50 Cent goes for broke with his debut, Power of the Dollar. Noah Callahan-Bever counts the change.
“He’s dead,” says rapper 50 Cent, as his finger darts across a creased photo. The wrinkled relic—which an old friend recently found and shoved quite unexpectedly into his hand here on the corner of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard while 50 is giving a tour of his Jamaica, Queens haunts—depicts a semicircle of grown men dressed in tuxedos, with champagne glasses raised in a toast. In the middle of this Godfather-esque image is the beaming face of 50 Cent. He looks to be about 17. But in a weird way, due to his confident smile and relaxed body language, the man-child fits into the scene more than he doesn’t. 50 continues, revealing the desperate fates that those in the photo succumbed to. “Him, too. That nigga in jail. He on the run.” He chuckles, “I don’t even know what happened to that nigga!”
However, despite this particular image having been captured years ago, this scene is far from ancient history for 50 Cent, born Curtis Jackson. From Big to Eazy to Jay, rappers have often rhymed about their devious days supplying crack to fiends. For this 23-year-old MC, those days are still alarmingly close. “I was hustlin’ till—um—last month,” he says. “Back when ‘How To Rob’ came out, I wasn’t physically on the block myself, but I was still on the street.”
One listen to 50’s soon-to-be-classic album, Power of the Dollar (Columbia), confirms his incredible claims. The LP is saturated with vivid details that couldn’t possibly be fabricated. “Ghetto Quo’ran” exemplifies this as 50 recounts the tumultuous tales of New York’s most notorious hustlers. “That’s a real record,” he says with pride. “The dudes on that record knew me. I’m still a little boy to a lot of these dudes because they in they late thirties.”
Standing on this Guy R. Brewer Boulevard corner (known in the pre-Giuliani days as New York Boulevard) in front of an anonymous Chinese takeout spot, 50 Cent is surrounded by friends and acquaintances. Always dressed in a football jersey (this time Tampa Bay), he seems like a king. It’s more than just the contrast of these obese platinum—and diamond—encrusted cross dangling perilously from his neck against the poverty that surrounds him on the strip. It’s his air. 50—who originally named himself in honor of an infamous Fort Greene, Brooklyn, hustler but now claims that his moniker simply represents change—holds himself regally.
“I seen this bootleggin’ ass nigga today, and he said he got yo’ album from [an industry exec],” says a heavyset member of the assembled crew. But 50 is unfazed by the underground distribution of his debut. “Good! I’m glad the bootleggers got the album,” he says with a laugh. “Some niggas ain’t got it like that to pay sixteen dollars for a CD. Let ’em pay five, as long as they tell they friends how dope the shit is and they come to my shows.” 50 just shakes his head and sighs while reflecting on the implication of the alleged bootleg plot. “Issues are brought to me,” he says, “and you can see how easy is would be to want to hurt somebody.”
He seems to have that problem a lot. 50 can’t help but think about an incident that took place last summer between him and fellow South Side, Queens, resident Ja Rule. “Ja had an altercation where [someone from 50’s neighborhood] had robbed him,” says 50. Shortly after, 50 saw both men in a club. First, he talked to his neighbor, and then approached Ja to give him a pound. “I felt like he tried to chump me.” 50’s animosity came to the surface with the hook in his single “Your Life’s on the Line”: “Murder? I don’t believe you.”
The two squared off later that year at Ja’s platinum party in Atlanta. “He stood up in my face getting mad loud, so I had to handle my business,” 50 says trying to describe, as diplomatically as possible, the ruckus in which Ja allegedly lost his chain. “We jumped off and handled it there.” For a moment, it seemed that the fisticuffs that took place quelled any remaining differences between the two. “I seen him in San Francisco recently, and he talked right by me. That ain’t beef,” says 50. But week after speaking to BLAZE, New York’s Hot 97 FM reported that Ja Rule or a member of his crew had stabbed 50 Cent inside Manhattan’s Hit Factory recording studio. 50 Cent is doing fine, but both he and Ja Rule declined comment.
