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Number 1 With A Bullet
A former drug dealer, he’s been shot at nine times and lived to tell the tale, emerging as one of the most controversial and uncompromising figures in rap. But there's more to 50 Cent than the popular legend suggests. For a start, there’s a new commercial edge to the music, as his US and Irish number one album The Massacre demonstrates. Plus, as one of the new faces of Reebok’s ‘I Am What I Am’ campaign, he’s taken to the role of cultural icon with considerable zest. Oh, and besides, he’s a bit of a wow with the ladies.
Tanya Sweeney, 01 Apr 2005
Guns. The Simpsons. $48m in product endorsements. His own computer game. Yet more guns. And then, just when you thought 50 Cent’s incredible year couldn’t get any more surreal, he has to deal with rejection! From none other than Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson, the original ‘bad motherfucker’, publicly scoffed at the idea of joining the cast of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, 50’s new semi-autobiographical film project. Because, he said, he preferred not to work with ‘unproved actors’.
“That’s a bit like saying he wouldn’t work with a rapper, he wouldn’t work with Will Smith, Queen Latifah or Ice Cube,” scoffed a clearly unimpressed 50 Cent, at the multi-million pound launch of the new Reebok advertisement campaign in London. “Basically, he didn’t want to play second fiddle. He knew that because of my success, people would come to see the movie because of me – and he couldn’t handle that. To be honest, I couldn’t see where he would fit into the movie anyway, other than as my grandfather.”
Still, we might have anticipated a good line. It’s precisely cutting comments of this ilk that have won the controversial rapper a growing number of adversaries – among them Ja Rule, Jadakiss and Fat Joe. In fact, having traded a number of scathing insults with different musicians via the press, 50 is fast gaining a reputation as a thrillingly unpredictable loose cannon. And that’s even before we get to mention guns.
“Sometimes, not saying something encourages people to be more disrespectful,” he explains. “I’ve experienced envy and jealousy. People try to compete with me – they always want to take pops at the champion.”
He has a point. 50 was recently involved in a feud with ex-protégé The Game, which culminated in a shoot-out outside a New York radio station. In reprisal, The Game was promptly thrown out of the star’s G-Unit collective, even though the pair were just then riding atop the Billboard charts with their collaboration ‘How We Do’.
That apparently was then, and this is now. Two weeks ago, 50 and G buried their beef; a week later, the rapper announced the launch of the G-Unit Foundation in his native Harlem.
“With all G-Unit clothing and sneakers sold, we give money, around 50 cents, to different charities,” he explains. “We set that charity up to do different things. We donated $250,000 to the Harlem Boy’s Choir. I want to create a fund for college kids that are A-students, so that they can get scholarships. For college students that have changes in their attendance and performance. Some people get off to a bad spot and get a bad rep – but they deserve a shot too.”
Sometimes, even the bad guys need a champion to stand up for them. Well, they got one in 50 Cent…
A champion he is – and make no mistake. 50 Cent descended on London last week amid a flurry of controversy and hype. Fronting what is Reebok’s most expensive advertising campaign ever (alongside the likes of double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, Lucy Liu and Andy Roddick), 50 made a typically high-octane appearance at what turned out to be an impressively extravagant event on St. Patrick’s Day.
The scene: a disused warehouse in an ‘undisclosed’ location in North London. A group of international journalists are bundled into 20 blacked-out people carriers and sped to this secret destination. The driver’s instructions are simple: ‘follow the blue car’.
He does and we get there. Inside what is effectively a warehouse, a series of 50-foot screens are erected, crackling with stills from 50’s Reebok advertisement. It’s an impressive, if eerie, sight.
Suddenly, ‘Candy Shop’ blares from the speakers, and 10 Hummer cars speed into the building. Man, does he know how to make an entrance! In the middle of the $1.5m convoy is a new Rolls-Royce Phantom, which carries the star. Camera bulbs pop manically. 50, flanked by a cluster of models and a herd of forbidding bodyguards, snakes his way towards the pen of assembled journalists.
Sporting a 40-carat diamond ring on his right hand that’d take an eye out with a flick of his wrist, he assumes his place on a specially-constructed throne before the assembled crowd.
The bodyguards surround him. 50 may be thousands of miles away from the streets of Harlem, but neither he nor his bodyguards are willing to take any chances. Do they really think that someone might have a pop? Or is it just one for the money, two for the show? Either way, the effect is deeply unsettling.
Just as 50’s profile has increased exponentially over the last year, so has the number of his bodyguards. In addition, the man has spent $200,000 dollars on bulletproofing his cars!
“I have two (bulletproof vehicles), one in New York, one in LA,” he said recently, “and it was about 100 grand each. I’m actually disappointed though: nobody’s shot me. I spent a lot of money on that shit.”
