50 Cent

Like a formation of geese ahead of an approaching cold front, an entourage arrives. It includes several hefty bodyguards with wires coiling from their ears and sunglasses shielding their eyes. Minutes later there is indeed a change in the atmosphere; a crackle of static. Perhaps this time 50 Cent really has entered the building.

But I have been here before. It began several months ago when I was asked if I would like to interview Curtis Jackson III, better known as the gangsta rapper 50 Cent. Which interviewer wouldn’t? He has texture, as they say. His (single) mother, a crack dealer from the New York ghetto of Queens, was murdered when he was eight. His grandparents did their best to raise him, along with eight other children, but at 12 he became a crack dealer himself, and was so good at it he was soon making $3000 a day. In 1994, at the age of 19, he was caught and sentenced to nine years in prison. He served three and, upon being released, did a demo of the rap songs he had been writing on the walls of his cell. He sent them to Jam Master Jay (the man behind Run DMC) who liked them, became his mentor and taught him how to count bars, write choruses and structure songs. 50 Cent had just signed a deal with Columbia in 2000 when he was shot nine times by a rival gang and left for dead. He survived, but when his assailant was found dead soon after, and Jam Master Jay was shot dead as part of the same feud, Columbia took fright and dropped him. The rapper Eminem was not so faint hearted. He signed him up and, in 2003, 50 Cent brought out Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a hip-hop album that became the biggest seller in the America charts that year. By the time his follow up album was released, he had become the first artist since The Beatles to have four songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s singles chart— he had, moreover, joined his friend Madonna as one of the highest earners in music. His new album, Curtis, is also expected to break records when it is released next month. But nowadays he earns more than $50 million a year without even bringing out a record, thanks to the cross-branding business empire he has built up: as well as a 50 Cent record label, there is a 50 Cent clothing line, a 50 Cent publishing arm, a 50 Cent film company, a 50 Cent condom range, a 50 Cent sports watch line (diamond-encrusted, of course), a 50 Cent PlayStation game, and a bottled vitamin water line (Formula 50). Forbes magazine has described him as a “masterful brand-builder and a shrewd businessman.”

Anyway, I was to meet him in Berlin at the weekend. At the eleventh hour, the venue and time changed: it would be the following week, at his 52-room mansion in Connecticut. There I was to have some ‘hang time’ with him, whatever that is. That trip was postponed, too. It would now be in LA the following Wednesday. The night before I was due to fly, it was postponed again, for a week. This routine happened twice more. It became almost amusing, a weekly game, an exercise in morbid fascination. As his people were paying for the flights — not normal practise, but the situation had become too weird to say no — there seemed no harm in playing along, and, the week after that, I actually reached the airport without the usual postponement call. The plane took off. Still no call. I checked my messages when I touched down. Confidence was high: 50 Cent had arrived in LA that day for a concert that would be broadcast on the web. I waited backstage to meet him. His heavies began to appear. There was a change in the temperature. The crackle of static. Then mobile phones started ringing and faces started dropping. There was a rumour that 50 Cent had cancelled. It turned out to be true. An executive from his record label took me out to dinner that night and assured me that Fifty, as everyone calls him, was normally very professional about these things. No one knew why he had cancelled the concert. There were hints that he might have been taken ill. As I had another story to do, I stayed in town — but still he didn’t show.
I’m reflecting on this runaround as I sit waiting in a London studio a month later. Then Fifty nonchalantly ambles in wearing his own brand of baseball cap and a large diamond encrusted cross around his neck. He slumps on the sofa in front of me and gives a toothy grin. ‘Wass up?’ he says.

I was going to ask him the same thing. What was up, in LA? What happened? ‘Right, LA. How was your trip out there?’

I’ve had better. ‘Right, right. It was the new album. It was due for release then but it wasn’t how I wanted it. I had to go back and work on it. I’m very hands on. I’m fine with failing but only if it’s my fault. I don’t like putting my life into other people’s hands.’
Hmm. Q Magazine has dubbed him Dead Man Walking because of the various death threats that are regularly made against him — he made a lot of enemies in his drug dealing days and still does with his ‘diss wars’. Much of his notoriety in the music business concerned the fights he picked with his fellow rappers, deliberately starting feuds by insulting them in his songs. The list is long but his biggest feuds have been with Ja Rule, The Game, and the wealthiest rapper cum entrepreneur of them all, P Diddy. It’s a dangerous game — his mentor Jam Master Jay was shot dead as part of a rap feud — and the bulletproof vest Fifty wears and the bulletproof car he drives (a Humvee, naturally) are not just for show. How safe does he feel today? ‘Pretty safe. As safe as I’ll ever be. Do you feel safe? You’ve got terrorist attacks going on here in London.’

