50 Cent has had a rough week. He’s lost an expensive lawsuit, very publicly declared himself bankrupt, and had to put up with wisecracking Twitter warriors telling him he’s no longer worth as much as his own name suggests. After that kind of week, you’d forgive him for clearing his diary of FHM Collections shoots and London arena shows in favour of pulling the curtains, ordering a pizza and wallowing in Netflix.
But on stage at The O2 a few hours after this very shoot and backed by his hip-hop collective G-Unit, does
it look like it bothers him? Hell, no. Beaming ear to ear, he looks relaxed. In control. Surprisingly, well, cheerful. At one point he pulls a kid
who can’t be older than 12 on to the stage and plonks him on a speaker. The boy looks like he’s going to explode with joy as he sits there for the rest of the show – and 50 looks like he could too, dropping hit after hit in a set that couldn’t have been more crowd-pleasing if he’d personally given everybody a lift home.
A few days later, 50 – real name Curtis Jackson – is back in New York and sounds like he’s operating a juicer when FHM Collections sits down to talk to him. What better time, just as he’s tearing the life out of a banana, to deal with the elephant in da club – 50’s recent financial and legal troubles. You’ll forgive us a little trepidation in bringing this up, given he once rapped, “Frontin’ on me’ll shorten your lifespan/Hold the mic with my left, my knife in my right hand.”
First, a little background. In July, 50 filed for Chapter
11 bankruptcy after he lost a lawsuit from Lavonia Leviston, former girlfriend of rap heavyweight Rick Ross, who was in a sex tape that 50 leaked, complete with
his own commentary. The courts found that this pretty ungallant act warranted around $5 million in damages, but he pled poverty pretty sharpish, telling a New York jury that the bling in his videos was – shock – borrowed.
He now calls the bankruptcy a “strategic business
move” – when your house has 25 bathrooms, you don’t go broke the way the rest of us do. He can’t go into too much detail for legal reasons, but he’s still coming out swinging – though, luckily, not at us.
“Let me explain something to you,” he says. “Where I’m at, I have everything that makes me comfortable. Anyone who is financially in a decent space will tell you what filing for bankruptcy protection is versus being broke.”
Even if the bankruptcy is lawyer voodoo rather than anything likely to land him on skid row, isn’t it annoying to have fed the trolls in a way that couldn’t have been more public if he’d projected ‘Fiddy’s skint’ on the moon?
“They’re fools,” he says. “A lot of them don’t know anything – they just want a moment of gratification. That energy has been there the entire time as I’ve made my way to where I’m at. If they think you’re hurting, they’re excited – their day is made because they’re so unhappy with themselves and their own lives. You know what?
They can stand over there in the Fuck You section.”
Shots fired – and it’s doubtful anyone who played to thousands of whooping British fans just 36 hours ago
is in danger of shopping in Aldi any time soon. Getting bolder, we ask him if he regrets leaking the tape – part
of a feud with Ross that kicked off back in 2009 and apparently began when 50 looked at him the wrong way at an awards show. Again, he’s pretty wary of getting into details, but he doesn’t sound thrilled at the controversy – and neither is he playing any lily-livered grovelling game.
“Look,” he says, “Hip-hop culture is competitive. That’s what any battle is about: artists positioning themselves to be valuable to the public. The environment I come from, we wouldn’t talk about it first. We’d just do stuff to them – you don’t put it on a record. Just do it first. No one would be aware that way. It was about the competitive nature of it, and wanting to be the best.”
It’s this competitive drive that has taken 50 from his rough roots to even being in the position to be sued for millions of dollars – you don’t end up buying Mike Tyson’s house if you like to knock off at five. He’s got the ultimate hip-hop origin story: after a childhood marked by an absent father, the murder of his mother when he was eight and a spell inside for selling crack, he first got on the radar back in the late ’90s.
Still unknown, he flooded his native Queens with mixtapes by getting the guys who sold knocked-off tapes of major rappers to sell his stuff as well. “I had to trick the bootleggers into thinking that I had something worth selling – all the major music labels would get bootlegged and sold on the street,” he says. “The same guys became my marketing and promotion people. I’d drop every song I had. I was hustling from day one.”
He was also picking beefs from day one – Rick Ross was far from the first to receive a tongue-bashing. “I don’t avoid confrontation,” he says. “I would prefer not to have problems, but we do what we do.”
No shit – one of these beefs led to 50 being shot nine times back in 2000. Though that would be more than enough to stop a rhino, he was on his feet again in weeks and fighting fit in months. Taking a bullet to the cheek led to his distinctive lisping rapping style (he speaks the same way, and ear-strainingly quietly, too), but the incident left 50 with more than just a few scars.