Hell, there’s a few guys in Limerick we could probably hire if he wanted us to set it up for him. But the paranoia runs deep, and probably with good reason. 50 recently revealed that he now videotapes all of his sexual conquests, so as not to give any opportunity to ‘extortionists’.
“I always tell women, ‘When you come in this room, there is going to be a surveillance camera’,” he divulged. “It’s not only for legal reasons. I enjoy watching it, too, if I feel like I’ve performed.”
Though currently unspoken for, he does admit that those video cameras see plenty of action from time to time.
“I’m single but that doesn’t mean I’m practicing abstinence,” he says. “But I’m not going to say any more about it... because I don’t want you to get me into trouble!”
In his Reebok ad, rumoured to have been produced at a cost of $20m, 50 counts slowly to nine, reflecting the nine times he has been shot so far in his life. After nine, the background noise – a mélange of sirens, 911 calls and street-fuelled mayhem – gives way to a single, knowing chuckle from 50.
Clearly, this man has no fear of Bullet No. 10.
“Where I come from, there’s no such thing as Plan B,” is the ominous message of the ad.
“You don’t normally get to take advantage of opportunity,” he explains to the assembled journalists. “For me, personally, I had no plan B, as I had to stay focused, to be the best possible artist I could be. You really don’t get many opportunities in the world of hip-hop.”
Inevitably, Reebok have come under fire for ‘glorifying gun culture’ – in effect, for bridging the gap between street culture, gun crime and sport through 50’s involvement.
“I’ve heard them say I support gun culture because of the kind of material I write for my records,” he responds at the press conference. “I write about the harsh realties, things that go on in the environment I grew up in. So, when they make the statement in the commercial about me being shot, it’s factual. It’s not to glorify it – it’s just to show more about my personality.
“Things you go through make you who you are – and my experiences are why I’m the way I am today.”
Reebok’s campaign revolves around celebrities who stand out, challenge the status quo and do things their own way. The brand has spotted the struggle of its youth audience to both fit in, and stand out, as individuals. The campaign theme, ‘I Am What I Am’, is essentially a positive one, aimed at encouraging its audience to embrace their own identity and be true to themselves.
“They chose individuals for this advertisement campaign,” shrugs 50. “I heard that the people involved in the campaign were interested in the material in my records.”
If they wanted an individual, the Reebok people certainly looked in the right place. Born Curtis Jackson on 6th July, 1975 in South Jamaica, Queens, his father disappeared and his bisexual drug-dealing mother was shot dead when he was eight years old. He was raised by his grandparents.
Not long after his mother’s death, 50 began dealing drugs in the neighbourhood himself. Growing up, the Queens rapper originally wanted to be a heavyweight boxer, but he didn’t make the nut and eventually fell back on rapping. DJs had taken it upon themselves to release two Best Of 50 Cent mix CDs, before he had even signed to a major label. From there, the only way was up…
As I waited outside the interview room, his bodyguard had mentioned how 50 hates to be touched by strangers. Oddly enough, when we meet, it transpires that Fiddy is quite partial to administering a few playful pats on the thigh himself.
“Ah, Tanya Sweeney from hotpress – they told me you were gonna be here!” he says cheekily, in his laconic Harlem accent as I walk in. Already in the room are three bodyguards and a host of assembled TV crews, publicists and manhandlers.
I admonish him for holding interviews on St. Patrick’s Day, reminding him with a wag of the finger that I should be ‘pissed as a fart’ right now. Taking in the turn of phrase with a raised eyebrow, he laughs warmly.
“Aw, I bet you could drink me under the table,” he says. Given that he has only reportedly ever been drunk once in his life on Cristal champagne, I’m sure I probably could.
Of course, he’s probably learning all sorts about the ways of the Irish from Jim Sheridan, currently directing his big-screen debut, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. As was the case with Eminem’s 8 Mile opus, the feature film is loosely based on 50’s life, the action revolving around a drug dealer who turns his back on a life of crime to pursue his dreams of musical stardom.
“Jim is incredible,” he enthuses. “I follow his lead under the direction. I’m excited about it, he’s a great director. He’s so different from me – but in another way, the behaviours run parallel to the things he has experienced. It translates well. After having conversations with him about his experience, he read the script and we talked about how confident we were about making another film.”
50 has certainly had a good introduction to the world of acting, recently making a guest appearance on The Simpsons. The episode, entitled ‘Pranksta Rap’ features Bart sneaking off to one of the rapper’s concerts and then being forced to fake his own kidnapping to avoid the wrath of Homer.
“Yeah, me and Bart have a good chemistry and he’s a good rapper,” he laughs. “I enjoy the show, so when they asked me to do it, I was excited. You know what? I was in LA to work with Dre and I had downtime ‘cos he was busy. So it came at a good time. It was really funny. Yeah…they only gave me three fingers too!”
So is 50 Cent really the bad boy that’s been portrayed in the media?