And on that subject I ask him how his flight was, bearing in mind that a couple of years ago he and his 18-strong entourage were held up for five hours by security coming into Heathrow. ‘It wasn’t difficult for me this time because I flew private.’
That must help. ‘Yeah, early on I had real hassle at the airport. But after several trip to London they more relaxed about it. My bodyguards don’t carry guns in the UK, only in the US. Trouble is, the security men go on perception. Because of the content of the lyrics they felt I would cause trouble, so they had that worked out even before I touched down.’
Ah yes, the lyrics. Some are witty, some quite poetic others are, well, nigga this, mothafucka that, ‘let loose wit dis uzi’ the other. So, I ask, would it be fair to say that Fifty glamorises gun violence? He speaks heavily and chewily, in a slightly lisping and slurring voice that is still rooted in the ghetto. I’ll not attempt a phonetic version of it here, but suffice to say he drops letters, swallows words and his vocabulary is unwieldy — ‘finances’ for money, ‘terminology’ for words, ‘altercation’ for fight, a bit like a policeman taking the stand in court. ‘There is a difference between glamorising violence and creating a work of art that entertains on some level,’ he says. ‘Hip-hop is a mirror. What I write is a reflection of the environment I grew up in.  What I do is reporting. I think it is clear to everyone that I am no longer living that life I describe, but I use terminology that they would actually use in that environment, so that people there can relate to it. People say I should take out the cursing and I say “sure, I’ll change my standards if society changes its standards”.’

A change of tack. Does it worry him that the young people who buy his albums might feel inspired to go around shooting people afterwards? ‘Anyone who could be influenced by music would have to be so distorted they could be influenced by pretty much anything,’ he says, adjusting his baseball cap as he catches his reflection in a mirror behind my head. ‘The kid that become violent because he listen to music is already crazy. People who can’t separate entertainment and reality are not mentally normal.’
So people who act violently after listening to his lyrics were going to act violently anyway? ‘Exactly.’
But that can’t be true, can it? These things must have an influence. If someone listens to one of his records again and again they will get pumped up by it, feel aggressive. ‘That would also relate to film.’
People don’t watch films over and over again though. ‘Yeah but sound and picture has to be more impressionable that sound on its own, doesn’t it? If you have a rapper come on and tell you he is going shoot someone that seems to upset people more than if a film-maker comes on and actually shows you someone being shot. It’s double standards. It’s simple math.’

Why does he suppose people are drawn to that which frightens them? ‘I think death in itself is entertaining to humans. I believe that because it is everyone fate. I’m going to die, you going to die, everyone is going to die. You see someone in a life-threatening situation and it is entertaining.’
Entertaining? Unlike most of us, Fifty has stared death in the face. He says he knew for certain he was about to die. What did that last moment feel like? ‘I think you can remember pain a lot better than you can remember joy. I think pain leaves a bigger impression. We can smile watching a sitcom but the painful points in our life stand out like scars. I physically actually have scars from that altercation.’ He holds a finger to his cheek. ‘See this little dimple. It’s cute. I believe God meant to give me it as a baby but gave it to me a few years late.’
When he was shot, Fifty suffered wounds to his legs, chest and calf. His hip was also shattered. The skin on his right hand is still puckered by the impact of another bullet. The bullet that smashed through his jaw and lodged in his tongue left him with a curved scar, still visible near his mouth. It makes it look as if he’s smiling to himself. Did he know anything about it at the time? ‘It happened so fast that I didn’t even get a chance to shoot back… I thought shit, somebody shot me in the face. It burns. I was awake on the way to the hospital and then I went under anaesthetic. Only when I woke up did the pain really start. At the time I didn’t think about the number of times I’d been shot I just thought physically I survived.’

