50 Cent: Rap's ghetto survivor

He sold crack at the age of 12 and was shot nine times on the streets of New York. Now he's a platinum-selling artist with his own clothing line and film deal. But, as 50 Cent tells Ian Burrell, you can never escape your past
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I n pictures he has the demeanour of a hardened street hustler, but away from the lens 50 Cent smiles a lot. A toothy grin is never far from his face - possibly because his life now is a long way from his days as a crack dealer on the streets of New York. On one album cover (Guess Who's Back?) he appears clutching a handgun in a jewel-laden paw, and on another (Get Rich or Die Tryin') he stands behind bullet-shattered glass.

I n pictures he has the demeanour of a hardened street hustler, but away from the lens 50 Cent smiles a lot. A toothy grin is never far from his face - possibly because his life now is a long way from his days as a crack dealer on the streets of New York. On one album cover (Guess Who's Back?) he appears clutching a handgun in a jewel-laden paw, and on another (Get Rich or Die Tryin') he stands behind bullet-shattered glass.

That is a reference to the moment when a gunman opened fire on the rapper, pumping nine rounds into him at close range. One bullet went through his left cheek and lodged in his gum, leaving him with a slight lisp. The slug is still there, but 50 keeps smiling - as one of rap's foremost superstars, he has every reason to feel happy with his lot.

It is the day after the Brit awards, where 50 was named best international breakthrough artist. The tribute already has a distinct whiff of understatement: Get Rich or Die Tryin' sold half a million copies on the day it was released and has now shifted over nine million copies worldwide. Eminem had complained that he was getting tired of rap, but heard 50 Cent on an underground mix-tape and moved to sign the New Yorker almost immediately with his producing partner Dr Dre. Now 50 is very much a man in demand - as he devours forkfuls of chicken breast and rice doused in tomato ketchup, a Far-Eastern head of state is harassing his publicist, pleading for the rapper to grant his daughters an audience. The rapper should be having the time of his life - he has got very rich indeed and has not died tryin'.

"When you are growing up without finances, finances seem like the answers to all your problems," he says. "But when you acquire those finances you realise there are always obstacles in life. My old friends are making better enemies than my enemies, and that's because I'm doing well and they envy me." Despite his wealth, violence is still prominent in his life. He has been sucked into feuds with other rappers and was recently the victim of a minor stabbing.

The American media also linked him to a shooting last September, although he claims to know nothing of the incident. His reputation appears to have preceded his arrival in the UK - the Metropolitan Police have already been round to the luxury London hotel where 50 is installed with his "G-Unit" entourage. "They associate me with violence - my life has been violent," he says matter-of-factly. This latest visit from the authorities is nothing compared to the five-hour detention he endured the last time he came through Heathrow airport.

Rather than become bitter at his treatment, 50 has turned this brush with the law to his advantage. He hired a set of British actors to re-enact his airport ordeal, and played the resulting short film before appeared at the Brits to perform his anthemic hit single "In Da Club". Such ingenuity is typical of the man - his ability to create positive from negative is an enduring theme of the 27 years and seven months that he has somehow managed to survive.

And survive he has - he lives most of his life in a bullet-proof vest surrounded by six bodyguards, or sat in the back of his bullet-proof GMC Suburban. When I met him in New York last month while interviewing the BBC hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood, 50's security insisted on clearing the venue for fear that he would be attacked. In London, the men in G-Unit jackets prowl the hotel corridors for groupies and stalkers. Such procedures are not born of paranoia, he insists, but are a necessary response to the threats that linger from his past.

The rapper was born Curtis Jackson on 6 July 1976, two days after America celebrated its bicentennial. His mother, Sabrina, was a 15-year-old drug dealer in South Jamaica, a neighbourhood in the New York borough of Queens. His father vanished immediately after he arrived and his mother died eight years later, having returned home with a stranger who slipped a drug into her drink, closed the windows and turned on the gas. Curtis - or "Boo-Boo", as he was known - was raised by his grandparents, but by the age of 12 he was dealing crack like his mother. Six years later, three of which he spent in jail, Curtis was running his own crack house and making up to $5,000 a day. It was then that he borrowed the name 50 Cent from another dealer.

"Because I'm from the bottom, I've got to take different precautions," he explains. "People that are envious of me don't have anything to lose - it makes the stakes a little higher. I've always had to be conditioned for these situations. Now, there's more finances around for me to take proper precautions as opposed to me carrying a weapon myself." Distasteful though it is, the sense that 50's career might be murderously cut short adds to his aura among suburban fans. But the suggestion that he might feel vulnerable provokes another broad smile. "Naah," he beams. "I've seen Biggie Smalls get shot - in the car. I've seen Tupac Shakur get shot - in the car. I got shot - in the car. People are comfortable shooting - in the car. So I bullet-proofed the car."

