50 Cent talks money, vodka and how music is still at the heart of his brash brand

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.

Thanks to some shrewd manoeuvring behind the scenes though, it really didn’t matter. By that point Jackson was well on his way to a spectacular windfall well beyond anything he could ever have hoped to achieve within the confines of selling records for a living. A spectacular cash influx, which would cast people like Kanye West permanently in the shade.

Around the time his first album was released, Jackson signed a five-year deal to market his own brand of trainers for Reebok. At the end of one of his TV commercials, the audience were treated to 50 Cent conspicuously glugging from a bottle of Vitamin Water, a nascent health brand that Jackson happened to like. His manager at the time, Chris Lighty, had arranged the plug as a way of securing a promotion deal with Gleceau, the company who owned the brand.

Lo and behold, Gleceau soon came calling. Jackson and his team were then able to broker an astonishing deal: a $5 million fee and – crucially – a 5% equity stake in the company. Four years later, the firm was sold for $4.1 billion in cash. The trade netted Jackson $200 million before taxes, or roughly $100 million after all deductions. The figure was ten times more than 50 Cent’s records had earned to that point.

Jackson has never looked back. “I think that my life is testimony to the possibilities of making the best of the situation you know, this kind of inspirational story,” he says of his rise to riches. “I think that my focus is on – for the most part I convey that everything that you’re actually after, you can achieve it.”

Curtis James Jackson III was born 6 July 1975 in Queens, New York City. His mother, Sabrina, gave birth when she was just 15 years old. Eight years later and already a cocaine dealer, she was murdered in truly horrific circumstances. Jackson was forced to move in with his grandparents, along with eight aunties and uncles.

The young Jackson soon found his way on the street. He started boxing at the age of 11, eventually going on to compete in the Junior Olympics. A year later, he began dealing drugs at school. An arrest soon followed after the youngster brought a gun to class, which was picked up by a metal detector. By all accounts, it was an inauspicious start to life. Jackson talks about getting into the drugs racket almost as though it was a career choice, the same way other kids might have thought about being a doctor or going to law school.

“My neighbourhood and that environment provided examples of financial freedom,” he says. “It showed you people who had expendable cash and could do whatever they wanted at that present moment. So it made me feel like it was a legitimate opportunity to go in that direction.”

Things got worse before they got better. In 1994, Jackson was arrested selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. Three weeks later, a police search of his home revealed heroin, more coke and a gun. Jackson was jailed for a minimum of three years, although he ended up serving six months in a boot camp, gaining a GED along the way. The 50 Cent moniker was inspired by a Brooklyn robber of the same name – Jackson took the nickname as a metaphor for change.

In 1996, Jackson – who was already rapping as 50 Cent – was introduced to Run-DMC legend Jam Master Jay by a friend. Jay schooled his protégé in the art of making records and writing hooks. By 1999, hit producers Trackmasters had signed 50 Cent to Columbia Records and a debut album was readied, with the team ultimately recording 36 songs in two weeks.

Two of these early tracks would forever alter Jackson’s career trajectory. The first, ‘How to Rob’, has the rapper comically describing how best to steal from the biggest hip-hop stars of the day. Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang Clan and Wyclef Jean all responded to the track, while Nas offered up a supporting slot on his tour.

The second, ‘Ghetto Qu’ran’, heralded considerably worse tidings. The song, in which Jackson somewhat foolhardily names 1980s drugs dealers from his local neighbourhood, resulted in a countrywide ban from the recording industry. ‘Ghetto Qu’ran’ also directly precipitated what is perhaps the most notorious chapter of the 50 Cent story.

On 24 April 2000, Jackson was sat in the back seat of a friend’s car outside his grandmother’s house when another car pulled up nearby. An unknown assailant then stepped out of the car, walked across the road and peppered Jackson with nine shots from a 9mm handgun at close range before making his escape. Jackson took shots to his chest, both legs, arm, hand and cheek. He spent 13 days in hospital.

Spooked by the incident and the ongoing furore surrounding ‘Ghetto Qu’ran’, Columbia Recordings dropped Jackson almost immediately. Blacklisted and with no record contract, Jackson poured his efforts into mixtapes, flooding the underground circuit across New York and beyond. A certain Marshall Mathers heard one of these, signed Jackson on a $1 million record deal and the rest, as they say, is history.

For Jackson, Eminem’s influence in hip-hop is vast. “Em is responsible for why a lot of people accepted the music in a different way. A person wasn’t comfortable…” He starts over. “Let’s say you’ve grown up with racism in your background, right? And even if you enjoy the music when it comes on, you say you don’t want to hear it. Why? Because everyone participating in it is ‘other’ than yourself, or your kind. [These kinds of people] then had Eminem to go to.”

