You probably don’t even think of Curtis Jackson as a rapper these days, but as he explains to James F. Thompson, it’s music that’s facilitated the brand and fortune of 50 CENT, and he still believes in the magic of hip-hop
“First I want to say, you know, that it’s a pleasure to be speaking to somebody who actually knows who I am. Not some journalist who’s Googled me for 30 minutes before getting on the phone.”
A few short years ago, the idea that anyone would need to Google 50 Cent would be laughable. The multi-platinum albums, the beefs, the nine bullets – from the February 2003 release of ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ through just about the remainder of the decade, Curtis Jackson was all but imperious at the summit of not just hip-hop but popular music, his rags-to-riches story indelibly imprinted on contemporary youth culture and beyond.
For the improbably uninitiated, the scale of Jackson’s success bears some repeating. ‘Get Rich…’ shifted 900,000 copies in its first week, went on to sell over 13 million copies and Billboard magazine would later list it as the twelfth-best record of the decade. Second LP ‘The Massacre’ has sold 10 million copies to date and also boasted a staggering 1.1 million sales in its first week. Third album proper, ‘Curtis’, has moved about 3.5 million copies so far and even critical misstep ‘Before I Self-Destruct’ is past the million mark. That’s before we even get to G-Unit, his side project and record label.
Outside of music, Jackson has channelled his bona fide celebrity credentials into promoting business ventures ranging from movies (2003 biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’; current comedy Spy) and television shows (American crime drama Power) through to vodka (Effen), headphones (SMS Audio), health drinks (Vitamin Water) and – er – self-help books. A very conservative estimate of Jackson’s worth earlier this year by Forbes placed it upwards of $150 million. Kanye West is said to be worth less than $130 million.
It’s true that Jackson’s music career since the turn of the decade has existed in something of a torpor. Last year’s ‘Animal Ambition’ hasn’t even cleared a quarter of a million sales – colossal in terms of the sorts of artists Loud And Quiet usually interviews but practically a rounding error for a 50 Cent release. Critical reception has been middling at best.
Yet Jackson already has another album in the works for this September, the optimistically-titled ‘Street King Immortal’. There’s also a forthcoming sold-out gig at the O2. So here we have 50 Cent – the $150 million man himself – on a transatlantic phone line for all of 40 minutes to hype his new release, in the midst of a promotional tour for his Effen vodka brand.
So let’s start with why. As a multifaceted businessman and extremely wealthy man, why even bother with music? Why concern yourself with album sales, and critics, and the promotional treadmill?
“I enjoy the business portion of it, I do, but I’m a music artist,” Jackson demurs. “It’s funny because I was on stage with Mark Wahlberg and I came out on the New Kids On The Block show [at Madison Square Garden last month] as a surprise and Mark Wahlberg was there. He has totally transitioned.
“Like, he’s an actor, not a music artist. I had to drag him out of the car on stage and he wants to be as far from being associated with music as possible. I’m almost the opposite. I’m like, I still have a passion for music, I still like what it feels like when it takes you 30 or 40 minutes to come up with an idea and it feels like magic.”
Fair enough. Surely music is a bit of a distraction from far more lucrative pursuits though? The business ventures, the TV shows, the movies and the rest?
Jackson is creditably candid. “I’ve made more [money] away from music than from music,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have had the ability to be involved in those deals if it wasn’t for music. Music culture is so broad now – like hip-hop culture was underground, now it’s pop culture – and there’s no place in the world that you can’t find someone who’s not aware of hip-hop culture.
“If you span the globe, wherever you stop you’ll find someone who knows what rap music is. I’ve toured so many places and sold out events in different territories that it makes me feel like being associated with it and functioning within it gives you a presence around the world that you can’t get anywhere else. You can’t buy what a hit record does.”
Now we’re getting to the crux of it. For somebody like 50 Cent, or Jay-Z, or Kanye West or the current crop of female megastars, a music career is an enabler. Nobody’s making much money out of music in isolation nowadays no matter how big they are. Instead, they’re parlaying their star power into the creation of personal 360-degree brands. Record labels, clothing lines, fragrances, videogames and anything else their coteries of high-power advisors can figure out how to monetise.
It’s a brilliant model and one that Jackson has exploited to full effect. Think of it like this. A record label spends eye-watering sums promoting your music, thereby rendering you a celebrity almost by default. A cookware company then writes you an enormous cheque asking you to promote its pans. Your answer is…?
For Jackson, the answer is obvious. “When I fell in love with hip-hop there was ‘Crossover’ by EPMD [the 1992 track criticising rappers moving into R&B and pop to sell more records]. To be associated with a major corporation was, ‘You’re a sell-out.’ Now, if you’re not associated with companies that have great marketing and connected to the things they’re doing then I don’t think you’re going to sell anything.
“Especially when you previously had a two-year [album cycle] that conditioned the public to expect to see you in a big marketing campaign. For a new artist, they can have this online following and growth at the same time, have people start listening and liking it and [the artists] are fine with the numbers coming in like that. But when previously you sold 13 million records, it’s tough to think you’re going to do that forever.”
Sure enough, in 2007, Jackson lost a much-hyped sales battle with Kanye West in what was seen in many quarters as the beginning of the end of his chart dominance. Prior to the face-off, Jackson was so certain that he would prevail that he told all-comers that he would retire if he didn’t (merely a marketing ploy, he says now). West came out on top, with Jackson reduced to boasting about international sales to make up the numbers.