanted, and have people already knowing their material," he says. "When you see artists going out and wanting to touch their fans and being involved in different territories, it allows them to create longevity. That's what that's about. I remember looking at Eminem's plaque for The Marshall Mathers LP, and it had 35 countries on it where the record went gold or platinum, and I looked at that and thought, 'I want one of those'."
His last album, Before I Self Destruct, was set to be released in February 2008, but was pushed back so many times that, by the time it came out, in November 2009, it'd been leaked and made less of an impact than expected.
"I was extremely happy with the response to it," he counters. "For the most part, I heard it was my best record since Get Rich or Die Tryin', and that was huge accomplishment for myself. I've been in huge competition with myself since. Of course, it didn't sell a fraction of what Get Rich or Die Tryin' sold, that record went on to scan 12 million records, but we're just in a different climate and time. It was interesting numbers for the first week for me, but I still feel good about the project because of the response publicly that I got from people."
Didn't he feel the content might have been, well, a little redundant by its release? "Well, you know, creatively, I went in to try and write what was a prequel to Get Rich," he says. "Songs like 'Stretch' actually explain why I wrote 'P.I.M.P', and I explain where that concept came from and why I wrote that record and how I was actually exposed to that lifestyle."
He's good. Too good. But how does he explain the purpose of an album like Before I Self Destruct? Judging from the content alone, he seemed pretty fed up. "Well, I don't think anyone is completely mad everyday," he laughs. "The photograph is angry. I look at Ice Cube's career and what he did from NWA all the way to Are We There Yet? Those movies he made are a huge difference from the things he chose to do artistically but people still love and appreciate him for what he did originally."
So he considers it to be art. And, similarly to Ice Cube, 50 has shown his desire to cash in on movies ever since landing his first character role in 2007's Home of the Brave, alongside Samuel L Jackson, who was initially reluctant to co-star with him in 50's debut Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Since then, 50 has appeared in four movies including Righteous Kill with Robert De Niro, and Dead Man Running. He has also launched his own film company, Cheetah Vision Films, with producer Randall Emmett. The lacklustre Before I Self Destruct was a straight-to-DVD tie-in with his album, but he'll also be appearing in the film Twelve later this year, and has lined up a number of film projects he'll be writing and producing himself.
"For me, it's an opportunity," he says. "I wrote the screenplays. Before I Self Destruct – that was the first one I wrote and directed." Did he plan to release it on the big screen? "Well, I put it in the album packages because... it wasn't like..." He pauses.
"I hate to say it's not my best, but it was done on a budget and that makes it not as... extravagant as some of the things you'll see from me in the future. But since then I've created two other projects: Gun with myself, Val Kilmer – I wrote that screenplay – I wrote and produced a film called Love Me, Love Me Not, and I shot the actual screenplay before I got out here. So I'm looking forward to a lot of different things."
Born in Queens, New York, to a drug-dealing mum who died when he was eight, the New Yorker opted to make his entry into the rap game with references to his rags-to-riches story.
He was raised by his grandmother with nine other children, started dealing crack when he was 12 and owned his own gun by 15. He told Newsweek in 2005: "I didn't want to ask her for a pair of Air Jordans when I knew she couldn't afford them, so I began working to get my stuff and not stress her out. So I started hustling to buy things. I'd tell her whatever I had new was my friend's stuff across the street. That's how I became two people – one was the hard-core drug-dealer in the day and the other was my grandmother's baby by night.''
He spent a number of years in and out of jail before considering a rap career and turning to the late DJ Jam Master Jay, who gave him his first break on his short-lived label. His early records caught the attention of production duo Trackmasters, who signed the rapper to their subsidiary label under Columbia Records, and started work on his debut Power of the Dollar, which included the single "How to Rob", and another for Destiny's Child. But, just a few months before the album's release, Jackson was shot at nine times while sitting in a car outside his grandmother's house, and was subsequently dropped from Columbia.
Two years later, he formed the rap collective G-Unit and made a name on the mixtape circuit. One of his early fans was Eminem, who worked with producer Dr Dre to sign him to his own Shady/Aftermath label and feature him on the soundtrack to Eminem's film 8 Mile. The 2002 single "Wanksta" – which hit out at 'fake gangstas' – was a smash, and set him up for the success of "In Da Club", which topped the charts in the US and went to No 3 in the UK a year later.
Subsequent albums The Massacre and Curtis performed well by virtue of having a great production and catchy hooks. But he's conscious that he'll need to up the ante if he still wants to be considered as one of the most notable rappers in hip-hop. He has never been considered a great lyricist, and brushes off his lack of accolades as "politics".
"There's moments where you're gonna have ups and down, periods when you're a lot hotter than you were, and periods where you rejuvenate that time frame, where you make music that impacts hard because music marks time," he reasons.
"I'm a part of a hip-hop culture where the majority of the audience has a very low attention span. It's like, what's hot right now? They're looking for that. They care less about your portfolio and your records from the last six years. They want a hit record right now and if you don't have one, then give us the guy that has one. That's how they feel. Obviously it keeps me working, it keeps me working on new material because the art-form is that way."
When will he retire from hip-hop, all considered? "I don't think I'll retire," he concludes. "I think you should look forward to me going behind the scenes more. I still have passion for music. And the music business itself has changed. If you can't figure out how to develop the brand extension and opportunities that allow you to build up the marketing dollar, I don't see how you can continue to be a superstar."
The single "Do You Think About Me" is out on 22 March. 50 Cent begins his tour on 19 March at the NEC Arena, Birmingham (0844 277 4321; ticketmaster.co.uk)
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