50 maintains a positive outlook despite the backlash that his industry shakedown anthem, “How To Rob,” garnered from the rappers he mentioned—most notably, Jay-Z, Sticky Fingaz, and Ghostface Killah. “I think that Ghostface’s response was a nice five-minute advertisement for my album,” he says. “I don’t know. I might send him a bottle of champagne or something. Him and these other rappers do a better job promoting me than my label!”
Still, it’s unfortunate that 50 finds himself embroiled in these petty squabbles, since they are partly the reason that he left the street for rap. But 50 is a work in progress. His altruistic goals are constantly hindered by life’s realities. “I look at this whole rap thing as an experiment to see if I can do anything with my life other than sell crack,” he says frankly. “If not, I’ll come back and be on the same block.”
50’s love affair with the dope game borders on addiction: He’s lost far more than he’s gained, yet he still continues to hustle. His mother, Sabrina, a hustler who ran with Queens’ infamous Supreme Team, was killed when 50 was only 8. “It was foul play,” says the stoic MC, reclining on his grandmother’s couch. “Somebody put something in her drink and then turned on the gas.” Clearly, his mother’s death has affected him profoundly: 50 attributes the genesis of his isolated personality to her death. “A lot of people that are your friends aren’t your friends,” he says, spitting bitter words out of his mouth with disgust. “I think that a lot of the bad shit that happens to people happens because they let people get too close to them.”
Despite the example of his mother’s death and the birth of his only child, Marquise, now age 3, 50 remained a street player. “Hustling wasn’t an issue, ‘cause the money was there, and I know so many people on the street that got kids,” he says. “You can be in love, but love don’t pay the bills. In order to give him the things that he needs, I had to be in the street.” Although he makes this rationalization, it’s clear that 50 took fatherhood as a cue to change his life, signing his first recording contract with Jam Master Jay’s JMJ Records right before the birth of his son.
Cash wasn’t the only thing that led 50 to rap, however. “I like rap a lot better than selling drugs, even though I made more money in the streets,” he says. Even more interesting in his aspiration to be more like Redman than Nas or Jay. “Consistency is the key to success. It might not be this album, but one of them will sell a whole bunch of records and be a smash.”
There was a time, though, when money was 50’s only concern. With his mother gone, the rapper was raised by his grandparents, who were already burdened by 13 children of their own. “My grandmother spoiled me ‘cause my mom had gotten killed, but still I hated to ask them for things. Being spoiled wasn’t enough for me. I had bigger expectations.” 50’s insatiable thirst for the finer things in life, coupled with his grandparents’ meager finances, added up to a life of crime.
He began selling cocaine at the age of 12. From there, he quickly moved on to crack. Ironically, while 50 plummeted into the depths of the dealer’s underworld, he straightened out other parts of his life, swearing off drugs and alcohol. “I never really started getting high: it’ll fuck your money up if you get high and sell drugs,” he says. “I don’t really drink neither. That shit affects my judgment. It’ll have me in the middle of the street, shooting.”
50 also started training to be a boxer as a preteen. His new skills gave him focus and discipline and were easily applicable in the street. It suited his thug mentality perfectly, and he became a sort of neighborhood bully. “I figured out that I could fuck these niggas up, so I got more aggressive,” he says of his days tormenting other hustlers and random kids on the block. “If I stumbled over somebody’s stash, I was takin’ it. I’m gonna go home and change their [vile] tops to my tops and then come right back out with ‘em. I had my differences around here.”
50’s money, power, and respect grew but so did the danger. “I’ve been arrested seven or eight times, if you count the juvenile shit,” he says, referencing to the drug possession charges he’s received over the years. “Twenty-two months is the longest that I’ve been locked up.” His last charge was for criminal possession of 5 grams of coke.
For the sake of 50 personally and his fans, that will hopefully be the last time he sees the inside of the bing. 50 says he’s ready to leave whether he can. “I love to watch people’s faces when I perform,” he says with the glow of appreciation that most new artists have. “The energy is so positive, but I know they listen to me, get hype, and go and clap niggas. That’s not really positive,” he concedes. “That’s the only way I see things now. Down the road, I may see the world differently.”
It’s too early to call, but if 50 doesn’t find a new perspective, it may be he who’s fate is laughed about by tomorrow’s hustlers, looking at this very magazine, years from now.