What about mentally; does he have nightmares about it? ‘Not nightmares. A little bit of paranoia. After I was shot I would be more aware of what was going on around me. More alert.’
Has he ever had therapy? ‘No, it would have been traumatic if I wasn’t from the background I’m from. It happened all the time there. It feels like the norm. On some level, and this crazy, it pretty much happens all the time where I’m from. Not being shot nine times necessarily, but being shot. If it isn’t a friend of yours or someone you know you tend not to notice or think about it much. You can’t feel that physical pain for them anyway.’
Does that make him emotionally frozen? ‘I am insensitive on some levels. I can be selfish. At some point I will make choices based on what I want rather than what is right for everyone else.’

Tell me about it. His mouth broadens, flashing a set of bright pearly teeth, gritted tightly together. ‘I guess that is what allowed me to continue believing I would be a success when others couldn’t see why. I run on my own energy. When you orphaned you have no choice but to do that.  Me, I’m like one in a billion. There’s not going to be another 50 Cent. They’ll get to half of the movie, they just won’t get to this part.’

He refers to the movie that was made about his life and in which he starred. It was directed by Jim Sheridan, the director of the Oscar winning My Left Foot. It offers chilling insights into the world of the crack dealer. Does he feel any guilt about his previous life? ‘No.’
Why not? ‘If I was conscious of having any other options at that stage in my life I would have chosen those options. I just thought of my mom buying nice things for me with the money she made from crack and I thought I could do the same. That was my reference. Her friends had nice cars, nice jewellery, things that said luxury and success, and they acquired them in short periods of time.’
His boastfulness and selfishness is almost understandable in this cold and unforgiving context. I ask if material rewards still matter to him? ‘There’s a point where you exceed your own expectation. But ambition is part of my character. I don’t believe I’m at where I’m at by accident. It’s not for money but for what it feels like to be successful. You know what money is? It’s freedom. It’s freedom to say I’m going to get on a plane tonight instead of tomorrow because I’ve got one waiting.’
He recently expressed an interest in buying the imposing Debenham House in London as part of his property portfolio. According to some accounts the agents were a little patronising at first, pointing out that it was on the market for £40 million. His business manager pointed out in turn that that wouldn’t make too much of a dent in his budget. Does he know how much he is worth? ‘I’ll be the first hip-hop artist worth a billion dollars. I know how much money I have in different places. I understand about branding and synergy.’

The comment reminds me that the phrase Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is nothing if not a bling version of the American dream. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Fifty’s sympathies, unlike those of nearly everyone else in the music industry, are Republican. If his felony convictions did not prevent him from voting, he claims that he would vote for Bush. He has performed for the troops in Iraq and has called the President: ‘Incredible . . . a gangsta. I want to meet George Bush, just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.’

It would be a memorable encounter. And Fifty does know how to dress for the occasion. He wore an Armani suits and tie recently for a photo op in which he held hands with the Duchess of York. ‘She’s a sweetheart,’ he tells me. ‘She came back to my dressing room afterwards and we talked for a while. It was for a good cause.’ But he normally wears what he is wearing today: baggy T-shirt and jeans, trainers with the laces undone, a baseball cap which he keeps adjusting constantly to get the right angle. Certainly there is vanity there, and egomania. Like Caesar he refers to himself in the third person. But he can seem two-dimensional. His worldview was shaped by money and machismo, and success has not significantly changed that. ‘Most people from my background end up incarcerated or killed, like my mom. There were things that happened in my life prior to my being able to make a decision that altered me. When my mom had me she was 15 years old. She didn’t see being on welfare as an option. She substitute finances for time, but every time I seen her it was like Christmas because she always bought something nice for me. So I associated every thing good in life with my mom and when she died everything became bad. I was angry with the world. It was fucked up for me. It wasn’t until my son came into my life that I realised I could accept the repercussion for that life style. He changed my direction from selling drugs to writing music.’
He has a close relationship with his 10 year old son? “Yeah he’s my partner. He’s my inspiration. It’s unfortunate that me and his mom don’t have a good relationship. We don’t communicate so well.’
But he loves his son? ‘Absolutely.’
I only ask because the theme of his autobiography is that love is dangerous because it will get you killed. ‘When you living in that lifestyle it can literally get you killed because the people who love you will hurt you and say “I’m sorry” afterwards. But someone who has fear of you won’t do those things to you. Whether it’s the physically repercussion they fear or just you, as a person.’
What about women; does he find it easy to fall in love with them? ‘That different. Loving a woman  is loving another person. With my son it’s like loving myself. He’s a purer version of me. He hasn’t been exposed to the things that altered my character.’ He pauses. He is now staring directly at his reflection. Past me. ‘No, that’s not exactly true. He saw me in the hospital after I was shot so he has that in his head but outside of that nothing bad. If you talk to my son I’m like a superhero to him because he can remember us having no finances, all being in the basement sleeping in a single room.’ His son now attends a private school. Is he a strict father? ‘You know, his mom runs his life right now. But I’ll allow him to listen to my music because he knows it is just entertainment. He knows what the difference between me and what is being said on my records is. If you were worried about my lyrics you should also be worried about what your kid watching on television. Same with magazines. I look in you magazines and I see women topless and it’s great. But in the States they consider it soft pornography. They have a whole  different vibe over there. The Bible belt.’
Which brings us neatly to the subject of feminism; you suspect The Female Eunuch is not in his top ten favourite books. ‘The guys who have more finances have better things around them, including better looking women,’ he explains. ‘He can be the ugliest guy but if he has a nice car he will have a nice woman by his side because away from his physical attributes financial security is attractive. The women they struggling like we struggling.’
So all woman are gold diggers? ‘Yeah. And not just from my perspective. I’ve generally experience it and this is why women say you gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me. They want someone who can help them. The man career is the more important in the relationship. It’s a fact. The man gets promoted ahead of the women in the workplace, the statistics show that. And the most successful men have the most stable marriages.’