Bullets have not caused 50 his greatest pain, but they have contributed to it. At the age of 20 the birth of his son, Marquise, gave the rapper a new sense of responsibility that made him abandon street crime. "Going to jail in those days wasn't much of a deal, because I had no one to take care of but myself. My little boy changed everything," he says. At the same time he met up with Jam Master Jay (the DJ from the rap legends Run DMC), who taught him how to structure a song and convinced him that he could make it as a rapper. Columbia Records picked up the young New Yorker in 1999 and recorded his first album, Power of a Dollar. But at 11.20 on the morning of 24 May 2000, shortly before the record was to be released, the gunman struck. Sitting in his car outside his grandmother's house, 50 didn't notice his would-be assassin pulling up in another vehicle. "You don't actually feel each [bullet] hit you," he says. "The adrenalin is pumping and you tryin' to get out of the way. I was bouncin' around the back seat." His friend drove him to hospital. He checked himself out 13 days later, despite being unable to walk. Columbia lost their nerve and dropped him.

It was, he says, the lowest point of a life already spent at the bottom. Having thought he had escaped the ghetto, he now felt a sense of doom. "Being shot isn't as bad as not knowing what you are going to do with your life," he says. "If you send a person back to where I'm from with no direction, then you sentence them to death or to killing somebody. He's gonna be involved in something he ain't supposed to be involved in."

Although it nearly destroyed him, the shooting proved to be the making of 50 Cent. His injuries meant he was put on a liquid-only diet and he lost his flabby physique. He revived a fitness regime he had previously employed as a teenage amateur boxer, and the result is a torso that ensures a substantial number of his fans are female. Before the chicken dinner he has just consumed, 50 has been fasting - another "discipline" he learnt while recovering from the shooting. He never drinks, claiming alcohol affects his judgement.

Most important, his near-miraculous recovery from the attack gave him an almost mythical reputation in the industry. He threw himself into his writing, composing rhymes in his grandparents' house and working on the choruses and melodies that provide his trademark hooks. But it was 50's autobiographical lyrics about his childhood fight for survival that had Eminem salivating. As the Detroit rapper has since admitted: "His life story sold me."

In the space of a year, 50 has been able to move away from Queens and the Guy R Brewer Boulevard where he once sold crack hidden in the top of his basketball socks. He now lives in a big house in Connecticut and Marquise has a private education. "Oh man, I won't push him in any direction. I want him to find his own," 50 says. "I made him go to private school where he has to wear uniforms. I could have a teacher here just to teach him, but I don't want to deprive him of having a regular school environment and having kids around him."

So is the tight security he now requires a price worth paying? "Yeah. And I need it for taxes. I have no expenses really, if I didn't have security," he explains. After playing 400 shows in the past 12 months, 50 claims he has had no time to spend his money, bar the occasional "splurge on diamonds". As if to illustrate the size of a 50 Cent splurge, he shows me a wrist that is wrapped in a vast watch he commissioned from the jewellers Jacob N Cohen. Made from rose gold and caked in diamonds, it cost him $15,000 (£8,000).

The rapper has a number of moneymaking opportunities in the pipeline. He is clearly enthused by plans to turn his life story into a film, in the same way that Eminem starred in his own Oscar-winning bio-pic 8 Mile. "I got the first rough draft [from] Terry Winters, the guy that wrote The Sopranos," he says. "He's a talented writer and I'm excited about working with him. We should be shooting at the end of this year." He has also become the face of the sportswear firm Reebok with fellow superstar Jay-Z, himself a former New York crack dealer. In a smart marketing ploy, Reebok's G-Unit trainer sells for $80.50, with the 50 cents going to charity.

Away from his records (the next solo album will be released in July), his trainers and his film, he also has a clothing line and a record company. His entrepreneurial instincts were shaped by the crack business. "In my neighbourhood, you hustle to generate enough finances to make legitimate investments," he says. "There's nobody there that just wants to stay there, because you know the outcome of that lifestyle."

Travelling the world (he wants to do the British festival circuit this summer) has also broadened his mind. So far, Monaco is his favourite foreign destination. "Man, it was just so laid back," he grins. "Everybody seems to be in a more pleasant space in Monaco. I don't know if it's because they have more money, that might have something to do with it - you know what I'm sayin'? I didn't realise how different things were till I got the chance to go to different places. Some places they have next to no gun violence. We have..." he pauses - "a lot of gun violence." He laughs, and then suddenly turns serious. "Where I'm from, you can be a victim or an aggressor. In some situations those are the only options."

There are two distinct sides to 50, as he freely admits. It is a dichotomy born of his childhood, when he would turn from a loving 12-year-old to a ruthless crack dealer as soon as he stepped outside his front door. His well-honed survival and business instincts, and a mistrust of the motives of old friends and new acquaintances alike, mean that he will switch between his sweet and sour personalities as the occasion demands. "That's what enables me to present myself differently now," he says. "I had to be grandmother's little baby in the house, but I would be as aggressive as I had to be on the streets in order to get by."

For all 50's reputation, he is well-mannered, accommodating and friendly. Whether this is the real 50 Cent, or just the smooth kid from the street skilfully working the system, only he knows. "A lot of times, I come in and I smile to make people a little comfortable with me being here," he says. "They get uneasy when I come in the room. I come in and I just chill and they say, 'He's so nice!' It's a conscious decision for me to come in and be cool."