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Bring out the P.I.M.P.
How much of the 50 Cent phenomenon is for real and how much for effect? Danielle Brigham meets the mainman and his crew in Dublin and attempts to make sense of the shootings and the sales figures.
Danielle Brigham, 24 Oct 2003
Ballsbridge, June, 2003: I’m sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, surrounded by well-to-do middle-aged couples eating cucumber sandwiches to the tune of cello concertos. I’m having tea with four of the six members of Detroit hip-hop crew, D12.
Bizarre cuts an imposing figure, sitting mute and motionless in an armchair with a fist-sized diamond pendant atop his belly. Proof seems irritated by my presence, and is probably wishing he could make like Em and Kon Artis, who are nowhere to be seen. Despite the random screams on Bizarre’s part, it’s Kuniva and Swift who steal the spotlight – beat boxing and busting moves and throwing hotel matchbooks across the room. Maybe it’s all for the benefit of the hotpress.com camera, but judging by the cigar-sized joint behind Swift’s ear, I’m just another journalist pooping the D12 party. My questions are lost somewhere in their argument over who won at ten pin bowls the previous night.
Ballsbridge, October 2003: when it came time to interview 50 Cent – in Dublin recently for his headlining debut – I was prepared for the worst. In the hip-hop world, he’s considered the biggest thing since Biggie took the streets by storm in ’94.
By virtually everyone’s standards, 50 cent is the new currency. His is the biggest selling debut record in history. And after hours trawling endless press clippings and websites I became sucked into the hype. To 50 Cent, the cultural phenomenon. By the time I reached the fateful Four Seasons Hotel again I’d absorbed so many soundbytes and lyrics and random trivia that I had binged to excess. In the enclosed space of the lift my mind was racing like a kaleidoscope of bulging biceps and bulletproof vests. Nine bullet wounds. Nine million records. Pimps and booty and mega bling bling.
And here he is in the flesh. In the security of a hotel suite I’m talking to Curtis “call me Fifty” Jackson, and it’s a sobering experience to say the least. Subtract the bling and he could be any other ordinary 26 year-old guy in a tracksuit. As enthusiastic as he is professional, 50 seems unaffected by the hype. He still considers himself a “work in progress”, as he puts it.
“I only know there’s another level because of Eminem’s sales situation,” he observes. He’s at 8 million records in the States, and 8 million outside the country – because of that I know there’s another level and I’m working to get there.”
Having released his debut record in February and been touring ever since, 50’s had no time for resting on laurels. He’s certainly one ambitious motherfucker. Next month sees him drop the first G-Unit album, where he’s joined by MCs Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and Tony Yayo. While the latter is currently incarcerated, I did get a chance to meet Banks and Buck when they were in Dublin – and, well, let’s just say that ten pin bowling was not on the agenda.
“D12 talk about different things,” says Banks, reflecting on his Shady labelmates. “There’s more laughter and more joking in the way they rap and things like that. In South Jamaica, Queens, where I grew up with 50, every day there’s something that will make you frown before it’ll make you smile.”
If 50 Cent’s got plenty to smile about now it hasn’t always been the case. It may seem that he was plucked from obscurity by Eminem, but 50’s career was no overnight success. It stretches back to 1997 when he hustled his way into his first record deal with Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay (also of Queens).
“I always played with it, but I was never serious enough to say that I was a writer at that point,” says 50. “Jam Master Jay gave me some music to write to but I didn’t really understand the sense of song format – it was just words. He sat with me and taught me my song structure, so he was probably the most influential person in my career.”
With a Columbia Records deal signed in 1999, things had been steadily gathering momentum by the time of 50’s much-publicised shooting in April 2000. He sustained a bullet to the face that would permanently alter his voice and, during his recovery, was dropped from Columbia. It was make or break for 50’s career, but his resolve had only been strengthened.
