There are few musicians – or even men – more intimidating to interview than Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent. There’s his notorious upbringing, the early death of his mother (a woman of the night), his early career dealing illegal substances, for which he was arrested and incarcerated in 1994… and let’s not forget the nine bullets he took following a gang dispute in 2000. Then there’s his phenomenal wealth: since branching out into clothes, books, films, headphones, soft drinks, scents and even family planning products, he’s said to be worth Dhs1.5 billion. There’s also his reputation for falling out with other rappers – his much-hyped feuds with Ja Rule, Nas, P Diddy, Rick Ross, Jay-Z and others.
In short, this interviewer is unlikely to ever meet anyone harder, richer, or meaner than ‘Fiddy’. Yet when he spoke to us on the phone, from his grandma’s home in New York, he was surprisingly warm and measured.
We hear you’re a fan of Dubai.
This will be the third time I’ve come to visit. I’ve had a really international career, travelling and getting a chance to see the world, but I haven’t travelled the way I want. I’m excited. I have a big map on the wall and I put pins in all the places I’ve been – this time I want to go back and take photos. And I’m into my Gitex [50 Cent is launching a new range of SMS headphones at the local gadget show on Thursday October 18].
So you’re into gadgets?
It’s exciting because those shows change. They’re not the same in every place because they target them in different ways. And Dubai’s got a reputation – a reputation for money.
You’re an artist who’s associated with money. Is it the most important thing?
When you come from not having it, it’s very important. [With money] you become treated not just as a successful artist, but a symbol of hope when you [come from] the struggle where you don’t have enough. For me, creatively, music is everything, and I’ve been able to do every other venture because of that. I started to develop a passion for film and TV. I had to start a production company to secure the ability to do films that don’t conflict with my music career. In movies they change the dates a lot, and if they put a movie back two months, and its three months of shooting, that’s half a year off that I can’t earn in music. That doesn’t make sense financially.
In Freelancers, the latest movie you produced, you starred alongside Robert De Niro.
That was great. I wish people could hear the phone calls I made to get that [made]. I had to call De Niro and Forest [Whitaker] to do it. You can’t persuade them with finances. They’re real artists; there’s no number you can say to make them do something.
So you were on the phone begging De Niro to be in your movie?
I was ‘persuading’ – I wasn’t begging. Begging is a point of desperation. I’m calling saying, ‘I really want you to do this.’ I want to stay part of projects with integrity, to be surrounded with great talent – and Forest and De Niro are Academy Award winners.
Back to music: why did you shelve your last album, Black Magic?
Black Magic? That project is never going to come out. I decided I’ll keep it for myself. I created it, and if I was releasing it right, then I would have [released it] as soon as I made it. But later it didn’t make sense for me to release it. Not everything an artist comes up with should be shared, because some of it’s just for your iPod, for your own enjoyment. If an artist paints a picture, he doesn’t put every one out there.
So how’s the new record, Street King Immortal?
It sounds great. The first single, ‘New Day’ with Dr Dre and Alicia Keys, is performing extremely well. I’m comfortable – that’s the one I thought out.
Is there any way this record, or anything else you do, could equal the success of your first? 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sold 15 million copies worldwide…
No. No way. I’ve been trying to do that my entire career.
Why do you think you can’t replicate that success?
Because you never get a second chance at a first impression.
You once said Eminem was the greatest rapper ever. He’s playing in Abu Dhabi not long after you come over…
He’s one of the better ones to me. You can’t say ‘best rapper’. When you don’t do much else but rap, people tend to think, ‘He’s just a lyricist, a guy who does this and that’, because they only associate you with the music. When you diversify, it’s not a question of having the same talent for music, it’s survival in different ways. You have artists smart enough to diversify. Audience dictates the best is in everything. It’s a new idea, an absolutely new idea. I know how to diversify and sustain relevance. We’ve got to look at artists such as Jay-Z: he has 11 albums. These artists do a lot and they work hard. I have as many albums, but a lot of them are unofficial. I put them out as mixtapes. The old-school way of doing things.
In Dubai you’re sharing a bill with Nelly. What do you think of him?
I like him. He’s got a different style, a different energy. I’ve always watched it and I see why it’s so successful. He’s a huge influence: his first album, Country Grammar, sold more than seven million records, if I’m not mistaken – that’s a lot. He had a massive concept on that record. When he was singing ‘I’m goin’ down down baby… street sweeper baby’ – ‘street sweeper’ is a machine gun. There was a lot of aggression there but he was saying it in a different way.
There’s also a lot of aggression in your music.
There is. But with me it was received differently because I was from that environment where it happened. They associate [my music] with being shot nine times.
The shooting is the first thing everyone says about you. Do you think it helped your career?
I think it’s a blessing and a curse – in the beginning, it’s interesting. When you’re smart enough to know what people are fascinated with, you can offer that with no problems. You can write from a real place because it’s a real experience. But you have the people who think you’re rich now, so it can’t be what it was when they were completely fascinated with you. When they think you’re going to be killed, or think you’re going to go kill someone and go to prison, people want to watch. When that part of your show is removed because you’ve had continued success in so many areas, they realise: ‘He’s not an idiot or a fool, he’s smarter than that, he’s continued into business and he’s more successful at that than his associates who are university bachelors.’
Do you ever wonder where you’d be today if you hadn’t been a musical success?
I’ve been asked that a lot of times. I say that the only thing really positive that came into my life at that particular time was when I was involved with hip-hop culture. Everything else was wrong. It was the content of the music in the beginning. I reflect on the harder times because I think how far I’ve come from the street. I reflect and think it’s crazy. My son has no idea what that experience was. He was too young to know we didn’t have anything for those first few years. And as I’ve got bigger, he’s been blessed. He doesn’t have that perspective because opportunities are there for him.
You were in a car crash in June. Did that affect your outlook on life at all?
People have car crashes every day. When you’re on the road you see so many accidents, it never affects you. You see that out there all the time; you’ve seen accidents, you go home, you go about your day, nothing changes. You follow for a second. The traffic jams aren’t because of the crash, they’re because people want to look, to see if it looks like someone could have died. It’s interesting: death is your fate, we’re all going to die. Even now you push it to the back of your mind. You don’t wake up and think, ‘Today I could die.’ You wake up and you look forwards. Your fate is the certain bit because you know you’re going to die.
Does that scare you?
I understand that I’m not in control. People think they’re in control. They think, ‘I’ve got this, this is how it’s going to go.’ But while you’re making all your plans and living your life, that could essentially be cut short.
It could come for you, because everybody’s ready to go.