“When I got shot, it was me not being in control of
my life,” he says, suddenly more thoughtful. “How is it possible to be alive, when I’m the intended target?
When they’re specifically coming to kill me? So often you see someone get caught in the crossfire, an innocent bystander, and they’re gone – but I got shot and survived. It gave a me a sense of purpose and I had to figure out what the hell I wanted. If nothing more, I was raised from
a rough start – and it made me want to have a lot more control in my life than I’d had before.”
Energised by this brush with death, 50 would go on to hook up with Eminem and Dr Dre, before finding mega stardom, acting and, taking a leaf out of Jay Z’s playbook, business interests in everything from vitamin water to condoms. There was nothing he wouldn’t stick the 50 Cent brand on – next time you have a rainy day,
check out his hilarious video game, or the self-help book he co-wrote that could equally well counsel nannies, neurologists and Napoleon Bonaparte. His teenage hustling stood him in good stead for business, and he pretty quickly was making more money outside music
than from his albums – which still sold like hotcakes,
if hotcakes came with a gunshot sound-effect button.
“Everybody has to start somewhere,” he says of his background. “Some of us are miles behind, but you got to run the hardest and work harder so you can get with the pack and get in the race. I remember going into Eminem’s office and seeing his Marshall Mathers record on the wall with all these little flags where it’d sold a million copies.
I just looked at that and said, ‘Yeah, I want that right there.’ I went everywhere; there’s no door I didn’t open. I told my management not to ask me if I wanted to play somewhere. Just to put it on the schedule. Any issue they had, any problem, I didn’t care – it was going on the schedule.”
It’s one thing to be young, poor and angry – but success seemed only to deepen 50’s appetite for friction with other rappers. His feuds have their own Wikipedia page, which is more than you can say for Flo Rida. But isn’t getting rich – regardless of his accountants’ recent
moths-in-pockets act – supposed to mellow you out?
“I think a lot of people can appreciate that I came from the bottom,” he says. “It’s like what I said about not being afraid of confrontation. If you’ve been constantly subjected to those kind of altercations when you were growing up, what would make you fearful of them at this point? I already have confirmation of my success, the things around me indicate that I made it. I’m fine with where I’m at – not everyone is going to achieve that in their lifetime.”
Talking to 50 is interesting – in black and white, a lot
of what he says reads as the standard hip-hop billy big bollocks bragging act, but chatting with him is, well, fun. He’s cheekier than you’d imagine, jokingly telling the
FHM Collections shoot team, “Y’all sound funny,” and pronouncing his Topman get-up “dope”. He tells us how he loves coming to London as it was the first place overseas that his record label flew him, confirming to him he was making it. He’s pretty taken with some of the UK hip hop we play him – he particularly likes Don’t @ Me, although what he makes of Hackney-born MC JME’s references to Nando’s and Dappy is anybody’s guess.
In truth, it’s tricky to square the cheery guy in the photoshoot, the laid-back guy over the phone and the playing-to-the-rafters entertainer of The O2 with the bloke scowling out from his album covers like you just nicked his bottle of Cristal – or the guy who put a stranger’s sex tape online. Unexpectedly, he’s the muscle-bound bullet-scarred gangsta rapper you’d bring home to meet your nan. Would he ever move his music on from the
world of ballers and bullets he built his rhymes on?
“People want artists who consistently deliver,” he says. “Even in sports, you want to see the team that keeps winning, right?” He does know, however, that guys like Kanye and Drake – let alone the explosion in female rappers – have changed the game. “These guys do something I don’t do – you hear something special and think, ‘Man, that guy’s really good at that.’”
Then he remembers his game.
“They may not be able to beat me at what I do, but a particular moment can be phenomenal.”
As the last of the gangsta generation to make it really big before nine-minute ballet videos and rapping about sexual anxiety came about, 50 knows his brand, and is more than happy to give the people what they want.
He’s taken his fair share of knocks over the years,
but the fact that he’s still going strong, be it on stage
in Southeast London or in New York courtrooms, is
still damn impressive. But would he ever hang up his microphone for good? Just go and swim in his money, however much there is of it left, Scrooge McDuck-style?
“You can have one idea that works and boom, it makes you a billion dollars,” he says. “But then what are you going to do with yourself? Just stop? I’d bite my head off.”
_ Images: Dan Medhurst _
_ Styling: Daisy Deane _
Shot exclusively for FHM Collections AW15