“That’s when everything started moulding together,” says Banks. “When he came home from the hospital me and Yayo sat down at the table with him and he told us everything that he was planning on doing. So he went into the studio and boom – A went to B, B went to C, C went to D and before you knew it, everything he was saying was happening.”
It was a grassroots campaign that began on the streets and ended in 2002 with a seven figure record deal with Eminem’s Shady Records empire. 50 had infiltrated that most sacred playground of hip-hop – the New York mixtape circuit.
He explains: “I would go to the bootleggers and they’d say ‘Yo, I got that new 50 Cent’. The bootleggers would say that to me, not knowing who I was because they haven’t seen my face since the Columbia days. And when I heard that I started making my own mixtapes because I felt like the other people’s tapes were selling based on my presence.
“It kinda went crazy on the streets. I put out material as fast as I could and turned the bootleggers into my personal street team. I think nothing sells music more than music, and because I put out so much material it assured people that I wouldn’t be a one-hit wonder.” He adds, “Con-sistency is the key to all success.”
With four albums worth of material circulating even before his ‘debut’ hit shop shelves, there was little need for assurances. By the beginning of 2003 the 50 Cent phenomenon was out of control. The release date for Get Rich Or Die Trying was brought forward almost a week because it had found its way onto the web and had been downloaded 300,000 times. The first half million copies were packaged with a DVD to encourage hard copy sales, but everything that had been manufactured was sold within two days.
“I anticipated doing well but not as fast,” admits 50. “My sales didn’t make sense to me. I read so much into how the business works and watched the Soundscan – an artist usually has a 35-40% decrease in sales after the first week. My album came out, and I debuted at 872,000 copies with another 822,000 copies the following week.”
So the burning question is what is driving these sales figures? I ask him what he brings to hip-hop that hasn’t been there before.
“It’s been there, but it had slowly gone away,” he replies. “Dr Dré and early NWA, they were a reflection of their environment in Compton and I’m a reflection of the environment I come from, in South Jamaica, Queens.”
According to Young Buck, 50 cent and G-Unit represent the Real Deal: “We got real life experiences going down with us and the public are aware of that,” he says. “When you got real life beef, like when they claim 50 was there being shot at in New Jersey, when you got things like that, it makes the public know that these things are happening. They may not necessarily be true, but this is the real life behind G-Unit and it’s basically totally different, I think, from any artist in the game right now.”
And part of this real life beef it seems, is the widespread perception that 50 is as violent as he comes across in his music:
Banks: “When we first went into the offices, for shoppin’ a record, they was thinkin’ 50 was gonna jump on the table. They were expecting somebody to come in there with no haircut, you know what I mean, no manners just because of what you heard. The guy got shot nine times, he got shot in the face. He was known as the problem child so you were expecting that he was like that.”
I ask 50 how many times he’s been interviewed without questions about his shooting.
“I’ve been asked about something like that – personal situations – in every interview,” he replies. “But that’s what’s confirming that these situations do exist. The things you go through make you who are, so if they understand my experiences they can understand my mentality.”
It’s almost a vicious circle. Does the fact that it is real justify 50’s glorification of gun culture? And is this really what people are buying into when they buy his record?
So I put the question to 50, how do his fans in places like Switzerland relate to his very Queens-specific experiences?
“I think they realize that it’s been confirmed to them that it’s a true story. I was only interested in the Blair Witch Project because I had heard there was some truth to it. When that film came out they used promotions as if it was real. When you see something is based on a true story it’s more interesting to see it. I think even though [the fans’] life pace might not be the same they know that that life actually exists, so it’s still interesting for them to hear it.”
As I leave the Four Seasons I can’t seem to resolve the apparent contradictions between Curtis Jackson and 50 Cent. For all his professionalism as an interviewee – happy to indulge me with sales figures and marketing schemes – it doesn’t sit right with 50’s biggin’ up on the record. The real deal or exploitative showbizz? You be the judge.
Who's who in the Shady family tree? Click here to get the low down on G-Unit, D12 and Obie Trice.