So is that where he will end up, is there a Mrs Cent in the wings? ‘Well hopefully I won’t have to be married more than one time.’
Is he in a relationship right now? ‘No, I’m as free as a bird.’
If his videos are anything to go — gyrating, semi naked women are a recurring theme — he must enjoy that freedom. He grins. ‘There a lot going on. A lot of temptation. With the videos it’s like this: when you want to sell a magazine to a woman who do you put on the cover? A woman. When you want to sell a magazine to a man who do you put on the cover? A woman, with less clothes on.’
I wonder if he is in touch with his feminine side. He says he doesn’t display emotions, that he has learned to suppress them, that anger is one of his most ‘comfortable feelings’. But is he able to cry. ‘Yeah.’ About? ‘Normal stuff. Don’t think I’m not human. I’ve been in tough situations but what I’ve experienced isn’t normal. A regular person might feel comfortable to start crying, I don’t. The times it does happen there might not be an obvious reason for it. It might be when I’m off a bit. Bit low.’
What makes him feel vulnerable? Anything? ‘Too much information out there ‘bout me. You know like not insecure exactly but I have things I wouldn’t want other people to know.’
Like he has a Barbie doll collection at home? ‘I don’t have a barby doll collection at home.’
Like what then? He is now addressing his reflection completely, trying his cap at different angles. ‘I don’t know, like seeing my mother kissing another woman when I was little boy. At six years old you don’t understand what is happening when you see you mommy with another woman. I didn’t see them in the sexual act. Just kissing. It only seemed confusing later.’
If he took his eyes off his own reflection for a second he would see my eyebrows are arching in surprise at his candour. Feeling oddly emboldened now by the prospect of some Freudian revelation, I find myself asking how old he was when he lost his virginity. ‘I was young.’ How young? ‘I can’t say.’ Oh come on. He looks at me and grins. ‘I was young. I was 12. It was with a  grown woman. A 29 year old.’

So at the age of 12 he was effectively a man, earning a living and having sex? ‘It wasn’t quite like that. I was at my friend’s house and my friend had his sister there and I was big for a kid — 150 lbs — like a small man, and it happened. Unfortunately it didn’t happen again for a long time so I had to use my hand a lot.’
His chubbiness as a child seems hard to believe when you see him now with his pumped up muscles. His is a bodybuilder’s torso composed of spheres and illustrated with a tapestry of tattoos, one of them spelling out his son’s name, Marquise. He never had a father figure himself, has he ever wondered what his father was like? ‘I never met my father and have no interest in where he is. He could have helped me. He could have influenced me before I made mistakes. I’m not curious to know what he looks like. I know I look like my mom. I got photos of my mom. Big teeth like me. She had a big smile like me.’
Useful weapon that smile, I suggest, more useful than a gun. ‘My smile has got me a long way in life. It disarms people. They have a threatening impression otherwise.’
And not without reason. ‘Well if someone puts me in a position where my back is against the wall they going to find out where I come from. My past is my shadow. Everywhere I go, it goes with me.’ And on that poetic note we part company and I am left thinking that the wait, the extraordinary wait to meet 50 Cent, was worth it.