Jackson warms to his theme. “I particularly point out Eminem because he does black music better than black artists, you understand? He’s grown up within the culture and when you see his friends around him, they’re black. And now, it’s not that America has become tanned or blacker because of hip-hop culture, it’s that hip-hop is losing its colour. So it doesn’t matter what ethnicity the artist is, as long as the quality of the music is there I couldn’t care less. You could be purple.”

Some things about hip-hop never change though. Given the Hollywood-style story arc to Jackson’s life – the distance he’s travelled from the most unpromising of origins – the beefs and braggadocio inherent to Jackson’s most recent songs and his larger-than-life lifestyle are perhaps no great surprise. One YouTube video sees Jackson literally piling up hundreds of thousands of dollars in the trunk of one of his sports cars.

I gently suggest that some people resent all this focus on cash and ostentatiousness. “Well listen to what you just said,” Jackson fires back. “You said, ‘People say you talk about cash and you talk about success.’ Well, they whack me but they made me successful. Meanwhile, if I write about things that I missed – that I didn’t get a chance to write on my first two CDs – they’ll say ‘Aw, you ain’t living like that no more.’ So it’s saying, whichever way you go, you damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” True I suppose, although Paul McCartney seems to manage okay without singing about mad stacks and bitches galore.

“I couldn’t write ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ now – publicly they wouldn’t react the same because they know me as a different person at this point,” Jackson continues. “I can [still] rap about [those themes] but from a different perspective, from where I’m at; it’s a different seat. You know back when I fell in love with rap music, keeping it real was the theme. Like now, there are people from so many different walks, they’re just writing music. It doesn’t matter what part of their life it’s about. It doesn’t coincide with anything in connection to their lifestyle at some point.”

We’ve already established that Jackson has no real need for record sales but the suspicion remains that ‘Street King Immortal’ is being positioned as something of a comeback record; the prototypical return-to-form. Four years in the making, rumoured blockbuster collaborations include Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. The list of producers ranges from usual suspects Dr Dre and Eminem through to Alex da Kid and Jim Johnsin.

I wonder whether, in the face of diminishing returns over his last few releases, Jackson feels like he has something to prove. He goes on the defensive. “You know what, I always feel like I have to be able to perform on the highest level. But I’d be killing myself if I always made a direct comparison with the performance of my previous projects. That’s what the talent community – the artist community – does when someone has [my] kind of success. You know, ‘It’s great but it’s not ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’.’

“It’s pretty tough for you to have a second chance at a first impression. And when your first album is the largest debut hip-hop album [of all time] it’s tough to top it. I sold 13 million copies of my first CD, then 10 million on my second one. Trying to sustain that momentum is almost impossible. There’s no-one in the history of music who’s done that.

“Of course, the artist community itself wants to reject you after you’ve had a certain amount of success. There’s a lot of, ‘Oh it’s cool but it’s not as good as ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’.’ What they mean is: it doesn’t feel as current as that record and that was also connected to that person being new. Even Eminem’s career has been – he’s completely a phenomenon with the things that have happened in his career – but he’s had low points.”

On the one hand, there’s a kernel of truth to what Jackson is saying. Today’s music listeners – especially millennials who’ve grown up with always-on access to unlimited new music – have ever-decreasing attention spans. Many of 50 Cent’s original fans will also simply have grown out of his music. Their replacements – teenagers – are on the lookout for whatever else is new and fresh instead of an artist 15 years into his career, regardless of how good his product is.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the commercial decline of the 50 Cent oeuvre has happened broadly in tandem with a marked fall in quality, no matter what Jackson might say. Extracurricular matters beyond business interests may have taken their toll. Jackson has feuded with dozens of hip-hop artists and celebrities throughout his career – he’s currently engaged in a court trial with Rick Ross over a bizarre sex tape starring Ross’s ex – and though beefs are part and parcel of selling rap music, even by hip-hop standards Jackson has been overactive.

When it’s all said and done then, what would make ‘Street King Immortal’ a successful addition to the 50 Cent canon? Millions of sales and critical adoration, presumably? Jackson pauses for a moment. “Success just looks like people really enjoying themselves to my music,” he simply says. “To me, away from those other projects – I do like the process in television and film, like the storytelling is a lot longer – but music is magic, man.”

Time will tell whether 50 Cent still has his anything left of his magic touch. If not, rest assured that he’ll still be laughing all the way to the bank.