“I’m the only child,” he explains. “I had issues with group activity. I’d play basketball and I’d have to point out to people the reasons why we lost. I think that’s why I got into boxing a little bit, when I was younger. When you lose at least it’s your own fault. You are your own man.”
Herein lies the great, largely undocumented paradox about the star. I had expected the kind of standoffishness and arrogance that would befit any ‘motherfuckin’ P.I.M.P.’ of standing – but in person, 50 is actually a shy, understated sort. Or that’s the way he comes across.
For all the bombastic gestures, the Bentleys and the burly bodyguards, I’m genuinely struck by how gentle, nay, gentlemanly, he is one to one. He’s a man of few words, granted, but he is endearingly warm and unassuming.
“In a newspaper, the publications make it what they want it to be, to make it exciting,” he notes. “You know, ‘Kid Kills Over 25 cents’. Like a quarter. You go, ‘wow, someone got killed over a quarter’. It’s not really about the quarter. Then you read that this kid loves video games and there’s this kid that keeps taking that joy from him, and the kid responds in the only way he can. It’s for shock value.”
“So you’re nothing but a big softie under it all,” I tell him.
“Oh yeah,” he agrees. “My reputation… exceeds me.”
Currently riding atop the Billboard singles chart at Numbers 1, 4 and 5 (with ‘Candy Shop’, The Game’s ‘How We Do’ and ‘Disco Inferno’, respectively), 50’s on a new roll. His recent album The Massacre has hinted at a shift in musical direction for the star.
Describing his single ‘Candy Shop’ (which boasts the lyric: “I take you to the candy shop/I’ll let you lick the lollypop/Go ‘head girl, don’t you stop/Keep going ‘til you hit the spot”), 50 revealed that he wanted to be as sexual as possible, without being overtly sexist or vulgar.
“From the mental perspective, hip-hop stars make references to bitches and hos, but they want to make a record that’s sexy and that you can play in front of anyone,” he adds. “When they say they exploit women in videos, we do. Everyone can appreciate a beautiful woman a bit more. Even women don’t mind looking at a beautiful woman, and let me tell you, men love it. In rock videos, there are no beautiful women. How can you enjoy that music?”
Is not wanting to be vulgar part of a wider transition that hip-hop is making as it becomes more mainstream?
“Yeah, I think hip hop is just growing, people laughing in different places in different languages,” he agrees. “I was in Japan for the first time on the (Eminem) Anger Management tour. When the music stops, they can’t even talk to me. They have a sign that someone else had to write: it says ‘fuck me’. They don’t know how to say it themselves. The Japanese fans are incredible.”
In recent weeks, 50 has desisted from his long-held tradition of carrying around the bullet that once hit him in the face.
“I used to carry it all the time, but not anymore,” he admits. “I used to have it kind of like a souvenir. It came out of my mouth…it went down the side and started to work its way out. I thought it was a tooth that was loose in the back! It was where your wisdom teeth would be. I used to carry it around in a little glass capsule around the neck.”
I ask him if he’s ever bored with people grilling him about US gun culture?
“Not at all,” he shrugs. “For some reason, outside the US, everyone is fascinated with it, maybe because it doesn’t go on in the environment that they’re in.”
Despite showing his softer side, 50 has no plans to relinquish his links to this gun culture anytime soon.
“We’re both war presidents,” he says of George W. Bush, with whom he shares a birthday. “He runs the United States, I run the New York City Empire. He don’t like that I run it, but unfortunately I’ve been re-elected for another term. I won it by a landslide.”
Universal, meanwhile, have recently devised a computer game loosely based on the singer’s experiences, entitled Bulletproof. Predictably, our hero is thrust into the role of a “crusader” who, according to a press release from VU, gets tangled up in a web of “corruption, double-crosses and shady deals” that lead him on a “bloody path through New York’s drug underworld.” 50 takes on the city’s most dangerous crime families, “uncovering an international conspiracy with devastating implications.” All done with 50’s imprimatur, of course.
Having been approached last year by Universal about a lead voice-acting role in the hit game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, he decided that his own title would be more appropriate. In addition to writing the music for the game, 50 also drafted in Terry Winter, executive producer of The Sopranos, for scriptwriting duties.
“In everything I do, I play to win,” 50 says of his new venture. “I’m out to destroy the competition – and my video game is no different. It’s a fantasy version of my life. I plan to shake up the video-game world like I did the rap world — I’m pulling no punches with my game.”
And with that to chew on, my time with the singer is up. Unfortunately, neither 50 nor his ‘people’ will be drawn on rumours that he will descend upon Slane Castle later this year alongside his cohort Eminem – but one gets the feeling, nonetheless, that we’ll be seeing a lot more of 50, and sooner rather than later at that. Ever the consummate gentleman, 50 shakes my hand warmly as I turn to leave.
“We gonna have to go get you that drink now!” he laughs.
Show me the way…